Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Bristol Stokes Croft riot - the story so far

On the night of 21/22 April, a riot broke out in the Stokes Croft district of Bristol, centred on the main A38 Cheltenham Road, to the North of the City. Very poorly reported in much of the national and local media - and indeed by the alternative media - we have a range of views, such as this from Press TV and this from Socialist Worker. Other coverage, such as in The Sunday Times, has been extremely inaccurate.

And then there is a report from the august Grocer magazine which looks to be an outtake from The Sunday Times - there are so many errors in it. The Socialist Worker you would, of course, take with a pinch of salt, but the account marries up with narratives from other sources. It does, however, add some further interesting detail, but there is still no single, coherent account as to what happened.

In the absence of any complete narrative, I have used this post as a framework to build as comprehensive a view of the riot as I can, and will continue to build on it over time, in an attempt to make sense of the events. The narrative below is as far as I've got.

There is general agreement that the action started about 9.15 on the evening of Thursday 21 April. Earlier reports suggested that the police arrived to support bailiffs evicting squatters from the property known as "Telepathic Heights" (pictured above).

More recent accounts, and police statements, suggest that this is not true. The police from Avon and Somerset Constabulary, supported by Wiltshire and Welsh police, were conducting a raid on the premises on the basis of "information received". They claim to have been searching for petrol bombs which they believed were being stockpiled for an attack on the newly-opened Tesco Express store, almost opposite the squat, the other side of the four-lane Cheltenham Road (A38) - marked "A" on the map above.

The police "intelligence", according to this site, appears to have stemmed from the private security guard at the Tesco store who had telephoned the police after a 20-year-old former Irish traveller by the name of Joseph Foster had told store staff he had a petrol bomb and had threatened to use it. Foster had recently moved in to the Telepathic Heights squat after being evicted and/or booted out of other local squats. His lifestyle/background is described as chaotic by those who know him. He can barely read or write. During the raid, with three others, the man was arrested. Foster was charged with having possession of a petrol bomb and was remanded on custody.

The other three squatters (pictured below) have been released without charges, and deny any connection with activists campaigning against Tesco, or any intent to use petrol bombs.

Two squatters, Salim Noormohammed and Philip Pezard have degrees in English and photography respectively. Noormohammad and Gavin Houghton are unemployed and Pezard works as a chef, but said he still didn't have enough money to rent a home. They said that none of them imagined squatting after university and all claimed to be busy trying to find jobs rather than mounting a campaign against the supermarket chain. "This thing against Tesco", said Pezard, "it's the last thing on my mind."

This account has ten police vans - including a contingent from the Welsh police - forming a "police line" (singular), outside "Telepathic Heights" and a riot squad entering the building. We get separate reports on this, with an estimate of 30-40 police in riot gear entering.

This narrative has the police sealing off the whole of Stokes Croft to create a "sterile area" (pictured below). At this point the police are not wearing riot gear on the street but, as a crowd gathers, the situation gets more tense. The police call in back-up, reportedly declaring that a "terrorist situation" had developed. The TSG (Tactical Support Group) "troops" take to the streets.

Access and exit were barred to residents and visitors alike. Residents who came out to find out what was going on often found themselves on the wrong side of a police cordon and were prevented from returning to their homes, leaving them to join the swelling crowd.

According to this source, the police pushed everyone fifty yards down the road (south) where a stand-off developed. To chants of "Whose street? Our street!", bins were thrown across the road to stop further police advance. Missiles thrown at their lines. At about 9.30pm (probably slightly later), the police baton charged and injured several demonstrators with strikes to the head.

Many reports have a helicopter overhead at this time (and for most of the riot), its spotlight shining down on the street. Its presence, and the word spread by social networking sites and by mobile phone, attracts onlookers. By 10pm, a crowd of about 100 have gathered.

With the police occupying the streets, the crowd refused to disperse and quickly began to swell as people called up friends. Drinkers in nearby bars also 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 put up more barricades of bins - setting fire to some - and wire fencing from building sites.

