A first hand account of last night’s dramatic riots and police aggression in Stokes Croft, Bristol.

Cycling home last night, I found the main thoroughfare of Stokes Croft in the centre of Bristol blocked by a large crowd.

It turns out that police had swooped in to evict the occupants of a squat- the iconically graffitied Telepathic Heights. We’d been expecting an eviction- a notice had been served saying it would take place at 10.30am the previous morning, but the time seemed to come and go without incident. Meanwhile, across the road, the newly opened and hugely unpopular Tesco (the 32nd in Bristol) continued to be picketed by a good natured group with placards and guitars.

Last night the mood seemed almost festive at first. Hordes of people were heading out to start their bank holiday. With the road blocked they were left standing around, chatting, drinking Red Stripe. Music started to play from upper windows, people were dancing; the community was out in force.

The police presence was also huge- transport units from Wales indicated that extra manpower had been drafted in. A line of police in riot gear penned people into the narrow cobbled Picton Street. Young and old milled about in bemusement or came onto their doorsteps.

As the police progressed the mood became more and more angry. I can’t express how surreal it was to experience this in a usually colourful, friendly neighbourhood. Young men with masked faces began to pour into the crowd from all directions, people were shouting, warning each other to stay back from the police line which people as it came. A man fled with blood running down his face.

A couple of times the police shouted ‘charge!’ and then rushed us- people turned and fled or were trampled. Each time they advanced people tried to ask them why they were doing this. An officer I spoke to said that they didn’t have time to work out who was a threat and who wasn’t, and they were trying to prevent violence. Then a member of the line shouted ‘advance!’ and he started shoving me down the road with his riot shield. As the line came down the road there was a feeling of panic in the air. The police tactics made no sense- why were they forcing us further and further down the street? Where did they want us to end up? Hundreds of people poured down from the rest of the Montpelier area and neighbouring St Pauls.

Suddenly one of the people in the crowd shouted ‘sit down!’ and the cry caught on. I realised it was the only thing to do. The police were advancing down my street beating my neighbours- I wasn’t about to leave them even if I couldn’t protect them. I felt like I wanted to call someone to help us, but there was no one to call. The police were already here and they were against us rather than protecting us. It reminded me of a slogan I had seen the previous week on Stokes Croft- “When injustice becomes law, resistance becomes duty.” I sat down in the road.

People joined us until the road was full. A man began to chant in a language I didn’t recognise, and people clapped along to the tune. I thought the police would start to try dragging people away, but they didn’t – there were too many of us. A man next to me said “just stay sitting down and it will be ok”.

Then the police began shuffling backwards, away from us, back up Picton Street. The crowd cheered and rose to its feet, jubilantly following the retreating line. The triumphant shout ‘whose streets? our streets!’ filled the air. People had moved sound-sytems to their windows and cheered whilst we danced below. “Beat It’ blasted out between the houses. We reached the top of the street and the police went no further. The crowd began to shout ‘shame on you!’ at the officers who had minutes earlier been beating them back. Things were similar on surrounding streets- Brigstocke Road in St Pauls, Ashley Road where temporary barriers of bins and rubble were erected by protesters, Cheltenham Road where fires were lit and the new Tesco was smashed and spray painted with the words “Closing down sale”. Helicopters with spotlights hovered overhead. The media were nowhere to be seen.

This morning at 6am I went out to look at the aftermath. Police vans blocked off the smashed Tesco store. The street is carpeted with glass, cars negotiate piles of rubble and smouldering debris. The squatters are still in place. A BBC roving reporter van drives past to shouts of derision- “bit late BBC? Right at the heart of it…”. There was still no mention on the Radio Four news- social media seems to be the only way of finding out what is actually happening on the ground.

When I first moved to Bristol into a flat in St Pauls I was keen to find out about the history of the area- what had given it its notoriety, why were the press and public often swift to muddy the name of a neighbourhood that had been so welcoming to me? I read about the St Pauls Riots of the 1980s and how heavy-handed policing had whipped up local resentment and caused mass unrest and violence. This came to light again last night. Why were the police behaving like this? Hadn’t they learnt that aggressive tactics lead to aggressive resistance? Didn’t they know that the current volatile climate required diplomacy, especially given the history of this part of the city? And I know that they knew- of course they knew- and that’s exactly why the behaved in this way. It is because they like nothing more than violently cracking down on those who resist. It wouldn’t be a bank holiday without a good beating- why wait till May Day? Nothing else but a desire to invite violence can explain why hundreds of police from outside the area brought horses, dogs, riot gear and helicopters to evict a squat on a hot evening when tensions are already running high. I was surprised by the extent of the disorder last night but will not be surprised when it happens again. There’s malcontent in the air in Bristol and brutal policing is only exacerbating it.

Follow Rosie on Twitter: @BristolFloozie

Photographs courtesy of James Stokes (www.vimeo.com/jigsawjames/videos)

Tagged under: