Monday, 25 April 2011

Musings on what happened on Stokes Croft

Hannah said she was interested to read what I might have to say about what happened on Stoke's Croft, so seeing as I have just fulfilled one blogging request (coming up this Weds after it's published on Fresh Outlook) I might as well do two.

First, some context about where I live.

I have lived in the general Stokes Croft, Montpelier, St Pauls quarter since November 2006, firstly near the Star and Garter, then near the Cadbury and now a bit further down the road, close to the new Tesco. Before that my friends all lived on Stokes Croft and St Pauls, so I was always socialising here, it has long felt like home. In that time (since I was 17 really so way back in 2002) Stokes Croft has changed a lot for the better. It is less rough than it was, with new bars opening up, local shops selling the best pasta and bread, new homes meaning new faces, and it feels a lot safer. Lots of families live in Montpelier, and there is a community spirit. That said, the local mini-marts are a bit pants. Selling hardcore porn, mouldering food, making up the prices as they go along and generally   never seeming to have encountered bleach or a mop, the idea that SC is a paradise of local shops is a bit of a fairy tale. Licatas and Herberts yes, mini-marts no.

Laurie Penny (who, for the record, I agree with 95% of the time) wrote an article on Friday about the riots on Stokes Croft, that characterised it as all rather romantic. She suggested that the squatters who were the centre of the riot were popular in the local community, and that the squat itself was a community hub. I disagree with this, I feel it is only half the picture of what it means to live here, and a commenter on the  article ( agreed with me, explaining his/her perspective that there are two types of people who live in Stokes Croft. There are the people who live and work here, or nearby, because we like living somewhere fun and with a nice bakery, that has easy access to town, great amenities and shops, or who are the real urban poor that also populate this quarter; addicts and women working as prostitutes. And then there are the squatters and students who are living in Telepathic Heights, as an example, or live here for part the year, and these are the ones represented chiefly in Laurie's article. There is some crossover – for example I think the whole community has benefited from the Canteen and Hamilton House, and the good bits of graffiti. But we aren't all the same and one group does not represent the other. And I think this is where problems over conversations about what happened on Thursday night have sprung up.

Here's that comment by IGRD:

'What you have to understand about Stokes Croft is that there are pretty much two types of people who live and work there and who frequent the area. There are the working people, a group which encompasses the real urban poor: the prostitutes, the addicts, the people whose lives haven't been helped by the gentrification of the area over the last 10 years. There are also plenty of people who live around there and aren't affiliated with the People's Republic types and are not especially politically sympathetic towards squatters and loosely-defined 'artists'.

Then there are the squatters and the alternative types, and the people involved in the people's republic of Stokes Croft - many of whom[...]are students who don't even live in the local area for much of the year.
The squatters may be well liked by the latter part of the community, but for the former part this weekend's riots represented at best annoyance at not being able to sleep through the night/return home when their roads were blocked off, and at worst quite serious intimidation (by both the police and the rioters) and damage to property.
There's so much more to say about the area, the riots, the squats and Tesco. About how many of those protesting the further gentrification of the area are the ones who've enjoyed its benefits so far. About how the local mini-mart whose trade is threatened by Tesco is a horrible place to shop, with hostile members of staff, erratic stock/prices, and the only cash machine in the vicinity that charges extortionately for withdrawals. About the drugs and prostitution that are still rife around the area.'

I've included it because for me it really says a lot about how I feel about living here, and what the diverse life of Stokes Croft is like.

Right – solidering on, here's what happened to me on Thursday.

Having spent the evening out with some friends, me and my boyfriend decided to go home. We bumped into some people outside Start the Bus who said that it was kicking off on Stokes Croft, we thought that they meant the guys hanging around outside Tesco were a bit drunk and had got another banner out. We didn't expect police helicopters, horses, riot police, loads of vans, broken glass everywhere, people shouting and yelling, and generally a load of chaos in the neighbourhood. Luckily, it being about 11.15pm, we were able to walk through (quickly, holding onto each other's arms) and got into our flat. Not long after that, as far as I can tell, was when it became impossible to get through the street, as the police and the protestors became more heavy handed; with batons, bricks being thrown, more glass being smashed and injuries. Back home, we went on Twitter and Facebook and tried to follow what was happening. What was so striking was the utter confusion about what the riot was actually about. One person on Twitter said they were evicting squatters from a proposed Tesco site (I tweeted to say he was about a year late), others were saying it was to do with petrol bombs, others were saying it was a mass eviction of Telepathic Heights – no-one seemed to know exactly what was being fought for. We went to bed as Facebook reported 'smells like the fires have started', and although my boyfriend got some sleep, I was woken by people screaming and shouting 'you fucking twats' outside my window, sirens and the helicopter. I was quite scared, in that disorientated, just woken up feeling where you start believing that danger is close by.

