Bristol and riots

30Apr11

(Pic: Detail from mural depicting 1831 Queen Square riot by Scott Barden, near Paintworks, Bath Road, Bristol, 2011. See www.scottbardenart.com)

Funny things, riots. The problem is that so much rubbish gets talked, printed (and blogged!) about them. And that’s always been the case.

Recent events in central Bristol conform to this traditional pattern.

First, though, facts.

Late on the evening of Thursday April 21, large numbers of police turned up on the Cheltenham Road in Bristol. Their aim was to search/raid a squat in a building known as Telepathic Heights (Not to evict them, as this post said originally. My mistake). They were doing so because they had received a report from a security guard at the newly-opened branch of Tesco nearby that someone from the squat intended to petrol-bomb the supermarket.

Anyway, one thing led to another, and there was a riot, in which several people smashed up the frontage of the Tesco store. Most of this happened in the early hours of the following morning.

While the police were surely correct to act on a credible threat, there has been huge controversy about way in which they went about it. To send in 160 officers, riot gear, late in the evening on a warm, sunny day at the start of a bank holiday, may not have been appropriate. They have also been criticised for excessive violence.

The situation remained tense for a week, and things kicked off again there yesterday. Had it not been the same day as the royal wedding, it would have made national headlines.

This second time around, there have been credible reports that some of those chucking the rocks and bottles were not from the area. Meanwhile, the cops have published a shedload of photos of people there saying they will track them down. Avon & Somerset Police’s favourite word is “relentless” and there’s no doubt that they’ll have no relent whatever  over this, as they have made themselves look like a bunch of blundering, truncheon-happy wallies.

At the same time, a minority committed acts of violence, secure in the notion that it was somehow justified. As the local MP observed, most of them will be taking skiing holidays in ten years’ time.

That’s a thing about riots, by the way. Study them from recent or distant history, and you find that the actual violence is always the work of a minority. There may be large numbers on the streets, but most are onlookers, or occasional participants. This always happens.

Riots in Bristol (as elsewhere) are usually about one or both of two things. They’re either about people attempting to right a perceived wrong (food riots, labour disputes, political discontent – best example being Queen Square, 1831) or they’re about territory and its control. The best examples here would be the late 20th century disturbances in St Pauls (1980 and 1986) or Hartcliffe (1992) and several others, which are basically fights between the police and members of the community. The Stokes Croft events are both.

Stokes Croft and the Cheltenham Road have been an impoverished and troubled area for a decades. There are derelict buildings, a lot of street drinkers, people with drug problems and high levels of deprivation.

In recent years, a lot of artists, performers and community activists have moved in, and while many problems persist, the area is now a powerhouse of creativity and new ways of thinking. It features a constantly changing array of street art of astonishing quality, and so draws in lots of visitors in search of Bristol’s ‘edgy’ vibe.

These folks don’t want a bloody Tesco in the middle of all this. There have been bitter battles over the planning permission and the building of the Tesco. And now we’ve had an actual riot.

The original events of April 21-22 seem to have been a reaction to police heavy-handedness. Since then, however, we’ve seen a huge amount of chatter from people claiming it for their own agendas. So there are your anarchist and anti-capitalists wanting to smash the system, there are the Stokes Croft artists and community activists who condemn the violence but don’t want Tescos or over-aggressive policing either. At the other end of the spectrum there are political conservatives, and most of the media, who condemn the whole thing as mindless thuggery on the part of a bunch of soap-dodging riot tourists from out of town.

The absurdity of the latter viewpoint is matched by many of the idiocies spouted on the other side about it being a “working class uprising”. Actually, the Stokes Croft events might well qualify for a UK or international record for the highest proportion of university degrees per head.

What makes it even more interesting is that official Bristol actually wants to sell you that creative, edgy, rebellious thing. The huge success of the Banksy exhibition at the City Museum over the summer of 2009 convinced any remaining sceptics that the creative, edgy, rebellious thing is a goldmine.

The official Bristol narrative, from the council and tourism authorities through those marketing the city to business and all the way downwards now sell a line that Bristol is different because throughout its 1000-year history it’s attracted mavericks, revolutionaries, troublemakers and radicals, and that we’ve a long history of uprising and riot.

This is absolutely true; any amateur local historian can give you the evidence. However, s/he can also point to long, long years of egregious civic corruption and monstrous injustice which most people tolerated most of the time. You say long history of radicalism and riot; I say long history of complacency and inertia, too. Skin up another one.

But no matter. Bristol’s selling itself as edgy and rebellious (etc.) and right now we have the real thing going down in spades. This will do Bristol’s image no harm at all in the long run.

It’s starting to feel an awful, awful lot like 1831. Out-of-touch, reactionary government of rich men acting solely in the interests of rich men. Agitation out there for political reform exacerbated by economic downturn … Most of the destruction in the Queens Square riot was the work of a minority of mindless thugs watched or egged on by a huge crowd, too. Most of the death was meted out by His Majesty’s dragoons, followed by the courts.

The stakes now are really quite high; our little local issue in Bristol is of considerable relevance elsewhere in the country. The mindless violence thing is a distraction from the wider issues of a community’s right to a say in its running (by not having a Tesco, for instance) versus the authority of a highly centralised state that’s too easily influenced by big business interests and which cannot afford to be seem to be backing down. It’d be very surprising indeed if that Tesco doesn’t open again.

God, but we’re rebellious and edgy, though, aren’t we? (And too bloody long-winded by half. Ed.)

Important note: Sorry, but I’m not taking comments on this one. It’s getting a lot of hits, and in among the sensible comments there’s quite a lot of abusive and inflammatory ones about Tesco, police, crusties coming in from outside looking for a fight, etc. Many, many apologies to those who made sensible ones, but I think it best to just let it stand alone. For debate there’s always http://bristol.indymedia.org/



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