On two consecutive Thursday nights, at the start of the two bank holiday weekends in April, the racially and culturally mixed working-class neighbourhood of Stokes Croft in Bristol suddenly found itself transformed into a battleground.
The ostensible focus of the protests was the opening of yet another Tesco, posing the usual threat to smaller businesses in the vicinity. Certainly there has been a good deal of popular resistance to the new store: building work was interrupted in March when local residents occupied the site, staying there until a court injunction ordered their eviction, and hundreds marched in protest through Stokes Croft.
However, what actually started the trouble on the night in question was a very heavy-handed raid on a nearby squat, whose hapless inhabitants were not even part of the anti-Tesco campaign. The squatters told the Guardian’s Shiv Malik: “We had no intention of attacking Tesco whatsoever, it was never on the cards – we have nothing to do with the anti-Tesco protest. They’re a separate group. This is a nice building and it would be suicide if we started throwing petrol bombs off the roof. We would never do that. It’s not what we’re about.”
Their chilling account of the police raid will sound a familiar chord for anyone wrongly framed as a ‘terror’ suspect.
“We were working on tidying the place up, as you do – it’s a house, so it’s got to be tidy … Then Salim said the police were trying to get in the front door, so I stopped painting. My first instincts were that there were going to be a few police to tell us that we were going to be evicted. But when I looked out the window it was a completely different story. There were 30 to 40 police officers all dressed up in riot gear and they stormed the building.”
After they had trashed the place, “one of the officers barged me in the face with his shield and pushed me across the room”. (‘Bristol squatters deny Tesco attack and petrol bomb claims’, Guardian, 23 April 2011)
The police eventually decamped, clutching a few supposedly ‘suspect’ bottles. Meanwhile, news of the heavy-handed police assault and the sound of a helicopter circling overhead drew local residents onto the main drag of Cheltenham Road. As the crowd grew larger and more angry, the police in turn ‘kettled’ them, thereby blocking off access in and out of Bristol centre.
A blogging account takes up the story: “At something like 10.00pm a huge crowd landed on the front of Stokes Croft, drawn by the low flying helicopter with spotlight and the army of police emerging from 12+ riot vans dressed for combat. Pretty soon tension peaked as no explanation would be given for the roadblocks and there was intimidation on both sides.
“I was on the junction of Stokes Croft high street when the police charged what was only at that point a crowd of about 100, but which quickly grew down Ashley Road pretty much all the way to the end of it over the course of a couple of hours. Due to the absolute confusion, a number of people had emerged from their houses only to shortly find they were the wrong side of a road block and got roped in to what became a three-hour running battle through pretty much all of the back streets coming off Ashley Road and into St Pauls.
“Numerous burning barricades were erected and a huge amount of people were battered and bloodied by police for attempting to approach police lines to get home to find friends. By this point there was devastation everywhere. All junctions were blocked by overturned glass bottle dumpsters and makeshift neighbourhood roadblocks. ”
Sometime in the early hours of the morning, the new Tesco, whose preservation was supposedly the entire point of the initial police raid, did indeed get trashed – pretty much a guaranteed outcome given the strength of local feeling and the scale of the police provocation.
However, Avon police’s own website gives a clearer idea of the real purpose of their rampage that night. The attack on the squat and the closure of the street was planned in advance: “officers rolled out well-rehearsed plans at 9.15pm last night, closing Cheltenham Road before forcing entry into the building”.
In dealing with the subsequent response from hundreds of residents, the website again congratulates police for “well-rehearsed plans, which involved the use of officers from neighbouring forces to control what had become a volatile situation”, which included drafting in extra police from Wales!
Lest any doubt should remain that the battle of Stokes Croft was regarded as a police training exercise in readiness for suppression of future urban revolts, the police adopted similar tactics with a repeat protest the following week, taking the opportunity to lift members of the community supposedly identified from CCTV images of the previous week’s disturbances. In an effort to divide the community, the local police chief issued a plea: “I urge people to study the photographs, and if you think you know any of these people and where they might be, please contact us.”
Another notice was spotted in the area, however, this one in defence of neighbourhood solidarity. It urged people neither to “brag” about their role in the riot nor to “snitch” on what others had done. Could it be that such police training exercises as these will prove no less instructive for those they are designed to repress?