The next day we ventured out to a real mess. Tesco was smashed up, glass was everywhere, road surfacers were fixing the burnt patches of the road, paint splattered all over the place, a grit bin by the traffic lights, police busy around the place. The BBC news reporter explained that the people of Bristol were 'trying to come to terms with what has happened here' but for me it was not so much coming to terms with it, as working out what it was I really felt about it all.

I have always been against Tesco opening on Stokes Croft, and would have preferred the space to be used as a community-centric space, such as a gallery, cafe or local shop. There's already two Tescos close by, a Sainsburys (where were the protests then!) and a Co-op, as well as the local shops. We didn't need a Tesco and I have issues with the way they practise their business. I signed the petition and although wasn't involved in the campaign (lots on with BFN!) I supported it from the sidelines as they went through the legal planning channels to protest its opening. Like our anti-Hooters campaign, they lost. But I think the campaign did a lot of awareness raising and provoked discussion, so that can only be a good thing.

What isn't a good thing is taking that losing as a sign to plan to firebomb a shop, where people work, that is situated in a residential area.

Whilst some commentators have romanticised the riot as the community rising up against big business, I have to come back to IGRD's comment about who exactly this community is, and how one part of it doesn't speak for us all. Everyone I have spoken to since Thursday has been angry about the way the police behaved, as it does seem that there was violent policing that should not have happened. But they have all been equally, if not more, angry with the protesters and the squatters who, if reports are true, were making petrol bombs. Who punched a police horse! Who threw bricks at police officers and tore up street cobbles (if you love this area so much, why destroy it?). Who set fire to things. This is where I live! I don't shop at Tesco (much) but protesters were willing to put my home, my safety in danger to make a political point. This is not ok.

No-one has come out of this mess looking good. Not the police, who hit bystanders with batons (according to reports) and not the protesters who fuelled the anger on the streets. No-one can take the moral high-ground here because no-one behaved well. This wasn't a romantic fight against capitalism, or squatters taking a stand to live somewhere where they don't pay rent. This was useless violence that caused a lot of mess, some injury and upset.

I think that those involved in the protest forgot that they don't represent this community, they represent themselves, and that other people live here too. Did they think about whether children would be frightened, or that people trying to get home might get hurt? Did they care that some of us might not want to live near a place that's been making petrol bombs, but that we have as much a right to live here as anyone else? Did they not think that we can choose not to shop at Tesco, just as I choose not to shop at Best because of all the porn they sell? Or that violence and intimidation never wins an argument, but in fact puts you in a weaker position. Please bear in mind that I also think that any violence committed by the police is bad too, and it also means that they lose their argument. However, some people have suggested that the timing was bad on the police's part – raiding the squat on a warm evening when everyone was out drinking. However, if they did have petrol bombs, when would have been a good time? Apparently the neighbours reported it, so should the police have waited? What if they were too late?

The Anti Tesco protesters have rightly been concerned about exploitation of workers. But surely destroying their place of work is not helpful? The people who work in Tesco are not to blame for the company's politics. Just as when we protested against Hooters we didn't criticise or stigmatise the 'girls', anti Tesco protesters should not target the workers themselves. What would fire bombing the shop have achieved, except intimidate those working on the checkouts? How is it fair to frighten people like you and me? Some people need to work to pay their rent or mortgage, and if they can get a job at Tesco, then why not. Not everyone is a squatter.

A few women and I have also often pondered about the silence that surrounds the exploitation of workers in the sex industry that is thriving on Stokes Croft, with three brothels now open on what is really a very small stretch of road. We will be trying to launch a campaign about this soon, but surely when it comes to workers exploitation, Tesco is only one offender on a road where sexual commercial exploitation is happening just down the road. I don't want to play the 'why are you angry about X when Y is happening' but when it comes to making sure everyone in the community is safe from harm and exploitation, we shouldn't be stopping and starting at Tesco. And all too often I have listened to anti-capitalist campaigners try and defend the sex industry as about 'choice' whilst ignoring the fact that putting a price tag on a woman's body is quite possibly the nadir of a patriarchal capitalist society where everything and everyone has a price.  

I think that rather than make the squatters at Telepathic Heights seem like local heroes, Thursday's riot will have lost the campaign many supporters. Many of us who supported the legal and planning campaign against Tesco, even supporters of the group sat outside with the banner, will now feel that we don't want to be part of it.

So, in the end, who wins? Not the police. Not the protesters. Not the public sector workers who had to clean up the mess, or the residents who had to pick their way through broken glass and stick their heads under the pillow to get some sleep. Not the Tesco checkout people who can't go to work. But Tesco? Well, they'll re-open and they'll have way more security and I expect there will be more of a police presence and more tensions than previously, and the people who were already on Tesco's side will characterise all those against it as violent and angry. In the end, what really can you say was achieved?

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