Bristol 1980/2011: repression and revolt
On 21 April a huge police operation aimed at a squat in the Stokes Croft area of Bristol provoked an angry response from local people. Barricades were set up and the heavily tooled-up police found themselves facing not just a handful of squatters but a long night of skirmishes with the hundreds who turned up spontaneously to join the protest. The police claimed that the squatters were part of a campaign against the new Tesco which had opened on their street, and that they were stockpiling molotov cocktails. The police worked closely with bailiffs to evict the squatters. Later on the squatters denied that they were part of the anti-Tesco campaign, or that they were planning any attacks on the store; but although the shop in question got trashed anyway during the course of the night, it was really not the issue. What happened only makes sense as an expression of growing popular resentment against the police, their heavy-handed methods of ‘crowd control’ and their increasingly evident role as the armed wing of the government’s austerity programme, as shown especially during the militant student movement in the autumn.
This is not the first time that a police raid has sparked off a street battle in Bristol. In 1980 a militaristic ‘anti-drugs’ bust on a West Indian owned café in the St Pauls area produced similar results, which we wrote about in an article in World Revolution 30, now republished on ICConline. The article made it clear that although young black residents played a central role in the resistance to the police, this was no ‘race riot’ “Even the capitalist media and politicians had to admit it: the street battle in Bristol wasn't a race riot. It was an elemental revolt by a whole sector of the population against bad housing, high unemployment, spiralling prices, the all-pervading boredom of life in today's cities. Above all, it was against the brutality and arrogance of the police, whose high-handed raid on a local café provoked the revolt.
The fact that most of the 'rioters' were young blacks simply expresses the fact that capitalism always hands out slightly different levels of misery to its slaves. Blacks tend to get shoved down to the bottom of the shit-heap. But the disintegration of this vile society is pushing more and more of us down to the same place. That's why the young blacks were joined by young whites – punks, skinheads, etc, etc, most of them unemployed proletarians with about as rosy a future as the blacks”.
The fact that the St Paul’s rebellion was an expression of much deeper tensions in society was demonstrated in practise about a year later by the riots in Brixton, which in turn spread to many other urban centres, most notably Toxteth in Liverpool, Chapeltown in Leeds, Handsworth in Birmingham and Moss Side in Manchester. This phenomenon of social revolt was international in scope, with comparable movements in Zurich, Amsterdam and Berlin. In WR 38 we published an article analysing the strengths and weaknesses of these movements away from the point of production, movements that involved young proletarians as well as other social strata, but which were above all a reaction to spiralling unemployment, poor housing and omnipresent police harassment. We saw them as harbingers of more powerful reactions from workers in the centres of the capitalist economy, which we did indeed see later on in the 1980s.
Today the crisis of capitalism is far deeper than it was at the beginning of the 80s. The working class has been through many struggles and a lot of defeats since then, but as the recent student movement showed, there is now a new generation ready to take up the fight against the austerity and repression which the capitalist state is seeking to inflict on us.
The raid on the Bristol squat was followed on the day before the Royal Wedding by raids on other squats and on ‘anarchists and republicans’ suspected of conspiring to create some kind of disruption during the Nation’s Day of Joy, including the arrest of a group of people for conspiring to commit street theatre... These actions had a slightly ridiculous air about them, but they are part of a general preparation by the ruling class to deal with wider and more dangerous social movements in the future. They are quite explicitly political in their targeting of social dissidents and are a means of creating a climate in which repression against political ‘outsiders’, people who openly question capitalism and the state, becomes commonplace. All the more necessary therefore to defend those who are in the front line of such attacks, and to ensure that organised, collective solidarity against state repression becomes no less commonplace.