On the 21st April 2011, a series of riots broke out in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol. They’ve generally went down among the media, and indeed, many people as the actions of local people protesting the opening of a new Tesco’s store near the area. In fact, that was an excuse because the reasons behind these riots are for more than anti-capitalist reasons. I’ve touched upon these riots before in a blog about gentrification, but here’s how things went down three years ago.
There used to be a comedy club called Jesters on the Cheltenham Road in Bristol. This closed when the club moved over the road to a venue which is now currently closed so this left an empty building on a road where there was a few empty buildings, including a squat just over the road named Telepathic Heights because of the graffiti plastered on it.
There’d been problems in the previous years at Telepathic Heights but on the whole it was a typical squat (I lived in a squat for a few months years ago in Nottingham though there were just two of us and it was the quietest squat in the Midlands) with a seemingly endless supply of homeless people suffering from various addictions mixed in with middle class drop out’s playing at it, not to mention the anarchists, Crusties and the people you’d expect at a squat in the middle of Bristol. There wasn’t too many problems outside of noise, and sadly, walking on used syringes (I used to live on Sydenham Road which is just behind the building, so I know how bad it was at one point) and all the detritus from a squat.
Around the autumn or so of 2010 it was announced a Tesco’s store was to open in the old Jesters building, which was to be honest, an arsehole move. At that time I was living on Bath Buildings, a road which would have been hammered by delivery lorries, not to mention it’d take business from the lovely little corner shop at the bottom of Picton Street.
A map of the are is handy just so people can understand the geography of what I’m talking about as this was all happening in a very compact area about half a square mile if that.
In late 2010 a group of anti-Tesco’s activists decided to launch a campaign against it’s opening which is where things start to go a bit wrong, not because protesting against Tesco’s is wrong, but because of the methods used.
There was a survey taken of people whether they wanted a Tesco’s to open on Cheltenham Road, or as it was asked, ‘Stokes Croft’ even though Cheltenham Road isn’t Stokes Croft it’s in fact Montpelier.It’s important to note this because it’s a deliberate obfuscation as Stokes Croft itself had been sold as a ‘brand’, mainly by the PRSC who were trying to rebrand the area as ‘Bristol’s Cultural Quarter’. To many the actions of the PRSC were fine initially as it was about street art brightening up a rundown area but when they became more political and began speaking ‘for the people of Stokes Croft’ even though nobody involved with the PRSC has ever set themselves up for any election locally, things started looking a bit shifty.
Anyhow, back to the survey. This was taken on a few weekday mornings of people walking to work past the Jesters building where they were asked whether they knew a Tesco’s was being planned, and did you approve? Nobody was asked their address, where they lived, or anything you’d expect from a group trying to get a survey together. It was essentially an excuse for No Tesco in Stokes Croft to proceed with this bit of street art.
The problem is that there is no way of knowing whether 93% of ‘local people’ said no, because at no point did anyone define what ‘local people’ meant, or indeed, even admit they’d not addressed the fact that they’d asked passers-by who could be walking from anywhere further up the road whether they lived in the area. There was no definition of ‘local’ Again this is a deliberate obfuscation.
You cannot conduct a legitimate survey like this without asking whether people live there or not, and you cannot get away with vague but self-important message like the above art, because it hurts the overall message. At this point though it was still a peaceful, though increasingly controversial protest because it seemed more to do with various people within the movement’s political ambitions in order to expand the influence upon an area that they’d built up in the previous few years.
I need to make it plain that local people were not asked. Houses round the corner were not asked. The only people asked were people walking to work. I’ve had it said that it was fair because it’s what organisations like Tesco’s do, which is a skewed argument if you pretend to take the moral high ground and say you have ‘local people’ supporting your cause, especially if you don’t live in the area as was the case with several of those involved with the protest at an organisational level.
By spring 2011 the sight of regular protests outside the building which would house the new Tesco’s was fairly common, but it again was all very well mannered and peaceful, if somewhat twee at times. There had been a few incidents at Telepathic Heights including one where Cheltenham Road had to be sealed off due to a man on the roof throwing things at people on the street, but again there wasn’t anything worse than that.
