As a citizen of Bristol who was kept awake all night, again, by a circling police helicopter, I am growing weary of the riots. Outside of London, we must be the most rioted-in city in mainland Britain. As Robert Gore-Langton writes, we riot with monotonous and increasing regularity, with major events in 1793, 1831, 1932, 1944,1980, 1981, 1987, 1992, 2011, 2019, and in 2020, when the statue of Edward Colston was toppled and dumped in the dock. Apparently, our tendency to become disorderly in public spaces – so marked it has been investigated by sociologists – dates back at least 700 years to the St James's Fair, where people gathered to drink an excess of cider. The fair used to be held just yards from where things kicked off on Sunday night.
But the more recent the riot, the less justified it seems to be. The Old Market riot of 1932, for example, arose from lengthy deprivation caused by terrible unemployment. By contrast the riot of 2011, involving trashed cars, petrol bombs, 160 riot police and the ubiquitous helicopter, was because some people objected to the opening of a Tesco ‘Express’. Local art hero Banksy marked the occasion by painting a special picture of a petrol bomb in a Tesco bottle. What fun.
The riot on Sunday night, in this otherwise pleasant and successful city, was also what might be termed a ‘lifestyle’ riot. People did it mainly for the hell of it and, as always, there were two distinct elements to the crowd.
Sunday’s originally peaceful gathering (they always start off that way) was ostensibly to protest against the Police and Crime Bill. But then, as is now standard on these occasions, a ‘small minority’ of serial protestors took to violent attacks on the police. 'Kill the Bill' might have been supposed to refer to the proposed Act, but those who screamed the slogan repeatedly in the face of the police, and then hit them with sticks, clearly had another agenda.
Watching the riot, live-streamed on Facebook, it was obvious that the majority of the 1,000 or so people who remained in the area after the trouble had started, wanted mainly to just enjoy the frisson of a bit of mild lawlessness, drinking and dancing in the street, against Covid regulations. This they did in full view of police who could do nothing about it, focussed as they were on protecting their station from being smashed and burnt by the hard-core thugs.
In fact, many of the crowd chatted pleasantly enough to the officers crouched behind their perspex shields. The police themselves looked more than used to putting up with this type of behaviour. A Deliveroo rider was allowed through police lines once his order had been verified as genuine. This is a very much the Bristol way – affable, slow to anger, keen on takeaway, and relentlessly right-on.
So it is a shame that the majority, young, green, leftist, but not really violent or more than just fashionably anarchist, allowed themselves to become useful idiots – a screen for cynical and violent police-haters, many of whom were probably not from Bristol anyway. It was significant that the police shut the motorway into the city during the riot, to stop more people coming to join the violence from outside.
So the (fairly) peaceful majority could and should have gone home when things turned nasty. Some did, but too many remained, choosing instead to paint themselves with a little of the dark glamour that attaches to these grim events. Commenting on the large numbers who were there just watching the violence unfold, a reporter for the university newspaper, Bristol Tab, said: 'Who needs Netflix when you’ve got this going on outside your window?’ This was lawlessness as entertainment. How was your evening? Oh, it was a riot.
Just a few days previously I had witnessed a similar dynamic in miniature at a disused building in the middle-class suburb of Horfield. It had been ostentatiously occupied by squatters who had draped the building with badly-made banners proclaiming such insights as: 'Property is theft' and 'Bailiffs are class traitors’ – all standard counter-culture fare in Banksy’s Bristol. But I counted eight panda cars and dozens of police who were there all morning, watching and waiting for them to come off the roof. Once again, it was predominantly what you might call a ‘good natured’ protest, the squatters relaxed and joking with police and passers-by.
Yes, I thought, this is a way of life to you and your long-suffering dogs on string. But I would much rather the police I pay for were busy catching burglars, rapists, muggers and the like. I don’t want them wasting hundreds of man hours acting in loco parentis to a load of adult kids who like larking about on rooftops.
It’s about time Bristol’s protestors grew up – and allowed the rest of us to get some sleep.