The city has a long and illustrious history of setting itself on fire
It’s difficult to pick out the most surreal moment from the footage of Bristol’s riots yesterday. Was it the guy who, in a spirit of generosity, tried to feed a police officer’s dog a slice of takeaway pizza? Maybe it was the moment two women urinated in front of a shieldwall of riot police? For me it was the man who drove through the crowd of very middle-class protestors on a mobility scooter, blaring Jungle before the disturbances began later in the evening.
Ostensibly last night’s protest was about the right to protest. Online, our finest journo-activists shoehorned Bristol’s torched police vans, graffitied buildings, and smashed windows into a political narrative of generational inequality and authoritarian Tory government. Nigel Farage said it was all about BLM.
Alternatively, it had a lot to do with Bristol.
Anybody who has spent any significant time in Bristol knows that it is not like other cities in England. Like Portland in the United States, in Bristol expressions of civic pride often take the form of mob violence.
Bristol is genuinely distinct from the rest of the country in how anti-authoritarian it is, and has been for over 200 years. Take the largely forgotten Queens Square riots of 1831. On this occasion Bristolians were furious that their local magistrate, Sir Charles Wetherall, had denounced the Reform Bill, which was struggling to get through a Tory-dominated House of Lords. When Wetherall made his next public appearance in the city a mob chased him to Mansion House in Queens Square. The mob knew the only way to ensure Wetherall changed his mind about the bill was to burn down the building he was hiding in, right after drinking all the booze they found in its basement. After three days the violence ended, with much of the city centre destroyed, and hundreds dead or injured.
In the 20th century Bristol had four major riots. It was also the only city in England where Winston Churchill was attacked by a protestor armed with a horse whip. (Churchill didn’t press charges, but his assailant, a suffragette, was locked up anyway. She set her cell on fire soon afterwards).
Recent years saw Bristolians burn down a Tesco Express and chase Jeremy Hunt around the city, while the city continues to win made-up awards like “The UK’s most liveable city” and “Europe’s Green Capitol.” The only shock when that statue of Edward Colston was pulled down last June was that it didn’t happen years earlier. So the gap continues between Bristolians’ self-image — cool, relaxed, and just slightly better than the rest of the country — and the reality of a city where every attempt at localism that doesn’t involve destroying property fails. It’s all part of its charm.