Today in London gay history: the South London Gay Centre evicted, Brixton, 1976

In 1972, some transpontine activists in the Gay Liberation Front founded a South London branch, which initially met from 1972 in the Minet Library, North Brixton. Among their early actions was street theatre in drag, parading though Brixton market. After meetings at the Library, the GLFers often went to the Paulet Arms in Paulet Road round the corner for a drink, although the pub wouldn’t let them use the function room for discos (Fun fact: 25 years later the early planning meetings for the 1998 Brixton Reclaim the Streets party were also held in the Paulet)… Later the South London group met at the Hanover Arms in Stockwell, (where they WERE allowed to have socials upstairs!), at the crypt in St Matthews Church opposite the Town Hall, where they were once besieged and bottled by bigots; then at Oval House Theatre in Kennington… Later still at the Hamilton Arms in Railton Road (a lovely pub, another old hangout of yer past tense typist, where we sometimes held 121 Collective Centre meetings in the late 80s/early 90s, on days when the 121 was too cold to even sit in! – this pub is sadly now gone).

The GLFers also met at the Women’s Centre at 80 Railton Road. GLF socials and dances – attended by 100s of people – were held at the Surrey Halls in Stockwell and even at Lambeth Town Hall.

The GLF group was still active in 1974, doing a Gay community zap (action) against Tescos (not sure of the reason).

In 1973 or 74, three South London GLF members stood as GLF candidates for the Council elections; none got in; later Malcolm Greatbanks stood again in the second General Election of 1974. “Being against Parliamentary Democracy as a meaningless sham it was pointed out that we were just doing this for the free publicity.” Canvassers came in for a fair share of abuse, including a deliberate attempt to run one down – possibly by NFers, as the GLF had been active in opposing NF candidates in Brixton that year. At the Election count a number of GLF drag queens in feather boas livened up the evening!

The Railton Road ‘frontline’ was an alternative and rebellious hotchpotch at this time – along with the black street culture and numerous blues parties, squats, there was a constant sense of siege from police, sparking various confrontations. It was also diversely counter-cultural: there were two women’s centres on Railton Road, an Anarchist News Service, Squatters Groups, a Claimants’ Union for those on welfare benefits, the Brixton Advice Centre, Icebreakers (a gay liberation counselling group), the Black Panthers and Race Today Collective, black centres and bookshops… and a food cooperative, all on the frontline, or on nearby streets like Shakespeare Road and Atlantic Road.

However, Gays on the frontline often faced hostility, from some local blacks and some other local whites: GLF members were thrown out of two local pubs, the George (The George had also previously been prosecuted under the Race Relations Act for barring black people) for holding hands, and picketed the pubs over it.

In March 1972 GLF activists were thrown out of the Union Tavern in Camberwell New Road, for leafleting; the landlord’s son had punched one of the GLFers the previous day… (Not sure if any of this was purely homophobic, or anti-political – sometimes venues that were ok with gay events were quietist, wanting to avoid anything political or activist/lefty – or possibly rightwing-based? Especially interesting as The Union Tavern was hosting gay skinhead dances a couple of years before this time, late 1960s, I think: “Tuesday night was skinhead night and you could walk into the pub and there’d be a sea of crops. Fantastic! And everyone was gay! We’d dance to reggae all night, you know, the real Jamaican stuff, and all in rows, strict step. It was a right sight seeing all those skins dancing in rows. The atmosphere was electric.”

The South London Gay Centre

In May 1974, no 78 Railton Road, (next door to one branch of Brixton Women’s Centre at no 80) was squatted, giving birth to the South London Community Gay Centre.

“During the short period of its existence the Centre acted as a focal point bringing together gay people from many different backgrounds through social activities and political action.

The Gay Centre, as a self-determined group, also took its place among the other community based groups to challenge prejudice, discrimination, heterosexist attitudes and the complacency of officialdom.

There were many different activities at the Centre. A modern dance group was formed and run by Andreas Demetriou.

There was a wrestling group in the basement and, to counter the ‘macho’ posturing of the group, a sewing bee and knitting circle was formed in the upstairs front room run chiefly by Alistair Kerr and Malcolm Watson.”

The Centre was sneeringly described by a visiting reporter as “a shabby set of rooms”! Another visitor to the Squat said: “I was expecting some sort of brotherhood and it wasn’t like that. It was rather like… people who were all already close.” The Centre seems to have lasted till around 1976. The Centre applied for a council grant at one point, but were turned down… the Council was old school right wing Labour at this point, so being gay was deeply suspicious, and squatting in council property probably didn’t help. Some of the young New left labourites objected to their being turned down, including Norwood Councillor, soon to be infamous Lambeth would-be Lenin Ted Knight!

“There were weekly discos in the basement, individual counsellors and regular meetings of the Centre ‘collective’ to determine which campaigns and social events we would support and be involved in.

Discos were also organised at Lambeth Town Hall and an open day was held for members of the public to come and meet us.

Besides all of this there was a regular duty rota so that all the people who visited the Centre would be greeted and made welcome. The 1976 Gay Pride event was also organised by Brixton Gays.”

NB: Around this time, there was actually a black gay ‘blues’ club, on Railton Road, quite well known in the pre-Gay Liberation days, run by a Jamaican woman named Pearl (who was also mildly famous as a ‘naïve’ painter); although according to one source “there was little contact between black and white gays on the Frontline”, others remember things differently, that some ex GLFers did go to Pearl’s shebeen. “It wasn’t quite Queer Nation, but we did enjoy ourselves, in an environment that was free from the usual racism that was pretty much run of the mill prejudices encountered by black people on the gay scene at the time.” (Terry Stewart)

The Centre drew a number of people into the area, who squatted several back-to-back houses on Railton and Mayall Roads, (both very run down then, with lots of empties and knackered houses) with a shared garden in between them.

These houses became the nucleus for further political activity after the closure of the Centre but equally it grew, over time, as an experiment in new communal living arrangements for gay people with varying levels of success.

South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group

“The South London Gay Liberation Theatre Group, which later became the Brixton Faeries, produced several plays, sketches and street theatre performances. They were mostly unashamedly agit prop but later became more sophisticated with better characterisation and plotting. Beginning with a Gay Dragon paraded in a local street festival the group went on to perform sketches for local community groups.

The first play, ‘Mr Punch’s Nuclear Family’, was performed at the Centre and in a local school playground at a community event. The play attacked patriarchal values by showing the devastating effects on the wife and gay son of ‘rule by the father’ and the collusion of the male-dominated authorities in acquitting the father of murdering them (1975).

