Personal account of the events of 28/04/11:
I have deadlines and lots of work to do today, so this is just going to be a quick account of what happened last night. Or what I saw of what happened last night; I left at around 4am, and apparently it carried on for a while. It's a bit rushed so apologies for any grammatical errors!
I had been looking forward to last night all week. I hadn't been there for the riot last week, but I'd heard accounts from friends and read every single report (both mainstream and citizen) I could find on the issue. I also followed the #stokescroft tag religiously. From what I gathered, the issue had gotten out of hand due to management errors on the part of the police, which aggravated people, making them more aggressive and giving the police reason for a more heavy handed response; but I may well be wrong.
I had also watched with dismay while the actions of a few had seemed to alienate many Stokes Croft residents. People who didn't want a Tesco on their street, but wanted broken glass, smashed up buildings and riot police even less. That's why I felt it was so important to have a protest to show our anger, and yet keep it peaceful to show that not all demonstrations have to descend into chaos.
I went down at around 8 and met up with a friend in front of The Social bar. I sincerely hope the owner, Selena Lanham-Cook, who's been whining about the anti-Tesco movement, even the peaceful picketting that went on while the shop was open, appreciates the huge amount of business they generated for her last night; the place was heaving. There were police around, none in riot gear, and I saw a couple of vans in the side streets on my way down from The Arches. People started congregating outside The Social, the Pipe and Slippers and Telepathic Heights. Music was playing, people were dancing and chatting to the police, and there was even a clown! The atmosphere was good, but the tension was palpable. Although I was enjoying the music and chatting to various strangers who had come down for the same reasons I had, I couldn't shake a niggling feeling that some people were just waiting for things to kick off.
At this point, I have to say that as much as I respect Oli Conner for organising the protest/party and stressing that it was to be a peaceful one, I think he made a huge error in taking down the Facebook page for the event. Without a forum for people to discuss the best way to go about it, or some sort of directive, it just ended up in people hanging about and getting drunk. Considering the (mostly justifed) anger of the people towards the police for the methods they used last week, it wasn't inconceivable that things would take a nasty turn.
My friends and I started dancing in front of Telepathic Heights and tried to get people to join in; after all it was supposed to be a party! At around 11:30pm however, the music suddenly stopped. An impromptu demonstration had started, with people moving into the road, chanting, "Who's streets? Our streets!" I should make a point of saying that they weren't being belligerent or aggressive, just blocking traffic. I had been trying to get people involved in a sit-in from the very beginning. I have a bit of experience with protests in various countries, and while I believe civil disobedience is the way forward, (no one will listen to you unless you cause a bit of inconvenience) I've found that sit-ins are the least threatening form of protest. If you're sitting down, you're not about to get aggressive, or attack anyone or anything, and you're showing your peaceful intentions by putting yourself in a vulnerable position in front of the police.
So a friend and I walked into the middle of the road, (the line that had already been blocked by the crowd) and sat down. A policeman came up to us and politely told us that we probably wanted to move; we politely told him that we were sure we didn't. We had to eventually though, as an ambulance needed to get through and we weren't about to obstruct it. Things carried on in this vein, people standing half in the street, drinking and chanting. I think it got a bit rowdier the more alcohol was consumed, but by no means were things getting out of hand. At 12:30 I got some worrying news; although nothing had changed, police were changing into riot gear in the street behind Tesco. My stomach sank. The crowd were drunk already and still angry from last week. All it needed was the slightest bit of antagonising before things blew up.
And sure enough, as the crowd slowly moved towards the top of Ashley Road, they were met with a two riot vans and a row of police, shields out and in full gear. I have read different versions of the events on Twitter and online, but what I saw was one bottle flying towards the police, and then the sound of breaking glass. There may have been more, I won't pretend I noticed everything that was going on as it was busy, and being quite short it was difficult to get an unobscured view, but that was all I heard and saw. The next thing I knew, people were screaming and running towards Gloucester Road; I turned round to see what was happening came face to face with a a huge horse running straight towards me. Six or seven mounted police were charging though the road. I watched a man go under a horse and the same would have happened to me if I hadn't been pulled aside at the last moment. Now I want to keep this piece as more of an account of the events and keep any analysis or judgment calls to a minimum, but I've protested (and been arrested as a result) in quite a few countries, some of which are considered dictatorships and police states and I have never, EVER seen such a monumentally disproportionate response by the police anywhere else. I couldn't believe what was happening.
