Stokes Croft: “Tesco riots” and “petrol bombs”

A lot is starting to float out in the media about the riot in Stokes Croft on Thursday.  Frankly a lot of it is nonsense in so far as I’m concerned.  I have friends that live in the area and when I heard a riot had broken out I travelled down to observe what was going on and because I have friends that live in the immediate area.  I could write an account of what I saw, but I’ve already spoken to the New Statesman and the main parts have already been included in the article, so it’s simpler for me to direct you to that for a recounting of events.

For my contribution to the article one person in the comments has characterised me as “spent all night smashing up the area because he was either drunk/on ketamine/both” (I was completely sober, though quite tired, and didn’t so much as pick up a bottle to throw) and someone else said that because I’m a student I “don’t even live in the local area for much of the year.” (I grew up just outside of Bristol, I currently live in Bristol and because my parents home is so close I don’t go home on university breaks.  Stokes Croft is a favourite area of mine to go to when going to the centre).  So you can see already people are much more ready to leap to judgements and conclusions about an article themselves, and guilty of exactly the same sort of things they accuse the author of.

There are, however, two main assertions floating about that I think really need rebuking and confronting.  The first is that the police went into the squat to deal with a petrol bomb situation.  The second is that this was a riot over Tesco/squat eviction/other started and carried out by anarchists/hippies/other.

So why am I so openly willing to declare without a shadow of a doubt that I have no faith in this claim of petrol bombs being involved in the situation?

A lot of the entire concept of this story really just doesn’t add up.  From the police website statement on the issue:

Police seized a number of items –including possible petrol bombs – from the property.

And a subsequent statement to BBC News on the matter:

“believed to be”
“so you did find …” “yes”
“we’re looking at evidence forensically to confirm”

So the police themselves don’t seem able to decide whether or not they’ve found petrol bombs, found what look like petrol bombs or need to do forensic tests to prove whether or not they are, indeed petrol bombs.

Well, what exactly constitutes a petrol bomb, also known as a molotov cocktail, in the first place?  An empty bottle, some rags and some petrol or some other flammable liquid such as white spirits.  The majority of houses will have these constituent objects.  The squat was occupied by artists, so  if they had turpentine or white spirits or anything similar in their houses for cleaning brushes or thinning paints does that then legitimately make them into violent criminals just waiting to smash corporations?  Next time you’re seen walking into your house with a crate of beer do you want the police knocking on your door asking if you’ll be using the bottles to make petrol bombs?

Other things that don’t add up about this whole assertion:

I have friends that live next door to the squat and know the squatters.  This idea flabbergasted them as the squatters, at least to my friends, did not come across as the type of people who would do this.  Any time they’d been into the squat they hadn’t seen petrol bombs laying around waiting to be thrown.

The squat has been longstanding but at the moment the council want them out so that the council can impose it’s own image of how the Stokes Croft area should function.  They’d been issued with a notice of eviction for Wednesday and on Tuesday organised a party to make sure lots of people were there to be able to resist bailiffs.  The eviction never came, yet on Thursday 160 police in riot gear descend saying the squatters have petrol bombs, forcing their way in and overturning things as they go.  You can read the squatters statement here, and an anti-Tesco protester also did an interview with BBC Radio 5 to voice their own bemusement with the situation, saying “I was chatting to the security people and I discovered that two of the firms were employed by Tesco … another third company were Geordie boys and they were very tough. They said that they weren’t at liberty to disclose – it was a London firm that employed them- but as you got chatting they said that they were specialists in evicting squats along the Thames.

…  And the chap that had been describing the local people in such a derogatory way said “They’ve got petrol bombs in there” and I said, “I don’t think so!” –‘cause I’d been there over the four days and there were about four people in the building itself, and I hadn’t seen any evidence of any of that” and they reported it to the police who immediately responded with a huge over-the-top reaction.” – the linked blog has a complete transcript of the statement, a youtube clip with the whole radio interview on it and a little more information either side.  But the inference from all this is

1. Bristol Council want the squat out.

2. Bailiffs don’t go and do it themselves.

3. Working as security at the disputed Tesco are security who specialise in getting squats out. (A Tesco that locals didn’t want there but the council did. Which seems to suggest towards an institutionalised corruption, supported by this news article, whereby due to the government no longer providing money for projects councils are no encouraged to take bribes from big business.)

