Tesco disturbed in Stokes Croft

I have been campaigning since February 2010 for No Tesco in Stokes Croft so imagine my mixed feelings when I woke up on Good Friday to hear the newly-opened supermarket had been “trashed”.

Alerted by friends in Stokes Croft, my first response was to gather information, with a Twitter search leading to several eye-witness accounts.

This blog by Neurobonkers.com described the dramatic effect of 160 riot police turning up on the streets – the tone bemused rather than partisan.

While giving a sense of folly on both sides, this blog by Oli Connor also questions the role of riot police in aggravating tension.

Jonathan Taphouse tells the story behind his photographs in the Guardian, and some turning-point moments.

Twitter helped me spot churnalism in action -the newspapers that repeated almost verbatim the police’s (understandly one-sided) press release, while this blog sums up the spin.

I was obsessed with gathering information and analysing its angles – media studies in action.

I wanted to piece it all together: what happened on the 21 April?

A volatile situation from the word go: a warm April night at the start of a bank holiday in a busy social area of the city.

Riot police turn up at 9 pm, some on horseback, some with dogs, and – according to Green councillor candidate, Gus Hoyt, on his way home – at least three with guns, one directing traffic with the gun, its holster strapped to his leg (Gus asked, “Is it real?” and “Of course it is, mate, where have you been living?” said the armed policeman).

The police raided Telepathic Heights, the squat opposite the newly-opened supermarket in Stokes Croft, looking for alleged petrol bombs.

(Surely a house squatted is better than left empty?).

This video includes interviews with squatters and eye-witness onlookers. As one pointed out, if you were conducting a drugs raid, you would send in uniformed police, and explain the situation to the neighbours.

But nothing was explained. The police operation seemed disproportionate and unnecessary military. I feel sorry for local police because this operation counters their good work in the community.

The drama was dramatically-lit by the searchlight from the police helicopter – its noise drew locals on to the streets to see what was happening.

Some reacted with the same fear-fight knee-jerk response that must affect the police; threatened, tribal, flooded with adrenaline.

Some of my fellow No Tesco campaigning friends who lived on a nearby street (which ended up kettled by riot police) tried to stop onlookers from grabbing stones from a skip and building barricades.

How quickly a scene turns raw. A push, a shove, a bottle thrown. The police have methods to deal with affray and are allowed to use force.

This video that shows Stokes Croft locals trying to quell the fight reaction from people feeling threatened.

“Stay calm and film everything. Do not instigate,” repeats a strong voice. Wise words.

The police left an empty police van outside Tesco and departed. That’s when a group of people spontaneously starting dismantling Tesco and smashing its windows. As one blogger reported: “The Tesco store – the very one the police operation had supposedly been set up to protect – had its front trashed.”

I am scared by violence and abhore it. I believe the ends do not justify the means. The means – the way we do things – is vital. We must create a peaceful society by enacting it.

Yet history tells us (the 1831 Bristol riots for vote reform, votes for women, the poll tax) that sometimes it takes violence from the voiceless to be heard. And damn it, violence is news – look at the media coverage that that night got.

Some violence is misplaced fighter-energy. I was in Stokes Croft in the early hours of 29 April, a week after the Tesco riot.

Eye-witnesses present on both nights told me that the police were calmer and less-reactive the second time, despite opportunistic bottle-throwing.

Stokes Croft had become – in a week – a magnet for fight-action. As I walked towards the epicentre, guided by the police helicopter’s beam, several masked and hooded lads passed me.

“Put the bin down, Bin Man!” shouted one of my fellow campaigners. The youth carrying the wheelie recycling bin put it down and we clapped to reinforce good behaviour.

Considering how hard-won the battle was for recycling, I would hate recycled bottles to come into disrepute as potential weapons.

Talking about recycling: Tesco has asked councils to remove their bins from Tesco car parks, depriving local councils of recycling revenue.

Tesco – which recently made profits of £3.8 billion – is taking the bins in-house.

A Tesco may be a convenient, clean shop but it also a powerful multinational that puts profit before everything. It may be staffed by good people but its policies are destroying small farms and the land, small businesses and local communities – while, according to UK Uncut, evading tax.

“If you don’t like Tesco, don’t shop there. Then they will close down,” some say.

