Resistance and Counterculture in Bristol, 1944-2023

In this guest article, David Williams maps a timeline of resistance in Bristol from the Park Street protests of 1944 to the Kill the Bill protests of 2021 and beyond. This history is at once an inspiration and a poignant reminder of the need for ongoing struggle for justice.

A city of protest

From the St Pauls demonstrations to the Kill the Bill Protests, this article looks at Bristol’s resistance movements and their impact to Bristolians. 

As a city, Bristol, according to James Watts of the University of Bristol, “has always been a city of protest”.

With these histories of resistance, the people of Bristol have long embraced an “alternative identity,” one that undermines the state as an institutional body, rejecting conformity and validating radicalism.

If it was not for the 1963 Bristol Bus Boycott, the St Paul’s protests of 1980, alongside the many other waves of righteous rage that have shaped Bristol, the city would not have been the slightly better place it is now. And would have not acquired the radical spirit it does have in some circles.

Things are not perfect, but these resistance movements I am about to trace from 1944 to present, have significantly paved the way for a start of a better tomorrow we can create. Impacting the ways in which Bristolians see themselves as changemakers and resistors and sparking a conversation that has been neglected and in some cases intentionally buried.

1944 Park Street protest

“It showed that Bristol was building on earlier protest movements even as it birthed new ones”

On July 15, 1944, a  protest of righteous rage occurred on Park Street and George Street, sparked by  racism and the racial segregation of Black American GIs. In both the UK and abroad, Black GIs refused to go back to their camps in protest against the racism they faced. 

These segregationist colour bar laws affected Black communities who were in this country or were soon to arrive.

This protest in particular, was one of the many crucial moments of activism which addressed these horrific problems that are still occurring today in various manifestations. Showing that Bristol was building on earlier protest movements even as it birthed new movements in turn.

1963 Bristol Bus Boycott

A mural of Roy Hackett showing Roy and a green bus under the words "in honour of the Bristol West Indian Parents and Friends Association"

People of colour in Bristol before the boycott faced “discrimination in housing and enjoyment and some encountered violence from Teddy Boys”. And with the increase of African-Caribbean people arriving in Bristol, skyrocketing from 1,000 in 1950 to 3,000 by 1962 according to Dr Madge Dresser.  

Racial discrimination in Bristol only intensified and worsened over this period, affecting the day-to-day life of African and Caribbean people in the area.

One form of racial discrimination was in employment where people of colour were not allowed work, for instance in the Bristol Omnibus Company due to colour bar policies.

While forms of racial discrimination had and has continued to plague Bristol in several ways, the boycott acted as a seminal moment which created waves of radical change.

Four local Jamaicans within the St Pauls area Owen Henry, Roy Hackett, Audley Evans, and Prince Brown, formed an action group, which would later be called the West Indian Development Council (WIDC).  They were rightfully irritated by the lack of progress in fighting racial discrimination by the West Indian Association. 

The action group connected with Paul Stephenson who was Bristol’s first Black youth officer, as spokesperson.

Through Stephenson and the WIDC, the Bristol Omnibus Company’s racist and discriminatory policy was brought to light into the public, which garnered international attention leading to the colour bar policy to be completely scrapped. 

The boycott lasted four months, Raghbir Singh became the first conductor of colour. The first Black bus driver was Norman Samuels, who took the post, as stated by Tanja Aminata Bah in Discover St Pauls Black History in a storymap and walks.

Students also demonstrated against the Omnibus company’s racially discriminatory policy.  Showing the ways in which anti-racist organising spreads into different demographics and levels of society.

The local newspapers in Bristol also  became engulfed with passionate letters against the policy. There were racist letters and commentaries that opposed the ending of the colour bar such as the Bishop of Bristol stating that WIDC were handling this the wrong way.

1980 St Pauls protests 

Constant harassment, discrimination, racism, brutality and endless stop and searches,  from autocratic police officers led to righteous rage and carnage.

On April 2, 1980, after the completely disrespectful raiding of the Black and White Café, which was routinely harassed by the police, the St Pauls Black community rightfully retaliated, creating necessary havoc in response to the disgusting treatment they had been receiving. Passionately chanting revolution as they created necessary noise – what a glorious sight!

People who were involved in organising the  protests were charged but thankfully acquitted.

The response to these protests was massive, circulating a national consciousness of rage against racism and police brutality,  forwarding disturbances in Southmead, as well as in Brixton and in other areas across the country.

2011 social justice protests

After the horrific death of Mark Duggan  who was shot by the hands of the Metropolitan Police, protests and demonstrations rightfully erupted all over the UK. 