April 2011 was a weird month. There was a late Easter, which was to be followed by a royal wedding on the 29th April which was another long bank holiday weekend following the long Easter bank holiday weekend. The smarter among us worked out that taking three days holiday would give you a nice long break from work, and when the weather forecast looked to be warm and sunny this is exactly what plenty of people were looking to do so the 21st April was going to be the last day of work for many people for up to 12 days, if not more.
At the end of March/start of April, Telepathic Heights population boomed as people from all over Bristol, and indeed the South West seemed to descend upon it as it was the focus for the protest against Tesco’s. Some of these protests were less peaceful as the it got nearer to the store opening with things boiling over with people getting fed up in the week or so before the 21st of April with an all night party which ended up keeping people awake all night and drawing the attention of the police.
By now, the squat was home to a serious mix of people, many of whom were just there to get fucked up and couldn’t care less about the store over the road. It also didn’t help the situation that in the run-up to the bank holiday the squat’s mess spilled out onto the street outside, with all the wreckage you’d imagine. Things were tense to say the least as the police were acting upon Telepathic Heights because it was no longer just a squat, but a house which was full of people who frankly were looking for trouble to break out.
Thursday the 21st April was a warm, sunny day. I’d moved to the Gloucester Road from Bath Buildings a few months earlier, but my walk to work still took me past the new opened Tesco’s store, and across the road, Telepathic Heights.Outside the squat a couple of crusties were swigging from wine bottles at 8 in the morning on a stained sofa where they could leer at the new Tesco’s store across the road. The mess in the street was vile. That evening, I’d finished work at 5.30, had a few drinks in the Full Moon at the bottom of Stokes Croft, and walked past Telepathic Heights about 6.30 or so and much of the mess had been tidied up but it was still unpleasant. Cheltenham Road itself was heaving as all the pubs and bars were full of people who’d finished work and were enjoying a drink.
I was heading for the Cat and Wheel at the other end of Cheltenham Road, which was my local, and where I spent most of the rest of that night watching things unfold and get lots and lots of first hand accounts.
What is agreed is that the police moved in around 9pm to evict the squatters of Telepathic Heights as they’d apparently been warned that there were plans to petrol bomb the new Tesco’s store. Now why the police didn’t evict people sooner, when say, locals had complained about the noise and mess is a bit of a mystery, as is why they decided to go in at 9pm on the Thursday before a bank holiday weekend rather than early in the morning.
What is also true is that the police went in mob-handed. Was there really a need for over a dozen wagons and hundreds of officers from across the region and from South Wales? Would not a dozen or so police first thing in the morning clearing out the squat been more effective than dozens piling in wearing full riot gear?
At the same time word was spread on social media about what was happening, so hundreds joined the crowds in the streets, which incidentally had been sealed off by the ridiculous amount of police vans.
A mix of heavy handed police, a protest, and a number of opportunists who took this situation to have a riot meant that by 10pm a riot was in full flow. The following week riots broke out again during the royal wedding bank holiday, mainly because by now people had arrived who were looking for trouble and they got it. The events of these riots are all over the internet and Youtube. There’s plenty of footage of people being smacked by police, and rioters throwing bricks at the police.
This was not as some have said, a riot to compare with the St. Paul’s Riots in the 1980’s as that was about racial prejudice from the police, and the working class families of St. Paul’s being treated like animals by the establishment. That was people who’d been oppressed spilling over with anger. This was about people who were a bit pissed off with Tesco’s taking an opportunity to cause damage to the very area and people they said they were trying to protect. There was a hell of a lot of shite written about the riots, but to see why there was another set of riots a week later one needs to draw attention to the national press, especially this article by Sam Allen in The Guardian which featured these two paragraphs.
I will never condone violence and smashing up Tesco is not my approach but I am clear that the damage caused to Tesco’s property last night is relatively insignificant compared to the damage Tesco has been able to inflict on this community.
Bristol City council has a clear choice now: continue to let Tesco trade and risk last night becoming a regular occurrence or support the community it is supposed to represent and tell Tesco to leave.
This was quickly picked up to mean ‘come on down and smash the store up’, and as far as I can see, Allen never had the decency to explain these comments which were just on the legal side of incitement. What also didn’t help was this account of the riots in the New Statesman by Laurie Penny which is a shockingly poor bit of journalism but features this paragraph worth addressing:
After the pubs turned out, more people turned up to join the ruckus. “There were a lot of drunks,” said “Sarah”, who lives near the Telepathic Heights squat (she asked me not to give her real name). “This was a totally spontaneous protest. It tapped into the tension that the area has felt since Tesco opened, a fear of gentrification imposed by the council. There were masked up, clued-up activists, myself included, but the majority were young people from the area who were up for kicking off and wanted the police to leave.”
