Noelle Tankard

Noelle Tankard
Cambridge, UK
June 08
I am a traveler and a student, an expatriated American, a coffee-drinker, a dabbler and a doodler. I believe in post-it notes and live music. Grad student at the University of Cambridge, UK.

Editor’s Pick
APRIL 30, 2011 3:20AM

Riots in Stokes Croft: Started complicated, got worse

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Everyone’s asking why there were protests in Stokes Croft, and how they turned violent.

I think we have the questions backwards.

We need to be asking how we protested – because what we’ve been doing obviously isn’t working – and we need to know why it was violent.



If you live in the area, or have been following along, you’re probably familiar with the details – from facts to rumours (and back again, by this point) and you might want to skip ahead. (If you live in the rest of England, you’ve figured out that it’s something to do with hippies and a Tesco. If you live in the rest of the world, good luck getting any news out of England this week that doesn’t have to do with a certain wedding...)

 [EDIT: This is an exploration of riots in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol, UK on 4/21 and 4/28. Dozens have been injured, including 8 police officers. More than 40 people have been arrested, and a 17yr old boy charged with attempted murder of a police officer. There are still riot police on the streets. Recent information, including riots in London, Scotland, and Brighton, ties the events to increase in brutal police crack-downs throughout the UK.

Bare-bones: Timeline of events. My first reaction: Not About the Royal Wedding. Eyewitness accounts: And so we sat in the street.


There are the issues: the supermarket, the squat, the police, and the neighbourhood’s identity. There’s the matter of just how many different factions were present on the streets. Then there’s the timing. Stories of Royal Wedding clean-up and police targeting of activists “hot-beds”, after protests against the budget cuts and tuition hike have grown in size and intensity all year. And then, of course, there is the reaction of the police force: exaggerated, disproportionate, and incendiary.


Stokes Croft is a buffer zone


Technically speaking, Stokes Croft is only a street, not a neighbourhood. The name’s thrown around loosely and has come to refer to an indeterminate area (with rather elastic borders) between Kingsdown and St. Pauls, near Montpelier. The street ends at the St. James Roundabout, leading into the city centre; only a few miles up, Stokes Croft changes names to Cheltenham Rd, which quickly becomes Gloucester Rd. I’ve lived here for just over two years and am only just getting used to the fact that with a five-minute walk, you’re in a different world. There’s a dramatic difference between Cotham/Redland (comfortably middle-class, “family friendly”) and Easton/St.Paul’s (visibly ethnic, drastically cheaper rent). Add Southmead and St. Werburgh’s to the mix, and realize that Stokes Croft/Cheltenham/Gloucester Rd is the main thoroughfare into city centre and it becomes clear that “diverse” is an understatement for Stokes Croft.

Stokes Croft is known as a “bohemian” collection of artistically self-aware cafes, pubs, and independent shops. It has the sort of atmosphere that, well, if you like it you love it. But, for all the self-promotion and community spirit, Stokes Croft is what it is because of where it is: a buffer zone between radically different neighbourhoods. In the evening, trustafarian students to buy drinks for broke musicians and during the day, families with various accents wander the offies and organic shops. Basically – the money comes in from one side, and the colour from the other.

At this point, arguments have broken about who has the right to speak for Stokes Croft, who is actually a resident, and who’s been pushed out by whom. (As an international student who moved to the area because I appreciated the atmosphere, to many “proper locals” I represent the “worst” of the newcomers who are “daring to interfere”.)

It really is about Tescos. At least, it was.


What I find the most interesting about the Tesco’s debate is the fact that, before the first riot, there was no debate amongst residents. There were those of us who didn’t want a Tescos, and the rest who just didn’t care.

There was a long and passionate and movement against the Tesco. How many people were involved? No one knows. (And, trust me, we’d really like to know.) The “93% of residents oppose Tesco” figure is ridiculous. Where does it come from, who does it represent, how fairly? It’s meaningless, but that hasn’t mattered because, until now, it’s stood for everyone who’s given an opinion. The growing group of Tesco’s opponents (I’ve met plenty on Twitter and on the street this week) seem to care more about slandering the “illegitimate” residents of Stokes Croft and spewing out bigoted invective than campaigning for a supermarket or capitalism. (I’m sure someone will contradict me – and, if you can do so politely, please do!) I hope that I stand for most of the anti-Tesco’s movement, when I invite you to make petitions, gather signatures, arrange vigils, and embarrass us by clearly demonstrate that you outnumber us.

