Anti-Tesco protest boils over into riot / Police accused of attacking bystanders
The Independent (UK)
By Kunal Dutta and Oliver Duff
Saturday, 23 April 2011
Hundreds of people set up burning street barricades and hurled rocks at police as anti-Tesco protests in Bristol fast escalated into bloody running battles between officers and residents.
A Tesco Express store in the bohemian neighbourhood of Stokes Croft, in the north of Bristol, became the focal point for the violence, with police claiming that they had uncovered a plot to petrol bomb the store, which opened eight days ago to widespread hostility from the community.
More than 160 police in riot gear, officers on horseback and reinforcements from neighbouring forces fought with protesters for seven hours through the night until dawn yesterday. A swelling, increasingly angry crowd of 300 people upturned bottle banks to gather glass to bombard officers.
Police were accused of heavy-handedness – of baton striking and setting dogs on innocent bystanders – and provoking the violence, although eyewitnesses noted that officers’ aggression increased after a concrete block was thrown at them from a rooftop. Eight policemen were hospitalised, alongside an unspecified number of the public.The riot resulted from increasing tensions between the retail giant and the quirky community of Stokes Croft, where the majority of residents were vehemently opposed to the opening of the store, believing that it threatens local shops and risks wrecking the character of the area, which is dubbed “Bristol’s cultural quarter”. The regeneration of the area has been credited to its small business owners.
The Tesco store, the 32nd Tesco supermarket in Bristol, was gutted by protesters, who forced up the metal security shutters and lit fires. The shop has been shut, with the message “CLOSING DOWN SALE” still sprayed on the front. A heavy police presence remained in the area last night, including officers and riot vans, and investigators searching for forensic evidence. No other shop on the street was touched.
The spark for the riot was a police raid on a squat known as “Telephathic Heights” opposite the Tesco Express, based on the belief that a petrol bomb attack on the store was imminent. Hundreds of residents turned out in support of the squatters, who have played a part in regenerating the neighbourhood, and chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!”
“The police steamed in and dogs were used,” said Bristol East’s MP, Kerry McCarthy, who went down to the scene in the early hours of Good Friday after being alerted to the heightening violence, and was herself shoved by police. “There were people being roughly treated.” She described the violence towards police as “obviously very unacceptable”.
The opening of new Tescos around Britain has been met with sustained campaigning. Yesterday’s anti-Tesco protests are the most violent manifestation so far of swelling currents of resentment against corporate giants. Vodafone, Topshop and Barclays have all faced protests in the last six months, in the form of direct action against their shops and branches – demonstrations organised by the activist network UK Uncut, which did not have anything to do with yesterday’s demo.
Anger within the country’s protest and anarchist movements is mounting, alongside a willingness by some to fight police given the opportunity, after police in London were accused of aggression in dealing with anti-cuts demonstrators last month.
Nick Jones, a primary school teacher, said a peaceful protest quickly turned ugly: “Between 2.30am and 4.30am there were bottles thrown and rocks. I saw a police officer get hit in the face and go down – he was taken away in an ambulance. People had weapons. They had saws and shields. It turned from ‘interesting’ to ‘scary’ very quickly.”
Jessie Webb, a barman at The Croft pub, said police were “heavy-handed” towards a crowd which initially just turned up to watch the arrests. The police caused it [the riot],” he said. “They turned up in large numbers and it attracted a crowd. Then they charged into them.”
A 22-year-old, who did not want to be named, said he was hit with a baton despite not being involved in the protest: “I saw them [police] hitting people who were definitely not involved in the violence. They were doing random charges and cracking people indiscriminately.”
Jonathan Taphouse, a Bristol photographer, described some officers as behaving “completely out of control”. “Police in riot vans from Wales turned up and it seemed that they didn’t understand the politics of the area,” he said.
“It was only a small few who kicked off against the police, and there was no real need for a riot,” he added. “Residents were woken up and alerted to what was going on, which made them angry and some joined up with the protesters. This wasn’t inevitable – the actions of the police caused the reaction they got.”
Gus Hoyt, a Green Party council candidate for Ashley ward which includes the site of the Tesco store, said he had been “terrified” as the violence escalated, adding that the scenes reminded people of the riots in nearby St Pauls in 1980: “People who remember the 1980s can’t believe this is happening again and lessons have not been learned.”
Ms McCarthy, who is a shadow Treasury minister, added: “I question why the police op was carried out in an area where a lot of people were out drinking. It didn’t seem to be a particularly sensible time to carry out an eviction of a squat that has been there for a long time.”
Avon and Somerset Police said its officers’ actions had been “fully justified”, citing the discovery of petrol bombs and arrests of four offenders who represented “a very real threat to the local community”.
Tesco said the store on Cheltenham Road would remain closed while the damage was assessed, but that it would defy local resentment and re-open the supermarket. A Tesco spokesman said: “We strongly condemn the violence in Stokes Croft and the injuries caused to the members of the police who worked courageously to protect the public and businesses in this area, including ours.”
Claire Milne, co-ordinator of the No Tesco in Stokes Croft campaign, said: “The homogenisation of the high street is the antithesis of the creativity that exists here. There is also a strong sustainability and organic movement here. Last night was the inevitable result of a retail behemoth setting up in an area that simply does not want it.”