Riot police moved in straight behind them, using their shields and batons indiscriminately. Six or seven riot vans also appeared by the Polish Church, seemingly out of nowhere and blocked the road on that side. If last week was anything like last night, it doesn't take a genius to figure out why it erupted into a riot. Sometimes pre-emptive strikes are the worst possible idea. People I spoke to believed that the realisation that despite the huge deal we'd made of wanting last night to be peaceful, the police had just assumed that we couldn't be trusted to made a lot of people feel angry and patronised, further stoking the fire. The fact that they had met with such overwhelming and unwarranted force was the icing on the cake. They were however, expressing their anger in the most self-destructive, petulant way possible, which served to do nothing but prove the police right.
We stood opposite the boarded up Tesco store with riot police and vans on either side, confused and worried. The mood was fast turning ugly, but idealistic little thing that I am, I was still desperate to make the point I came down to make, that it was possible to protest peacefully; that police aggression could be met non-aggressively. Like a flower down a gun barrel. (Although I do of course realise that the situation in Stoke's Croft was in no way comparable to those where that was practiced.) We headed down towards Ashley Road, where there was a line of riot police blocking all the main roads. There were so many of them! The roads were blocked so they couldn't have been called in, they must have been waiting in the side streets. I couldn't see into Picton Street, but I could hear the sound of breaking glass. Meanwhile in the Ashley/Cheltenham Road junction people were moving towards the police and chanting, but with their hands in the air. Lots of people seemed dazed; my friend turned round and said, "Last time I checked, we were dancing and having a good time! What the f*** happened??"
(I forgot to mention that helicopters had been circling from around 10pm. I may have the exact time wrong but we could hear them for ages before the violence started.)
People were throwing things at police vans at the top of Ashley Road and shouting "Every little helps!" while the police were getting out riot gear. The mounted police, which had been lingering on Cheltenham road ever since the charge, began moving up Gloucester Road at around 1am. I could hear people shouting behind the police lines in every direction, in Nine Tree Hill, Stokes Croft and Ashley Road, and there was broken glass everywhere which I'm assuming was from bottles because no windows around us had been smashed. There were about 50-60 people in the junction with us. Some were chanting, some were dancing and some were just observing. My friend and I walked up to the riot police and started up a little chant we'd used in London in the 'Battle of Trafalgar Square' as it was dubbed, on March 26th. It was, "You're sexy, you're cute, take off your riot suit." The Avon and Somerset Constabulary weren't impressed. The officers from the Met had cracked us a few smiles at least...
People were approaching the police lines and trying to talk to the officers but not particularly successfully; they kept getting shouted at or pushed back. I can't blame the police for that, their drunkenness could have easily been mistaken for being lairy. A chorus of "Who's streets? Our streets!" went up again for a while, when suddenly five or six riot vans came charging down Gloucester Road, sending people running in every direction. When they'd gone through, a masked individual came up to us and said, "There's gong to be a kerfuffle in a few minutes, we're going to take on the police. If you're not involved in it, go home. We don't want anyone getting hurt." Now sadly, I have encountered many different groups of people who've become so desperate over certain issues that they feel they have to resort to violence to get their voices heard. It's a sentiment I can understand; but it's not a route I believe to be justified in any way whatsoever. I don't think it's even productive in some sort of Machiavellian sense. The friend I was with was of a like mind, and while the Mask was talking to us, we looked at each other and proceed to sit down just opposite The Arts House cafe. The Mask looked incredulous. Even more so when we explained that we were sitting down to not only make a point against the police, but also against people like him. It might have been a naive gesture, but we wanted to make a stand against violence and aggression on both sides. Although the police set the spark for last night, the crowd was far from blameless.
We got a small crowd sitting down around us. We sang "You're sexy, you're cute, take off your riot suit!", "We shall not, we shall not be moved!" and my particular favourite, James', "Oh sit down, oh sit down, sit down next to me!" Both the masked men and the riot police were staring at us in perplexedly, but we just smiled and waved and asked them to join us. It was a great feeling, there were blockades all around us and a helicopter straight above but we just carried on sitting on the road in broken glass and singing. It wasn't a large group, there were only about twenty of us at most, but I do honestly believe we were making a difference, however slight.