Much of the police activity then seems to be focused on pushing people off the main road, and for a short time, it seems to have been relatively tranquil. One local witness reports that about 11.15pm, "we were able to walk through (quickly, holding onto each other's arms) and got into our flat". She continued:
Not long after that, as far as I can tell, was when it became impossible to get through the street, as the police and the protestors became more heavy handed; with batons, bricks being thrown, more glass being smashed and injuries. Back home, we went on Twitter and Facebook and tried to follow what was happening. What was so striking was the utter confusion about what the riot was actually about. One person on Twitter said they were evicting squatters from a proposed Tesco site (I tweeted to say he was about a year late).
The disturbences, however, spread south as far as City Road. There is a running battle on City Road, which penetrates the back streets on the eastern side of the main road, with a barricade and fire on the Brigstocke Road (picture below), just before the junction with Gwyn Street and Hepburn Road.

There are then multiple reports of action at the junction between the Stokes Croft High Street (which becomes Cheltenham Road futher north) and Ashley Road, with people being pushed up Ashley Road (away from the main road) and into the very narrow Picton Street.

Eventually "what seemed like the entire residence of Stokes Croft emerged" and pushed the police back on to Stokes Croft high street. There are then reports of a "deadlock". People "stood around and shared rumours about the reason behind the army of police that had arrived unnanounced and were terrorising the neighbourhood".

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, there were crowds totalling an estimated four hundred, fighting with the police in at least three different locations. There were many hundreds more people near to or on the streets in Stokes Croft. The total number may well have approached 1,000 - with the four-lane Cheltenham Road packed with people north of the Ashley Road junction area.

With the main road mostly cordoned off and obstructed by barricades, we are then told that the police started making arrests and "all hell broke loose". Missiles (and especially bottles from recycling bins) began coming down from Telepathic Heights, which seems to have been reoccupied at some time. Police brought out dogs to clear people from the street, quite a few people got bitten. Meanwhile there are reports of police vans having had their tyres let down.

This report (Infoshop News) has it that the crowd became more and more angry as police refused to give justification for their presence, pushing or hitting anyone who got close to their lines (there are many independent reports of police violence). All it took, goes this narrative, "was for someone to tip over a glass recycling bin". The police line was then pelted by a barrage of bottles, followed by a retreat into St Pauls.

As people came out of their houses to see police marching through their streets, many joined in the fray. A routine of the police charging then retreating under a hail of bottles and bricks started to develop. Bins were set on fire and charged into police lines. Others were used to form makeshift barricades.

As the confrontation developed, the police found themselves centred on the complex junction comprising Ashley Road, Sydenham Road and Nine Tree Hill. With pressure from north and south, they were also being pelted from high up Nine Tree Hill (marked A on the satellite picture immediately above and picture below - Nine Tree Hill is on the left). They were at times visibly shaken.

The police line to the south was thickened and pushed a few yards further south, to below the corner of Nine Tree Hill. It was reinforced by mounted police who stood guard against the crowd from up the hill (pictured below - the Polish shop is on the corner of Nine Tree Hill). Eventually, there must have been near to two hundred riot police.

Here, there is agreement that 1am is the key time. The police having retreated back to Stokes Croft were becoming increasingly hemmed in, to the south by the crowd on the corner of Nine Tree Hill and in the north by a crowd adjacent the Credit Union (pictured below), with crowds also pushing in from Ashley Road. Effectively, the police themselves were being "kettled".

At some point, the police decide to abandon their southernmost line across the main road, anchored on the corner of Nine Tree Hill.  Some time before 2 am, we thus see a line of police vans come up from the City Road direction, attempting to drive north (below).  They no longer have control over their rear.

However, they come up against the crowd and barricades on the north side of the Ashley Road junction, and are for the moment stalled. The vehicles in shot are pelted with stones and bottles from Nine Trees Hill - from which vantage point this picture is taken.

