On 21st April Stokes Croft – the northwest area of Bristol known for its graffiti, squats and anti-capitalist culture – erupted in violence. The media dubbed it the ‘Battle of Tesco’, claiming the disorder sprang out of anti-supermarket protests. But, as Matthew Lee finds out, there’s more to the story – and to Stokes Croft – than a simple dislike of the red and blue grocery giant…
Entering a supermarket rarely feels like a political act. But in Stokes Croft pushing a trolley through the store’s sliding doors seems as wilful an act of defiance as crossing a picket line. It’s an unnerving experience. Walking up and down the aisles, past piles of fruit and vegetables, I feel like a Clubcard-carrying member of the opposition. Although I exit empty handed – a carrier bag here might be a red rag to a bull – I glance in both directions before stepping on to the street. Nobody saw a thing.
From the perspective of an outsider, the Tesco Express on Cheltenham Road seems perfectly innocuous, like any of the other 1,300 or so branches found on high streets throughout the country. But on 21st April this year this shop found itself at the centre of a storm. Nine police officers were injured in what the papers called the ‘Battle of Tesco’, an evening of violence that saw 160 police confront 300 protesters, meeting a barrage of missiles and retaliating with truncheons and riot shields. Could this really all have been over a supermarket? To answer this you need to know Stokes Croft…
At Stokes Croft’s heart is a famous piece of street art. Bearing in mind what happened here, an image of a teddy bear throwing a Molotov cocktail at riot police might seem provocative, but the local authorities won’t be painting over it any time soon. It’s by Banksy and represents the acceptable, sometimes profitable side of Bristolian activism.
A few years ago Hamilton House, next door to the Asbo-courting cuddly toy, was derelict; now it’s run by a group called Coexist and is the area’s cultural hub. On a tour of the building I’m shown dozens of spaces used for yoga, meditation, theatre, live music and arts classes. Across the road is the Stokes Croft Museum, a one-room exhibition celebrating the area’s uniqueness. It’s charmingly eccentric and well worth a visit, as long as you’re not looking for an educational experience – a plastic dog turd takes its place alongside a portion of chips (yes, actual chips) that has been Blu-Tacked to the wall. But there’s nothing abstract or indirect about the biggest sign there – “People’s Republic of Stokes Croft: We Make Our Own Future”.
Established by Chris Chalkley, the The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft is essentially a large-scale arts project, an effort to promote creativity and re-establish Stokes Croft as Bristol’s cultural quarter. It’s also about preserving the area’s character and encouraging sustainable development, in part by turning the neighbourhood into an outdoor gallery.
Art is everywhere: barely a patch of Stokes Croft’s walls is untouched by paint. Empty retail units have been turned into “free shops” where items are exchanged but no money changes hands. There are an incredible number of yoga classes on offer for such a small community. Bar one, there are no chain stores here, despite the fact that it’s only a five-minute walk from the city centre. In this setting, the supermarket at the end of the street seems incongruous – a banal sight surrounded by science-fiction street art. It’s mostly pure fantasy on display on Stokes Croft’s walls but among the dragons, aliens and dope-smoking cyborgs are paintings of Tesco shopping bags. They carry the slogan: “Very little help."
It’s unlikely any citizens of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft shop at Tesco. The PRSC aims to protect the area from corporations which, they argue, have local government in their pocket. In his website’s mission statement, Chalkley writes that Stokes Croft “has been deliberately and criminally neglected” by a government that “favours powerful corporations over the interests of the local community”. The failure of a popular local movement to prevent the opening of Tesco bolsters his theory.
“This area is fiercely independent and it’s a designated conservation area,” he tells me. “It’s written in the conservation-area documents that it’s an area for independent traders, so when a multinational such as Tesco arrives – in a city where 84 per cent of retail is run by multinational companies – it’s hardly surprising that there’s a groundswell against them.”
A section of Stokes Croft had been quietly protesting the arrival of the supermarket for 18 months before the Battle of Tesco. The campaign against Tesco appeared to unite the community. No Tesco in Stokes Croft’s (NTSC) co-ordinators organised several peaceful protests, and there’s a huge piece of street art which proclaims,“Think local. Boycott Tesco.” The group argues that 93 per cent of local residents don’t want Tesco in the area. The supermarket chain disagrees, claiming it has support from the community. The campaigners’ arguments were ideological – they were opposed to Tesco’s business practices and wanted to support local shop owners – but they were also practical, centring on noise and congestion. The campaign failed: Bristol City council approved the plan and the store opened on 15th April. Six days later the violence began.
The Battle of Tesco
The riots initially had very little to do with the supermarket. For all the activism waged against the store in the preceding months, no official protest had been scheduled for that evening. Instead it began with an eviction. On Thursday 21st April, the last remaining squatters in Telepathic Heights – a residential building opposite the supermarket – were due to vacate the property so the council could redevelop it. The previous night they had held a pre-eviction party.
The police had received a tip-off from an undisclosed source that the squatters possessed petrol bombs which they were planning to use in an attack on Tesco – an allegation the squatters have consistently denied, claiming they knew nothing about any petrol bombs and that they were not part of the NTSC campaign. Around 160 riot police moved in at 9.15pm to seal off the road and raid the squat. A group of local residents arrived to confront the police and support the squatters, who were a long-established part of the community and were generally liked. Fighting broke out between the police and members of the public, which increased in intensity as people left local clubs and bars, and others from across the city heard about the disorder and arrived looking for a piece of the action. The police left the area in the early hours of the morning and the protesters proceeded to cause damage to the Tesco Express shopfront.
