In December, a protester who set fire to police vehicles during a riot in Bristol in March 2021 was sent behind bars for 14 years. The unusually harsh prison sentence came in the middle of an already heated debate in Britain about the right to demonstrate and express your disagreement with government policy. This issue gained importance because of events in the city of Bristol.
The investigative journalist and filmmaker Simon White, based in Bristol, has just finished producing a documentary about the events that ultimately sent the protester to prison. It is about the public’s access to land and the so-called PCSC bill introduced by the conservative Boris Johnson government. PCSC stands for Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, and it was proposed in March of last year to overhaul criminal justice and sentencing legislation – in official lingo. Large parts of the British population consider the new law a severe tightening of their freedom of expression.
Large parts of the British population consider the new law a severe tightening of their freedom of expression.
Bristol happened just as the law was proposed, and White takes it up as a case study. The film starts with the claim that regular citizens today have legal access to just seven percent of the country and three percent of its rivers. The rest of the land is owned by less than one percent of the population. Entering that land without permission is known as trespass.
Access to land is being limited all the time. In St. Paul’s, an area in central Bristol, local citizens were protesting the plan to fell a number of old trees in their locality because a developer could make a fortune by building on the plot.
Elsewhere in the country, another struggle is taking place. To build a high-speed rail link between Birmingham and London, there are plans to plough through 180 ancient woodlands to cut travel time by 20 minutes. Activists put up protest camps along the planned railway track. They were brutally evicted by police forces in full riot gear—another case of the current Boris Johnson government’s utter disrespect for citizens’ rights to access nature.
The film does not mention the 12-year sentence against the mentioned protester, but it describes the escalating development right up to that point. «It is part of our biological heritage to be outside. Connection to nature, when we live in an urban environment, is more important than it has ever been,» says Rosie Maple, an ecologist, but soon the protest is more than just that. From protests against the felling of trees in Bristol and the construction of a new rail link, it turns into a protest against police violence and the government’s attempt to limit freedom of expression. The title, We Need Space, gets a double meaning.
Elsewhere in the country, another struggle is taking place.
Kill the Bill
«Protests are allowed in Russia and Belarus, but only government-sanctioned protests. That is the line the current British government is taking,» says Jock Palfreeman to the camera, an Australian who served 12 years in Bulgarian jail after being sentenced for killing a neo-nazi in self-defence while defending a group of Roma teenagers being attacked in a racially motivated assault. Palfreeman was serving in the British army at the time of the incident.
It makes very good sense to draw on Palfreeman in this context. He was convicted for his alleged crime, and that stands out against the severe treatment of the British protesters. What have they done? Nothing but expressing their opposition against government policy, which is very far from murder – albeit on a racist.
But unfortunately, this does not stand out clearly in the film. Palfreeman, the celebrity, is getting a lot of time. He is a very sympathetic person and explains how protesters in earlier days were killed and jailed while struggling for the right to vote and higher wages. These are important issues, and he has some good points, but when he starts telling us how he survived mentally for 12 years in a Bulgarian jail, the storyline is far away from the activists protecting the trees in Bristol.
Lack of clarity
Things do not happen without reason. Since Black Lives Matter and lockdowns, people getting fired from their jobs and Brexit, tensions have been building in Britain. As one protester puts it, the Tory government’s disregard for almost everyone should be seen in a larger frame. That is an important issue, and this is what the film is basically about. But the message is not as clear-cut as it could have been, and at certain places, you have a hard time understanding the connection between the different elements. On top of that, the speaker is much too fast, and several places rather unmotivated background music makes the talk almost inaudible.