The Bristol Cable
From “All Lives Matter” to “just doing my patriotic duty,” Cable reporter Priyanka Raval reflects on the “protect the cenotaph” demonstration on Saturday.

It’s Saturday afternoon and about 300 people have gathered to ‘defend’ Bristol’s cenotaph from apparent fears of vandalism, amid rumours of nationalists coming to clash with anti-racists across the UK. 

They stand, 30m from the plinth where Edward Colston’s bronze likeness gazed over the harbour for 125 years, before being rolled unceremoniously into it during the Black Lives Matter protest six days previously. 

Can’t see video? Watch here

The protestors are flanked by leather-clad bikers: Hells Angels, Wiltshire Force and The Sodbury Crew are among those present. Football supporters in attendance have put aside traditional rivalries for the day. 

A white van filled with cans of Thatchers and Stella arrives. It may be a cloudy afternoon but there are many bare chests on display among the predominantly white, male crowd. 

But speaking to the people gathered, it’s evident there’s no single cause that unites those assembled. 

A group of army veterans on the scene tell me they just want to protect the cenotaph, and are in full support of Black Lives Matter – with some even having attended last week’s protest. 

Others though are openly racist and give a fierce defence of why ‘All Lives Matter’. There are rants about the prevalence of the “left wing – Marxist – snowflake” generation. 

Early in the day, scuffles break out as a demonstrator starts clearing away BLM signs left in a bin bag by Colston’s vacant plinth. Some urge him to discuss and de-escalate the situation, and to refocus the attention on the cenotaph. 

But that’s far from the day’s only nasty incident. At one point, bottles and cans are thrown at a black driver passing by. Over at the nearby Tuk Tuck cafe, a girl of Caribbean heritage tells me she’s received racist remarks from customers, leading to the manager closing the doors early. 

Then, the sign of a Black Power fist is grabbed, taken into the middle of the crowd and aggressively stomped on and torn up. 

Again, some people cheer and join in, while others call for them to stop, saying it is derailing their reason for being there. As the police step in, one protestor yells, “Why are you stopping this when you let the Colston statue be taken down?” 

‘Stop filming now’

The scuffle after the sign is torn up turns things more volatile. On three separate occasions, men attempt to grab my phone and I have to wrestle it back. One, who I’ve been speaking to, warns his friend, “She’s only going to edit it and put what she wants to!” 

Shortly afterwards, I find myself behind the police line, accidentally kettled in with protestors. Someone sarcastically yells, “Got what you want did you?” and “snowflake cunt”, while others call out “slag”. 

Get our latest stories & essential Bristol news
sent to your inbox every Saturday morning

A photographer, more clearly distinguishable due to her camera, gets an even greater torrent of abuse. As she rushes to photograph the sign being torn up, there are shouts of, ”Stop taking photos!” and several attempts to rip her camera away. 

The beer previously meant to keep up crowd morale is soon weaponised, with cans thrown in her direction – along with another freelance videographer present – and Stella poured on her lens. A Bristol Post reporter is reportedly spat at. 

Paranoia about being misrepresented, distrust of being demonised by the media, hangs in the air. 

“These guys have taken photos of you and will hunt you down and find you, so you should stop filming now,” the photographer is told. It’s unclear whether the tone was threatening or if he was looking out for her. 

‘Normal people protecting our heritage’

I single out one of the few women in the crowd to ask why she is here today. 

“To be honest, I’m just here for the cenotaph, I haven’t got nothing against Black Lives Matter – my father is mixed race,” she says. “I think we just want to do our patriotic duty and protect the cenotaph.” 

Patriotism is a common reason given to me from those I spoke to. “Normal people protecting our heritage,” one tells me. 

When I push people on the topic, that history is based very much around a glorified idea of Britain winning the war. But when I pose a counter-perspective – what about Empire or slavery – I’m derided for bringing up the past. 

“Have you seen white poverty?” asks another man. “If you have then All Lives Matter!” 

He’s echoed by another, “I went to the same shit school as a black person.”  

It’s another trend of the day’s conversation: we have it hard too, so why are black people given special treatment? 

Across the divides

Over the road and across the police line, a young, multicultural group stands in opposition – a visual representation of divides that exist in our city. Saturday’s crowd at the cenotaph may be far from the scale of the Black Lives Matter protest a week earlier, but it still offers a sharp challenge to lazy stereotypes that hold up Bristol as a liberal-left utopia. 

“It reminds me of the days of the National Front when I moved to the UK in the 70’s,” an unsettled woman of Indian origin told me afterwards. 

