Next month will mark one year since protestors at a Black Lives Matter march in Bristol toppled the statue of slave trader Edward Colston. The event sparked fresh debate about the difference between direct action and vandalism, about Colston and his legacy, controversial statues and the history of the city of Bristol, which suddenly found itself under intense media spotlight. Less than a year later, on 21st March, Bristol made headlines again when, in the wake of the killing of Sarah Everard, a protest in opposition to the controversial Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill saw clashes between protestors and police. With two massive stories of civil disobedience within a year, discussions ensued about Bristol’s prominence in protests. I spoke to two young women from Bristol about their experience living there and what they think of the city’s reputation as a 'progressive' place.
After witnessing the online reaction to the Kill the Bill protest in March, 20-year-old Aaliyah Miller, a politics and international relations student, decided to write about Bristol’s radical history for Tribune magazine. "I was seeing people on the timeline saying, 'Bristol’s at it again! First Colston and now this!' and in my head I'm thinking, This is Bristol through and through," she says. Aaliyah’s essay describes notable examples of protest and activism in Bristol, from the first recorded reform riots in October 1831 to the 1963 bus boycott to abolish the colour bar and the St Pauls riot in the 1980s, sparked by abuses of police power.
Dr James Watts, who is researching Bristol’s protest history at the University of Bristol, tells me over email that the legacy of events like the riots, boycotts and protests has added to the image of Bristol as a radical city and not only are many Bristolians aware of it but it is also "an important part of [their] self-identity".
"Bristol is just a very rebellious city," confirms Aaliyah. "It's just full of mayhem and mischief so I think the idea of Bristol being the city that goes against the rules isn't new to anybody here because I think anybody who's lived here has experienced Bristol and its rebellious nature, even aside from the history of politics."
When a statue looms over a city centre for decades it seems an immutable part of the landscape ... I was shocked by how easy it looked to pull it down – it made you think anything was possible.
While Dr Watts thinks it is "easy to overemphasise the uniqueness of Bristol" regarding its radical history, he also makes an interesting observation about the cultures and lifestyles of many Bristolians and how that relates to the image of its politics. "Bristol has a high proportion of people attempting to live differently," he says. "The proportion of travellers, van dwellers and communal houses is higher than in much of the rest of the country and this again bolsters an identity of Bristol as attempting to live outside the mould, especially given the shift to the political right which has happened over the past 40 years."
During summer 2020, demonstrations against police brutality and systemic racism after the death of George Floyd in America were taking place across the world. Aaliyah was determined to take to the streets. Her family were concerned about COVID-19 but "as the week went on and more news came out about what happened with George Floyd, [my mum] ended up coming with me. Me, her and my auntie." She recalls: "I was seeing people from school. I was seeing parents of white people that I went to school with. Everybody was there and it was a huge deal." The mood was a mix of anger and solidarity. "I don’t know if this is a bad thing to say because you were seeing everybody in a time where it was so distressing just existing, and every day was COVID news or people dying. Seeing each other and being like, 'We’re all in this together' was comforting."
But while Aaliyah watched the coverage unfolding, admittedly happy to see the city receive international attention, she also considered what was being left out, wary of the idea of Bristol as a progressive city in the 21st century covering up its nuances. "I think the citizens are definitely very forward-thinking and very politically minded, but I don't think that's reflected the whole way through ... There’s still work to be done," she explains.
Aaliyah was not alone in her concern that people were getting a limited perspective on the city. Iris Kaye-Smith, a 23-year-old student tweeted about the "fetishistic perception of Bristol simply as this cool alternative radical city that seems to focus mainly on a couple of gentrified student-heavy neighbourhoods in the north and ignores the vast inequalities in different neighbourhoods and communities." I asked Iris what was missing from the coverage of Bristol and what she felt lay behind the city’s reputation as a progressive city.
"In recent decades Bristol has acquired this image as a bit of an alternative radical city, helped along by things like Skins and Banksy, but it’s still a city with huge inequalities," she tells me over email. Student populations are often credited (or blamed) for a city's progressive image and Bristol is home to several universities and colleges whose students have long joined the city’s citizens in protest. "Students staged sit-ins in Senate House in 1968, joined protests for the Bristol bus boycott in 1963, as well as again occupying Senate House in 2018 in support of the UCU strikes," says Dr Watts. "[They have] been prominent and articulate members of protests for Extinction Rebellion, Kill the Bill and Black Lives Matter as well."
Class and the city’s demographics are a key factor in the political engagement of Bristol’s citizens and in the image it projects. "There’s a stark divide between the more deprived and the more affluent neighbourhoods in the city, with the populations of the former having on average lower life expectancy, worse quality of life and poorer mental health," Iris tells me. "The irony is that many of these more affluent neighbourhoods, with their grand 18th- and early 19th-century houses, were built with the direct profits of the slave trade that gave Bristol so much wealth – and today, they are more likely to profit from this radical chic aesthetic." For Dr Watts, this juxtaposition of deprivation and affluence combined with the relatively small size of the city centre also "feeds into the interchange of radical activism".
I think Bristol citizens are definitely very forward-thinking and very politically minded but I don't think that's reflected the whole way through ... There's still work to be done.
The coronavirus pandemic prevented Iris from attending the protests but she remembers vividly the day the statue of Colston was pulled down. "Me and my family were going for a walk, I was checking my phone before we left, and I started to see rumours on Twitter that the statue had come down somehow. Then a few minutes later I saw the first video," she says. "It was an absolutely extraordinary moment. When a statue looms over a city centre for decades it seems an immutable part of the landscape, as if it has always been there and always will be. I was shocked by how easy it looked to pull it down – it made you think anything was possible."
The news coverage also highlighted residents' previous efforts to remove the statue of Colston and rename pubs, schools and theatres throughout the city which had been named for him. (In September 2020, Bristol's iconic music venue Colston Hall was renamed Bristol Beacon and on 5th May 2021, Colston's School in Stapleton launched a consultation into the future of its name.) A petition set up in 2017 to remove the Colston statue had barely 100 signatures until a week before the Black Lives Matter protest, when it began to pick up traction and gathered thousands of signatures.
"Some people just wanted to see it as an act of vandalism on the part of people who 'should have used the proper channels' for taking the statue down," says Iris. "In reality there have been petitions and grassroots campaigns to take it down for decades but the Society of Merchant Venturers has always resisted it. For centuries, the SMV was pretty much in charge of the city, and it still has a lot of power now." The Society of Merchant Venturers is an organisation with roots going as far back as the 13th century. It played a part in the industrial development of Bristol, funding the building of the Clifton Suspension Bridge and the creation of the Great Western Railway. In the 1800s many of its members, including Edward Colston, were involved in the slave trade.
Re-emphasising what she feels to be missing nuance in the conversation about Bristol’s political engagement in the last few years, Iris says: "Yes, Bristolians brought the statue down but Bristolians also put it up; Bristolians fought to have the statue’s plaque rewritten but Bristolians fought against any attempt to contextualise the statue and went to counter-protests to supposedly 'protect' other statues and monuments."
Dr Watts also notes there has been ambivalence about the recent spate of protests. "[There’s been] anger over obstruction of the [city] centre, debate about the name of Colston on public buildings – which is often defended due to his philanthropy – and opposition to more violent clashes as happened at the Kill the Bill protests."
Both Aaliyah and Iris are aware of the power of the media to uncover stories about Bristol that went without national attention for years but they are also wary of the same spotlight obscuring stories that do not conform to the favoured image of Bristol.