the first funky riot in bristol

Oleg Resin reports from last night’s riot in Bristol

The anger was simmering for quite some time among the Stokes Croft community in Bristol. The people had to put up with a couple of heavy-handed police evictions recently and the hated Tesco store was finally opened a week ago, despite a massive but peacefull campaign. The area is famous for its grafittis and night life now, attracting gentrification and yuppies moving in. Interestingly, the anti-Tesco sentiment became something like a broad resistance platform, uniting the remaining working class people, middle class bohemians and the student population.

The riot kicked off when the police  tried to evict a squat known as Telepathic Heights at around 9.30pm, just across the road from the new Tesco express. They claimed they were searching for petrol bombs, part of an anti-Tesco conspiracy. There were around 10 police vans with the signs HEDDLU (yes, like in the riots in the 80s, they brought in Welsh cops to smash Bristolian heads).

At around 10pm the shouting crowds blew up in size massively, as hundreds of new people turned up, navigated by the police helicopter, hovering unusually low above the Stokes Croft. The cops needed to break through from this kind of kettle and charged in. They were met by a rain of stones, bottles and the first barricade made of bins. They managed to push people back in two directions, into the narrow Picton Street and to Ashley Road, leading right into the middle of the St. Pauls area. The crowd in Picton street was smaller, mainly caffe type of people, and pacifist. The scuffles were more like a street party, just pushing back and forth, no batons, someone playing Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It!’ from their house, people enjoying the fun and protest. The cops eventually retreated  and so I moved on to Ashley Road. When I got there, the street battle moved deeper into St. Pauls and it was clear that this is gonna be a whole night party. Two lines of barricades and bins set on fire on Brigstocke road leading down to City road, the epicentre of the famous St. Pauls riots in the 80s. Hundreds of people, very determined and more experienced, joined in by new contingents of the local black youth. Many locals got out from their houses, some with support and some shouting ‘get lost from my street, who the fuck will clean this mess?!’. I spoke to some people who remembered the riots in the 80s and they were up for it. One older woman sceptically said that the area has been gentrified and the new posh population will never join this.

There is a lot of tweeting going on about smashing Tesco as the highlight of the night. I don’t think it was. There were not many people around when it first got trashed and a police car parked by was set on fire (around 2.30am?). The core of the riot at that moment was at the junction of Ashley road and Stokes Croft, when people were throwing stuff from the Ninetree Hill down on the vans, trying to join the rest of us. When, on my way home, I spoke to a bunch of local black kids and asked ‘Have you heard that the new Tesco got smashed?’, they looked at me with confusion and asked ‘No, and this bad isn’t it?’. My impression is that people joined the riot for different reasons: the harrassment of squatters, ethical/political issue with Tesco, the commodification of Stokes Croft, the anti-cuts sentiment. And the black kids from St. Pauls probably have their own accounts they need to settle with police.

Interestingly, after last orders, the bohemian studenty arty elements became much more confident and angry with the continuing blockade of their favourite night life ‘avenue’. After Tesco got smashed the first time, the cops were hitting us much harder, but they had to face a new crowd that recomposed during the night: all the distinct elements, all the different motivations I mentioned earlier just merged together into one whole and this, for me, was the best outcome of the first riot night in Bristol. Just watch the video above and listen to the trumpet.  That says it all.

7 thoughts on “the first funky riot in bristol

  1. Another eye witness report, with similar conclusions:

    Battle begins

    Late yesterday afternoon (21/04/11), bailiffs and a man from Bristol City Council arrived at the ‘Telepathic Heights’ squat on Stokes Croft, opposite the controversial new Tesco, to begin an eviction (this is not a new squat – it has been occupied for many years without incident, but suddenly, persons unknown want it evicted). A protest quickly gathered and the bailiffs were forced to withdraw. Then around 9pm a massive police operation began, with the officers already in riot gear and full length shields backed up by horses, vans and the police helicopter. Officers apparently forced their way into the squatted building and evicted the occupants. The operation was very heavy handed and no explanations were offered regarding the reasons, but all the same it was relatively quiet by around 10pm.

    However, for reasons unknown the police had blocked off the Stokes Croft/Ashley Road junction, causing diversions for or just blockading out local residents and allowing a huge crowd to gather. They faced off local people just going about their business behind their riot shields in a square formation, but although the atmosphere was tense, it was not yet universally hostile. If the police had discreetly withdrawn after their dubious ‘operation’ between 9 and 10pm, the situation would have defused and disorder could have been easily avoided. Instead, they continued to obstruct a main junction in a provocative, obstructive and hostile manner, almost as though they were waiting for something to trigger, as of course it inevitably would.