The crowd has now set up a barricade opposite the Bristol Credit Union (pictured above - you are looking south, towards Bristol - the Credit Union building is on the left - see also here) and refuses to yield. In an attempt to relieve the situation, police from higher up the road march down with dogs (below), setting them on the crowd. An angry confrontation ensues.

The dogs fail to clear the crowd which sets up an angry chant: "shame on you!" This leaves the obstruction in place and the police to the south start to fight their way through. The shield-bearers in this group form up in front of the vans and push forward to create as space of a few feet. Th use of the shields is aggressive - they are used as weapons, the police jabbing at people, striking them to force them back. The vans edge forwards, horns blaring, closing the gaps as they are created. The process is then repeated.  Bit by bit, the police line advances.

Eventually, the police reach the Tesco about 200 yards north of their start point (below), into a relatively clear stretch of road. But they do not stop. They continue past it and away from the scene. Thus they leave the store and a Wiltshire Constabulary Land Rover Defender and trailer, unprotected. This is what you see them doing in the opening sequence of the video in this post, and pictured below. The police are running away from the crowd.

Celebrations broke out as the crowd realise they have the streets. Calls of "Smash Tesco!" ring out. Tesco windows are smashed (below) and the abandoned Land Rover Defender is also smashed. The trailer full of riot equipment is looted. The trailer is then detached and moved to the junction of Bath Buldings and Arley Hill, just north of the Tesco store, where it is overturned and used as part of a makeshift barricade.

Just as suddently the police returned, speeding through makeshift barriers and the edge of the crowd. The crowd retreat south down Stokes Croft again. It is claimed that the vans speed straight into the crowd. At least one person is caught behind police lines, unable to get out of Tesco in time. He is said to have taken "a frenzied beating whilst on the floor". Someone else is run over, sustaining an injury to his foot and others are hit by vans.

There are more clashes as police force people back into St Pauls and down Stokes Croft before finding themselves again outmanoeuvred. At that point they again retreat. This time Tesco's windows went all the way through as well as the shutters behind.

Next time it was made sure vans would not be able to manoeuvre in this way as a skip was dragged into the road (above). Tesco was entered a second time and objects being thrown from rooftops made it increasingly difficult for the police, with one being floored as they march down in line, attempting to recover the ground yet again. In all, police report that eight of their number were hospitalised. Nine arrests are made including the four occupants of Telepathic Heights.

One local resident noted the police had "thrown a quarter century of semi-decent community policing down the drain". Another said: "If they [the police] don't calm down, things are getting tense enough on a range of other issues for a new pattern to develop of poor community relations and repeat rioting against a police force which has chosen political sides".

The police provoked this, says Infoshop News: "Turning up in this area of Bristol with such numbers, attacking Telepathic Heights and blatantly using public money to defend the interests of a corporate giant such as Tesco was always going to get a reaction".

Since so much of the publicity turns on the fate of the Tesco store, however, this should be examined in depth. Effectively, what we see is that, around five hours after the start of an ill-considered action, having retreated from an area that had earlier been the exclusion zone, and having provoked the crowd with their aggressive behaviour, the police leave the store to be wrecked.

However, one commenter declared:
This wasn't a protest and the people involved weren't protesters. Most of those involved were either people who'd been out drinking or kids from the local area. The reason the media and police have tried to make it about Tesco is because it's much easier than admitting that the police were attacked for turning up with OTT numbers and pissing everyone off. This was more an anti-police riot than anything else. For a majority taking part this had nothing to do with Tesco or the squat. Most of the people smashing Tesco were those young kids and their reasons were much varied; certainly the promise of free cigarettes was up there but mostly I imagine because smashing windows is a lot of fun.
Something here seriously does not compute. There seem to be good grounds here for a public inquiry to explore what looks to be an egregious failure of policing, where the police provoked a riot and then lost control. If we are not looking at a staggering level of incompetence, I should be very surprised.