What happened in Stokes Croft has stirred up Britain’s growing anti-cuts and anarchist movements, with supporters travelling from across the country to Bristol today.
The first section features comments from ‘Sarah’ and suggest that gentrification is being driven by the council, but the truth is somewhat different. Until the mid part of the 2000’s (or noughties or whatever last decade is called) Bristol City Council couldn’t give a toss about Stokes Croft. It was only around 2007 or 2008 after gentrification had started that the council suddenly realised there was money to be made from wannabe Banksy’s and Hipsters moving into the area, and of course the PRSC were fully involved in all of this.
It’s also worth noting ‘Sarah’s comments about ‘young people in the area’. These are the kids who are pissed off. These are the kids who can’t live in somewhere like Stokes Croft because it’s now too ‘vibrant’ for them, so they’ve been priced out and shunted back in St Paul’s. These are the people who at every point in this never had their voices heard. We only heard this story told through people like ‘Sarah’ or journalists like Laurie Penny.
As for the idea that those riots were about austerity, that was shown to be laughable. History says otherwise. So what were they about? They weren’t about austerity, and they certainly weren’t about Tesco’s. There was anger about the police being so extraordinarily heavy-handed, and there was anger about the way they dealt with the evictions from Telepathic Heights. The problem was there were multiple reasons why they happened but it was a perfect storm of heavy-handed police, a squat which was out of control, a protest that was allowing this to latch onto it, locals angry about gentrification, and people just wanting to smash some buildings up and break some heads.
The effects were that local businesses had to close. People’s homes had to be repaired. People themselves who lived in the area had to pick up the mess while journalists vanished off back to London to witter on romantically how Stokes Croft means something, even though the gentrification it’s had has meant a drastic change. You now have Guardian articles suggesting Stokes Croft as somewhere to live as somewhere for a bargain half a million quid. Though there’s a comment in that piece supposedly from the person who set up The Cube worth noting.
Quite simply the area is undergoing gentrification but by a mulitplicity of agencies and groups. Its too early to know what will really happen but if you read the wikipedia entry on gentrification its hilarious. The branding of the ‘area’ by PRSC has been undertaken in earnest maybe but more and more it looks like an empty and shallow emotional solipsism unable to regulate its use of the street as a canvas (yes some people hate graffiti, or too much of it anyway). The area is just filling with people trying to feather their own nests or jump on the cash booster bandwagon.
And here’s the point. There was no protests at another ‘massage parlour” (brothel to you and me) opening at the bottom of Stokes Croft in 2011. In fact when I brought this lack of protest up with people who were part of the No to Tesco’s group, I was told that that was fair enough and it wasn’t as bad as Tesco’s. So exploitation of women is fine, but a fucking supermarket is beyond the fucking pale!
Three years on the area is gentrified. Not fully, that’ll be in a few years but it is as mentioned in that comment from the Guardian above, just now an area where various people are fighting for their own cut of an increasingly profitable pie with the people who lived there prior to 2007 being tossed aside and shunted away so wealthy students, Hipsters can live there. It’s increasingly losing the multicultural feel of the area and moving to a street which is becoming increasing less like what made this area of Bristol what it was, and more like London with businesses from there seeing the area as somewhere to expand into. It’s now like many other gentrified areas thanks to the new wave of people moving in since the riots especially.
The riots didn’t stir up the anti-cuts movement or the anarchists. They did give developers along with leeches like the chancer running the PRSC a chance to make something from ashes. but that something is only going to be for the people who can afford it. That’s the legacy of the riots. Not that a new progressive movement has seized the people of Bristol but a group of pseudo-liberal capitalists have exploited the area for their own gain and their own profit.
That’s the tragedy of all this. Something good could have come of the events of three years ago. It could have helped social injustice in the area, but it’s helped mythologise the area to exclude people from being socially equal so when you walk past one of the many cafes or bars on the street consider what the prosperity of the area is built on and who exactly had to pay for it so Bright Young Things can move in to take advantage of it.