In Bristol, the Feeling’s Mutual

Recently we were speaking about Corona virus – just like every single other person, ever. And their dog (though our dog hasn’t… yet). We also spoke about our involvement with the BASE & Roses (B&R) mutual aid food distro, which is a bit more unique.

B&R has been going for two months now, boasting a membership of 40+ people, and delivering 130 food boxes and 120 cooked meals every week, for free. We’re quite proud. It’s all volunteer-run, and crowdfunded. All decisions are made via weekly general and working group meetings, and – rather than its personnel being arbitrarily split into providers or receivers – its membership includes both. Equal parts inspirational, exciting, exhausting, and mind-numbing, it truly is anarchy in action.

The opportunity, or rather, the responsibility, that the pandemic (and the swathe of poverty and confusion that governments have inflicted with it) has thrust on us, is forcing revolutionaries to step up with a renewed sense of urgency. At least in Bristol, BASE social centre is seeing more community involvement and practical use than it has for years, if not decades. And though the threat of burnout always looms, and sometimes the same meeting topics spiral round and round, uncompleted action points haunt us like restless spirits, and we worry increasingly that our politics will get watered down and co-opted… the truth is, mutual aid (and other vital anarchist concepts) are more relevant to wider society now, than they have seemed in a long long time. In fact, anarchist politics are becoming more and more real.

Yet now that capitalists have steeled themselves into forcing people back into (what even they define as) unessential work, at B&R we have now need to have a good think about the project’s future; at some point BASE and its weekly cafe hope to re-open to the wider public, and while more B&R members face increased risks, both financially (if they don’t re-assume their day jobs and go back to making rich people richer) and physically (as the British government’s laughable reduction in health precautions forces us all into what may as well be a game of Russian Roulette). We say ‘laughable’, but ‘darkly comic’ is probably more apt. So BASE has to consider how everyone can share the space efficiently and safely, and also how we can keep everything running in a sustainable way.

Of course, these questions aren’t just limited to the users of a single anarchist social centre in BS5, but affect our communities on a much wider scale. The question is: what are radicals to do?

Oh gosh, I hope you weren’t expecting us to answer that question? No, we were posing it as a genuine head-scratcher. Please, send us answers. Besides, it’s time for us to provide updates on other Bristolian goings on.

The eye of the world’s media fixated fleetingly on Bristol, for the Black Lives Matter solidarity demo on Sunday 7th June. Spoiler: the day was awesome. There’s little for us to put in as analysis that hasn’t already been said elsewhere with more flourish.

The run up to the day held some frustrations, particularly from the Mayors Office. Deputy Asher Craig took to Facebook to warn of “state agents, anarchists and far-right-wing groups infiltrating the protest”. Pretending to genuinely mistake anarchists for vanguardists who try to take credit for popular movements is obviously a deliberate and hypocritical move on their part. Especially since the Mayor has a history of turning ongoing anti-cuts campaigns into press opportunities for his pro-cuts election bids. White anarchists in particular have been very clear that it should be our role to support black struggles, not control them. But, there’s no point in being outraged on this. It can’t be changed. Politicians of course lie – it’s part of their job description, you know it, we know it, they know it. So let’s move on.

Instead, B&R made ourselves useful by feeding the masses via the medium of a free food stall at Bristol’s BLM demo, handing out savoury & sweet nosh, water, energy drinks, and PPE gear. It had a donation tin, raising funds for four UK-based, POC-led groups: Black LGBTQIA Therapy Fund, United Families & Friends, Memorial Family Fund and, Cradle Community. Though the stall was hard to find in the 1,000s-strong crowd, we supplemented it by carrying crates of supplies out to various points of the protest. This was appreciated, as far as we can tell, judging by anecdotes like this one:

’On Sunday evening, I was passing a flat which had its window open and heard:

“….and they had a welfare tent… who even thinks of that?!”
other voice: “..and a food stall..”
original voice: “..and a food stall!”
…“is anything we do in the future ever gonna top this?..” ’

The day’s policing was pretty shrewd, at least in Bristol. Whereas the London Met apparently thought that the best way to show themselves as compassionate bobbies in regards to BLM’s concerns, was to try and riot against the crowd. There were 29 arrests at the first demo, and 14 injured police – apparently, the press had no interest in reporting the presumably larger number of people hurt by the Met. Though we did find this page pointing out that the majority of images of police injuries on the day were instead recorded, up to four years previously, and the police have been caught out before listing the like of sun burn, tooth ache, and ‘possible bee stings‘ under protest injuries.

By contrast, Bristol police played it smart. They mostly stayed out of sight, didn’t try any arrests, and spoke softly. Imagine the sight if they had tried the alternative. Attempting to fight their way through thousands of people to protect a statue of a slave trader! Not to mention the fact that the sheer numbers of the crowd would have likely lead to them failing, all captured on camera. Then the now angered people would have realised they were absolutely unstoppable!

The (very brief) presence of ten or so far-right ‘statue defenders’ gave the police another distraction. If the cops hadn’t been there to swiftly escort the right wingers away, they would have had an even more humiliating day.

It made for fascinating viewing, to watch the gradual shift in Avon & Somerset’s Superintendent Andy Bennett’s tone, from one interview to the next – in the immediate aftermath of Colston’s swimming lesson, he was all ‘the crowd have been tremendous, and of course it’s far past time that the statue came down’. Yet as each successive hour went by, he became more and more the predictable face of stern authority, and by 5pm, he bemoaned ‘the clear act of criminal damage’, and promised investigations.

The following fortnight saw a public relations hot potato passed between A&S police and Bristol Council – wherein neither of them wanted to be seen as the institutional body that spearheaded criminal investigations of the statue-topplers – with Mayor Marvin Rees making BLM-sympathetic noises to the media. However the council finally relented, quietly submitting a complaint of criminal damage to the police, letting them off the leash to try and hunt down protesters. Bristol Defendant Solidarity have published advice for any alleged statue-topplers caught up in this investigation on the ABC blog.

Speaking of which, Bristol Defendant Solidarity were out in force on the day of the demo, providing (almost enough!) legal observers, distributing thousands of No Comment & legal advice flyers to the crowd, and running a remote ‘back office’, to provide arrestee and court support, should the coppers get too uppity. It’s work that is somewhat unsung and unsexy, but as the actions of the police constantly prove, absolutely vital.

See here for part 2!

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