activism daily life

Stokes Croft Riots: It started out complicated, then got worse

Everyone’s asking why there were protests in Stokes Croft, and how they turned violent. I think we have the questions backwards. We need to be asking how we protested – because what we’ve been doing obviously isn’t working – and we need to know why it was violent. If you live in the area, or have been following along, you’re probably familiar with the details – from facts to rumours (and back again, by this point) and you might want to skip ahead. (If you live in the rest of England, you’ve figured out that it’s something to do with hippies and a Tesco. If you live in the rest of the world, good luck getting any news out of England this week that doesn’t have to do with a certain wedding.) There are the issues: the supermarket, the squat, the police, and the neighbourhood’s identity. There’s the matter of just how many different factions were present on the streets. Then there’s the timing. Stories of Royal Wedding clean-up and police targeting of activists “hot-beds”, after protests against the budget cuts and tuition hike have grown in size and intensity all year. And then, of course, there is the reaction of the police force: exaggerated, disproportionate, and incendiary.

Stokes Croft is a buffer zone

Technically speaking, Stokes Croft is only a street, not a neighbourhood. The name’s thrown around loosely and has come to refer to an indeterminate area (with rather elastic borders) between Kingsdown and St. Pauls, near Montpelier. The street ends at the St. James Roundabout, leading into the city centre; only a few miles up, Stokes Croft changes names to Cheltenham Rd, which quickly becomes Gloucester Rd. I’ve lived here for just over two years and am only just getting used to the fact that with a five-minute walk, you’re in a different world. There’s a dramatic difference between Cotham/Redland (comfortably middle-class, “family friendly”) and Easton/St.Paul’s (visibly ethnic, drastically cheaper rent). Add Southmead and St. Werburgh’s to the mix, and realize that Stokes Croft/Cheltenham/Gloucester Rd is the main thoroughfare into city centre and it becomes clear that “diverse” is an understatement for Stokes Croft. Stokes Croft is known as a “bohemian” collection of artistically self-aware cafes, pubs, and independent shops. It has the sort of atmosphere that, well, if you like it you love it. But, for all the self-promotion and community spirit, Stokes Croft is what it is because of where it is: a buffer zone between radically different neighbourhoods. In the evening, trustafarian students to buy drinks for broke musicians and during the day, families with various accents wander the offies and organic shops. Basically – the money comes in from one side, and the colour from the other. At this point, arguments have broken about who has the right to speak for Stokes Croft, who is actually a resident, and who’s been pushed out by whom. (As an international student who moved to the area because I appreciated the atmosphere, to many “proper locals” I represent the “worst” of the newcomers who are “daring to interfere”.)

It really is about Tescos. At least, it was.

What I find the most interesting about the Tesco’s debate is the fact that, before the first riot, there was no debate amongst residents. There were those of us who didn’t want a Tescos, and the rest who just didn’t care. There was a long and passionate and movement against the Tesco. How many people were involved? No one knows. (And, trust me, we’d really like to know.) The “93% of residents oppose Tesco” figure is ridiculous. Where does it come from, who does it represent, how fairly? It’s meaningless, but that hasn’t mattered because, until now, it’s stood for everyone who’s given an opinion. The growing group of Tesco’s opponents (I’ve met plenty on Twitter and on the street this week) seem to care more about slandering the “illegitimate” residents of Stokes Croft and spewing out bigoted invective than campaigning for a supermarket or capitalism. (I’m sure someone will contradict me – and, if you can do so politely, please do!) I hope that I stand for most of the anti-Tesco’s movement, when I invite you to make petitions, gather signatures, arrange vigils, and embarrass us by clearly demonstrate that you outnumber us. Tesco’s wasn’t attacked on purpose – there was no plan to destroy the building. The first riot wasn’t about Tesco’s (although it was partially about having been ignored about Tesco). The shop was just there – symbolic, convenient, and fragile.

People actually cared about the Telepathic Heights squat.