Tesco’s wasn’t attacked on purpose – there was no plan to destroy the building. The first riot wasn’t about Tesco’s (although it was partially about having been ignored about Tesco). The shop was just there – symbolic, convenient, and fragile.

People actually cared about the Telepathic Heights squat.

If the start first riot was about anything, it might have been about the squat. An angry crowd gathered as they watched what seemed to be an unbelievably heavy-handed eviction. As the idea that there was a connection between the raid on the squat and Tesco spread, it only got worse.

Squatting isn’t a fringe activity in Bristol. It’s surprisingly common place. I’ve been to squats, I have friends who live in them, I walk past a couple on a regular basis, I even took my younger brother to a party in a squat when he came to visit Bristol. At their best, they’re urban communes for the creative but broke; abandoned and forgotten buildings are renovated by a collective group of like-minded individuals. At their worst, they’re drug dens inhabited by the mentally-ill and/or criminal who no doubt leave the building worse than how they found it. (It’s hardly black and white, but the best of squatters have little patience nor sympathy for those who give them a bad name. Squatters are as diverse as the squats, if not more. There are those who squat by choice – ideological reasons – and those from necessity, until they find a stable place to land.

There are the crews that are deliberately and militantly anarchist. Telepathic Heights was, in all likelihood (and naming no names), no such squat. If nothing else, were it the case that a particularly threatening group of militants were living there, one would hope that someone at the Avon & Somerset Police offices would have the political presence of mind to clear that up. To move against a group of “dangerous criminals” is one thing. To invade and attack a group of homeless individuals living a harmless lifestyle which they may have been forced into by the recession, is another.

(That said, the squat raids across the country recently – see #Squataggadon – and apparent concerted nature of it all kind of kills their plausibility.)

As to the allegation of a petrol bomb – where and how it originated, and whether it is substantiated – one can only hope that the upcoming investigation will shed some light on this.

The underlying tension: How long will people let themselves be ignored?

Whenever anyone tries to tell me this all started with the anti-Tesco movement, I’m want to retort that it started with the abandonment of those who voted Liberal Democrat, their betrayal by the Coalition government.

It probably started with something even earlier than that, but the effects of the political climate shouldn’t be underestimated.

The public consciousness is utterly saturated with marches – police violence – and the seeming futility of it all. It’s reached the point that it doesn’t even matter if we, specifically, were kettled in Trafalgar Square ourselves – or any protest. I would wager that more than half of anyone aged 15-30 yrs has had at least one of their closest friends involved.

The marches in London have been invigorating – and infuriating. The response has been unbelievable. We are living in frighteningly authoritarian state.

(That’s not a phrase I ever expected to hear myself say. It’s the sort of claim that I have berated others for using too lightly, that even in the US through the Bush Administration and the Patriotic Act, I found hyperbolic.)

From the over-reaction to the unfathomable

The police incited the first riot. Their actions turned a confused crowd into an angry, defensive mob. As many have pointed out, the events that night were not precipitated by a protest, anti-Tesco or otherwise. The community reacted – in a variety of ways, some more peaceful than others – to an unexplained, unexplainable, show of force and intimidation. That it happened a second time, when everyone should have known better, is worse.

There are only two explanations for the amount of force the police used. (Two reasonable explanations. A third would be that they want to start a war with the public, which is unfathomable. A fourth reason is perhaps sheer, unmitigated arrogance a hair-breadth from stupidity.)

1) Fear: Watching footage of the riot teams arrival at the squat on 21 Apr, I can’t shake the thought of how afraid they look – as if they’re marching into hostile territory, a war zone, ready for bombs, insurgents – and, well, riots.

2) Misinformation: It made a little more sense when we found out that they didn’t show up over-dressed to an eviction, just over-staffed and trigger-happy for a bomb threat. (Except, maybe, that excuse would make more sense had it been a bigger bomb?)

Was the Stokes Croft they were marching into the same Stokes Croft in which I live? Did someone forget to tell them it’s the sort of neighbourhood that girls can walk home safely at 4 in the morning and the strange strangers you meet turn out to be your old flat-mate’s cousin’s brother? Seriously – whatever bad intell they have on Stokes Croft, I’m hoping they won’t share it with my mother, because I don’t need her to worry about me any more.

