Hundreds of people set up burning barricades and hurled rocks at police as an anti-Tesco protest in Bristol rapidly escalated into a bloody running battle between officers and residents.
A Tesco Express store in the bohemian neighbourhood of Stokes Croft, in the north of the city, was the focal point for the violence, with police claiming that they had uncovered a plot to petrol bomb the store, which opened eight days ago to widespread hostility from the community.
More than 160 police in riot gear, officers on horseback and reinforcements from neighbouring forces fought with protesters for seven hours through the night until dawn yesterday. A swelling, increasingly angry crowd of 300 people upturned bottle banks to gather glass to bombard officers.
Police were accused of provoking violence with heavy-handed tactics, using batons and setting dogs on innocent bystanders, although eyewitnesses noted that officers became more aggressive after a concrete block was thrown at them from a rooftop. Eight policemen, and several members of the public, were taken to hospital.
The riot resulted from increasing tensions between the retail giant and the community of Stokes Croft, where the majority of residents were vehemently opposed to the opening of the store, believing that it threatens local shops and risks wrecking the character of the area, which is dubbed "Bristol's cultural quarter". The local regeneration has been credited to its small business owners.
Tesco controls a great deal of the UK grocery market, with £1 in every £3 spent on groceries in the UK going into its tills. As of February, Tesco operated more than 2,600 stores in the UK, the majority of those under the Tesco Express banner.
The Stokes Croft store, the 32nd Tesco in Bristol, was gutted by protesters, who forced up the metal security shutters and lit fires. The shop has been shut, with the message "CLOSING DOWN SALE" sprayed on a placard placed in front. A heavy police presence remained in the area last night, including officers and riot vans, and investigators searching for forensic evidence. No other shop on the street was touched.
The spark for the riot was a police raid on a squat known as "Telephathic Heights" opposite the Tesco Express, based on the belief that a petrol bomb attack on the store was imminent. Hundreds of residents turned out in support of the squatters, who have played a part in regenerating the neighbourhood, and chanted "Whose streets? Our streets!"
"The police steamed in and dogs were used," said Bristol East's MP, Kerry McCarthy, who went down to the scene in the early hours of Good Friday after being alerted to the heightening violence, and was herself shoved by police. "There were people being roughly treated." She described the violence towards police as "obviously very unacceptable".
The opening of new Tescos around Britain has been met with sustained campaigning. Yesterday's anti-Tesco protests are the most violent manifestation so far of swelling currents of resentment against corporate giants. Vodafone, Topshop and Barclays have all faced protests in the last six months, in the form of direct action against their shops and branches – demonstrations organised by the activist network UK Uncut, which did not have anything to do with yesterday's demo.
Anger within Britain's protest and anarchist movements is mounting, alongside a willingness by some to fight police given the opportunity, after police in London were accused of aggression in dealing with anti-cuts demonstrators last month.
Nick Jones, a primary school teacher, said a peaceful protest quickly turned ugly: "Between 2.30am and 4.30am there were bottles and rocks thrown. I saw a police officer get hit in the face and go down – he was taken away in an ambulance. People had weapons. They had swords and shields. It turned from 'interesting' to 'scary' very quickly."
Jessie Webb, a barman at The Croft pub, said police were "heavy-handed" towards a crowd which just turned up to watch the arrests. The police caused it [the riot]," he said. "They turned up in large numbers and it attracted a crowd. Then they charged into them."
A 22-year-old, who did not want to be named, said he was hit with a baton despite not being involved in the protest: "I saw them [police] hitting people who were definitely not involved in the violence. They were doing random charges and cracking people indiscriminately."
Jonathan Taphouse, a Bristol photographer, described some officers as behaving "completely out of control". "It seemed that they didn't understand the politics of the area," he said. "It was only a few who kicked off, and there was no real need for a riot," he added. "Residents were woken up and some joined the protesters. This wasn't inevitable – the actions of the police caused the reaction."
Gus Hoyt, a Green Party council candidate for Ashley ward which includes the site of the Tesco store, said he had been "terrified" as the violence escalated, adding that the scenes reminded people of the riots in nearby St Pauls in 1980: "People who remember the 1980s can't believe this is happening again."
Ms McCarthy, who is a shadow Treasury minister, added: "I question why the police op was carried out in an area where a lot of people were out drinking. It didn't seem to be a particularly sensible time to carry out an eviction of a squat that has been there for a long time."
Avon and Somerset Police said its officers' actions had been "fully justified", citing the discovery of petrol bombs and arrests of four offenders who represented "a very real threat".
Tesco said the store on Cheltenham Road would remain closed while the damage was assessed, but that it would defy local resentment and reopen the supermarket. A Tesco spokesman said: "We strongly condemn the violence in Stokes Croft and the injuries caused to the members of the police who worked courageously to protect the public and businesses in this area, including ours."
Claire Milne, co-ordinator of the No Tesco in Stokes Croft campaign, said: "The homogenisation of the high street is the antithesis of the creativity that exists here. There is also a strong sustainability and organic movement here.
"Last night was the inevitable result of a retail behemoth setting up in an area that simply does not want it."
Additional reporting by Christopher Brown
The Campaigners Taking on Tesco
Manningtree, Essex, October 2005
John Caldown, a 54-year-old trader, sat in the path of the 30ft lorries delivering to a Tesco Express and stayed for several hours until the lorries were forced to cancel delivery. He claimed the store was taking local trade and clogging up roads. The store remained open but used smaller delivery trucks.
Shepton Mallet, Somerset, February 2006
Oliver Carter, an environmental activist, climbed into one of the trees set to be felled to make way for a new Tesco. Despite claiming to have vertigo, he stayed put for 11 days until a court order allowed police to evict him.
South-west and Sheffield, March 2008
A "Stop being rotten to chickens" campaign by the animal welfare group Compassion in World Farming organised protests outside three stores in Sheffield and a number in Somerset and Devon after Tesco refused to switch to free-range chicken and eggs.
Central London, April 2009
The words "Every little hurts" were daubed in green paint across 27 Tesco stores by members of a women-led environmental activist group, the Climate Suffragettes. Protesters stencilled the slogan together with a picture of two energy-saving lightbulbs and the Tesco brand name to draw attention to the store's "Flights for Lights" promotion which offered customers air miles for switching to energy-saving lightbulbs.
Bristol, March 2010
The Tesco Express on Cheltenham Road first hit headlines in 2010 when protesters occupied the site, buried their arms in concrete and superglued themselves to walls. Forty officers including dog handlers and mounted riot police were called in to try and disperse a crowd of some 300 people.
Shepton Mallet, Somerset, September 2010
More than 600 shoppers and traders joined together in a petition against a Tesco café opening at Shepton Mallet's Townsend Retail Park store. Locals were concerned that it would be a drain on high-street business, and campaigners said that 20 per cent of signatures came from the traders themselves.
Hinckley, Leicestershire, November 2010
Farmers for Action have blockaded Tesco distribution centres with tractors a number of times, most recently at a major depot in Leicestershire. The blockade resulted in a two hour stand-off before senior management were ready to talk.