BRISTOL RIOTS: THE BIGGER PICTURE

by Tesni Clare

Sunday’s events in Bristol have made headlines. Predictably, however, mainstream media has fallen into the trope of shortsighted reporting, indulging in simplistic, one-sided narratives of protestors as ‘mobs of animals’ who ‘attacked’ and ‘badly injured’ police officers. Whilst they make good headlines, these intentionally inflammatory discourses, alongside powerful images of burning vans, serve to eclipse the bigger story. 

Firstly, they erase the story of over five thousand people who marched on the city centre for over five hours, chanting and dancing to samba and mini sound systems. Myself among them, we were an incredibly diverse, colourful, spirited community of Bristolians united by our opposition to the Police, Crime, Sentencing & Courts Bill, our common and fierce belief in our right to protest, a desperate fear for loss of our civil liberties, and a wild determination to preserve alternative ways of life, from van-dwellers to Travellers and squatters. To feel a sense of belonging and connectedness after months and months of enduring isolation, was nothing short of magical. 

It’s worth noting the near complete absence of police for the majority of the day. There was an incredibly powerful moment, after the near arrest of a seated protestor in the middle of Union Street, when protestors flocked from the park and surrounding area to join the seated occupation of the street. Within minutes the police backed off, reversing all the way down New Gate and Broad Weir, a quietly seated circle of hundreds taking their place. Listening to the part-speech-part-spoken word of a guy with a megaphone, holding up lyrics scrawled across a crumpled piece of parchment paper urging us to wake up, to come together – ‘the only constant is change’, – the scene was goosebump-inducing.

When the protest moved to the police station later in the afternoon, many in the crowd felt uneasy and conflicted. This is an important detail. Movements are rarely homogenous, particularly when you clamp down on the right to protest and threaten to arrest anyone identifying themselves as an organiser; there will be no organiser and there will be no unified approach. Sunday’s protest was made up of a myriad of different people, affiliated or not to various groups: students, RA-Ters, XR members, BLM activists, police abolitionists, police sympathisers, anarchists, parents, children. Many of the day’s protestors have indeed condemned the later rioting and violence, and do not want to be associated with it, which is understandable. 

The disparaging of rioters as ‘chavs’ and ‘thugs’, who had ‘no excuse whatsoever for this violence’, only erases the root causes of their pent-up rage.

Without getting caught up in a blame-game of who incited violence that evening (I think that argument depends on where you were stood, and who you were looking at), but while also remaining mindful that it was the police who brought in horses, dogs, batons, shields, pepper spray and riot vans, it’s important we don’t lose sight of the bigger picture. The disparaging of rioters as ‘chavs’ and ‘thugs’, who had ‘no excuse whatsoever for this violence’, only erases the root causes of their pent-up rage.

Burgeoning state repression under the guise of coronavirus restrictions and the looming threat of renewed austerity measures has spawned a widespread sense of political disenfranchisement in the country. Match this with the shambolic coronavirus response and display of cronyism by the Tory government, the brutal killing of Sarah Everard earlier this month, the Met’s unbelievable behaviour at her vigil, as well as the introduction of a Bill that will crush our right to dissent, disproportionately target minority communities, and get you up to 10 years in prison for defacing the statue of slave traders – there’s no wonder fury abounds. 

A police vehicle set ablaze during Sunday evening’s riots

Whilst mainstream media chooses to focus on officers’ broken bones and a couple of burnt vans, the scenes in Bristol on Sunday do not match the type of violence that is already carried out by the state and by the police; violence that will only increase if this Bill is passed. Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities who already face hate – including their homes graffitied over and set alight – will become criminals in the eyes of the law, liable to the dispossession of their property, heavy fines, or even prison sentences, simply by virtue of their itinerant lifestyles as their age-old, traditional roadside camps become illegal. This is not to mention the forced eviction of van-dwellers and the destruction of live-in vehicles across Bristol over the past year, the violent eviction and destruction of HS2 protest camps, and the recent aggressive eviction of a squat and mutual aid centre in Bristol. Many have highlighted the irony of condemning Sunday’s violence and damage to police property as a moral wrong, whilst violence perpetrated by the state and police appears to be a moral right.

…the scenes in Bristol on Sunday do not match the type of violence that is already carried out by the state and by the police; violence that will only increase if the Bill is passed.

I have seen quite a few people comment on the stupidity of targeting the police for a Bill which they are not responsible for, and I understand this. Luckily, Ministers and MPs including the Home Secretary Priti Patel can draft and vote for policies whilst remaining conveniently distanced from their impacts on the ground. Patel has both caused and condemned the protests from the comfort of her political privilege, in the knowledge that she will a) not be impacted by the Bill, and b) likely not have her nice house in the home counties smashed apart by the police. When the law-makers representing you feel both literally and metaphorically out of touch and out of reach, it is inevitable that anger will be directed at the enforcers of the law: the police. It is also important to note that a lot of people are directly angry at the UK police force, who have been complicit in a number of violent evictions this year alone, 1780 deaths in police custody since 1990, and nearly 1,500 counts of sexual misconduct since 2013. 

Lastly, but integrally, rioting and violence hold an important place in history and perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to over-romanticise peaceful protest, with many arguing that if peaceful protest did actually cause change, it wouldn’t be legal. Activists increasingly feel that the peaceful, ‘legitimate’ route to political change isn’t working. Contrary to Mayor Marvin Rees’ poorly thought out tweet, a number of movements that are now celebrated as pivotal moments in the history of equality and rights resorted to violence – from the police-targeted violence and armed insurrection of the Chartists in the mid 1800s, to the suffragettes window-smashing and rock throwing tactics at the beginning of the last century, and the Poll Tax riots of 1990. And yes, there may have been some kids in Bristol on Sunday who were ‘just after a fight’, but there were also many releasing a legitimate and pent-up rage at a compounding sense of oppression, and upholding a political belief in the right to freely protest. These stories are never clean cut, and shouldn’t be told as though they were.

Featured image credit: author’s own.


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