Next came ‘Out of it’ (1975/76) showing the relationship between patriarchal values, fascism and the extremes of christian morality and how they contributed to gay oppression. This was followed by ‘Minehead Revisited or The Warts that Dared to Speak their Name’.

A highly topical and controversial play at the time about the Jeremy Thorpe trial at the Old Bailey. As leader of the Liberal Party he had been accused of plotting to have a former male lover intimidated and even killed in order to keep him quiet about their affair (1977-80).

‘Tomorrow’s too Late’ was an anarchic blend of music, song and fantasy around gay activist groups and the banning of Gay News by WH Smith for carrying an advert about a paedophile group and later a poem by James Kirkup suggesting a homosexual relationship between Christ and a Roman soldier (1977-80). ‘Gents’ told the story of ‘cottaging’, that is, the reasons why men have sex with other men in public toilets.

The more respectable gays viewed cottaging as repulsive and giving ordinary, decent gay people a bad name. The police frequently arrested and charged men with ‘gross indecency’ often ruining their lives in terms of losing jobs and destroying relationships.

Brixton Faeries decided to expose the oppressive nature of police entrapment and to present cottaging in positive terms as an ideal fantasy even going so far as to suggest the local council attempting to stump up funding to ‘improve facilities’ (1978-80).

We also did Joint productions with various other groups such as Gay Sweatshop in ‘Radio Gay’ at the Oval House Community Centre.

Most of the productions were at fringe theatres or community centres and one performance of ‘Out of it’ was in front of the Young Communist League who were shocked to see two men kissing on stage.”

Many people who used the Centre were unemployed and could not afford to fund it. Infighting between different factions and lack of funding contributed to the demise of the Centre.”

However the final blow came when the Centre was evicted, on 21st April 1976, by police and bailiffs so that the private owners could take vacant possession of the property and sell it to Lambeth Council for redevelopment.

The building was however re-squatted, at least for a while:

“The Gay Centre did not close due to eviction. We re-squatted the next day !
It closed after the principal people involved gave up the struggle with those we rudely called “The Nerds” who took over but were so un-together that they failed to pay the electricity and phone bills and and within months, it had collapsed.”

This marked the end of the “first public and visible institution with a clear gay identity. With this closure the focus for political and social activity shifted from the Centre to the gay squats.”

From about 1972 on there had been a number of gay squats/communes in Railton and Mayall Roads, later there seem to have been 11 houses in a group, back to back with a big communal garden. They had discos in basements… “people would bring their own records… we just had a few coloured lights, although it could get quite randy down there. It was more Dante’s Inferno than ‘Disco Inferno’ “(Ian Townson). Apparently the attempt to establish a ‘common gay identity’ didn’t really work, and there were divisions, due to different class and backgrounds of the residents… often the splits came down to “love and peace and brown rice” versus “political activists”. Later several of these squats joined Brixton Housing Co-op, and were redeveloped into single person units.

“While this made for more secure accommodation and the shared garden was kept in tact it led to a more ‘privatised’ existence and some of the original elan and spirit was lost as a result.

However the gay households are all still there with more or less permanent inhabitants.

Gay people arrived at the squats for many different reasons. Some were desperately fleeing from oppressive situations in their lives. Others were glad to find the company of unashamedly out gay people rather than remain confused and isolated.

Some consciously saw this as an opportunity to attack ‘straight’ society through adopting an alternative lifestyle that challenged the prevailing norms of the patriarchal nuclear family and private property.

There were many visitors from overseas. Everything would be shared in common including sex partners and gender bending was encouraged to dissolve rigid categories of masculine men and feminine women. For others dressing in drag was a sheer pleasure and an opportunity for ingenious invention.

The ‘cultural desert’ in South London offered little social space in which to gather strength as ‘out’ gay people. The ‘straight’ gay scene was inhospitable, exploitative and a commercial rip off  (it is now gay-owned, exploitative and a commercial rip off).

With a common garden between the houses the back doors were often left open so that people could come and go in and out of each others squats.

The kitchen more often than not became the hub of food, conversation and play. In the shared garden people would gather to dine Al Fresco or play music or even rehearse for various theatre productions. Even just camp it up for the hell of it.”

Many of the Centre’s gay activists continued to be active in Brixton after the demise of the Centre. The National Gay News Defence Committee was originally based at 146 Mayall Road and then moved to 157 Railton Road. The group was set up when Mary Whitehouse, a right-wing moral crusader, prosecuted Gay News on a charge of blasphemous libel for carrying the notorious poem by James Kirkup, imagining Jesus having sex with a roman soldier…

“This happened at a time when there was also much police activity against gay people in different parts of the country on cottaging charges and the wrongful assumption that we were paedophiles.”

With the successful prosecution of Gay News the NGNDC became the Gay Activists’ Alliance, a late-70s attempt to repoliticise the gay scene and link gay liberation to other struggles; which continued with both national and international campaigns with many locally active groups.

There was also a gay socialist paper “Gay Noise’. Some ex-GLFers set up ‘Icebreakers’ in Brixton, this was a radical counselling group which helped many people to come to terms with their sexuality and come out. The idea had arisen from the GLF’s ‘Counter Psychiatry’ sub-group, which attempted to challenge psychiatry’s treatment of lesbians and gays as sick or mad.

“Also the fascist National Front was particularly active at this time; mostly against immigrants, black people and left-wing organisations but also several gay establishments had been attacked by them including the Vauxhall Tavern in South London.

In 1978 a massive Anti-Nazi League march came along Railton Road for a Rock Against Racism festival in Brockwell Park. We fully supported the demonstration and the marchers passed under a banner we had slung high across Railton Road saying: Brixton Gays Welcome Anti-Fascists.

Also there was Anita Bryant, the Florida Orange lady, who campaigned in the United States against gays. Her famous phrase was: ‘God made Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve’ and she became even more famous when an irate gay activist shoved a cream pie in her face in full view of television cameras.

Union Place Community Resource Centre in Brixton… encouraged us to go along and make posters, diaries, badges, calendars and banners for our campaigns. Ian Townson and Colm Clifford from the gay community became employees and Colm initiated ‘Homosexual Posters’ from there producing pictorial biographies of gay people and even gay Christmas cards.

Brixton Riots

A special mention should be made of the Brixton riots of 1981 which happened chiefly as a result of the racism and heavy-handed harassment of black people by the police. The riots were centred around Railton Road and when Brixton was burning we showed our solidarity with the oppressed by joining them on the streets.

