Last week There was a riot in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol. Local people stood up against the opening of a Tesco in their area. Stokes Croft is the bohemian part of Bristol and Tesco moving into their area was an unpopular choice. The police raided a local squat and in the chaos of the following protest there was the now usual fallout over Police tactics, demonstrator tactics and lots of media interest . Tesco was damaged but still opening. In a situation like this it’s impossible to tell what’s going on but Kerry McCarthy the Labour MP for Bristol East was there and this is her personal account of what happened.
As so often these days it was Twitter that first spread the word that something was happening in Stokes Croft last Thursday. In fact the mainstream media was even slower than usual in picking up the story and rather than reporting from the scene they crowd-sourced the stories, the photos, the video footage the next day. Appropriating the work of citizen journalists is, it seems, mostly what ”Ëproper’ journalists do these days.
I can’t claim to be able to write a definitive account of what happened on Thursday night, or why it happened, anymore than the journalists or the hundreds of people now commenting on online articles and blogs can. All I can do is give my version of what I saw and a few thoughts on it. So here goes…
I arrived in Stokes Croft at about 1am, with Ben, who works for me and is standing for the council in that part of the city this May. We’d exchanged a few worried texts after seeing tweets from local people, and then both decided we wanted to see for ourselves what was going on. I’d been in Westminster when the protests against tuition fees and the scrapping of Education Maintenance Allowances had taken place, and gone out onto the street to talk to students who had been kettled in Whitehall. I’d also met afterwards with local students who’d been caught up in it, and heard complaints about the way both this and an anti-fees demo in Bristol had been policed. And I’d been on the anti-cuts march in London on March 26 and seen organised gangs all-dressed in black paint-bombing the Ritz, smashing the windows of banks and trying to start fires in Trafalgar Square… So I thought if something was happening in Bristol, I ought to see it for myself.
The situation had obviously already been developing for a few hours by the time we arrived, and there was a sizeable police presence, i.e. lines of police in riot gear and police vans. Later on we saw some police on horseback, and dogs being used. But no kettling, as far as I saw. It was never clear to me quite what the police tactics were… but I think the trouble was worse in the side-streets than on the main drag, and they were trying to isolate those pockets, which periodically involved moving the crowd on Stokes Croft itself up and down the road.
The ”Ëprotestors’ fell into three categories. There was those lobbing great big lumps of concrete and bottles at the police, some of whom may have been politically motivated but most seemed to me to be drunk or, to steal a phrase from one of the online comments I saw, out to get their Scouts’ ”Ëriot’ badge. I saw a few wheelie bins on fire, and at one point a police landrover was trashed, with paint tipped all over it and people trying to pull the doors off. And of course, Tesco’s windows and shutters were smashed in.
Then there were what I’d call ”Ëtypical Stokes Croft’ people, peacefully protesting by laying their bicyles in the street, playing bongoes, a trumpet and at one point climbing on top of the bus shelter outside Telepathic Heights, the squat where it first kicked off, to play their saxophones. They were chanting ”ËThis is our street, our street’ ”â a reference to Tesco’s, against which there had been a long-running campaign, and to the police presence. Some of them were wearing lampshades on their heads. This is very Stokes Croft. (For those not from Bristol, it’s known locally as the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft…. counter-culture: arty ”Ëspaces’, small venues, vegan cafes, grafitti-covered buildings. That sort of thing.)
And then there was the vast majority of people who were there, like me, to see what was going on. Either on their way home from drinking in one of the bars, or locals who had heard the news and were curious. Lots of pics and videos being taken on camera phones. Some of these ended up getting caught up in the trouble. Some ended up causing it.
I did witness some examples of what I thought were rather heavy-handed police tactics, e.g. wading into groups of people who weren’t doing anything except sitting down in the road; driving a police van up onto the pavement and trapping bystanders up against a shopfront; and an over-liberal use of their truncheons. And this was in the relatively quiet part of the main road, not where the idiots were chucking things at the police; we got too close to those at one point, and had to dodge the bottles and rocks as they came whizzing over the line of police vans. I saw one lad overturn a recycling bin full of bottles, and grab one to throw, and then those around him telling him to pack it in (reminiscent of the scenes in Whitehall on the EMA protest where schoolgirls joined hands around a police van to stop others trashing it, not to protect the van so much as to protect the value of their protest, to stop their cause being hijacked by violence and the inevitable media focus on that).
I wasn’t there early enough in the evening to know why the situation kicked off. Many of us had heard there’d been an attempt to evict the squatters from Telepathic Heights; indeed, it had been reported in that day’s Bristol Evening Post that it was on the cards. The police later said it wasn’t an eviction but an operation to arrest some of the squatters, acting on intelligence that there were petrol bombs on the premises, and a possible attack on Tesco’s being planned. I spoke to the Chief Constable the next day when we were both surveying the damage in Stokes Croft, and he confirmed this. (There’s a whole debate going on elsewhere about whether this operation was warranted, and whether the heavy police presence inflamed the situation, which I won’t rehearse here ”â we will see in time whether charges are brought). And I’m not sure whether the trouble ”â by which I mean the attacks on the police ”â started before the peaceful sit-down protests and bongo-playing, or whether it was the other way round.
So what was it all about? Was it really all about Tesco’s? Well yes, to the extent that Tesco’s opening in Stokes Croft symbolises the lack of control people feel they have over their own lives and communities, and the power of those with money to do as they wish. This Government is meant to be all in favour of localism. In fact they’re relaxing the planning laws to make it quicker and easier for developers to have their way, and to override local objections. The moment the Liberal Democrat councillor responsible for planning issues (who also happens to be one of the local councillors for the St Paul’s area) nodded through a change of use from leisure to retail ”â sleeping on the job, some say – there was virtually no chance of stopping Tesco’s setting up store. There were petitions and protests in the Council chamber, but the local people who opposed the store opening felt that their voices counted for nothing. Planning applications can be refused on techy grounds ”â licensing, signage, too much traffic ”â but not on more ambient grounds (for want of a better word) – that it would spoil the community, that it would signal the march of the big brands into what prized itself on being a chain-free high street, that 30 Tesco stores in Bristol was already plenty. (ÃÂ£1 in almost every ÃÂ£7 spent in shops in Britain is spent in Tesco’s. Some people are worried by that). Of course the response to this isn’t to firebomb or smash up Tesco’s or to lob great big chunks of concrete at the police who were trying to prevent such things happening. The response is to get politicians like me, like the local Lib Dem MP (conspicious by his absence on the night) and the Government ministers who trumpet the cause of localism to help people build and preserve the kind of communities they want to live in, not a ”Ëcommunity’ created by the likes of Tesco. That means really giving power to the people, not just talking about it.