It is difficult to tell a story when the story spans hundreds of years. In reality, there are many more chapters to be written. I was born in Bristol. And now here I am in a crowd, every direction is jammed with people, we are trying to be together yet respectful of each other and giving space, social distancing as much as we can. Some are more successful than others. I am among the unsuccessful ones, although I have not touched anyone. I am overly cautious to the point that it must show on my face. I am assuming so because I have been asked by two people so far if I am okay. One even goes further and tries to direct me to a quiet space in case I need to sit down. It is too noisy to tell him, yes thank you, I am okay, and I know he wants to be helpful, so I let him continue. Just as he finishes, there is a gigantic jubilant roar. I don’t know what is happening, but I cheer and roar too, the ecstatic feeling of happiness feels more contagious than the corona we are trying to avoid.
A man in front of me is pulling a speaker on wheels. This image looks like a flashback to my childhood, when my cousins and I made the trip from St Thomas Jamaica to Dunn’s river falls, and on the way back, fishermen stood on the roadside selling steamed fish wrapped in silver foil. This could have easily been one of the fishermen. Though his frame may have been slender he had a cool confidence that made me think he knows exactly where he is going. There was something about him that warmed my belly, so I followed.
I don’t remember what reggae song he was playing on his speaker, but it was something about redemption, liberation and the will of the people. Wherever he went there was a clear path as if he was Moses. He stops at a mass of people standing around, looking at something on the floor. I can’t see what is happening so I make my way around the mass to find a gap where I can fit. There is a girl standing on a bench or something taking photos, so I hand her my camera and ask her to take pictures for me too. When she hands me back the camera I see a picture of the graffitied face of a statue that I know too well, on top of it lays an afro comb and a tropical drink juice box.
This statue once towered above us mere mortals, a symbol that Bristol was not ashamed of its slave history, a symbol that this was not even history because the legacy of slavery is alive and kicking now, a symbol celebrating those parts of Bristol where people are not welcomed and if you enter and you are triggered, then well, it’s too bad, a symbol that in a few 100 feet, you will enter the space of old money, slave money, saturated wealth, old institutes and networks that serve the descendants of old money. This statue was pulled off its plinth, pushed down the road, and shoved into the water. The same waters that many African enslaved people died in as a result of Edward Colston, the man depicted in the statue.
They say Bristol is changing, I don’t know but I hope so. I was born in Bristol in the 1980s, the youngest of four and the only girl. One of my earliest recollections is my family huddled together in the living room around my dad waiting for him to fix the aerial of our very first colour television. I spent a lot of my childhood sat way too close to the telly and was forever being told by someone to move back. This box allowed me to make sense of the wider world and I was glued to it. Saturday morning TV programmes, with hip young presenters talking to stuffed animals, music chart shows which introduced me to bands like Bros, Pet Shop Boys and Lisa Stansfield, as well as sitcoms like Only Fools and Horses and American series like Dallas, a glittery dramatisation, but the age-old story of clans fighting for power and resources.
Power and resources became a regular feature on this family box. It was replicated often but particularly on the various news programmes, a fight I watched just as intently as I watched everything else. These news programmes made me realise my fragility; I was exposed to the threat of nuclear war, the threat of paedophilia, the threat of AIDS, the threat of terrorist attacks. This was back in the days when the word terrorist was not a synonym for Muslims alone, there were a few others who bore that label before we were handed the baton. Like most people’s childhood, I had an assorted bag of ups and downs, like most people’s childhood I learnt the life-long lesson of how to walk and balance the feeling of uncertainty and fear against the backdrop of general life things for a kid of my age, such as riding bikes and playing football, pulling off the arms and poking out the eyes of my dolls. But these threats led to a clear fear, an omnipresent sense lingering in the background of an invisible foe that was closer to me than I was to the family colour TV. This foe followed me everywhere, and not even I could tell it to move back.
During the early noughties, I moved from Bristol to London, the big city, the place we all moved to or at least dreamed of moving to. That’s how it felt, London for me was this place I had to go, I had to find myself, explore my narrative and create my own story, my own adventure. I imagined moving to London would allow me the freedom to etcher sketch my bold chronicles with all the colours of the sun reflecting from a broken shard of glass against a white wall. And I did just that, I did that and more. I travelled further than I had imagined, and contributed to culture in more ways than I could fathom, back then on the verge of my move I was an awkward black girl leaving her city because she thought it did not love her the way that she loved it.
