April of 2005 saw the 25th anniversary of the St Paul’s riots, a day and night in 1980 that not only was the precursor for further riots in London and Liverpool but the catalyst also that sparked changes that are still reverberating to this day. As Paul Stephenson, the former regional executive officer for the Commission for Racial Equality has commented: ‘The riots were a wake up call for the country’.
To mark the occasion, a two-page article appeared in The Bristol Evening Post featuring the views and opinions of a selection of people who were there at the time. Among these was police superintendent Tim Lee, the deputy district commander for Bristol, who in 1980 was a mere police constable. According to Lee: ‘Before the riots, St Paul’s had never been regarded as a particular trouble spot and there was a genuine disbelief among officers that it was happening. What few people know, however, is that for the following nights we had more problems in Southmead than we did in St Paul’s because of copycat attacks’.
Interestingly, what Lee said about Southmead is probably very true and is a piece of history that for a variety of reasons, few people are aware of. While not suffering from the scourge of heroin as it does now, Southmead in those days was still a rough old place to grow up in. Generally poor and not well educated, residents were all too aware of how they were viewed by anyone outside the area, which in the main was as second-class citizens. Southmead was simply a large council estate populated by white, working class people – nothing more, nothing less – but for a variety of reasons the stigma of being a ‘problem area’ could not be shaken off. Being born into disadvantage ought not to be anything shameful, though society often dictates otherwise. Pride in those days was only to be found in reputation, similarity and such anti-Thatcherite concepts as ‘community’. And though the outside world was but a bus ride away, there was always a clear division between those who were of Southmead – and those who weren’t. This division not always being of the estate’s own making. The police, for example, were always viewed as ‘outsiders’. Only ever seen cruising past in their cars, staring out with suspicion and disdain. If the world was divided between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’, with Southmead firmly in the latter, the police were representatives of the systems that kept it that way. Like it or not, they were viewed as being on the side of the ‘haves’. They were strangers coming into the area simply to watch that we were all behaving ourselves.
When news of the riots in St Paul’s was broadcast, Southmead pricked up its ears. Not only could a large number of people there understand, identify and sympathise with the causes of the riot but they could applaud and support it. St Paul’s was sending out a message and setting an example. They were saying ‘No’ and saying it loudly. People heard, saw and just knew: that if St Paul’s could do it, then so could they. The following night, just as a tense peace fell upon the streets of St Paul’s, a passing police patrol car in Southmead was attacked with bricks and bottles. Suddenly, a deprived council estate on the edge of the city had its very own riot. A white riot. A riot of its own. Disregarding superintendent Tim Lee’s view of it being simply a copycat attack, this was an almost spontaneous eruption. St Paul’s had been the inspiration. Police reinforcements were quickly called up only to be met with more bricks and bottles. Shops were damaged and the fighting escalated then slowly ebbed away as the tired rioters – wary of what exactly they were unleashing – withdrew to their homes.
The next night, van loads of police hid away in darkened side streets, on stand-by in case of further disturbance. The previous night’s events, however, had been merely a warm up. The word had spread and this time there were even more people willing, able and up for a riot. For years, the people of Southmead – like those in St Paul’s – had been made to feel as if they were useless. Thrown upon the scrapheap and held there by inequalities and lack of opportunity, they had more than enough reason to be angry. And what better way of venting anger than by attacking authority? And in inner city and council estate streets alike, the most obvious face of authority was the police. As it was the police who were the targets, they first needed to be lured from out of the backstreets and in to the open so shop windows on Greystoke Avenue were duly smashed, causing the desired effect. The vans of police sped to the scene and were greeted by a hail of stones. People from around the estate gathered to watch and partake, while others emerged from the pubs to become natural leaders in guiding the stone throwers.
Each time the police got near, they were bricked. Each time they retreated, the crowd advanced upon them. There was nothing they could do except sit it out and dodge the missiles. They had lost their position of authority and now it was the crowd who were in control. The Southmead mob was in power. And a mob, as can be reasonably argued, is just some people – fed up with their lot. Being a mere young whipper-snapper, I was too scared to get fully involved with the events of those nights. This was my first experience of a riot and though it was exhilarating it was dangerous too. I watched, however, and I learned.
As a group of officers hid behind one of their vans for safety, a large brick arced through the air and landed full square on the windscreen window, shattering it with a loud crash. A roar went up from the crowd. Young and old, men and women. All applauding the damage caused. If the police were meant to be serving and protecting the community but that community was rejecting them, what then was their role? What were they really protecting? Who were they really serving? It was a brilliant moment. Revelatory. It was also at that very same moment that I realised and understood the power of riot. Riot as a weapon that we held and which the police were afraid of. Riot as a tool at our disposal. Riot as a fine expression of inarticulate rage. Riot for the hell of it and riot as a means to an end.
As in St Paul’s, a sense of order was eventually returned to the streets of Southmead. The debris was cleared and the shop windows fixed. Unlike the inner city events, however, barely a word concerning the Southmead riots was ever mentioned in the media. Time passed. A sea change in attitude towards ethnic minorities began to take effect, though none, really – it should be pointed out – toward the white working class. The police began developing a policy of winning hearts and minds of communities, though at the same time developing riot tactics and upgrading weaponry to maintain crowd control.
We grew older and hopefully that bit wiser, and whilst more riots occurred over the years we came to understand that there were other ways of dealing with problems besides resorting only to violence. In the grand scheme of things it is debatable whether it is important if the riots in Southmead are remembered or not. Or for that matter, the riots in St Paul’s. What is important, however, is that the lessons from these events are not forgotten. The lesson in the power of the media in recording (or not) and interpreting events in history. The lesson in the danger of marginalizing whole communities. The lesson that there are different sides to every story. That one person’s revolt is another person’s copycat riot. That to one person violence is an answer but to another, a question. And the lesson in the potential effectiveness and power of the act of riot. Leading police officers and figures in authority have certainly never forgotten these lessons and neither, of course, should we.