The fact that the baser parts of human psychology took over and that the events were guided by fear, anger, and confusion is unfortunate but unsurprising.

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money and power often trump the common man's interests and in a global economy, it's... global and inexorable. on the one hand you can see Tesco, the third largest grocery chain in the world, to open in Stokes Croft (it's beyond the residents, I think, to allow or disallow it happening, but one can hope) and simply contribute to its demise by simply not going there, or allow those that want to go there to do so. It's not much different than what WalMart has done across this country in driving out mom and pop stores and ruining local economies, but they thrive nonetheless. And campaigns to educate people about the destruction of the local economies seems to not have much impact--the poor and uneducated don't care, they want the crap made in China at the lowest possible price and a big bag of crisps for next to nothing. And in spite of the decent squatters, squats have earned their bad reputation. Like you said, it's not black and white. Good luck, but I'm guessing money and power will prevail again.
@bbd: Thanks!

You're right, of course - capitalism and geopolitics are powerful forces. Growing up in LA left my cynical, but there seemed to be perhaps more hope here (UK, Stokes Croft especially) than in the US when it came to getting people to care.

This has become so much bigger than the anti-Tesco campaign, with the concerted police involvement...
i urge people to act like citizens and demand democracy, so they can be citizens. but it's too hard. they prefer to be serfs, as they are born to it and it requires no thought.

having no formal political tools, for lack of democracy, frustration leads to mob action. society continues using the tools at hand: organized violence. the police are the descendants of the kings private thugs, and act like it when no one is looking.

demand democracy, or there is no hope of improvement.
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There's a whole history of things that these people are responding to, but you seem to be joining in in midstream. A new store, one associated with a big chain and privatization, often sucks money away from local businesses--but it means much more than that, and of course people in poor neighborhoods know that. It represents the first salvo in what might become an attempt to gentrify and destroy the neighborhood as it now stands. And many people have experienced this multiple times, being pushed from one area to another. In most big cities, even in developing countries, this has become a familiar story: the poor are shoved into smaller and smaller pens. People know this, they don't need to be told. So whatever the immediate causes, it really IS about the Tesco's, and what it represents. I mean, my God, even a newspaper like Rupert Murdoch's The Sun could come up with a headline today like "Sugar [as in Lord Alan Sugar] Calls for Tesco and M&S to Run UK" Then, of course, because it's Murdoch's rag, they present the plans for privatization involving these firms in a completely deadpan way, even though they're ludicrous and everyone knows it. The point is not to steal more public funds, or even to put more government workers out on the street--although if that happens, certainly Murdoch, and any firms involved, won't give a shit--but rather to soften people up, so they're scared, and more likely to give in to all kinds of privatization deals. And, in the case of this neighborhood, to developers. Murdoch, by the way, is a major real estate developer as well as being a media tycoon. He's tried to buy up large chunks of Manhattan several times, only to have his deals fall through when it was revealed he was behind them. Seems people in New York are not too thrilled with the idea of that lunatic owning a piece of their city. Imagine.

The point is that you've landed in the middle of an all-out class war. This is no joke. Just look at that Banksy ripoff. It's dead serious. These are not minor issues, or miscues.
ON a more helpful note, Tom Wetzel is an excellent source on gentrification and capitalism in the U.S., I don't know how well his insights translate to the UK. The groups he's been associated with have had a lot of success with "community land trusts," which are multiple party agreements that put ceilings on property sales prices in order to keep neighborhoods together. Ultimately if the area is being targeted by developers, then the real damage comes in voluntarily, when people start selling off at slightly inflated prices to developers (or nowadays, just not as greatly deflated as the market would provide). Interrupting this part of the process is key. And all the property owners don't have to be involved, just enough of them to break up any plans that are being made. The trick is to find enough owners willing to sign onto the trust. It can also be challenged in court, but of course that can be dragged out for a long time. Or the developers can get the local authorities to declare areas "blighted" or "eminent domain" or whatever the category of official expropriation is over there. Anyway, those are some practical suggestions that go beyond the barricades...
@Boko -

There's gentrification and there's gentrification.

I mean, I know its usually about Westernization/capitalism, Walmarts and shopping malls, eventually homogenized suburbia.