We even took tables and chairs out onto the street in front of the gay squats for a celebration party – some people in drag – getting a mixed reception from people on the street. Some hostile, others indifferent, some amused.”

Two of the Brixton gay squatters were sent to prison for a couple of years for supplying petrol to the rioters for Molotov cocktails…

Many of the original gay squats survive as co-op houses in Railton and Mayall Roads, lots with their original residents.

Some of this post was nicked from here

(where there are lots of great pics of the Centre and other gay squats, and a great thread of comments from former South London GLF folk and Centre goers)

and from No Bath but Plenty of Bubbles: An oral history of the Gay Liberation Front, ed Lisa Power.

But… there are some other accounts available now of gay lib and related skulduggery of the times…

here’s a previous post we did on Bethnal Rouge, another offshoot of the GLF

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Today in London trade history: master tailors go to court to restrict rights of their workers, 1415

In London, as in many other cities, the middle ages saw work and its rules and regulations codified in trade Guilds, composed of workmen from specific trades and crafts. Their purpose was to defend the interests of the trade, regulate the quality of workmanship and the training of new members, and provide support and welfare for their members. Established by charter and regulated by the City of London, London’s guilds also provided a political voice to their members, who as freemen of the City had the right to elect members of the Court of Aldermen and Common Council. London had eighty-nine guilds in the eighteenth century, ranked according to a hierarchy of precedence with the twelve Great Companies at the top. The powers of the guilds to regulate economic activity declined substantially in the eighteenth century, and their primary functions were increasingly confined to providing social prestige, business contacts and a political voice to their members. They also provided substantial charity to their members, partly funded by large charitable bequests which they administered.

Membership in a guild could be taken up in one of three ways: by completing a seven year apprenticeship, by patrimony (if one’s father was a member of the company), or by redemption (payment of a fee). None of these routes of entry ensured that the member would actually practice the company’s trade. Owing to the Custom of London, members of London guilds could practise any trade in the City. Consequently, even though a completed apprenticeship remained the most common route to membership, guilds often included numerous members who did not actually practice the relevant trade. The ratio of members practising the craft to others varied from guild to guild, with the less prestigious guilds such as the Carpenters’ Company having a larger number of practicing craft members. Other companies, such as the Grocers’, Fishmongers’, and Goldsmiths’, had many fewer practising members, and, owing to the high cost of admission, became “little more than gentleman’s clubs”.

Most guilds were composed of men from a mixture of social backgrounds. Apprentices were almost invariably young and came from both relatively poor and wealthy homes. Journeymen, craftsmen who had finished their apprenticeship but had not set up an independent business, were relatively poorly paid. Master craftsmen ran anything from a small one-man workshop to a thriving business with several apprentices, journeymen, and partners in other trades. By the eighteenth century most guilds did not include women, though sometimes widows who took over their husbands’ businesses became members by default, and took over the training of their husbands’ apprentices. Even in this instance, women were excluded from participation in company business.

Guilds were normally governed by a master, two wardens, and a Court of Assistants, which set policies, oversaw the administration of company properties, and governed the distribution of charitable funds.

But the Medieval guilds, while designed to unite trades vertically, were themselves inevitably split by class struggle. The interests of the masters and more prosperous employers diverged from those of the journeymen who worked for them, and the apprentices who were learning the job.

Journeymen’s resentment at working conditions, poor pay and lack on control over their work sparked attempts to get together, organise, demand change… this was met by guild hierarchies and the masters, to repress this organisation by the ‘servants’ of the guild.

Against this background the lower orders or ‘yeomanry’ of City companies like the founders, tailors, curriers, bakers and clothworkers fought running battles with the livery over elections to guild positions and the posts of aldermen in London’s council, over control of charitable funds for the poor and use of the right of search.

The Merchant Tailors Guild was notable among these struggles. For centuries one of crafts where organisation among the lower orders was most active.

Tailors were often seen as radical, politically, by tradition… it has been suggested that radical politics often flourished among tailors partly due to their working in quiet conditions, often one or two in a house or workshop, with time to think, discuss ideas… But economics also probably played a large part – in a trade where piece work was the norm, work was very subject to ups and downs of general prosperity, seasons, trade depressions, the imports of cloth…

The early fifteenth century saw legal moves by master tailors to shut down autonomy and ‘combinations’ among journeymen and apprentices. On 19 April 1415, masters challenged in court the right of their servants’ to live in their own dwellings, assemble and meet together freely, and to belong to their own separate fraternity. These yeomen possibly lived in “3 Shears Court,” described by Stowe in his Survey as lying adjacent to the church of St. James’, Garlick Hill.

The masters complained that the journeymen tailors were living in their own dwellings “by themselves alone in companies,” against the licence or will of the Master, and “without head or government.” Woo. Dangerous.

Not only that, but they had ‘behaved in an unruly manner, and that allowing them their own fraternity or gatherings ‘would lead to disturbances, as similar assemblies of the same mistery had done before’.

Two of the offenders were summoned to appear before the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, who adjudged “that the servants of the foresaid trade shall be hereafter under government and rule of the Master and Wardens of the aforesaid trade, as other servants of other trades in the said City are, and are bound by law to be, and that they shall not use henceforth livery or dress, meetings or conventicles, or other unlawful things of this kind.”

The masters thus won the case; ‘yoman taillours’ were subsequently only permitted to gather within the church of St John in the presence of their masters. Clearly there was already a dissident faction among the journeymen and apprentices, and they had been agitating prior to this court case…

The court case didn’t end the tailors’ struggles. Two years later in August 1417, the journeymen “as a Brotherhood of Yeoman Tailors,” approached the Lord Mayor for permission to assemble “on the Feast of the Decollation of St. John the Baptist next following and so henceforth yearly, in the church of St. John of Jerusalem, near Smythfield, there to offer for the deceased brothers and sisters of the said brotherhood, and to do other things which they have been accustomed to do there”. However, this proposal, while sounding innocuous, must have implied dangerous and rebellious tendencies – the masters objected, and the Court thought fit to “order and consider that in future times no servant or apprentice of the said trade shall presume by themselves to make or enter assemblies or conventicles at the foresaid church of St. John or elsewhere, unless with and in presence of the Masters of the said trade, etc., on pain of imprisonment and fine.”

Any gathering not overseen by the guild hierarchy was basically suspect.

