Friday, April 22, 2011

Every Little Helps: An Eyewitness Account Of The Bristol Riot

"At around 10pm the shouting crowds blew up in size massively..."
Last night, police fought battles with a diverse group of demonstrators on the streets of Stokes Croft, Bristol. The following is an eyewitness account:

The First Riot Funky Night 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 peaceful campaign. The area is famous for its grafitti 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 at around 9.30pm tried to evict a squat known as Telepathic Heights, 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 cafe 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 themselves 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 skeptically 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 got the first trash 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 staff 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 disobedients from St. Pauls have probably their own accounts they need to settle with police.

Interestingly, after the last order hour the bohemian studenty arty elements became much more confident and angry with the continuing blockade of their favourite night life 'avenue'. After Tesco got the first smash, 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 this video and listen to the trumpet, that says it all.

Oleg Resin
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