As the Bristol Bookfair collective's organising meeting last Thursday, 21 April, was drawing to a close after nearly 3 hours, messages started coming in - cops evicting a squat on Stokes Croft, riot cops on the streets blocking off the road, small crowd gathering. It was about 10pm, and being an organised bunch, we completed our admin meeting before drifting off to get much needed food and drink. One collective member eventually cycled the 10 minutes to Stokes Croft, and subsequently wrote up this piece. What with all thats been going on, and the hot holiday weather, we've only just got around to posting it up now:
Stokes Croft is home to numerous clubs, bars and cafes as well as a number of independent and co-operative businesses including Co-exist, who are hosting this year’s Bristol Anarchist Bookfair at Hamilton House. This long run down inner city area sits on the edge of the Cabot Circus & Broadmead shopping palaces. It also forms a boundary on one edge of the St Pauls neighbourhood, a historically poor and neglected area with a large Afro-Caribbean community, and scene of many previous flashpoints with the cops and authorities. Stokes Croft, and St Pauls, have in recent times seen a degree of ‘regeneration and gentrification’, assisted partly by local street artists and those such as the Peoples Republic of Stokes Croft (PRSC) who have tried to ‘clean up’ the area by painting boarded up buildings and taking over empty premises. The area has been named by PRSC as ‘Bristol’s cultural quarter’. Also in recent years anarchist groups have squatted several derelict premises on Stokes Croft setting up a Free Shop, bookshop, art gallery, and non-commercial club/gig space, with other squats and a social centre nearby.
The trouble started at Telepathic Heights, a long-running residential squat that is diagonally opposite a new Tesco Express. Over the last year there has been a strong community campaign against the store opening which has lobbied councillors and made objections to the planning process. A group of squatters had taken over the proposed Tesco site last year for several weeks and used it as a home and community centre. When this was evicted last summer there was a demo of four hundred outside and minor skirmishes with the seventy police and bailiffs.
Since Tesco’s opening on 15 April a peaceful picket has called for an apparently successful campaign to boycott the store. These protesters were moved on Thursday afternoon with threats to arrest them for obstructing the highway and their banners and placards confiscated. In the early evening, after 8pm, the police closed the road in what appeared to be an attempted eviction of Telepathic Heights. Whether this was in response to a request from the owners (Bristol city council) who had recently been granted a warrant of possession, or because of complaints from Tesco, was unclear.
Initially there were approx forty police and several dozen local squatters and supporters. The police lines pushed everyone fifty meters down the road where a stand off developed. Several bins were thrown across the road to stop further police advance and missiles thrown at their lines. At about half nine the police baton charged and injured several demonstrators with strikes to the head. The crowd refused to disperse and quickly began to swell as people called friends and people drinking in nearby bars came out and joined the crowd. Running battles developed through the back streets of neighbouring St Pauls. The police repeatedly charged but were outflanked by the crowd who began putting up barricades of bins and wire fencing from building sites. Several fires were lit in the streets and the police were pelted with bottles and rubble and at times engaged in hand to hand fighting. By midnight when I arrived there were crowds totalling about four hundred fighting with the police in at least three different locations, and many hundreds more people near to or on the streets in Stokes Croft. Increasingly the predominantly white squatters and their supporters were joined by young Afro-Caribbeans from the neighbouring streets, alongside a real mix of other local residents and visitors to the area. It was a hot night, before a 4 day weekend break, and large numbers were out socialising, or trying to return home.
At about one in the morning after a running battle on City Road, most of the demonstrators were again on Stokes Croft and for a short period contained by police lines on three sides. The police did not have control of their rear and were also being pelted from high up Nine Tree Hill. They were at times visibly shaken. There must have been near to two hundred riot police, many of them black clad TSG, using their vans as weapons. Many were evidently drafted in from Wales and elsewhere, and their orders to people to go home, whilst blocking access to peoples streets, did not go down well at all. The mainly Welsh police squads attempted to retreat north up the road with most of their cars and vans, but soon realised they had left a lot of their colleagues surrounded and unable to move. They returned and moved on mass up Stokes Croft driving the crowd in front of them past Telepathic Heights and Tesco. Suddenly, and inexplicably, the riot cops quickly jumped in their vans and sped off through the crowd, heading north, under a hail of bricks and bottles. Bizarrely this left several hundred people in the street without a policeman in sight.
The crowd was buoyed by this apparent victory and within seconds you could hear a call all around ‘let’s do Tesco!’. The crowd grew, and set about the shop front with metal bars, rocks, and even a bicycle. A weirdly calm Tesco employee watched through the window for a few seconds and then dropped the metal shutters. The next target was a police Landrover which had been left nearby the shop, and also a white trailer that turned out to be full of riot gear. Just as suddently the police returned, speeding through makeshift barriers and the edge of the crowd, before jumping out and assaulting whoever was nearby. The crowd retreated south down Stokes Croft again. There were still hundreds of people in the streets when I left the area around 3am, and we now know this process repeated itself at least once more, with Tesco’s being smashed more and lightly looted.
So, why did it happen? Bristol has a long-standing squatting movement that has built up a practice of mass resistance to evictions. At a time of mass unemployment and cuts to the housing benefit system evictions are particularly resented. There is considerable anger towards Tesco and disillusionment with the council over their failure to act on the communities objections to the store opening. Police seem to be claiming that the raid on Telepathic Heights was because of intelligence that there were petrol bombs on the premises that were to be used to attack Tesco. This seemed unlikely but if true could be a consequence of the police suppression of peaceful protest.
But this soon became a general anti-police riot. The aggressive policing simply made people angry and increased the numbers of people who came to support their friends and neighbours. Certainly the Afro-Caribbean youngsters have had little contact with the anarchist and squatter community, so they were getting involved for their own reasons including mass unemployment and police harassment. Nine arrests, minor injuries to eight police officers, a couple of dozen serious baton injuries. Looking around the area this morning the only targetted property damage seems to be Tesco, police vehicles and rubbish bins so hopefully the police won’t be able to portray it as random violence. And the squatters have re-taken Telepathic Heights! With other squatted premises in the same area due for eviction over the next month, and as many cuts to benefits & services kick in alongside rising inflation & unemployment, there is potential for more of the same.
Note: There have been many more articles written about the night, some are on Bristol Indymedia. The corporate media have made up their own stories to fit their theories. Online there is a huge amount of video footage – we dont link to it here because we are concerned it will expose people engaged in resisting the police brutality.
Postscript – On Saturday a young man pleaded guilty at a special sitting of Bristol magistrates court to possession of 1 petrol bomb inside Telepathic Heights. He denied making threats to Tesco nor its employees. He is currently on remand at Bristol prison, along with 1 other defendant on seperate charges. They and others arrested on the night, and in the coming days, will need support.