But I'm beginning to wonder if the hippy artist musician types might not be their (our?) own wave of "gentrification".

There are the passionate, politically-aware, liberally-minded "residents" of the area now - most of whom are in their late 20s, and a bit transient. There's always a load of them here, just not necessarily the same ones, if you know what I mean. We (I've really got to sort my pronouns out, I identify with too many of the groups) are selling the area for its colour and up-and-coming creativity - openly pandering to the "yuppies" on the other side of the road, to come and keep the local businesses running. Many of which are still owned by the immigrants. But before the immigrants was the working class (many of whom are showing up now to pick a fight with the cops). If nothing else, many of the "new wave" of hippies moved here because we were comfortable with being in a buffer zone. It was already covered in street art with buskers and Jamaican guys peddling weed. We kind of liked being in the in-between - but our attempts to get heritage protection for the street art, kind of freeze the place in time, are... well, I think they're better than letting it get over-run with Tescos, but they might be just an "inauthentic". Trying not to change is still interfering.

As an international student living here, I've held back on getting as involved. So I'm a newcomer to the area, the country, and even the anti-Tesco's campaign. Students are seen as posh newcomers - add my American accent in... I've never felt unwelcome until now. Actually, I haven't been harrassed this week, either; I think I'm just double-guessing myself.

I love Stokes Croft, but the downside to the sort of admixture it's got going on is the impossibility of figuring out who's "authentic". It's never really mattered before. And still doesn't - if we want to give up fighting the wave of capitalist gentrification.

(PS. That's a real Banksy, actually. Loads of them around here.)
What you have to realize is that these so called "frontier groups" (there are various terms for them from the literature on planning and development) are used now in a quite deliberate way. Areas where they congregate are targeted, sometimes they're even designed by first offering whole groups of flats at a discounted rate to students, artists etc. It's not an organic process. "New urbanist" developers are often well organized and involved in neighborhoods long before they declare their presence through announcements of development plans at the governmental level. The groups in the U.S., like the Congress for New Urbanism, really are real estate development cliques, where all the members are investors, including the urban planning professionals and city officials that lend it an aura of philosophical depth or "good work." You know, "we're giving these kids a break," and so forth. They use terms like "walkability" and "green spaces" to trap a whole other set of believers. But it's very manipulative and well planned. People become a part of it without even realizing that there is a long term set of conditions being structured around them. In this sense, it's even more threatening than the "urban renewal" projects of the 60's and 70's, which really were just a recycling of the revanchist schemes of a generation before. The scale of it now, though, and the degree of consciously manipulative planning, are very great. This really is the spatio-temporal structuring of capital.
It's actually rather brilliant, from a strategical view, what's happened - how they've managed to faction the "poor" and pit them against each other.

The white working class is simmering and resentful, the immigrants are insulating themselves, and the youth - that's really what the other side is, I suppose - are being disowned on all sides. There's a stereotype of it/us/them (I have got to sort out my pronouns) being uni drop-outs from privileged backgrounds trying to slum it (which probably explains much of the resentment from the working class).

With the change in uni tuition fees and budget cuts - that's what they've been rioting about in London all year, and while it doesn't sound high by American standards, its monumental here; the system was set up so that an 18yr old going to uni would be financially independent from their family, capable of studying, graduating, and entering the workforce with accumulating debt. That's all changed overnight, but we've slowly been marginalized already: politicians having been making callous remarks, programs have been cut, housing available to anyone without a credit history is sub-par or worse...
And I still think it's a ripoff, but then that's subjective. Unless you know Banksy.
All the more reason to resist then.
Re: Banksy -
Touche! It is, at least, one of the more famous of the alleged Banksy pieces.

Re: Frontier groups & gentrification -
You've brought up some fascinating things that that I'm going to need to research! Thank you! (I've got my dissertation and two term due in this week but have been spending far too much time following the news...)
I can see why you want to follow this as it is fascinating and symbolic of the way the world is going. I lived in an eclectic community and had to watch while the people built giant corporate buildings all around it and changed it forever. Fremont district in Seattle. It is such a brutal world. I just blogged about the WTO riots in Seattle in 1999. Trying to piece it all together and noting that the world is changing and there probably isn't a whole lot we can do about it against corporate power.
I didn't know about ANY of this. Thanks for such thoughtful, on-the-ground reporting.