Since the events at Stokes Croft and the surrounding area on Thursday night, I’ve been following the coverage and debate in the mainstream media and, more pertinently, on blogs and sites like Bindymedia. I’ve had a few emails and tweets objecting to my comments in the mainstream media about the police tactics being a bit heavy-handed, and others welcoming the fact I went down to the scene on Thursday night to see for myself, and telling me stories about how they or their friends were caught up in the disturbances. Predictably some of the media outlets have been selective in what they’ve quoted – I was, for example, very clear in my condemnation of the rioters lobbing chunks of concrete at the police, but criticism of the police, no matter how measured, makes a better headline!
Anyway – I just want to put a few things on the record:
– I accept the police had a very difficult job to do that night, and have great sympathy for those who were on the streets till the early hours, having rocks and bottles thrown at them, and having to deal with drunks or agitators who were trying to provoke a confrontation. I don’t however accept that the police should be above criticism or scrutiny in the way they carry out their work. They are public servants, and it would be wrong of me as an elected representative not to raise concerns about policing when I have seen things that disturb me, or when people contact me with their complaints. I don’t think this is in anyway undermining the police. I had a good chat with Chief Superintendent Colin Port when I returned to Stokes Croft the next day, and I’m sure I will be talking to him or other senior officers again.
– I also have a great deal of sympathy for the poor staff at Tesco’s, who I gather were trapped in the building when the trouble first started, and were eventually led to safety out the back. Obviously if the police had intelligence that there was going to be a petrol bomb attack on the store then that’s something the police had to act upon, to protect the building, the staff and the 24-hour security living above the store. But I think it’s legitimate to question whether the police response to the intelligence they received was appropriate in the circumstances. (Some people are saying 160 police officers and 10 riot vans to arrest four people is disproportionate; I’m not clear whether that police presence was there from the start or was brought in as reinforcements. Those are the sort of Qs I will be asking… Of course some will say it’s not my place to tell the police how to do their job, and of course it isn’t, and I’m not doing so. But the police should be publicly accountable and I think it’s right that journalists are now posing these questions).
– I don’t think there’s any justification at all for chucking rocks and bottles at the police, wrecking police vehicles, or trashing Tesco’s (and creating a dangerous situation for lots of innocent bystanders too). Of course I condemn this. There was a lot of filming and photography going on Thursday night, and if there’s footage of people hacking up pavements and lobbing lumps of concrete at police vans or officers behind riot shields, then of course that should be used to prosecute them.
– I supported the campaign against a Tesco’s in Stokes Croft, although wasn’t too involved because it’s not in my constituency. I think people are entitled to protest when they feel their voices have not been heard, but not to resort to violence or criminal acts. Are protestors sitting down in the middle of the road – a road which was already closed to their traffic – with their bicyles at 2am being a bit of a pain? Well, yes. Do they have the right to do so? (Even if they are hippies and squatters and trustafarians and people with lampshades on their head?) Well, yes… Or are the police entitled to say, our task is to clear the street, move the crowds and therefore we can use dogs and riot shields and truncheons to do so if people won’t co-operate?
– What concerns me most is that there are so many people out there angry and frustrated in one way or another about the impact of Government action (or inaction) on their lives, but who feel that peaceful protest will not be listened to. (Let me mention the march against the war in Iraq before anyone else does – point duly noted). People may come to feel that protests do not gain any attention or legitimacy unless it all kicks off and becomes a running battle between the police and protestors. (By legitimacy, I mean, people won’t be seen as upset and angry and frustrated enough if all they do is march…) And then there will be plenty of others all too keen to ‘get their riot badge’ and contribute to a situation turning violent without any real political affiliation to the cause. I don’t want to see a summer of riots. I want to see a summer of mass political protest, like we saw with the campaign against the privatisation of the forests and we’re now seeing with the campaign against the so-called ‘reforms’ to the NHS, which result in Government u-turns. On May 11th the “Hardest Hit” campaign – against the cuts to benefits and services to people with disabilities – will be turning out in force in Westminster. They don’t need rocks and bottles and fires in wheelie bins to make a powerful case against the brutality of what this Government is doing.
– Is Tesco’s worth rioting over? No, of course not… what’s needed is a genuine form of localism that really does allow local people a say over how they want their communities to develop, and which curbs the powers of the big chains to dominate the planning process. The Government pays lip service to this, but in the Budget last month George Osborne announced plans to make it quicker and easier for developers to get things through the planning system, as a way of promoting the Government’s agenda of private-sector led growth. I’m actually in favour of speeding up the planning system for big developments, which in Bristol is painfully slow, but that doesn’t mean riding roughshod over local opinion.
OK, that’s about all for now… Off to do some door-knocking. And here’s a blog post I wrote earlier for Louder than War, because Mr Robb asked nicely.