    They marched them up Nine Tree Hill, then they marched them down again

    Between 10 and 10.30pm the police were attacked by one group with an onslaught of bottles. Incredibly, they continued to stand in place, and as the night wore on young people, either drunk or high on adrenalin, formed ad-hoc groups to bait the police. As the police used baton charges, dogs, horses and vans to repel these sporadic and rather ineffectual attacks, the crowd’s mood also became increasingly hostile. No explanations were offered by the police, and as it became apparent that the vast majority of riot police were not even Bristolian but had been ferried in specially from Wales, it looked increasingly like an army of occupation.

    The police tactics were unfathomable. They seemed to consist of running from one end of Stokes Croft to the other (and up several side streets), charging about the place, getting more and more people involved and moving the violence into new areas that had previously been quiet. Needless to say, the ‘active’ (ie. rioting) members of the crowd simply avoided the charges and filtered around to attack the police all over again from a different angle. The police helicopter flew low overhead constantly from 9pm to 4.30am, beaming its searchlight on anyone and everyone. This was not a tactic to win any ‘battle for hearts and minds’ either.

    At around 12.30am the police made a series of stupid and tactically pointless forays up Nine Tree Hill, despite the constant rain of missiles even reaching the traffic barriers at Fremantle Square where for a short period they formed a shield wall and then retreated. It conjured up the absurdist imagery from the nursery rhyme, The Grand Old Duke Of York: ‘And when they were up they were up, and when they were down they were down, and when they were only half way up they were neither up nor down.’ Because all that they had accomplished was to cause a violent overspill into Kingsdown, where more bottles could be thrown, bins overturned and set on fire. This scene was also being repeated on Ashley Road and on other streets way beyond Stokes Croft. It was becoming apparent that the police, or heddlu to use the Welsh term, did not know the area or its topography and were simply floundering about in a brutish manner.

    By 2am the police had achieved their apparent aim, assuming that they had any, by uniting the entire community of the area against them. By the time they retreated back down Nine Tree Hill it was no longer ‘anarchists’ who formed the majority of the crowd, but young people of all social classes and ethnic backgrounds. Some older people also joined in, and children too. The police then resumed charging up and down Stokes Croft, now against a crowd of hundreds. Around 2.30am your intrepid reporter decided it was time to catch some shut eye, of course only achieved with the help of ear plugs to block out the infernal sound of the helicopter.


    But lo and behold, by this morning the police spin machine had discovered an ‘explanation’ for their action. They had received ‘intelligence reports’ that Stokes Croft Tesco was ‘about to be fire bombed’ by ‘certain’ people at Telepathic Heights squat. And ‘in the interests of public safety’ etc they had ‘robustly and precisely’ arrested the ‘four individuals’ involved, and it was ‘not actually their intention at all’ to close down the squat. The police statement after the event makes the night’s chaos seem reasonable and proportionate. But just to be sure, push the ‘terrorism’ fear button. ‘Unfortunately, a tiny minority of criminal elements…’ etc.

    However, if this was indeed the case it is strange that we were not informed of this ‘reason’ from the start. But the first mention of it appears in the prepared police statement made this morning. The whole theory of a group of extremists preparing Molotov cocktails to fire bomb Tesco, while not impossible, is highly questionable. For if one receives word of an imminent terrorist act (and such it would be, because Stokes Croft Tesco is in a terrace and has residential flats overhead), this surely calls for a covert op by a small number of special anti-terrorist police, not a massive manoeuvre that involves half the police force of a neighbouring region, South Wales. It also beggars belief for what reason one would deploy horses and dogs if there was a risk of facing Molotov cocktails. So either the Bristol police authority are utter tactical and financial dunces, or else there is another agenda.

    Before we analyse this, let us look briefly at the cost. According to the Devonshire and Cornwall police website, it costs an (all in) £1675 to keep a police helicopter in the air for a single hour. This is likely to be an underestimate, but still, from 9pm to 4.30am amounts to approximately 7 1/2 hours. So you do the arithmetic. Then what it costs, and to whom, to draft in the riot squad from another region entirely. Add to this the fact that police officers who serve past midnight have their pay doubled. Then the costs of cleaning up the mess for Bristol Council, and the likely legal battles regarding the squat and the fate of its occupants that lie ahead. And this in an era of alleged ‘austerity’, huge cuts to public spending and a need for everyone to ‘tighten their belts’ (unless you’re a banker, a corporate monopoly, or a royal, of course).

    So let us finally look at whose interests are furthered by last night’s disturbances. The police can use it to argue that the government will need them to face the bleak future of endemic social conflict ahead, and therefore they should think twice before cutting them. So let the axe fall on easier targets, like on healthcare, libraries, or disabled care. And while they are at it, they can also gain a big pay bonus! The government meanwhile want to make squatting effectively illegal, though how else they expect people to cope with the increasing pressure on affordable housing and the growing number of repossessions is not to be addressed. No matter, for the ‘example’ of Stokes Croft squatter ‘extremism’ (manufactured or real) can feed straight into the ideological machinery.