4. A call is made to police claiming the squat has petrol bombs they plan to use against Tesco.

This also wouldn’t be the first time police have lied about a situation to legitimise their actions.

There are other, nitty gritty bits of information about the whole situation that don’t add up.  If there was such a prevalent bomb threat from the squat, why is it they were released and able to get back into the squat within 4 hours of the initial events starting?  Police forgot to lock the doors and they weren’t meant to return, but in my experience of Avon and Somerset police from friends arrested on peaceful demonstrations, 4 hours is a very fast turn around.

Also the press statement went up very quickly, making very definite claims about what happened and who caused what.  Again, Avon and Somerset constabulary have taken days before making statements regarding public order situations – this one came out barely after the fires had died down.  This seems to tie in to the idea that they had already planned what was going to be said.

Yet on Friday Channel 4 news and the Telegraph were asserting that the Tesco had been petrol bombed.  It was not!  This is a press misrepresentation of a story which, given all the evidence, I very much believe to be a fabrication in the first place.

The second assertion, if you hadn’t gotten bored and drifted off by this point already, is that this was a riot against Tesco, or in support of the squat and it was perpetrated by anti-Tesco/pro-squat hippies/anarchists/take your pick.  That the riot is illegitimate because it was just a bunch of middle class bohemians with daddy issues.  Now I’m not going to get into an argument over whether or not the riot was legitimate, whether or not the the violence was justified for this cause or the other.  Frankly I’m not concerned about that in the specifics, what concerns me is the very flippant way a very broad group of people are being pigeon-holed and having their intentions attributed to them.

At the time of writing this it’s a Sunday on a 4 day, Easter, bank holiday weekend.  Friday was a bank holiday with no work, so Thursday was a night out on town for many people.  Stokes Croft has plenty of pubs on it, it’s a busy road in to town and many will start off with pre-drinks on Gloucester Road and make their way to the centre through Stokes Croft.

The police raid happened at 9 in the evening on this busy street.  There are reports from eye witness accounts that many people began to observe the squat eviction with interest (and who wouldn’t when there are hundreds of riot police blocking off much of a road).  The police response was overly aggressive towards by standers including shunting with shields to force them back.

Stokes Croft is an area that has a very singular character and a largely autonomist culture.  It’s also situated next door to St Paul’s and Montpelier, regions with a lot of youths and a lot of dissociation from mainstream authority.  I saw a lot of young people there who were spoiling for a fight with authority, they weren’t concerned about what else was going on.  They were enjoying the theatre of the situation.

At no point is it ever a wise idea to sit over a hundred police in riot gear, blocking off a main road to the centre, shunting drunk people around in an area that already wouldn’t be the greatest of fans of a large police presence.  Yes, the starting was in essence a squat eviction and yes, Tesco did get thoroughly smashed up.  But to infer that those were some focus of a pre-planned activism is wrong.  It was an organic process of the public being riled up the council, by corporatism, by police.  It was an expression of dissociation from government and authority.  It wasn’t a riot about this, that or the other it simple was a riot.

And notice what I said before about the “theatre of the situation” – nobody will expect Tesco to turn tail and run because of this.  Nobody expects the squat to no longer risk eviction because of this.  When it comes to the TUC march on March 26th nobody thinks the government will suddenly say “whoops, you don’t want these cuts?  Sorry, I’ll undo them.”

That’s not how it works.  Protests and demonstrations are public statements of unrest.  Riots even more so.  They’re almost a drama piece, or an art project, spontaneously created to make a statement.  They’re organic congregations of people with various purposes, intentions and problems that for a few brief hours have decided they’re going to be doing the same thing about it.  Because they’re angry, they’re frustrated and because the state and corporations are ignoring everything else they’ve had to say in the past.  It’s not about saying “oh but rioting over just one Tesco when bigger things are happening else where!” but ultimately what you’re doing is ignoring the bigger things that have happened to the participants in the riot that have led to such an intense show of much broader anger.

“Let riot be the rhyme of the unheard.”

Edit: Maybe a good article to read for a bit of background and a recount of events.  Eye-witness accounts are floating here there and everywhere so if you search about they’re sure to be found.

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