How Bristol, England’s anti-establishment city, reacted to the death of Elizabeth II

How Bristol, England's anti-establishment city, reacted to the death of Elizabeth II

In Bristol (England).

6:34 p.m. In Stokes Croft, epicenter of Bristol’s nightlife, horns sound: the death of the Queen of England, Elizabeth II, has just been announced by Buckingham Palace. On the doorstep of his grocery store, Malcolm contemplates the spectacle before looking up at the rainy sky. “What a filthy weather!”he asserts, before freeing the passage to let us enter.

When he is told, jokingly, that there is surely a link between the disastrous weather and the death of the queen, he grumbles. “Tsss, you English…» He is then asked, more seriously, how he felt when he heard the news: “Oh you know, sweetheartI never needed her!”

Since the beginning of the afternoon, the rumor swelled. Alerted by the worrying state of the sovereign, the members of the royal family gathered, while on the BBC, the journalists put on their black suits. In the center of Bristol, a man in his forties whom we ask about his relationship with the monarchy sends us for a walk in front of Sainsbury’s: “Whether Elizabeth is dead or alive, I have to buy food!” Jenny, 17, pink dye and Nirvana T-shirt, simply replies she doesn’t have any “nothing to fuck”.

Shortly before, in Clifton, the neighborhood posh from the north of the city where houses with Georgian architecture follow one another, we met Victoria, 52, who told us of her concern, before qualifying: “But OK, what a life!”

When in the French press, we read that the United Kingdom mourns Elizabeth II, in Bristol, obviously, the emotion is less strong than in the rest of the country. Thereby, only a few flowers adorned the cathedral forecourt on the morning of Friday, September 9.

Fight (discreet) against the establishment

Bristol cultivates its ambivalence: both too close and too far from the capital, the city asserts its multicultural character, develops its own identity and rejects established narratives: “Banksy didn’t come out of nowhere, it’s no coincidence that he comes from here”points out sociologist David Goldblatt in the Guardian.

The faceless street artist made his debut in this city in the South West of England. Since then, he has stenciled walls around the world to deploy a satirical work, as in 2003, where he represented Elizabeth II in the form of a chimpanzee in Monkey Queen.

In 2012, Incwel mocked the Queen on the occasion of her diamond jubilee. He decks it out with the lightning bolt of Aladdin Sane, David Bowie’s fictional character. Funny when you know that the London-born musician twice refused to be honored by the monarchy.

The work, still visible on Park Row, is one of the reflections of the unique and out-of-system identity of Bristol, a city in discreet, but constant struggle against the establishment. A rebellious spirit also visible during the elections. On June 23, 2016, 51.89% of British voters voted in favor of their country’s withdrawal from the European Union, but Bristol stood out and voted 61.7% in favor of maintaining it. This is the highest score among the ten largest cities in England, including the capital.

The graffiti depicting the Queen with the lightning bolt by David Bowie is a reflection of Bristol’s identity. | 500 px (Martine Df) via Wikimedia Commons

In the test Outside the Comfort Zone–From Massive Attack to Banksyhistorian Edson Burton explains to journalist Mélissa Chemam: “Bristols are known for knowing how to go beyond civic culture, traditional English politeness. Everything Bristol is known for today, its counterculture, its music, comes from this movement against authority.

The proof with Grantley “Daddy G” Marshall of Massive Attack, a group known for its political commitment. On Saturday, September 10, the musician expressed, on Instagram, his indignation at the emotion aroused by the death of the Queen. In a story, he relays a caricature of Peter Harris and Lee Perry, where we can read “Old Witch” [«vieille sorcière»]. Originally published by UK reggae label manager Dominic Sotgiu blood and firewrites in comment: “Why are people sad? She is the head of an elite group that lives in utter luxury funded by raping, looting, robbing, murdering nations in the name of empire for centuries.

A distrust of power that is based on its history, since it must be written: Bristol carries with it a troubled past.

Colonial past

With its port, the city became, in the 17the century, a strategic point for conquering England. It quickly established itself as one of the main triangular trade platforms between Europe, Africa, the West Indies and America. Until 1807, when slavery was abolished in the United Kingdom, the city grew rich with the slave trade through a man, Edward Colston, who would have sold 100,000 people in the Caribbean and in the Americas, before financially supporting the development of Bristol.

Long considered a philanthropist, his statue was unbolted and thrown into the water, in June 2020, to be replaced by that of Jen Reid, a protester of the Black Lives Matter movement. The letters that adorned the auditorium bearing his name have been removed; schools and streets celebrating him, renowned. Already three centuries earlier, members of the Anglican Church were the first to campaign for the abolition of slavery.

If the city still bears the marks of its colonial past, part of the population has always distinguished itself by its capacity for rebellion in the face of social injustice. History scholar James Watts recalls, on the BBC websitethan in Bristol, “protesting is something deeply inscribed in [l]a genealogy».

From the Bristol Bridge riot of 1793 against local tolls, to the Old Market riots in 1932 in reaction to the government’s 10% cut in unemployment benefits, citizens have always been ready to speak out and argue their point of view. New demonstration on April 2, 1980. That day, the police, in search of drugs, raided the Black and White Cafe. Immediately, a crowd formed near this place frequented by Afro-Caribbean youth.

During the Thatcher years, young people in this West Indian enclave were constantly harassed by the police who referred to a section of the very archaic Vagrancy Act of 1824 to stop, search and arrest anyone suspected of intending to commit a crime. offense. But this time it’s too much. As the police take the suspects on board, the witnesses, black and white, exhausted, throw bottles and bricks at them. The police responded with batons.

For hours, the police and the population clash, against a backdrop of allegations, blunders and racism. A total of 134 people are arrested: eighty-eight blacks and forty-six whites. Solidarity is the treasure of Saint Paul, this district of Bristol which saw the first wave of immigrants land in the 1950s.

“Divided by district and by class”

Flashback. The United Kingdom, victorious, did not emerge unscathed from the Second World War. The losses are considerable: more than 450,000 men died in combat and the bombardments of the Axis forces destroyed many cities and infrastructures.

As the labor shortage is massive, the government is calling for participation in the reconstruction effort. Men from the Caribbean flocked in, mixed marriages spread, West Indian and British cultures infused. They constitute what is known today as the “Windrush generation”, a reference to the ship Empire Windrush, arrived on June 22, 1948 at the port of Tilbury, near London. On board, 492 immigrants from Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago who embarked after the adoption of the British Nationality Act, conferring British nationality on all citizens of the empire.

“Bristol has developed its ‘Do It Yourself’ culture from punk, made of defiance of power.”


Edson Burton, historian

But then, at the beginning of the 1970s, the government, undermined by an economic decline that it was unable to stem, adopted a series of laws to reduce migratory flows, including the Immigration Act, passed in 1971 and entered into force two years later. “In the 1970s, Bristol was a city divided by neighborhood, by class. People don’t like to talk about it, but yet it was.”, reminds Huck Magazine Richard King, British music specialist who worked at Revolver, the legendary record store in the city.

Groups are organized accordingly to fight against racism in the United Kingdom, such as the Gloucestershire West Indian Association, created in 1962, or the British Black Panthersa movement founded in 1968 by Afro-Caribbean immigrants, including the poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.

Historian Edson Burton explains, still in Mélissa Chemam’s essay, that he “You shouldn’t have an overly romantic vision of the socially mixed character of the city, but it’s true that it has acquired quality values ​​of human relations through this story. […] Bristol has thus developed its “Do It Yourself” culture coming from punk, made up of distrust of power, fragmentation and the importance given to an outsider spirit, off the beaten track”.

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