I left rattled, but not wholly unsurprised. At school, my history lessons portrayed exactly the one-sided version of history that was parroted back to me today. A glorious portrayal of Britain’s heroic involvement in the World War, a noticeable omission of the manifold atrocities that took place under the British Empire. Naturally, such a cherry picked version of history left unchallenged would lead to this misguided sense of patriotism. 

Meanwhile, a 2017 Runnymede Trust report showed that Bristol’s ethnic minorities experience much greater disadvantages in education and employment than the national average, with the city ranking seventh-worst of England and Wales’ 348 districts on the report’s Index of Multiple Inequality. That said, it’s undeniable that economic hardship is rife among some white communities too. It seems important to understand the protest today bearing in mind Bristol’s socio-economic context.  

Former Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has claimed that “a new form of Taliban” was formed in the UK over the BLM weekend, adding that “full-on race riots are now possible”. That’s sensationalist scaremongering. But as I leave the protest, hearing abuse as I do so, I can’t help but feel it’s essential we shift conversations – ideally less tense ones than those I snatch during the afternoon – to how we bridge our divides, not entrench divisions. 

Or perhaps what I’m trying to express is best summed up by the new statue that has appeared yesterday beside the empty Colston plinth. 

A bald man in a string vest on top of a bin with the words: “Spoiler: St George was Turkish” on it. In one hand he holds a globe, a mobile in the other. The screen reads “England for the English” – a parody I assume of the Orb and Sceptre symbols of monarchy. 

Statues and cenotaphs it seems, have become the battle sites on which race relations are contested in Bristol. This latest iteration seems to poke fun at Saturday’s demonstration at the cenotaph.  

Comments

    Report a comment
    Comments are moderated according to our Comment Policy

  • Colin Thomas says:

    Congratulations Priyanka Raval on a well written piece and your courage in being at what was clearly a hostile environment.

  • Maggie Moss says:

    Absolutely agree with Colin Thomas – Well done Priyanka. It would be interesting to track down where this “attack the cenotaph” meme came from in the first place.
    As an aside – most white, left-leaning well-educated activists in Bristol have little knowledge or experience of the disadvantaged white communities in Bristol. Very few of us move into Southmead, Lawrence Weston or Knowle West etc. There are many totally inexcusable aspects to “football culture” but there are also real problems with poor education, coupled with poor prospects, and (until Covid raised the profile of “Essential Workers”), poor status

  • Michael Gribben says:

    Nice one Priyanka, I went past the cenotaph memorial early Saturday morning & noticed two bikers pretending to guard it. From what & whom was unclear, at no stage was it or any other war memorial under any kind of threat. This loose collection at pains to express they are anti-racist & patriotic are the latest extension of the far right, whether they realise it themselves or not. Your comments about bridging divides are important as some of these people could perhaps be swung away from falling into these gatherings.

  • James Bodington says:

    Thanks for doing this- that scene looked intense.

  • Jem Richards says:

    We have to protect our war dead’s memorials
    and I’m a socialist.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Related content

Turning down an MBE? 'It was one of the quickest decisions of my life’: Interview with author Nikesh Shukla

Award-winning Bristol-based writer Nikesh Shukla talks refusing an MBE, going from rapper to writer and returning to community activism.

'Colston 4' to stand trial at Bristol Crown Court on 13 December

The protestors have pleaded not guilty and their lawyers say they will ‘fight these criminal charges vigorously’.

'We should decide what happens to Bristol’s statues, not Westminster'

Ahead of the trial of the ‘Colston 4’, we spoke to Bristol University law professor Antonia Layard about the thorny legal issues surrounding statue protection, and why the legislation around statues needs to change.

'Not guilty' plead the Colston 4

The case will be heard in Bristol Crown Court on 8 February.

Listen: Bristol Unpacked with Delroy Hibbert

Delroy Hibbert is a Black Lives Matter backer. But he also attended the ‘All Lives Matter’ demonstration in Bristol the week after Colston fell.

Listen: Bristol Unpacked with Cleo Lake

Season 1, Episode 1: Founding member of Countering Colston, Green party city councillor and former Lord Mayor, Cleo Lake has a lot to say on the big questions of politics, race, history and the future of Bristol and beyond.

Join our newsletter

Get the essential stories you won’t find anywhere else

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter to get our weekly round-up direct to your inbox every Saturday

Join our newsletter

Get the essential stories you won’t find anywhere else

Subscribe to the Cable newsletter to get our weekly round-up direct to your inbox every Saturday