    And there are also the interests of Tesco to consider. The store opened one week ago against long term and widespread public opposition in the area, with Bristol Council role-playing Pontius Pilate, bowing spinelessly to the corporate lobby. Since then there have been further attempts by Tesco to consolidate its position. First the original tenants of the properties overhead (suddenly tenants of Tesco) were evicted and new tenants brought in, because the original tenants had ‘shown sympathy with the protestors’. But Tesco have also been keen to force a removal of Telepathic Heights, as the squat which is also directly opposite the new store provided a focus for the resistance. In addition there has been a very successful and totally peaceful protest outside ever since the store opened, which has, just with cake, music and persistence, effectively made the Stokes Croft Tesco ‘closed for business’. An attempt to criminalise the squat and involve it in a street battle with the law obviously serves the PR interests of Tesco in a big game of ‘guilt by association’ with the protestors. The fluffy demonstrators with their ukuleles and pipes are now by implication ‘evil petrol bombers’ for propaganda purposes, and can be dealt with as such.

    Welcome to Greece (or maybe Belfast?)

    It remains to be seen whether the public will fall for this time-honoured ruse of divide and conquer. In the meantime, with the determination of this government to push ahead regardless with the agenda of feeding its fat cat friends at public expense, such spontaneous uprisings on the streets of the UK are likely to become increasingly widespread.


  2. Leo your account mirror in detail and tone very much what I have been hearing from friends and neighbours in Ashley Road and Nine Tree Hill, I live in York Rd./Picton Street and it was very odd, like an invasion, police not knowing why they were doing what they were doing and looking quite pissed off at following their orders !


  3. The statement from the local MP is kind of funny:

    “It’s a very hippyish, counter-culture type of area with lots of arts shops,” she said. A Banksy artwork decorates one wall.

    “One group were laying their bicycles down on the street and most of it seemed fairly good-natured but the police response was heavy-handed.

    “There were two people playing saxophones on top of a bus shelter and a photographer was taking pictures. A police officer walked across and pushed him over; there was no reason to do it. My colleague Ben Mosley [a Labour council candidate] was hit by a truncheon and I was shoved out of the way by a policeman at one stage.

    “I had a conversation with the chief constable. It seems the police had received reports that petrol bombs were being carried in and out [of the squat].

    “It was anti-establishment protest: against capitalism and corporations, similar to what we saw in the march against the cuts in London where Starbucks and banks were targeted.”


  4. My son’s friend used to live in this street, so he was very familiar with it. He confirms there was massive opposition to Tesco from locals. It sort of makes you wonder why Tesco would want to insist on trying to trade there. But, they probably think that with all the hostels in the area, its only a matter fo time before the area getrs gentrified by the Council, in which case the site value increases considerably.

    However, isn’t this what the Liberal-Tories have told us is what is called the “Big Society”? Aren’t they supposed to be in favour of local people taking co-operative control over their own areas? That is what the people were doing, so why were they being battered by the police?


  5. The link to police website that suggested the four in the squat were arrested was entirely false. No one in the squat was arrested, we were released shortly after they entered. They simply took out details and did not even question us they knew we were not envolved in any plot. One is a teacher and works for a charity,the other is an artist and has a gallery trying to promote his work,the third moved in the day the raid took place (most of the original squatter’s except for one left prior to the eviction) and i was there to visit my friend (the artist) for the party and was there for the night before i returned home,I hadn’t even heard of the Tesco protest till I arrived there a few days earlier.


  6. Nice report. The newspaper articles I’ve read this week about the riots have been an unending torrent of uninformed bullshit, with headlines like: “Police foil bomb plot!”

    The media have tried to make this about small minority groups and radical politics when really it wasn’t. It was a wide range of people of different ages, classes and races that responded to the intimidation and violence by the thugs in uniform.

    The 200 riot cops were the instigators of this event. They did not “respond” to Tescos getting smashed by sending in riot police, the people responded to getting battered by riot cops by smashing Tescos.

    Another angle has been that the “crazy anarchists” or whoever the media are calling the rioters were completely at odds with the local community. Some of the older local residents I’ve spoken to that still remember the riots from the 80’s said it was crazy what the police were doing and they were thought the riot was completely justified. Some of the local businesses were even handing out empty bottles to the rioters.

    As for the petrol bomb story, the people living in that squat were a bunch of hippies. Plus, the police didn’t even evict the squat, yet they’re saying they recovered petrol bombs. There’s definitely a lot more to this story that remains to be seen.


Comments are closed.