If the start first riot was about anything, it might have been about the squat. An angry crowd gathered as they watched what seemed to be an unbelievably heavy-handed eviction. As the idea that there was a connection between the raid on the squat and Tesco spread, it only got worse. Squatting isn’t a fringe activity in Bristol. It’s surprisingly common place. I’ve been to squats, I have friends who live in them, I walk past a couple on a regular basis, I even took my younger brother to a party in a squat when he came to visit Bristol. At their best, they’re urban communes for the creative but broke; abandoned and forgotten buildings are renovated by a collective group of like-minded individuals. At their worst, they’re drug dens inhabited by the mentally-ill and/or criminal who no doubt leave the building worse than how they found it. (It’s hardly black and white, but the best of squatters have little patience nor sympathy for those who give them a bad name. Squatters are as diverse as the squats, if not more. There are those who squat by choice – ideological reasons – and those from necessity, until they find a stable place to land. There are the crews that are deliberately and militantly anarchist. Telepathic Heights was, in all likelihood (and naming no names), no such squat. If nothing else, were it the case that a particularly threatening group of militants were living there, one would hope that someone at the Avon & Somerset Police offices would have the political presence of mind to clear that up. To move against a group of “dangerous criminals” is one thing. To invade and attack a group of homeless individuals living a harmless lifestyle which they may have been forced into by the recession, is another. (That said, the squat raids across the country recently – see #Squataggadon – and apparent concerted nature of it all kind of kills their plausibility.) As to the allegation of a petrol bomb – where and how it originated, and whether it is substantiated – one can only hope that the upcoming investigation will shed some light on this.

The underlying tension: How long will people let themselves be ignored?

Whenever anyone tries to tell me this all started with the anti-Tesco movement, I’m want to retort that it started with the abandonment of those who voted Liberal Democrat, their betrayal by the Coalition government. It probably started with something even earlier than that, but the effects of the political climate shouldn’t be underestimated. The public consciousness is utterly saturated with marches – police violence – and the seeming futility of it all. It’s reached the point that it doesn’t even matter if we, specifically, were kettled in Trafalgar Square ourselves – or any protest. I would wager that more than half of anyone aged 15-30 yrs has had at least one of their closest friends involved. The marches in London have been invigorating – and infuriating. The response has been unbelievable. We are living in frighteningly authoritarian state. (That’s not a phrase I ever expected to hear myself say. It’s the sort of claim that I have berated others for using too lightly, that even in the US through the Bush Administration and the Patriotic Act, I found hyperbolic.)

From the over-reaction to the unfathomable

The police incited the first riot. Their actions turned a confused crowd into an angry, defensive mob. As many have pointed out, the events that night were not precipitated by a protest, anti-Tesco or otherwise. The community reacted – in a variety of ways, some more peaceful than others – to an unexplained, unexplainable, show of force and intimidation. That it happened a second time, when everyone should have known better, is worse. There are only two explanations for the amount of force the police used. (Two reasonable explanations. A third would be that they want to start a war with the public, which is unfathomable. A fourth reason is perhaps sheer, unmitigated arrogance a hair-breadth from stupidity.) 1) Fear: Watching footage of the riot teams arrival at the squat on 21 Apr, I can’t shake the thought of how afraid they look – as if they’re marching into hostile territory, a war zone, ready for bombs, insurgents – and, well, riots. 2) Misinformation: It made a little more sense when we found out that they didn’t show up over-dressed to an eviction, just over-staffed and trigger-happy for a bomb threat. (Except, maybe, that excuse would make more sense had it been a bigger bomb?) Was the Stokes Croft they were marching into the same Stokes Croft in which I live? Did someone forget to tell them it’s the sort of neighbourhood that girls can walk home safely at 4 in the morning and the strange strangers you meet turn out to be your old flat-mate’s cousin’s brother? Seriously – whatever bad intell they have on Stokes Croft, I’m hoping they won’t share it with my mother, because I don’t need her to worry about me any more. The fact that the baser parts of human psychology took over and that the events were guided by fear, anger, and confusion is unfortunate – but, unfortunately, unsurprising.

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