Suddenly the police line in front of us parted, and a riot van came towards us, lights flashing and sirens blaring. Most people scrambled to get up; I'll admit the thought crossed my mind but my friends and I stayed put. Police vans are quite intimidating when you're sitting about half a metre in front of one. I'm not saying I'm particularly brave, or trying to paint some sort of fanciful, romantic portrait of myself and my friends, but the stand we had set out to make was very important to us. We truly believed (and still believe) that peaceful, non-threatening civil disobedience is the only way forward. A police officer approached us and told us we needed to move if we didn't want to get run over, and we replied by saying we were going to stay where we were and really hoped that they wouldn't run us over. There was a minute long standoff between us, then finally the van reversed and drove around us and the police moved on to face small group of people who were arguing with the police line at the bottom of Nine Tree Hill. Success! About half of the group had left when the van had appeared. Those of us that were left formed a straight line across the road. Behind us, we heard shouts that the area between the top of Ashley Road and the Centre had been kettled, but I don't know how true that was. Then we heard barks.
Then we heard barks. And then more barks. The police line on top of Ashley Road parted and five or six policemen with dogs came through and surrounded us. I don't think they surrounded us on purpose; they were probably waiting for orders, but a couple of the dogs were straining at their leads in our direction and barking non-stop, and I personally found it to be extremely threatening. At this point most of the group left. It was just me and three of my friends still sitting. I started shouting to people who were standing on the pavement, asking them to join us, which probably wasn't the best idea as it led to us being verbally attacked by a woman who called us damn hippies and troublemakers. She said we were being violent by sitting in the road, and that we should just go home and that our very presence was creating problems. We tried to explain our reasons behind the sit-in, and pointed out that if our presence was creating problems, so was hers. The gawkers and 'riot-tourists' who had come down tonight just to watch it kick off were doing more to harm than people who were trying to show that despite what happened last week, it was possible to protest against the police brutality, Tesco, or anything for that matter without it becoming a riot. We wanted people who agreed with us, but didn't want to be associated with last week's riots to see that there was another way. We hadn't even been blocking any traffic, as the roads were all closed off. Maybe it wasn't the best plan of action. Their should have been some directive for the night, some sort of plan, and instead it just became drunk people milling in the street and then erupted into violence. At that point however, sitting in the street seemed to be the best way to get our voices heard.
More and more people came and spoke to us; some sympathetic, some scathing. We were polite to everyone and explained our aims as best we could, although tiredness was making me increasingly incoherent. A police van was driving around us and the driver got out and said we should cover ourselves to protect from glass flying as he drove past, which I thought was very kind and considerate.
Everything seemed to quiet down at around 2:30-3am. My two friends and I were the only people still sitting down and we decided it was time to call it quits. Most people seemed to have gone home and I had serious pins and needles in my foot. I chose to head home at that point. From my experience with protests, I knew that police would move in full force to get the last people off the streets. I also knew that the last people left would be drunk, aggressive and looking for a fight by this point and would have no interest in any sort of peaceful anything. Walking back I saw that Gloucester Road had seen quite a bit of unrest too; the street was strewn with cardboard boxes and traffic cones. All I could think on the way home was that it was such a huge pity that the night had progressed the way it did. I was getting into bed when I received texts saying that people had been kettled in the bear pit and that firebombs were involved. My heart sank even further. This couldn't have gone more wrong if we'd tried.
I'm sure a lot went on that night that I wasn't privy to. There may have been more violence on both sides, but I've recounted everything I personally saw. I hate that the night descended into chaos; I understand how disenfranchised people feel in the current political climate, especially in Stokes Croft which has a strong sense of identity, and where most people tend to be politically inclined and clued in to what's going on around them. People are restless and angry; the student protests, the marches in London and the Stokes Croft unrest are all connected, and all indicative of sentiments shared by a large segment of the population.
I'd like to point out that by no means was our protest against the police; I support the police as an institution. Quite a few of the officers out last night were courteous and helpful. Keeping our streets as safe as possible is a hard job, and I personally don't agree with being anti-police for the sake of being anti-police. This does not however, mean I agree with everything the police does. I place a large amount of the blame for events unfurling the way they did on their shoulders, although I doubt they'd ever acknowledge it. I am however becoming worried with the polices heavy-handed tactics and the role it increasingly seems to play in the protection of corporations over the public.
It's been a strange week in Stokes Croft, exciting at times and despairing at others. I hope we can pull through this together, as the community I know us to be. I hope we can learn from what has happened, and show the country what an amazing, vibrant and beautiful place Stokes Croft is.