Bristolians, in response to the senseless inhumane violence orchestrated by the police, showed their rage and anger by causing disruption and necessary chaos.

2011 Stokes Croft Protests

A mural painted on a wall reads "think local Boycott Tesco"
A mural that appeared in Stokes Croft in protest against the newly opened Tesco.

These protests occurred following objections to a new Tesco store being built,  the capitalist expansion of an already multibillion corporation in an area that was promoting and uplifting community art.

With there already being local anger by the build,  nasty rough handling from the police pushed the community to the edge as they engaged in a series of  protests.

These protests lasted for three nights, with a further third night occurring a week later.

2019 Extinction Rebellion demonstrations 

People block a road with a long banner reading "Rebel Rebel"
XR Bristol took to the streets in mass protest for one week in July 2021. Image: XR Bristol.

In February 2019, Extinction Rebellion protestors created several roadblocks in Bristol to highlight the environmental damage and current ecological crisis we are in, a crisis that was manufactured by colonialism and capitalism.  

People were arrested for engaging in the protests. 

In Bristol, there was also a rally of 15,000 people which was organised by the Bristol Youth Strike for Climate.

2020 Black Lives Matter Protests and the Toppling of the Colston statue 

In June 2020, in response to the anti-Black racism, police brutality and the public lynching of George Floyd, people in Bristol toppled the statue of the 17th century enslaver Edward Colston, throwing it off into Bristol harbour.

This disgusting statue had been actively ignored by the local government who dragged their feet despite calls to take it down for years.

People took matters into their own hands, on that glorious Sunday, toppling the enslaver, an absolutely glorious scene which garnered international attention.

The toppling created a beautiful national scene of other colonial statues getting the same wonderful fate.

The toxic remnants of the statue, however, remain with the plinth still irritatingly attached; this needs complete removal. 

What was impactful but short-lived, was the statue A Surge of Power, that went to replace the horrific enslaver, which was of Jen Reid, created by Marc Quinn, with their hands in the position of the Black Power Salute. This was erected on 15th July 2020 by a team of 10 people. 

It is important to state that action must continue, Bristol has an horrific legacy of enslavement and with many roads and places and institutions embracing colonisers, there is still a lot of rightful havoc to be made!

2021 Kill the Bill protests

Protesters walk in the road carrying a banner reading: Kill The Bill Protect our Human Rights.
Image: James Ward.

This series of protests took place in response to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill which had reached the very final stages of parliament and would crackdown on many popular forms of protest by affording the police greater powers to limit and curtail demonstrations.

Bristol was among the many cities that saw protests, although Bristol’s gained notoriety following intense police violence against protesters at protests in March 2021.

Many involved in the protests were arrested and placed on trial, many for riot and other public order offences. A process which is still ongoing.

2022 Colston Four support

The Colston 4 stand outside Bristol Crown Court facing press cameras.
The Colston Four (L to R: Sage Willoughby, Jake Skuse, Milo Ponsford and Rhian Graham) leave Bristol Crown Court having been found not guilty for their role in toppling the statue of Edward Colston.

The Colston Four who were involved in the toppling of the Colston statue were charged with vandalism and criminal damage and were sent to Bristol Crown Court.

Hundreds of supporters demonstrated at the courts backing and showing support to the Colston Four.

Gladly, they were all acquitted of the charges, but didn’t need to go through that ordeal. As they were doing something that people found just and necessary. 

2023 Kill the Bill anniversary protest

A placard reads "we've all seen you beating peaceful protesters"
Image; Wong Yat Him.

Two years exactly, after the initial Kill the Bill protest back in 2021, protestors rallied together at the Bearpit all the way to Bridewell police station, to demand that people that had been arrested for their involvement in the protests in 2021 were freed, as well as people who are awaiting trial.

People are still being horrifically charged for their rightful involvement in the protests which is vile and must be stopped. 

Where do we go from here?

As we have seen through countless examples from 1944 all the way to 2023, protests in Bristol have always looked to activate social, economic, environmental and political change, as well as other areas of change, whether this was or is considered a social norm to do so, or not. 

People such as Paul Stephenson and Roy Hackett with their empowering voices and positive action, have become and are trailblazers.

They have become a beacon of light  for radical political action, such as the St Pauls disturbance which created a wave of radical militant action across the country.

It’s essential that we keep mobilising, keep protesting, and keep our dissenting voices up!

Our voices make an impact not only towards our communities, but to the world.

We need to embrace radical militant action, embrace our voices, and continue the fight for just, fair, decolonial, and equitable futures.

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