In the 1440s the struggle between the lower orders of the tailors and their masters was to erupt into serious revolt. The wealthy masters were attempting to strengthen their rights to examine journeymen’s work, and prosecute those ‘guilty of defective work, while the ‘yeomen’ clamoured to be able to elect their own representatives to the ranks of the City Aldermen. Alliances were made between the journeymen across guild lines, and in 1443 a conspiracy was supposedly quashed, in which 2000 armed artisans were planning to riot in support of a demand to be admitted to the process of electing aldermen and the mayor. However, the masters were better organised, and not was this plot defused, but journeymen tailors and their allies in other guilds in fact faced defeat, with previously held rights lost, a situation that lasted decades for centuries. But the journey men tailors would maintain a stubborn resistance to their betters, organising in secret, evolving fraternities and clubs to agitate for better wages and conditions… So formidable that this network would be labeled the ‘tailor’s republic’ in the 18th century…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history, 1870: a Land & labour League unemployed demonstration.

On 15th April 1870, a Land and Labour League unemployed demonstration took place in London. The winter of 1869-70 had seen a large rise in unemployment, and on Good Friday the League organised a demonstration of the jobless, which aroused considerable comment. League members wore “broad scarlet sashes…around the waist, in the exact pattern current among the sans culottes of the first French Revolution, and, in a further imitation of that class, poles were born aloft with the emblematical caps of liberty”. (The Times, 16 April 1870)

The Land and Labour League had been formed in October 1869, by a group of radical trade unionists affiliated to the International Working Men’s Association. The meetings had been proposed by the O’Brienite National Reform League and were attended by a variety of working class radicals, as evidenced by the somewhat eclectic programme. Its formation had been sparked by a discussion of the land question at the Basle Congress of the International Workingmen’s Association (the ‘First International’) earlier in the year.

The League advocated the full nationalisation of land, in the interests of the people that worked it; its membership was associated with many of the working class activists and trade unionists who formed the backbone of the political reform movements of the 1860s-70s, (it has been described as the successor to the Reform League) the secularists and the shortlived working class republican network in London.

Although originally concerned mainly with land nationalisation the League became the leading left republican organisation in Britain.

Patrick Hennessey, an Irish trade unionist, was the Land League’s President. The secretaries were Martin J. Boon (who had been strongly influenced by the group that grew up around the former Chartist socialist James Bronterre O’Brien, based at the Eclectic Hall in Soho) and John Weston, and the treasurer was Johann Eccarius, well known figure in the English section of the First International.

Boon’s involvement in the formation of the League is illustrated in the presence in the original principles of the L&LL many of the demands of the ‘O’Brienite’ wing of Chartism – nationalisation of the land; home colonization; equal electoral rights and payment of MPs, along with more more generally radical aims – free compulsory state education; abolition of standing army; state limitation of working hours. To this was added a plethora of concessions to the rising tide of currency reformism (single tax; nationalisation of the banks; abolition of national debt).

Members of the IMWA’s General Council were noticeably active in the League. These included JG Eccarius, then a disciple of Marx, George Odger, John Weston, Martin J Boon and Tom Mottershead. Marx was a member of the League, joining on 30 November 1869, but did not play a prominent part. Charles Bradlaugh, the secularist, was also a leading figure.

‘The Republican’ (1 September 1870 to 1 February 1872) was the de facto publication of the League. Daniel Chatterton, former Chartist, secularist speaker, fiery communist orator, later of ‘Chatterton’s Commune’ fame, was the proprietor.

The Land & League reached its organisational height due to wide spread public sympathy with the new French republic declared in 1870 at the end of the Franco-Prussian War. At a League rally on the issue of the war and the French Republic in January 1871, “a dense sea of human faces…men- workers primarily and a few women ‘daughters of Labour’ – understanding the speeches and keen about them; and on the platform a small knot of men, the Irreconcilables of English policy”. The latter included Beesly, his friend Harrison, Bradlaugh, Odger and Applegarth. (Eastern Post, 14 January 1871).

Originally neutral, the League later helped organise an Anglo-French Intervention Committee to press for military action against the Prussians – at this meeting a motion for war if Alsace Lorraine was annexed was passed. This latter action and the outbreak of the Paris Commune brought dissensions. More moderate (Odger, Bradlaugh) and more radical (Weston, Boon) elements broke off. Competition from the middle class Land Tenure Association stole many of the surviving adherents. A rump of currency cranks lingered on until the end of the 1870s.

Despite effectively petering out by 1873 the League had some radicalising impact on the Land Tenure Reform Association established by John Stuart Mill, which adopted a policy of taxing the unearned increment on land value under pressure from the League.

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Address of the Land and Labour League to the Working Men and Women of Great Britain and Ireland

Drawn up: by JG Eccarius on about November 14, 1869;
Published: as a pamphlet Address of the Land and Labour League to the Working Men and Women of Great Britain and Ireland, London, 1869.

This address is in fact the programme of the Land and Labour League; drawn up by Eccarius who was on the commission preparing it, and edited by Marx, and this found expression in the League’s programme.

Fellow-Workers,

The fond hopes held out to the toiling and suffering millions of this country thirty years ago have not been realised. They were told that the removal of fiscal restrictions would make the lot of the labouring poor easy; if it could not render them happy and contented it would at least banish starvation for ever from their midst.

They rose a terrible commotion for the big loaf, the landlords became rampant, the money lords confounded, the factory lords rejoiced — their will was done — Protection received the coup de grâce. A period of the most marvellous prosperity followed. At first the Tories threatened to reverse the policy, but on mounting the ministerial benches, in 1852, instead of carrying out their threat, they joined the chorus in praise of unlimited competition. Prepared for a pecuniary loss they discovered to their utter astonishment that the rent-roll was swelling at the rate of more than £2,000,000 a year. Never in the history of the human race was there so much wealth — means to satisfy the wants of man — produced by so few hands, and in so short a time as since the abolition of the Corn Laws. During the lapse of twenty years the declared value of the animal exports of British and Irish produce and manufactures — the fruits of your own labour — rose from £60,000,000 to £188,900,000. In twenty years the taxable income of the lords and ladies of the British soil increased, upon their own confession, from £98,000,000 to £140,000,000 a year; that of the chiefs of trades and professions from £60,000,000 to 10,000,000 a year. Could human efforts accomplish more?

