“Did you hear that? This guy thinks that some people have too many rights!” A weary riot officer was experiencing the full force of the civilian right to protest. His questioning of civil liberties was pertinent, as the line between legitimate protest and wanton violence got trampled all around us.
In the small hours of Friday 29th April violence broke out on the streets of Bristol for the second time in a week. ‘The troubles’, as one BBC reporter referred to them, first began a week before as the opening of a new Tesco sparked the worst riots seen in Bristol since 1980.
On Thursday 21st, following a tip-off that occupants of the ‘Telepathic Heights’ squat on Cheltenham Road had been constructing petrol bombs, police moved into make an arrest.
At 9:15pm officers closed Cheltenham Road and forced entry into the building. Four men were arrested, and a police statement confirmed that a number of items were seized “including petrol bombs – which are currently being forensically examined.” One of the men subsequently pleaded guilty to possession of a petrol bomb, but not guilty to a second charge of threatening a Tesco employee with it.
Following the highly visible arrests at Telepathic Heights, hundreds of people began to congregate in the area. Within a few hours they were joined by over 160 riot officers, many brought in from Wales.
Although the gathering began peacefully, clashes with police soon erupted and spilled out into the surrounding area. Barricades of burning bins were erected; fireworks, bricks and bottles were thrown at riot officers. Local resident Alex Slocombe saw “running battles with police all over the place.”
By around 1:00am it seemed that police were no longer in control of the operation. A group of rioters managed to ransack the recently opened Tesco Express. Its windows were smashed, a sign ripped off, and “closing down sale” scrawled across its facade.
Local resident Leah Hemming told Epigram: “There were people running down the street with riot police gear. The police had left a trailer full of their equipment. Basically, they just deserted the place. Then everyone moved to Tesco and smashed it down.”
This operation has come amid strong anti-Tesco sentiment in the notoriously independent local community. After two years of campaigns Tesco finally opened the new store on Cheltenham Road on the 15th April. Many locals are angry at what they perceive as the authorities siding with Tesco against them. Others have condemned the violence, however, fearing for the reputation of an area which is trying to be seen as vibrant and culturally significant.
Despite the implication of Tesco as the initial trigger of the violence, many have argued that the issue has gone well beyond local animosity towards the supermarket chain. Lib Dem MP Don Foster said that though most seemed to be there for a peaceful protest, “it was hijacked by a number of, whatever you want to call them, anarchists, who had all sorts of other grievances as well.”
The riot on the 29th made no effort to conceal being about much more than the opening of a Tesco Express. It started as a peaceful protest against the police violence seen the week before. But as a small group broke away from the friendly atmosphere of the protest and began to march at the police, it became clear that they were intent on violence themselves. Within minutes bottles were being salvaged from recycling bins and thrown at police officers. By midnight the streets were once again lit up by blue lights and blazing fires.
Police struggled for hours to contain the fractured groups of rioters in the lanes and side streets of Stokes Croft. It was clear that the focus of the aggression was the police themselves, as rocks, bottles and other debris rained down upon them again and again. The riots eventually stretched as far as Cabot Circus, where the window of a McDonalds was smashed. The next morning police evicted the last of the ‘Telepathic Heights’ squatters.
A 17-year-old boy has been arrested on suspicion of the attempted murder of a police officer. Over 40 people have been arrested in total.