But it is not that simple.

Tesco can afford to run its shops at a loss while local businesses start to fail. It’s hard to boycott Tesco if there are only a few food shops left.

In our unofficial role as peacekeepers last Friday we walked round the back of Tesco to see if the security guards were alright. On that surreal night of unexpected scenes at every street corner, we chatted through the steel fence. There was banter and good wishes expressed – this battle was not personal.

We walked round to Cheltenham Road.

Road block: riot van, riot police, police dogs, tension but also a kind of calm because there was no bottle throwing or police charging. The police helicopter whirred overhead. I heard a policeman explain to a girl expressing annoyance at the intrusion that he was normally on the beat and not a riot police.

I reported on Twitter (and had corroborated by another Tweeter): a tearful girl was helped by a policeman after being hurt by another. I wrote: “It’s not all black and white in Stokes Croft.”

Every side has its goodies and baddies.

The grey, nuanced bits are the compelling drama of a riot: the untamed rawness of chaos.

I wish I could channel that elemental energy into good cause and creativity.

Last Wednesday (between the two nights of disturbances), I was interviewed for the Politics Show about whether Tesco should reopen.

My answer: Tesco should never have opened in the first place. A council duped (the original planning permission was achieved anonymously) and so flawed that campaigners mounted a judicial review.

A local woman walking past joined us. She said she liked Tesco and shopped there and resented the rioters for setting a bad example to her son.

We chatted. We were both upset by the smashing of the Salvation Army and other local shops caught in the crossfire.

She said: you should open a shop to rival Tesco’s and sell fruit and veg wholesale.

I said that’s what we want to do: set up a food co-op and sell affordable healthy food with volunteers doing four hours a month.

(Nor is Tesco cheaper than local shops anyway, according to our survey).

She said: I’d volunteer every day for such a shop.

21 responses to “Tesco disturbed in Stokes Croft

  1. Thanks for the linkback 🙂

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  2. Well put Elisabeth. There’s a lot of grey areas about the whole subject and you have laid out the overall picture very well.
    I think Tesco is not generally acting as a force for good at the moment and I write as someone who has worked in the food industry and used to admire their professional approach. What sort of company buys a property through an intermediary to maintain their anonymity?
    It seems that, as far as Tesco is concerned, you simply can’t be too rich and they won’t rest until every cornershop in the country is a Tesco Metro. That is having a dramatic and negative effect on the infrastructure of this country – both physical and social.
    I think the greatest danger is in our putting an over-large proportion of our food retailing in the hands of one company – the tail will start to wag the dog and we’ll be leaving it to Tesco and agribusiness to determine what we eat. And whose interests will they act in?
    People acting together can change things – ‘every little helps’ can be used to oppose Tesco too. Boycotts work.

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  3. I’d be more than willing to put in 12hrs a month voluntary work in a local shop. Would be amazing to get the floor space under the new flats on the corner of bath buildings, that would present some proper competition for tescos! Would be good to have it as a real competitor, stock with toiletries, toys, stationary as well as foods perhaps even tobacco license to tempt the residents of those flats in (not ideal, but would put pressure on tescos).

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    • Thank you for your positive encouragement for the Food Coop idea, and willingness to participate.

      It is a great and achievable dream.

      It’s just a few people working on this idea so help us by talking to others and keeping the ideas flowing.

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  4. Great summary. Thanks.

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  5. To be honest, Tesco don’t do “small”. When they’re allowed into a town, they take over the entire livelihood of a town, and by doing so, the little corner shop disappears. I do not blame the rioters at Stoke croft, Tesco deserve what they get. If they’re allowed they’ll take over the whole of England!! And I also blame the Councils – they say “yes” yes” “yes” to their demands.

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  6. Don’t blame Tesco ‘too’ much my friends; the fault lies with the system. Tesco knows that if they don’t move into a particular town, another large chain will. Our system needs to be changed somewhat. At this moment in time, our system holds to The Golden Rule; those who have the gold make the rules. We need major changes in our form of capitalism.

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  7. You make a good point about prices. Tesco Express is NOT cheaper than local shops, but people BELIEVE they are because the big out of town supermarkets are. I was disgusted to read this http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/martin-hickman-this-violence-reflects-simmering-anger-at-big-corporations-2273729.html from the Independent’s finance writer Martin Hickman, who perpetuated this myth rather than taking the opporunity to explain the truth. Neither do these ‘local ‘ Tescos have better choice.

