Content warning: This article contains mentions of sexual harrassment and assault.
Hundreds gathered in central Newcastle yesterday to protest sexual violence and plans to increase the powers of police.
Protestors took to the streets before stopping for speeches at the Civic Centre and Exhibition Park. The crowd grew rapidly with The Chronicle estimating 600 marched through the city centre at its peak.
Three arrests were made, though the protest was peaceful and the majority of attendees wore a mask. Two men were issued with a summons by Northumbria Police under Coronavirus legislation while one woman was arrested and later released. She had been found to be in possession of cannabis and was issued a warning.
“Kill the Bill” protests have occurred across the UK over the past week, culminating in fireworks thrown at police in Bristol's New Bridewell yesterday. The scenes were condemned by Home Secretary Priti Patel as "thuggery and disorder by a minority".
Ill-feeling against police in the UK has been catalysed by the recent alleged murder of Sarah Everard by Metropolitan Police Officer Wayne Couzens.
The demonstration began at 2pm at Grey’s Monument and was immediately met with heavy police presence, including police on horses, riot vans and Police Liaison Team (PLT) officers. Officers at the scene described the protest as “unlawful” and reportedly instructed that those gathered move to the Civic Centre.
Despite this, many protestors remained at the Monument until police reinforcements began to arrive before moving through Grainger Street, Market Street and Percy Street and stopping outside the Civic Centre. A number of speakers shared stories of abuse and perceived police neglect. The march was then continued into Exhibition Park where more speeches were made.
At around 5pm, Riot Police were deployed to Exhibition Park but soon left.
Police regularly attempted to redirect or blockade the mass of protestors, resulting in overcrowding. A blockade was formed outside Eldon Square using riot vans and officers on foot but protestors broke through the line, surrounding buses in transit. The buses stopped in place to minimise danger.
Representatives of North East Against Racism (NEAR) led the march holding the organisation’s banner. A NEAR spokesperson called it “a disgrace” that police should “prevent people from protesting the murder of a young woman at the hands of one of theirs.”
“It’s brilliant to see so many out today. If the police took more interest in dealing with sexual harassment than they do in stopping people protesting then women might feel a bit safer.”
Outside the Civic Centre attendees had the chance to speak through a megaphone.
Support worker Chloe Moore shared her concern about sex workers in Newcastle, whose lives she claims are endangered by Northumbria Police.
“There’s no protection against rapists.” she explained in an interview at the scene.
“Because what you’re doing is an illegal act clients can literally beat women senseless and they’re terrified to report it. If you do, you’ll just get forgotten about and I’ve seen that happen to girls who come in for support, especially those who do high-class work.”
Anna Taylor, a climate justice activist, student and one of British Vogue’s Changemakers, attended the protest and shared that “sexual violence is extremely prevalent at Newcastle University.”
She told The Courier: “I’ve heard of a lot of cases where students have been targeted by other students and it’s a severe problem. Almost every female I know has faced sexual harassment. General ambivalence from the University is a huge cause.”
She called police turnout at the protest “Totally unnecessary; it’s a peaceful protest,” adding that social distancing would have been possible “If the police gave us space to do it and if people didn’t feel so threatened by them. There has been a lot of threatening and scaremongering.”
Locals of all ages attended the protest. Seventeen year old Newcastle College student Niamh Pettitt stated that she has been empowered by the “energy” of those present but that it could not completely reassure her.
“I’ve been catcalled since the age of thirteen, in my school uniform.” She remarked. “Within lockdown, since lockdown, my whole life I’ve experienced it. To me it’s second nature now.” Retrieving a rape alarm from her purse, she revealed: “I carry this with me everywhere. That’s not normal. My boyfriend doesn’t carry one around.”
Her friend and fellow student added: “[The police] said to us: ‘We’re just trying to get you home safe’. They came with horses and batons; they don’t give a shit about our safety.”
Similar observations came from a Modern Languages student at Newcastle, who reportedly saw a person trip backwards over a wheelchair into the road only to be told by a passing officer to “watch where you’re walking.”
Another young speaker, 17 year old Nina Stoddard, professed to the hundreds gathered in front of Wylam Brewery: “The last time that I was sexually harassed was Saturday.”
Later, she attested to further experiences of harassment. “Before lockdown a man came over to me at a bar; when I didn’t give him my number he told me that he could kill me with one punch. He then punched me in the face and I went into school with a black eye.”
Chants delivered by protestors included “Whose Streets? Our streets!” “What’s the real pandemic? The Patriarchy!” “The police will not protect you” and “Protect trans women”.
Organisers of the protest described public support as "incredible". They denounced "totally disproportionate" numbers of police and stated that kettling tactics made protestors unsafe.
When asked about the future of the Kill the Bill campaign, organisers warned against "performative" activism:
"We should continue the dialogue that has been sparked by not only this social movement but also others concerning police violence."
On Sunday morning a risk assessment was published on the Instagram page for the event, @resistncl.
A spokesperson for Northumbria Police responded:
“Ensuring the safety of the public is our utmost priority and Sunday’s protests in Newcastle passed without incident.
“Under the current Covid legislation, protests are not exempt from the restrictions due the risk that large gatherings pose to public safety.
“There was an increased police presence in the city to deliver a proportionate policing response to any activity taking place.
“We can confirm three people were arrested in connection with covid regulation offences.
“If anyone has any concerns following today’s events, please contact us via our website or on 101.”