Alas! there are stepchildren in Britania’s family. No Chancellor of the Exchequer has yet divulged the secret how the £140,000,000 are distributed amongst the territorial magnates, but we know all about the trades-folk. The special favourites increased from sixteen, in 1846, to one hundred and thirty-three, in 1866. Their average annual income rose from £74,300 to £100,600 each. They appropriated one-fourth of the twenty years’ increase. The next of kin increased from three hundred and nineteen to nine hundred and fifty-nine Individuals: their average annual income rose from £17,700 to £19,300 each: they appropriated another fourth. The remaining half was distributed amongst three hundred and forty-six thousand and forty-eight respectables, whose annual income ranged between £100 and £10,000 sterling. The toiling millions, the producers of that wealth — Britania’s cinderellas — got cuffs and kicks instead of halfpence.

In the year 1864 the taxable income under schedule D increased by £9,200,000. Of that increase the metropolis, with less than an eighth of the population, absorbed £4,266,000, nearly a half, £3,123,000 of that, more than a third of the increase of Great Britain, was absorbed by the City of London, by the favourites of the one hundred and seventy-ninth part of the British population: Mile End and the Tower, with a working population four times as numerous, got £175,000. The citizens of London are smothered with gold; the householders of the Tower Hamlets are overwhelmed by poor-rates. The citizens, of course, object to centralisation of poor-rates purely on the principle of local self-government.

During the ten years ending 1861 the operatives employed in the cotton trade increased 12 per cent; their produce 103 per cent. The iron miners increased 6 per cent; the produce of the mines 37 per-cent. Twenty thousand iron miners worked for ten mine owners. During the same ten years the agricultural labourers of England and Wales diminished by eighty-eight thousand one hundred and forty-seven, and yet, during that period, several hundred thousand acres of common land were enclosed and transformed into private property to enlarge the estates of the nobility and the same process is still going on.

In twelve years the rental liable to be rated to the poor in England and Wales rose from £86,700,000 to £118,300,000: the number of adult able-bodied paupers increased from one hundred and forty-four thousand five hundred to one hundred and eighty-five thousand six hundred.

These are no fancy pictures, originating in the wild speculations of hot brained incorrigibles; they are the confessions of landlords and money lords, Recorded in their own blue books. One of their experts told the House of Lords the other day that the propertied classes, after faring sumptuously laid by £150,000,000 a year out of the produce of your labour. A few weeks later the president of the Royal College of Surgeons related to a jury assembled to inquire into the causes of eight untimely deaths, what lie saw in the foul ward of St. Pancras.

Hibernia’s favourites too have multiplied, and their income has risen, while a sixth of her toiling sons and daughters perished by famine, and its consequent diseases, and a third of the remainder were evicted, ejected and expatriated by tormenting felonious usurpers.

This period of unparalleled Industrial prosperity has landed thousands of our fellow-toilers — honest, unsophisticated, hardworking men and women — in the stone yard and the oakum room; the roast beef of their dreams has turned into skilly. Hundreds of thousands, men, women and children, are wandering about — homeless, degraded outcasts — in the land that gave them birth, crowding the cities and towns, and swarming the highroads in the, country in search of work to obtain food and shelter, without being able to find any. Other thousands, more spirited than honest, are walking the treadmill to expiate little thefts, preferring prison discipline to workhouse fare, while the wholesale swindlers are at large, and felonious landlords preside at quarter sessions to administer the laws. Thousands of the young and strong cross the seas, flying from their native firesides, like from an exterminating plague; the old and feeble perish on the roadside of hunger and cold. The hospitals and infirmaries are overcrowded with fever and famine-stricken: death from starvation has become an ordinary every-day occurrence.

All parties are agreed that the sufferings of the labouring poor were never more intense, and misery so widespread, nor the means of satisfying the wants of man ever so abundant as at present. This proves above all that the moral foundation of all civil government, “that the welfare of the entire community is the highest law, and ought to be the aim and end of all civil legislation”, has been utterly disregarded. Those who preside over the destinies of the nation have either wantonly neglected their primary duty while attending to the special interests of the rich to make them richer, or their social position, their education, their class prejudices have incapacitated them from doing their duty to the community at large or applying the proper remedies; in either case they have betrayed their trust.

Class government is only possible on the condition that those who are held in subjection are secured against positive want. The ruling classes have failed to secure the industrious wages-labourer in the prime of his life against hunger and death from starvation. Their remedies have signally failed, their promises have not been fulfilled. They promised retrenchment, they have enormously increased the public expenditure instead. They promised to lift the burden of taxation from your shoulders, the rich pay but a fractional part of the increased expenses; the rest is levied upon your necessaries — even your pawn tickets are taxed — to keep up a standing army drawn from your own ranks, to shoot you down if you show signs of disaffection. They promised to minimise pauperism: they have made indigence and destitution your average condition — the big loaf has dwindled into no loaf. Every remedy they have applied has but aggravated the evil, and they have no other to suggest, — their rule is doomed. To continue is to involve all in a common ruin. There is but one, — and only one, — remedy. Help Yourselves! Determine that you will not endure this abominable state of things any longer; act up to your determination, and it will vanish.

A few weeks ago a score of London working men talked the matter over. They came to the conclusion that the present economical basis of society was the foundation of all the existing evils, — that nothing short of a transformation of the existing social and political arrangements could avail, and that such a transformation could only be effected by the tolling millions themselves. They embodied their conclusions in a series of resolutions, and called a conference of representative working men, to whom they were submitted for consideration. In three consecutive meetings those resolutions were discussed and unanimously adopted. To carry them out a new working men’s organisation, under the title of the “Land and Labour League”, was established. An executive council of upwards of forty well-known representative working men was appointed to draw up a platform of principles arising out of the preliminary resolutions adopted by the conference, to serve as the programme of agitation by means of which a radical change call be effected.

After mature consideration the Council agreed to the following:

  1. Nationalisation of the Land.
  2. Home Colonisation.
  3. National, Secular, Gratuitous and Compulsory Education.
  4. Suppression of Private Banks of Issue. The State Only to Issue Paper Money
  5. A Direct and Progressive Property Tax, in Lieu of All Other Taxes.
  6. Liquidation of the National Debt.
  7. Liquidation of the Standing Army.
  8. Reduction of the Number of the Hours of Labour.
  9. Equal Electoral Rights, with Payment of Members.

The success of our efforts will depend upon the pressure that can be brought to bear upon the powers that be, and this requires numbers, union organisation and combination. We therefore call upon you to unite, organise and combine and raise the cry throughout Ireland, Scotland, Wales and England, “The Land for the People” — the rightful inheritors of nature’s gifts. No rational state of society can leave the land, which is the source of life, under the control of, and subject to the whims and caprices of, a few private individuals. A government elected by, and as trustee for, the whole people is the only power that can manage it for the benefit of the entire community.