A week later, there was another riot. More injuries, more arrests, more damage to the supermarket. But people in Stokes Croft are asking questions. Why did the police raid the Telepathic Heights squat on a Thursday evening before a four-day Easter holiday at a time when so many people were out drinking? Why was a force of more than 160 riot police, plus vans, horses, dogs and a helicopter, necessary to raid a squat that consisted of only four people? If the police were rapidly responding to a sudden threat, how do they explain the presence of Welsh police officers, who are likely to have been draughted some time in advance? Who was the police’s source for information on the alleged petrol bombs in the Telepathic Heights squat? And can the police be believed when they say that petrol bombs were seized when, at the time of going to press, nobody has been charged with a related offence and no evidence of a seizure has been presented?
In riot footage posted online there are scenes of people reaching into wheelie bins for glass bottles to throw at the police. There are riot police on horseback charging at protesters. There are people being dragged along the street by officers and there’s a policeman being hit by a slab of concrete thrown from a building. And then there’s other footage, mostly from earlier in the evening, of police officers chatting quite amicably with local residents. It’s hard to put one’s finger on how, why or when things spiralled out of control.
Two months on and the people of Stokes Croft are still looking for answers. They want to know how such a thing could happen on their streets. They’ve had countless meetings, debates and discussions. They’ve scanned the hours of footage of the riots on YouTube. And yet so many things still don’t make sense.
Chalkley argues that the underlying cause of the violence in Stokes Croft is that corporations have become more powerful than governments to the extent that they can bully them around. “When you have a very clear mandate from local people who say they don’t want something and it’s completely ignored by the people who are meant to represent them, frustration occurs and that ultimately manifested itself in the riots in April,” he says.
While some of that resentment may have been a contributing factor to the unrest, representatives of the NTSC are adamant the official campaign had nothing to do with what happened. “I was in my back garden having a few drinks when I saw a police helicopter above,” says Claire Milne, co-ordinator of the anti-Tesco campaign. “Even when I explained to the police who I was they wouldn’t give me any information on what was happening. We could have passed information on to the community and helped calm the situation.”
Milne believes that the authorities must have decided that it was “useful to create a riot” in Stokes Croft. “In terms of violence it’s an edgy area,” she says. “But in any city there are elements like that. When word gets out that 160 riot police are in Stokes Croft, hundreds of people will turn up and some of them will be looking for a fight. I can’t help but believe there was an intention on the part of the police to make people opposed to Tesco and corporations generally look like violent thugs. And the media colluded completely. If there had been a petrol bomb a small police presence would have defused the situation safely.”
Milne found herself fielding questions from the media, which were looking for an explanation for the violence. She struggled to condemn the behaviour. “I still don’t know what I think,” she tells me. “I’d never condone violence to another human being, but for me smashing Tesco’s windows is insignificant compared to the damage I would argue Tesco does in a fundamental way on a daily basis. I’m committed to peaceful and non-violent communication in every circumstance and I’m confused by the fact that I can’t condemn somebody smashing a window. The devastating reality is that the media only become interested when it gets violent. I spent over a year and a half working peacefully [on the campaign] and nobody wanted to know.”
Now, like the rest of the community, she’s torn between the necessity to move on and the desire to establish the truth about what really happened. “We need an inquiry, and it’s the right of our community to have it, but I’m going to have to distance myself from it. I’m totally burnt out.”
The man leading the charge for a national public inquiry is Bristol Green Party councillor Gus Hoyt. He tells me that the petition for an inquiry has received more than 1,000 signatures but that Theresa May, the home secretary, doesn’t seem to be interested in investigating the violence in Stokes Croft at a national level. “We want to know what happened on the night and how to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he says, before explaining how Stokes Croft is a part of Bristol that’s been neglected for decades. He describes it as a “place you used to hurry through on the way to get somewhere else” but applauds the local revival sparked by the work of the People’s Republic of Stokes Croft.
Like everybody I spoke to, he doesn’ t deny there’s a thuggish element in the area, but he says that he’s been surprised by the relative restraint Tesco’s many critics have shown. “While I’m not in any way condoning the action, I’m amazed Tesco hasn’t had its windows smashed in every night since it opened,” he says. I ask him whether, with his insider knowledge of local politics in Bristol, he thinks there was ever any chance of the anti-Tesco campaign being successful. “No,” he replies. “There was never a chance of people being listened to. There was never any proper consultation.”
Telepathic Heights is covered top-to-bottom in alien owls and talking ice-cream cones, either a colourful statement of artistic self-expression or an off-putting eyesore, depending on whether you’re a local resident seeking spiritual fulfilment or a major retailer with a new shop nearby. The building is right across the road from Tesco Express, making it easy to see how two different but ideologically interwoven local issues – a campaign for squatters’ rights and a campaign to prevent a supermarket opening – could become conflated when 160 riot police suddenly appear on a balmy, boozy evening.
Standing in the middle of Cheltenham Road, I study the scene. The supermarket is empty. Following the eviction, Telepathic Heights is also empty. This is a battle neither side appears to be winning.