Late yesterday afternoon (21/04/11), bailiffs and a man from Bristol City Council arrived at the ‘Telepathic Heights’ squat on Stokes Croft, opposite the controversial new Tesco, to begin an eviction (this is not a new squat - it has been occupied for many years without incident, but suddenly, persons unknown want it evicted). A protest quickly gathered and the bailiffs were forced to withdraw. Then around 9pm a massive police operation began, with the officers already in riot gear and full length shields backed up by horses, vans and the police helicopter. Officers apparently forced their way into the squatted building and evicted the occupants. The operation was very heavy handed and no explanations were offered regarding the reasons, but all the same it was relatively quiet by around 10pm.
However, for reasons unknown the police had blocked off the Stokes Croft/Ashley Road junction, causing diversions for or just blockading out local residents and allowing a huge crowd to gather. They faced off local people just going about their business behind their riot shields in a square formation, but although the atmosphere was tense, it was not yet universally hostile. If the police had discreetly withdrawn after their dubious ‘operation’ between 9 and 10pm, the situation would have defused and disorder could have been easily avoided. Instead, they continued to obstruct a main junction in a provocative, obstructive and hostile manner, almost as though they were waiting for something to trigger, as of course it inevitably would.
They marched them up Nine Tree Hill, then they marched them down again
Between 10 and 10.30pm the police were attacked by one group with an onslaught of bottles. Incredibly, they continued to stand in place, and as the night wore on young people, either drunk or high on adrenalin, formed ad-hoc groups to bait the police. As the police used baton charges, dogs, horses and vans to repel these sporadic and rather ineffectual attacks, the crowd’s mood also became increasingly hostile. No explanations were offered by the police, and as it became apparent that the vast majority of riot police were not even Bristolian but had been ferried in specially from Wales, it looked increasingly like an army of occupation.
The police tactics were unfathomable. They seemed to consist of running from one end of Stokes Croft to the other (and up several side streets), randomly charging about the place, getting more and more people involved and moving the violence into new areas that had previously been quiet. Needless to say, the ‘active’ (ie. rioting) members of the crowd simply avoided the charges and filtered around to attack the police all over again from a different angle. The police helicopter flew low overhead constantly from 9pm to 4.30am, beaming its searchlight on anyone and everyone. This was not a tactic to win any ‘battle for hearts and minds’ either.
At around 12.30am the police made a series of stupid and tactically pointless forays up Nine Tree Hill, despite the constant rain of missiles, even reaching the traffic barriers at Fremantle Square where for a short period they formed a shield wall and then retreated. It conjured up the absurdist imagery from the nursery rhyme, The Grand Old Duke Of York: ‘And when they were up they were up, and when they were down they were down, and when they were only half way up they were neither up nor down.’ Because all that they had accomplished was to cause a violent overspill into Kingsdown, where more bottles could be thrown, bins overturned and set on fire. This scene was also being repeated on Ashley Road and on other streets way beyond Stokes Croft. It was becoming apparent that the police, or heddlu to use the Welsh term, did not know the area or its topography and were simply floundering about in a brutish manner.
By 2am the police had achieved their apparent aim, assuming that they had any, by uniting the entire community of the area against them. By the time they retreated back down Nine Tree Hill it was no longer ‘anarchists’ who formed the majority of the crowd, but young people of all social classes and ethnic backgrounds. Some older people also joined in, and children too. The police then resumed charging up and down Stokes Croft, now against a crowd of hundreds. Around 2.30am your intrepid reporter decided it was time to catch some shut eye, of course only achieved with the help of ear plugs to block out the infernal sound of the helicopter.
But lo and behold, by this morning the police spin machine had discovered an ‘explanation’ for their action. They had received ‘intelligence reports’ that Stokes Croft Tesco was ‘about to be fire bombed’ by ‘certain’ people at Telepathic Heights squat. And ‘in the interests of public safety’ etc they had ‘robustly and precisely’ arrested the ‘four individuals’ involved, and it was ‘not actually their intention at all’ to close down the squat. The police statement after the event makes the night’s chaos seem reasonable and proportionate. But just to be sure, push the ‘terrorism’ fear button. ‘Unfortunately, a tiny minority of criminal elements...’ etc.
However, if this was indeed the case it is strange that we were not informed of this ‘reason’ from the start. But the first mention of it appears in the prepared police statement made this morning. The whole theory of a group of extremists preparing Molotov cocktails to fire bomb Tesco, while not impossible, is highly questionable. For if one receives word of an imminent terrorist act (and such it would be, because Stokes Croft Tesco is in a terrace and has residential flats overhead), this surely calls for a covert op by a small number of special anti-terrorist police, not a massive manoeuvre that involves half the police force of a neighbouring region, South Wales. It also beggars belief for what reason one would deploy horses and dogs if there was a risk of facing Molotov cocktails. So either the Bristol police authority are utter tactical and financial dunces, or else there is another agenda.
Before we analyse this, let us look briefly at the cost. According to the Devonshire and Cornwall police website, it costs an (all in) £1675 to keep a police helicopter in the air for a single hour. This is likely to be an underestimate, but still, from 9pm to 4.30am amounts to approximately 7 1/2 hours. So you do the arithmetic. Then what it costs, and to whom, to draft in the riot squad from another region entirely. Add to this the fact that police officers who serve past midnight have their pay doubled. Then the costs of cleaning up the mess for Bristol Council, and the likely legal battles regarding the squat and the fate of its occupants that lie ahead. And this in an era of alleged ‘austerity’, huge cuts to public spending and a need for everyone to ‘tighten their belts’ (unless you’re a banker, a corporate monopoly, or a royal, of course).
So let us finally look at whose interests are furthered by last night’s disturbances. The police can use it to argue that the government will need them to face the bleak future of endemic social conflict ahead, and therefore they should think twice before cutting them. So let the axe fall on easier targets, like on healthcare, libraries, or disabled care. And while they are at it, they can also gain a big pay bonus! The government meanwhile want to make squatting effectively illegal, though how else they expect people to cope with the increasing pressure on affordable housing and the growing number of repossessions is not to be addressed. No matter, for the ‘example’ of Stokes Croft squatter ‘extremism’ (manufactured or real) can feed straight into the ideological machinery.
And there are also the interests of Tesco to consider. The store opened one week ago against long term and widespread public opposition in the area, with Bristol Council role-playing Pontius Pilate, bowing spinelessly to the corporate lobby. Since then there have been further attempts by Tesco to consolidate its position. First the original tenants of the properties overhead (suddenly tenants of Tesco) were evicted and new tenants brought in, because the original tenants had ‘shown sympathy with the protestors’. But Tesco have also been keen to force a removal of Telepathic Heights, as the squat which is also directly opposite the new store provided a focus for the resistance. In addition there has been a very successful and totally peaceful protest outside ever since the store opened, which has, just with cake, music and persistence, effectively made the Stokes Croft Tesco ‘closed for business’. An attempt to criminalise the squat and involve it in a street battle with the law obviously serves the PR interests of Tesco in a big game of ‘guilt by association’ with the protestors. The fluffy demonstrators with their ukuleles and pipes are now by implication ‘evil petrol bombers’ for propaganda purposes, and can be dealt with as such.
Welcome to Greece (or maybe Belfast?)
It remains to be seen whether the public will fall for this time-honoured ruse of divide and conquer. In the meantime, with the determination of this government to push ahead regardless with the agenda of feeding its fat cat friends at public expense, such spontaneous uprisings on the streets of the UK are likely to become increasingly widespread.