Insist upon the State reclaiming the unoccupied lands as a beginning of its nationalisation, and placing the unemployed upon it. Let not another acre of common land be enclosed for the private purposes of non-producers. Compel the Government to employ the army until its final dissolution, as a pioneer force to weed, drain and level the wastes for cultivation, instead of forming encampments to prepare for the destruction of life. If green fields and kitchen gardens are incompatible with the noble sport of hunting let the hunters emigrate.

Make the Nine points of the League the Labour programme the touchstone by which you test the quality of candidates for parliamentary honours, and if you find them spurious reject them like a counterfeit coin, for he who is not for them is against you.

You are swindled out of the fruits of your toil by land laws, money laws, and all sorts of laws. Out of the paltry pittance that is left you, you have to pay the interest of a debt that was incurred to keep you in subjection. You have to maintain a standing army that serves no other purpose in your generation, and you are systematically overworked when employed, and underfed at all times. Nothing but a series of such reforms as indicated on our programme will ever lift soil out of the slough of despond in which you are at present sunk. The difficulty can be overcome by unity of purpose and action. We are our opponents are few. Then, working men and women of all creeds and occupations, claim your rights as with one voice, and rally round, and unite your forces under, the banner of the “Land and Labour League” to conquer your own emancipation!

John Weston, Treasurer
Martin J. Boon, J. George Eccarius Secretaries

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Thanks to Keith Scholey for some of this post… Readers interest in the secularist, republican scene in London between the 1850s and 1880s, especially the followers of Bronterre O’Brien, could do worse than read Club Life and Socialism in Mid-Victorian London, by Stan Shipley. EP Thompson’s biog of William Morris, Romantic to Revolutionary, and The Slow Burning Fuse, by John Quail, pick up the threads of this, describing how many of these elements went on to form the early English socialist and anarchist movements.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history: the 1981 Brixton Uprising

“Between 6.10pm on Friday, 10th April, 1981, and 11.34pm, on Monday April 13th April 1981, during a very warm early spring interlude, serious disorder occurred in the immediate area of Brixton, SW9, within the greater London Borough of Lambeth, when large numbers of persons, predominantly black youths, attacked police, police vehicles (many of which were totally destroyed), attacked the Fire Brigade and damaged appliances, damaged private premises and vehicles, destroyed private premises and vehicles by fire, looted, ransacked and damaged shops…” (Metropolitan Police Report on April 1981 Brixton Riot)

“All you fucking cunts, it’ll be your turn next, the whites will turn on you, come on you cunt, take a swing at me man to man.” (White policeman to black passers-by, Villa Road, Brixton, 11th April 1981.)

After more than a decade of repeated attacks, arrests, harassment, and racist provocations by the local police and the paramilitary riot squad, the Special Patrol Group, in April 1981, Brixton erupted in a massive uprising.

The riot – followed by more in July, part of a nationwide wave of disorder – shocked the British state. Though labelled ‘race riots’ by the press, in fact blacks and whites fought side by side, in the first anti-police riots for more than a century. The riot was a prelude to widespread uprisings in communities across Britain that took place in July.

The following is mostly taken (with some additions) from the pamphlet ‘We Want to Riot, Not To Work’, originally published in April 1982, by the Riot Not to Work Collective, a group of anarchists who lived in Brixton and took part in the April ’81 riot. As the original publishers wrote: “Generalisations about events are hardly useful unless they reflect the experience of those involved in them. The contributors to the first section express their thoughts, feelings and aspirations during the course of the April uprising. The first account also gives some background information about Brixton and the events which led up to the uprising. All these accounts were originally written just afterwards.”

Something of the background to the riot in terms of policing and black resistance to it can be read here

We have left the accounts in the present tense, to preserve the immediacy of the writing. Obviously social relations in Brixton have changed massively in the 37 years since 1981, as the initial description of the ‘Frontline’ most clearly indicates – though some burning issues remain.

THE FIRE THIS TIME

By now the social and economic background to the Brixton riots will be familiar to most people. A housing waiting list, in the borough in which Brixton is situated, of 18,000; a third of the housing stock sub-standard; high unemployment with about 2 out of 3 of the unemployed being black; a high robbery rate (in fact the highest in London, it being twice the nearest figure); next to no social amenities.

This is all very true. The area around the Railton Road (Frontline/Mayall Road triangle) is inhabited by mainly black council tenants and mainly white squatters (leftists/anarchists/marginals). Empty houses are also used by local blacks as drinking and gambling clubs, dope centres and venues for all-night ‘Blues’ (parties with sound systems pumping out non-stop reggae). Down the Frontline a black crafts centre has recently started in one empty building and further down a former black bookshop is now a squatted anarchist bookshop. People down here tend to live on the left-overs of capitalist society. For years, the Triangle has been on the drawing board for demolition but only in the last two has any attempt been made to carry this out. But the council keeps running out of money so it has been coming down piecemeal, making a rough area look even rougher. However, the maze of streets west of the Front-line look brighter as they have increasingly come under the occupation of white, liberal professionals and self-made respectable blacks.

Down the Frontline there are two distinct cultures – the black and the white – and it is the black culture which predominates and on the fringes of which the young whites participate. Dope and Reggae. The blacks have their own language – Patois – and this gives them an independent cultural identity that is not easily co-opted or diluted . Perhaps the most relevant aspect of this culture (in terms of the riots) is that it is very much a street culture (despite British weather). Winter or summer there are always crowds of blacks out on the Frontline rapping, smoking, laughing, visibly occupying their social space.

But it is the cops who claim they control the streets of London. Certainly in the two years I’ve lived on the Frontline I’ve noticed that the cops have always tried to intimidate the Frontline community with constant vehicle and foot patrols and less frequently, horse patrols. (The most bizarre policing incident I’ve ever seen happened a few months ago when a cop on horseback chased someone down Mayall Road).

Actually, the cops know they cannot fully control the Frontline. Despite their claims and their patrols the police policy on the Frontline has been one of containment – periodical raids to remind locals who is boss and to warn them not to get out of hand. Operations such as the one in 1978, when the SPG scaled off the Frontline and searched anybody and everybody, have caused outrage. Blacks, especially the second generation, are, on the whole, defiant. A month or so ago a black motorist tore up the ticket a cop had just given him and threw it back in his face, to cheers from the assembled crowd.