    Anyway, more power to your peaceful protest elbow!

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  8. I really like your wish to add more power to my “peaceful protest elbow”!

    It’s a hard line to steer because I also feel for the ones who got carried away with the emotions of a highly-charged night.

    And anyone who got hurt….

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  9. Jemima Roberts

    Just back from Thailand. Horrified to find Tesco there too
    Went in out of morbid curiosity and it is the strangest of shops out there – none of the food looks real, it all looks like space food. Heavily packaged, all white or pale colours… so surreal. Even the young coconuts (grow prolifically there of course) were wrapped in plastic. The lunacy of packaging one of the foods that comes with arguably one of the best ‘packages’ already!
    Very upset to find Tesco there. Rebranded a little to Tesco Lotus.

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  10. At the anti-globalism protests at the turn of this century, there was a contingency led by women spiritual ‘leaders’ such as Starhawk who did magic ceremonies right in the middle of the violence, to ground the people. Ghandhi however did not say everyone should be non violent, only those that could, because it requires so much self discipline to not fight back when attacked. I too flee from any type of violence. The majority of demonstrators want to be peaceful. In this case, as you describe it so judiciously, it sounds like there was police provocation to begin with. Who ordered it, on what basis…there needs to be a full investigation.

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  11. There’s a very good discussion on the Guardian website podcast about the Tesco/Stokes Croft debate. It makes many salient points about monopoly power and the planning system. It also describes how Tesco has a strangle-hold on suppliers so that on average they pay 15% less for produce and can therefore afford to out-bid anyone trying to compete with them for supermarket sites. It’s only about 20 minutes and it’s on: http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/audio/2011/may/04/business-podcast-supermarkets

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  12. More power to your peaceful protest elbow indeed!

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  13. Robin Whitlock

    I am currently working on an article on this subject at the moment and hoping to write loads more. The more we can get information out there, challenge Tesco on this and, ahem, explain how they do things, then hopefully more people will realise its not just a bunch of hippies and anarchists bleating on.

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  14. Thanks, Robin. Certainly no shortage of material when it comes to the nefarious practices of supermarkets.

    Really looking forward to your upcoming article in the Ecologist on Tesco in Stokes Croft, Bristol.

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  15. And to add:

    Indeed, the issue of supermarkets dominating the high street leading to demise of local independent shops is not confined to concerns of hippies and anarchists.

    This is an issue that concerns people from all backgrounds as this warning 2006 report from the all-party small-shops group shows.

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  16. Looking on the BBC website this morning (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-13414374) I see that Mary Portas has been charged with investigating the decline of the High Street.

    Quoting the BBC article:
    Ms Portas’s review, carried out for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, will involve visits to several town centres and “engagement events” with shop-owners and customers.”With town centre vacancy rates doubling over the last two years the need to take action to save our high streets has never been starker.”
    “I am calling on businesses, local authorities and shoppers to contribute their ideas on how we can halt this decline in its tracks and create town centres that we can all be proud of.”

    I believe that the selection of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills as opposed to the Department for Communities and Local Government is significant, suggesting that it’s a business rather than community-centred investigation.

    We’ll see if this is window dressing or the real deal. I fear the former. Let’s look out for it and see if there’s an ‘engagement event’ coming this way.

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  17. Thanks for this, Paul.

    I just left a comment on Mary Portas’s blog saying the reason why the high street is failing is because of supermarket domination.

    Supermarkets have more power than local government.

    I share your scepticism – hard to imagine any government cracking down on supermarket-power. On the other hand, if Mary Portas agrees this is the problem then her findings will be at least useful for campaigners.

    I suggested that government could at least give local businesses reduced business rates and tax breaks.

    Do add your comment at Mary Portas’s blog too!

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  18. I also recommend the videos at The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft YouTube channel for an on-the-ground account of the two nights of disturbances, titled: stokes croft riot?

    One eye-witness said the police left the area in front of Tesco three times. The question why 160 riot police descended on Stokes Croft, then temporarily abandoned Tesco remains unanswered.

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