Now, eighteen years later, moving back to Bristol, I have been thinking a lot about this city, my city and my experiences growing up. What led me to leave, just what was it that made me feel unloved by Bristol. I have been thinking about the context into which I was born and the context of the city which I now see before me. All around you can see the legacy of slavery. In the names of buildings and street names such as Colston Hall, Brunel Rooms, White Ladies Road, Cabot Circus, Portland Square, Jamaica Street, Blackbody Hill, the names go on. You can see the legacy of slavery in the distribution of wealth across the city and in just how segregated it is. You can see it in statues, the architecture, museums, schools and universities. You can see it on the tips of tongues like a forgotten word screaming to be remembered, and maybe even psychologically and subconsciously you can see this in the minds of people.
But we don’t have to go back as far as slavery to think about the city of Bristol and the context in which I was born. You can go back to the 1950s and 1960s the bloom of post-war Britain where many people from the Caribbean entered the country to rebuild its mother country. Black book in hand they were citizens too. Both my parents entered Britain from Jamaica and ironically lived just minutes away from Jamaica Street. This was before they met, but they joked that they may have been far away from Jamaica, but were still close to the sunny island as a result of their proximity to this street. Their closeness to Jamaica was more accurate than they knew as they were unaware of the extent that the many mansions, grand buildings, and the infrastructure of the city had come about as a result of forced labour and cane plantations. They were unaware that Britain’s addiction to sugar and bad teeth was cultivated here.
We can look at the bus boycott of 1963 to help us to understand the context of modern-day Bristol. We can look at the contention of the sus laws in the 1970s and just how impactful it was in setting communities up in direct opposition to anything institutional; the police, physical and mental health organisations, local councils, housing associations, educational institutes, employment bureaus. Yes, they were a means of hope, a means to dignity; but it was also these institutions which had been used as tools to systematically strip away our dignity in the first place. The double-edged sword which cut deep into old scars that were never given the time to heal.
And then, of course, there were the 1980s. In April 2020 in parts of Bristol, we commemorated the fortieth anniversary of the St Paul’s riots, or as it is now being called, the St Paul’s Uprising. At the heart of the action was The Black and White Cafe, the most raided building in the country. The gloomy mist of the uprising can still be felt in Bristol. The demonisation of the majority Caribbean community can still be felt in Bristol. Newspapers, radio and television demonised these people, my people. We were an example for other migrants entering and already living in the city, of what not to be. It was excusable to beat us, to exclude us, to fire us, to not employ us, to not buy, sell nor rent to us, to not educate us. We were under the underdog.
Up until my late 20s, I thought I remembered the uprising and the fear that my parents felt due to the violence taking place at the time, but also because of police retaliation. I thought I remembered the worry that my parents had for my older brothers. I thought I heard conversations being had by elder family members about whose son or daughter may have been involved. I thought I saw scary images of what looked like thousands of police officers lined up further than my line of sight. I thought I remembered the day that I learnt that the police did not like those who looked like me.
But my mum said ‘stop being silly, there is no way you can remember that you were not even born yet’. I was getting confused, you see, I thought I saw the St Paul’s Uprising. It was not until years later that I realised what I actually witnessed.
In 1986, in the same area of St Paul’s something by the name of Operation Delivery took place. The Black and White Cafe was once again at the heart of this. An area the size of two or three main roads and a handful of blocks had six hundred police and other hired men descend upon it as part of drug raids. Imagine the scene – rows of police as far as the eye can see with batons, shields, riot gear, vans, controlled by menacing-looking men.
Beyond anything, any fear, any threat that I had witnessed on the family colour TV, this act of state securitisation scared me the most. This was my bogey man, the thing that went bump in the night, that kept me up and there was no glass screen that separated me from it. Uprising, race riot, or blacks acting up? Criminal blacks being dealt with in the way they deserve. Working-class people acting up, ‘they are lazy and don’t work hard so now they are bitter, have a propensity to rob, steal and complain’. That was the story that was told. Yet if you were to blur the scene and tell me this image was in any warring country, any civil unrest, any country with extreme security that is hostile to it citizens, I would believe you.
It’s interesting that Operation Delivery is just a footnote in history and that’s if we are lucky. It’s interesting that Avon and Somerset Police has been identified as the most institutionally racist police force in the UK today. I wonder if they are proud, I wonder what would happen if they just talked about it. Acknowledged it, and their complicity in the wrongs of that era. Do they know that when they ignore it, they gaslight us which is traumatising within itself. The young officer just joining the forces I wonder if he even knows just how frightening he is and why his uniform is a trigger and a reminder of how they see us. To the non-black Muslim communities, who bought into the demonisation of black folk and who are now experiencing this scrutiny, and demonisation. Do you still believe them? Are we still who you strive not to be?
First comes scrutiny, then fear, and then all of a sudden a security threat is born. Justified securitisation is born. Fractured communities are born. Citizenship is lost. Belonging is lost. We are lost. What will it take for us to be found?