The cops constantly use the SUS laws to stop and search young blacks. And they do this with vengeance. Another events on the Frontline will illustrate this. Two vehicles collided and the cops on the scene immediately searched both vehicles and their drivers and passengers. The accident was secondary. With such everyday deprivation and such mindless state bullying, for being deprived, the one thing which united the disparate elements of the Frontline community is a burning hatred for the cops. What most surprised local people when the Bristol riots happened last year was that they hadn’t happened here first. Another surprise was that the anarchist graffiti which went up after [the 1980 riot in] Bristol – Bristol yesterday, Brixton today – took a year to be made real.

The establishment knew this too. Only a few months ago Lambeth Council published a report criticising the cops and predicting trouble.

THE WEEK BEFORE THE RIOTS

The constant intense policing of Brixton and of the Frontline in particular was heightened in the week leading up to the riots. At 11pm on Friday April 3rd, the Frontline area around Dexter and Leeson Roads was sealed off by cops with no-one being allowed in or out for over an hour. Over 20 arrests were made. Then, in the following week, Operation Swamp 81 saw over 1,000 people (mainly young blacks) stopped and searched. This was all adding to the increasing frustration of local people. At about 2.30am on Friday 10th I was stopped and threatened by 3 young blacks with bottles. This confused and angered me (it was the first time I’d ever been hassled on the Frontline) and it was only later that I realised that they had been victims of Swamp 81, perhaps only minutes before meeting me.

On Friday 10th at about 5pm a young black with a knife wound was stopped on the Frontline by cops. What followed is the source of many different stories. (The Notorious DC Duncan was in charge, a man with a very bad rep locally. Onlookers claimed the cops knelt on the bloke and kept him there bleeding for 20 minutes. Obviously the old bill claimed they’d been helping the lad.)

Whatever happened (and it isn’t necessary to seek justification for what followed anyway) the cops were attacked by a gang of locals, the young bloke freed and taken to hospital. A brief battle with cop re-inforcements occurred. The cops took this as a challenge and so the following day, Saturday 11th, the Frontline was under police occupation. “Brixton was thoroughly over-policed. There were officers at every street corner, transits parked all over the place… it feels, once again, like the police have taken your town over… A local shopkeeper, not known for his radical views, was to be heard proclaiming that he wouldn’t be surprised if the youths started fighting again. And he wouldn’t blame them either.” (The Leveller)

On the Saturday morning the rumour went round, that the stabbing victim, Michael Bailey, had died due to police delays…

Usually the cops patrol the Frontline. But on that Saturday they parked up and down the Frontline every 50 yards, just sitting in their vans waiting for something to happen. It was a warm day so the Frontline was full of people standing around doing the usual things and, this time, eyeing the occupation force with hatred. All afternoon most people expected trouble of some sort. At about 5pm in the afternoon a plain-clothes cop received the free gift of a brick on the head for wanting to search a black guy’s car. Up in Atlantic Road an arrest was attempted and this further angered an already angry crowd. Most of this crowd was gathered in the space at the apex itself and is at the beginning of Atlantic Road, The odd brick began to fly at the cops isolated in the crowd. A window was smashed. Tension rose. Electric. Then plain-clothes cops appeared from the crowd and joined the uniformed lot. Battle fines were now clearly drawn and the first barrage of bricks flew in the direction of the cops. They threw a few back and charged. At first we retreated a little but, realising we were many, they were few, we stopped. Then, spontaneously, the whole afternoon’s tension being released like a spring, we charged them.

(What follows may seem confused and incoherent. But this is how I experienced the rioting. I report on only what I saw and heard. Certain incidents are omitted for obvious reasons).

A massive surge of adrenalin. War whoops. Class war whoops. ‘Whoops! Class War!’ A scramble for bricks. ‘I must have a brick. Where are the bricks?’ A hail of bricks. The cops are confused as they realise they are no longer in control. Puppets without a role. They look at us, at one another and around themselves. Then. Run. Away. Down Mayall Road, leaving their vehicles in our hands. in the twinkling of a rioting eye the vehicles are smashed up and turned over. A light is instantly provided and poof! Up goes a cop’s van. Wild cheers. Laughter, dances of joy. I see a comrade and we beam solidarity at one another.

Our savage celebrations are interrupted by a charge of cops. (They had regrouped with re-inforcements). The crowd splits. The cops are mad. Truncheons thrashing. I run to safety up a side street and meet another comrade. As we point with child-like glee at the rising pall of smoke; a white guy is bricked, inexplicably. He is immediately defended by black youths and all eyes look around for the idiot thrower. A nearby friend has transport and as I got to seek its availability a black guy bearing an old grudge grabs me, revenge in his eyes. Before he can find an excuse to brick me (was the brick which hit the other guy meant for me?) I make it plain that assistance is needed. Van not available. Questions from friends. Tune in to police radio. They are out of their heads. Sounds of windows going in on Coldharbour Lane. Back onto the streets.

In Coldharbour Lane an SPG van is on its side like some stranded whale. A boutique has its windows smashed and twisted dummies litter the pavement. Crowds of onlookers. Glass smashes in Electric Avenue. A jewellers is looted. Another further up. Black and white youths kick their way through the roller shutters. I watch out for cops on Brixton Road, Announce to the passing shoppers, who are all eyes, that free jewellery is available should they want it. Am ignored. Notice that the jewellers is, perfectly, next door to a consumer advice centre. Necklaces, bracelets, rings and watches are thrown into the pavement. Jewellery in the gutter. Great! I have a game of football with some bracelets, a game I can’t lose. There are some squabbles over loot. Depressing.

Move out onto Brixton Road. Burton’s tailors is done in and a dummy set ablaze. Magical sight. Cops arrive. Pull dummy onto pavement. The tube station is closed but Brixton Road is still open to traffic. The motorists and bus passengers look in confusion as looting spreads to both sides of the road. A black youth kicks in plate glass windows as if he is swatting flies. More cops. Burglar alarms scream out to deaf ears. More and more cops. Running battles. More looting. Then I notice there’s no more traffic. The cops have sealed the main road off from the cop shop to the Town Hall.

Looting and smashing now all along Brixton Road area, the market area and up Acre Lane. My name is called out. Another comrade. We shake hands muttering ‘Great! Great!’ I give him a garbled resume. Bulk of crowd now around Brixton Oval. Woolworths smashed and looted. Television sets, stereo, carted off. Some smashed. Occasional cop van races through and is smashed. Many in the crowd realise cops have to pass us to get into the battle area so crowds line up on either side of Brixton Road with bottles and bricks. ‘Here’s another’ Smash. ‘And another.’ Smash. A proletarian fairground. ‘And the next one please!’ Smash. Everyone a winner. Cops wise up and a convoy arrives, stops and a horde of meanies piles out, truncheons thrashing. Crowd splits up but sniping still possible. A charge and we escape up a side street. All casual, like, we call into a pub for a drink. A rumour goes round that a cop has been kidnapped. My comrade and I smirk into our glasses.

