The morning after the riots (Photo: Eliz Mizon)
In early 2010, a nosy local chatting to a workman on the site of 138-142 Cheltenham Road, part of ‘Europe’s longest independent high street’, discovered he was fitting what would become Bristol’s 18th Tesco store. Word quickly spread around the local community, and over the following 12 months the ‘No Tesco In Stokes Croft’ campaign became a fixture of where Stokes Croft meets Cheltenham Road, in ways that can still be seen today.
Even after more than 2,500 locals wrote objections to the council regarding the lack of public consultation, and the likely impacts on public health and local businesses – not to mention the several Tescos within a few hundred metres – the Express store eventually opened.
Peaceful protests continued, but then came a twist. Rumours about a planned petrol bomb attack, and oppressive policing tactics, culminated in clashes on the nights of 21 and 28 April 2011 – the ‘Stokes Croft riots’.
Almost exactly a decade later, the only concessions achieved by the ‘No Tesco’ campaign – limited opening hours and refusal of an alcohol license – have been quietly overturned. In February 2021, Bristol City Council granted Tesco its off-license and late-opening application after an online hearing.
This decade-long story is a fascinating piece of local history obscured by bureaucracy and highly-charged rumour.
Stokes Croft’s Tesco saga
In 2010, the UK was feeling the full force of the financial crisis. Small shops across the country closed, to be replaced by new ones, which themselves would quickly disappear. This was nowhere more evident than Stokes Croft, near Gloucester Road’s famed strip of independent businesses.
A resident of Cheltenham Road at the time, I became familiar with daily, peaceful protests on my walk to work. Having graduated around the time of the 2008 financial crisis, I empathised with the campaign, becoming one of thousands to write to the council (who later vocally supported it). Our taxes had been used to bail out wealthy gamblers without public consultation, and the desire to prove that we have power over our neighbourhood, if not our nation, was urgent. Our small enclave of cultural independence felt like a dwindling outpost in a corporate world.
This was the incendiary backdrop to Tesco’s decision to move into a closed comedy club. Perhaps for this reason their application was disguised under a local agent’s name, so even the council were unaware who they were granting permission to. Councillor Alex Woodman told the BBC: “Because we didn’t know […], the council wasn’t able to consider the impacts and we were in a situation where planning permission was granted without any thought being given.”
Campaigners initially squatted the site, and after being kicked out and replaced by 24/7 security staff, protested outside for months, handing out leaflets and free cake. This continued even after the store opened.
“I remember us being very worried that people thought that the official campaign and the rioters were one and the same,” says Carla Denyer, Green Councillor for Clifton Down, who was then one of the core ‘No Tesco’ organisers. “They were not.”
Opposite 138-142 Cheltenham Road is a building covered in psychedelic murals; a squat known as ‘Telepathic Heights’. It was under the (contested) pretext that its residents – no ‘official’ campaigners among them – were manufacturing Molotov cocktails, with which they intended to attack the newly opened store, that the police gave notice to evict.
This attracted numerous squatters and objectors to the premises, and on the evening of 21 April 160 police officers, including riot units drafted from Wales, descended. On the warm bank holiday weekend, an unprecedented early evening police presence naturally attracted the attention of pub revellers, commuters and residents, including myself.
“One by one, 15-20 police riot vans pulled up,” says Sam Partleton, whose houseshare overlooked the junction.
“We decided to use our housemate’s sound system, putting the speakers on the window ledge – we sensed things could become hostile and wanted to counter this by playing some positive tunes. It seemed to have the desired outcome; despite a busy and disorganised gathering, people were dancing and appeared to be enjoying the moment.”
But as tensions rose later into the night, the storefront was smashed. “Roads were blocked off and there was a standoff between police and an increasingly frustrated crowd, some of whom just wanted to go home,” Sam says. “It wasn’t long before bottles began to fly.”
Police were using clubs and dogs (that hospitalised at least one person in the crowd trying to calm protesters), and stormed the crowds on horseback. Bottles were thrown, bins set alight. Then as suddenly as they arrived, police up and left around 3am, as rubble continued to burn.
Several months before the 2011 London riots in response to the police shooting of Mark Duggan, the Stokes Croft riots added to the narrative of police hostility towards a community furious at the imbalance of power and lack of accountability.
The residents of Telepathic Heights denied anything to do with making petrol bombs, though police claimed they found evidence on the roof. This remained hidden too, with no evidence revealed. The first ‘riot’ dominated national headlines for days (Banksy even made a souvenir artwork) and, a week later, a light-hearted ‘commemorative demonstration’ in the same spot resulted in similar events.
The following day, remaining residents of Telepathic Heights were evicted by police.
Tesco gets its alcohol license and late-opening times
In February 2021, the council took back the only two concessions the campaign had won, granting Tesco its renewed off-license and late-opening application after an online hearing. Tesco has, again, abided by the minimum regulatory standards to achieve its goals, and this time an opposing campaign was hardly noticed. Councillor Denyer, who raised objections at the hearing, found out via Facebook shortly beforehand.
Local resident Bernard Dufresne, who attended, says Tesco addressed impact concerns by giving: lots of techinal information which was “totally impossible to check” – such as alcohol only being 5% of their business – and “promises which were not binding”, such as they would mainly sell wine.
This is not a question of legal wrongdoing, but a larger symbolic one about corporate versus democratic power and wealth. Denyer told me that the original premise of 2011’s campaign – the lack of public consultation, impact on public health, and local businesses – are now further undermined. “A large part of my objection to Tesco having an alcohol license was an objection to Tesco being there at all.”
But Denyer says that the pandemic has changed people’s attitudes to supermarkets. “During the pandemic, I know that a lot of people have gone out of their way to support local businesses. The pandemic has accelerated the innovation of local business and people who previously felt they didn’t have enough money to shop independent are prioritising differently so that they can.”