Bristol’s Long History of Radicalism

Yesterday's 'Kill the Bill' protest and last year's tearing down of the Colston statue have made Bristol a symbol of resistance – but for almost two centuries, the city has been at the forefront of radical politics in Britain.

The evening of Sunday 21 March saw Bristol take the headlines for the city’s ‘Kill the Bill’ protest, which became more frenzied than those held in other cities so far. Commentators on all sides of the political spectrum cited the events that had taken place in the same location in summer 2020 to justify their support or their condemnation: at the height of the UK’s Black Lives Matter protests, Bristolian activists tore down the statue of slaver Edward Colston that stood prominent in the city centre and rolled it into a harbour like those once used to trade humans.

The removal of Colston’s statue has become the icon of recent protest history – but these are only two examples of the activism of the Southwest city in which political anger is ingrained.

October 1831 saw some of the city’s first recorded riots, known as the ‘Bristol Reform Riots’, in response to the lack of voting rights for around 90 percent of its population. The trigger for the citizens’ anger was a visit from judge Charles Wetherall, who had told parliament that Bristol did not desire voting reform. On arrival, Wetherall was chased through the city to Queens Square, which became the centre of the action; buildings were looted and burned, and prisons broken open, with prisoners freed.

Eventually, mounted infantry were called upon to draw their swords on the crowd; the central government feared full-blown national rebellion, with comparisons drawn by some spectators at the time with scenes during the French Revolution. After the riots were suppressed, four people were hanged.

A century later, a very different kind of protest took place during the Bristol Bus Boycott. In 1963, Bristol’s buses were run by the Bristol Omnibus Company, which was refusing, with support from the Transport and General Workers’ Union, to employ black or Asian people in anything other than the lowest-paid positions. The boycott, initiated by local youth workers and a group known as the West Indian Development Council, lasted for four months, engaging support city-wide and beyond, including from local students and major Labour figures such as Harold Wilson and Tony Benn.

The protest concluded when 500 bus workers agreed collectively to end the colour bar, and the company followed through on its promise to hire the city’s first black and Asian conductors. The 1963 action is said to have contributed to the passage of the Race Relations Act two years later, which outlawed racial discrimination in public places.

These two traditions—protest against racism, and protest against the state—came together formally in 1980’s St. Pauls riots, which were a reaction to the abuse of police power. On 2 April, a group of police officers raided the Black and White Café in the historically black area of St. Pauls looking for drugs and alcohol. Some say police aggression triggered the riot; others that the crowd sent out of the café was already hostile. Either way, seven hours of rioting ensued.

Speaking to the Bristol Post, Paul Stephenson, one of the leaders of the Bristol Bus Boycott, called the 1980 riots ‘a wake-up call for this country.’ ‘The riots were ignited by racist and insensitive policing,’ he said. ‘It was about young blacks who were born in this country saying that they weren’t prepared to be treated as second-class citizens any longer.’

And Bristol’s anti-establishment essence has persisted into the twenty-first century. Riots broke out again in 2011—as they did all over the country in the same year—locally fuelled by opposition to the building of a Tesco supermarket in Stokes Croft, perceived as a symbol of the encroachment of capitalism and corporatism into an area well-known for its independent shops and cafés. Police raided a squat occupied by opponents to the chain store, who were said to be making petrol bombs with which to attack the supermarket, kicking off the series of events. Today, the Tesco stands open; the street art created to protest it also remains.

To some extent, it was predictable that a city with such a weighty history of direct action—both peaceful and violent—would react the way it did to the government’s ongoing attempt to outlaw protest, legitimising the fear of authoritarianism that has bubbled beneath the surface for decades. Bristol’s activism has often been preceded by attempts to affect change through more traditional, ‘legitimate’ channels – hundreds had signed petitions advocating the removal of Colston’s statue prior to 2020 (with some suggesting Paul Stephenson might be a suitable replacement), but the historical evidence shows time and again that patience only lasts for so long.

The planned shut down on peaceful protest in the form of Priti Patel’s Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill does nothing other than further restrict the tenability of traditional, ‘peaceful’ routes to change. If it’s allowed to go ahead, we should expect to see more of the events of last night, not less – and all around the country, as much as in Bristol itself.