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Observing the Stokes Croft Riot

In the west of England, the police's bungled eviction of a squat involved in protests against a local Tesco created the conditions for a full-blown riot in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol.

Stokes Croft is one of the most exciting, diverse and colourful areas of Bristol. Artistic graffiti adorns the walls, art galleries and vintage boutiques pop up in abandoned buildings and a strong sense of community binds together all the artists, businesses and residents in the area. 

However, on the evening before the start of Bank Holiday weekend, an evening when Stokes Croft was full of people looking to start their Easter break, the police decided to send a convoy of riot vans into the area and shut off one of the main roads, Cheltenham Road. Their goal was to evict and arrest a small group of squatters who were occupying a building that has become known as Telepathic Heights, a landmark  squatted building in the area covered in pictures of strange and grotesque animals and said to symbolise a form of local resistance.  

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One particular focus of that resistance is the new Tesco store which opened up a week ago despite huge local opposition (93% of 500 local people surveyed said no to the new development). Those who oppose the store have spent the last few years campaigning against it. They exhausted all the “democratic” channels available to them, but were unable to halt the development thanks to a regime of planning laws that systematically favour the interests of big business over those of local communities. Tesco will damage local businesses and is in direct opposition to the cultural and artistic environment that has sprung up in the area. There are already several Tesco's nearby - 33 in the Bristol area as a whole - and for these residents enough is enough.  

I, like many other local residents, went down to watch the police operation out of curiosity. Most, it seemed, weren't there to protest against anything in particular, but rather to see what was a huge police operation involving 160 armed officers.

When I arrived at the scene everything was relatively peaceful. The police were holding a line to prevent people reaching Telepathic Heights and members of the public were asking them what was happening and why there were so many officers. The mood began to take on the feel of a small festival, the crowd cheered when somebody started playing some R&B music through a small sound system. 

However, it didn't take long before everything began to switch. I couldn't say what happened first, the police arming themselves with riot shields or people dragging dustbins and bits of wood onto the street to build a barricade. One thing I can say with absolute certainty is that the police could have prevented what was to happen next by demobilising and leaving the area with the people that they had arrested. But they didn't, and stubbornness instead provoked a riot. 

Youths in masks began tipping glass recycling bins over and spreading the bottles across the road as ammunition, one began tying the barricade together with rope and using another rope as a trip wire. The crowd started chanting 'our streets' and others from the neighbourhood came out to see what was happening. 

The police began storming forwards, shouting out orders to one another as if in a military operation. I began running away to safety, but some people tripped over the barricades only to feel the full force of the law cracking their faces with batons and riot shields. The police refused to help anyone that was injured.  Anyone who tried to help the fallen met with a similar punishment. 

The police line eventually managed to disperse the crowd, and it seemed like it was all over. But when I returned to the area surrounding Telepathic Heights half an hour later there was an even larger crowd of people, probably drawn by the news spreading around the city. Here we saw a seemingly unconscious man being dragged across the floor by two police officers as if he was a doll, his face covered with blood.  

There were police lines on every road pushing protesters back but the sheer number of us present started to overwhelm the police, and they eventually decided to leave. Emboldened, the protesters turned the tables on the police, standing in front of their vans, not allowing them to exit - giving them a taste of what it feels like to be kettled. As the riot shielded officers came back out of their van and formed another line, everyone sat down in front of them linking arms. The police swiftly responded with violence. I saw young girls kicked and hit with riot shields - some laying on the floor crying with bloody faces. 

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I attempted to document the brutality on my phone, only to have it smashed out of my hand by an officer. My girlfriend who stopped to salvage it was smacked aggressively by the corners of police riot shields. She tried to run away but couldn't remove herself from the barrage of blows.  

To chants of “shame on you” the police eventually managed to leave by driving their vans through the crowd, opening the doors to knock people out of the way. After they had left everyone cheered and someone shouted 'to Tesco!' - at which point masked people with metal bars and debris began smashing the glass of the store front to applause and cheers from the crowd. 

At this point I left for A & E to get myself checked having been injured. There, I had the opportunity to speak to some of the victims of the police's bungled operation. One 17 year old had gone to take photos of the riots but had been one of the people that tripped over the barricades as the police moved forward. Whilst on the floor he had been hit with a baton across the face and on the back of his head - he had a large bloody wound on the back of his head and his face was blue and swollen. He also had an enormous bruise on his arm from where he had obviously tried to protect himself (I have his details and he is happy to talk to anyone regarding the incident). 

Another man had been bitten by a police dog gone mad. Neither of us could understand why they would ever use dogs in a situation as confusing and disorientating as a riot - and why they would bring them to a raid in the first place. One man who had been clubbed around the head couldn't stop repeating the fact he had just been popping out to the shops to buy some coconut milk. Another had a foot that looked totally broken. The cause - a police van driving over him. 

Tesco was the spark for the riot but at its roots is the problem of people not being heard. It was also about the police's over-whelming deployment of force. Bringing a small army into an area when it’s at its busiest is, in my view, an incitement to riot - and from what I observed last night, that's exactly what the police wanted.

[There is an account of the police spin and the media coverage by Ryan Gallagher here]

Photos by stringberd.


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