We decide to go to the Frontline. It is now dark and we worm our way through back streets, avoiding cop cordons. We approach the top of the Frontline along Kellett Road and are met with an unbelievable sight. Three rows of cops stretch across the Frontline, facing into it. A non-stop hail of bricks batters their shields. Then suddenly a molotov (the first I’ve ever seen) comes up and over and smash! whoof! lands on some shields, which are hurriedly dropped. Look down Mayall Road and see the Windsor Castle (pub) ablaze. The Frontline is barricaded with burning vehicles. I’m elated and pissed off. Elated that the Frontline is a no-go area and pissed off that I’m now cut off from defending it. I look around. Exhausted and injured cops sitting on the ground smoking fags. The fires, the cops, the atmosphere. Class war. ‘Will they bring the army in?’ Belfast.

“Councillor John Boyle, in Railton Road, used his loudhailer to try to calm the situation: there was an attempt at negotiation. Previously, some of the youths had offered to stop throwing bottles and bricks in return for a release of all prisoners. Senior officers said, ‘no way’ “ (The Leveller)

We detour to the south end of the Frontline, which is also sealed off. Watch a shop blaze. The sub-post office has disappeared. Back to the Town Hall area. Cops now holding strategic positions – the big junction at the Town Hall, the cops station, etc. Still looting. More friends arrive. Talk. Back to the Frontline. All fires out by now. It’s getting on for midnight. Things much quieter. Cops slowly regaining control. Up to cop shop. Barricaded with cop vans. Under siege. Cops attack us and force people down back alley. Beatings. Arrests. We are split up. I wander back along Brixton Road surveying damage. Only a few civilians are about now. Cops are in control. Get off the streets. Talk to friends for hours and then back to Frontline for celebratory drink. One last look at the blitzed Frontline in the dawn light and then sleep. I dream of cops, cops and more cops.

Sunday 12th. Tired, hung-over. Rage at the newspapers. Commissioner McNee and others have the gall to blame ‘outside agitators’. (The cops were the outside agitators.) Frontline is crowded with people debating. Lots of cops patrolling warily. Firemen inspect damage. Discuss events with friends. News of arrests. Early evening. More trouble, but more easily contained, as over 1000 more cops are in the area. Brixton is sealed off, up as far as Kennington Oval. Fascist attack in Villa Road [famous squatted street: NF members attacked squatters here on Sunday night]. Cop station again heavily protected. Cops use ‘Nightsun’ helicopter for the first time. (Can light up an area the size of a football pitch and is fitted with infra-red cameras.) More cops. They’re gaining the upper hand.

A Long Week

Since the weekend there has been confusion and paranoia. The gutter press stress not only ‘outside agitators’ but also ‘white anarchists conspiracy’. Comrades are raided. (Who’s next?) Where are they held? Which court will they appear in? First fines are heavy~£200. Hassles about getting bail. Newspapers print photographs showing faces. (Who’s next?) Frontline now quieter than usual. Massive police presence but this isn’t immediately visible. Coaches in side streets, up to 2 miles away. Reports filter back about treatment of those arrested. Heavy. Can’t sleep. (How can the people of Northern Ireland have survived 10 years of this without cracking up?) The black community is divided. The rally for Easter Sunday is called off. Recriminations. The Brixton Defence Committee and Lambeth Law Centre are organising counter-information and compiling a list of cases against the police. It’s still early days yet.

Easter Weekend. Frontline much quieter than usual. Brixton still occupied. All varieties of political groupings trying to colonise the local initiative. (The worst I saw was Militant, with the headline ‘Brixton – Blame the Tories’.) Difficult to judge the atmosphere. People having to re-think, trying to get these extraordinary events in perspective. It is now a higher level of confrontation. All the shops in the market and main road areas are boarded up. For how long? There is talk of more ‘aid’ for the community. Sticking plaster for leprosy. Class society is rotten through and through. Where will the next eruption take place? The struggle here is far from over.

For people who live outside Brixton who wish to express solidarity – you have police on your streets.

THE DAY THE IMAGE CRACKED / THE HONEYMOON ENDED/ THE GAME WAS UP/DIXON OF DOCK GREEN SNUFFED IT etc…

My strongest memory of the Brixton riot (two weeks past at time of writing) was the Saturday afternoon that I returned from shopping at the market and found myself increasingly anxious at the large police presence. This pressure made swallowing food or drink difficult and I was unable to concentrate on anything but the source of my cancerous fretting. The arrogant pigs were every where on my route home and the air seemed thick with humid heat and pressure, like before a storm. I put my weekend shopping in my home and when I came outside I heard an explosion and I either laughed or cried and ran along the street . I saw many faces and it was like a dance without a stage /music / popstars or songs; energy began to flow through my arms and legs, I felt like jumping up and down so I did and all around me perhaps 500 people were whooping and yelling hurrah and leaping about. Police were on the run, running away down Leeson Road and a car was being put over to be used as a barricade… once it was on its side, someone lit some screwed up paper and threw it on the leaking petrol, all stepped back and a small flame suddenly grew into a burst of fire and black smoke clouded up. Down along Railton road I could see some more cars being turned over and I rushed down to help.

From the demolition sites of what was once lived in homes lots of us brought out bricks to break up so that smaller pieces could be used to throw and planks of wood to toss on the burnin’ cars.

Time was at a standstill…. so many bricks did I break up with an iron fence railing that my hands blistered…. a large sheet of corrugated iron was piled up with debris and dragged up to a big crowd and was quickly emptied at coppers behind long shields. Through the smoke I could see a photographer among the police lines with a telescopic lens trying to focus on the group I was in, so we all threw whatever we could find at him but he was just out of reach and our missiles fell short. Some friends arrived and I wore a scarf to cover my face from the cameras and to keep out the smoke; from then on others too began covering their faces. A bus was liberated and the driver quickly pissed off. Following some arguments it was driven down the road at the police lines and it simply went to one side just beyond the burning cars as no-one stayed inside to steer it. But the short journey was a laugh. (Although according to the police petrol bombs were thrown from the bus as it careered down the road?)

“At the corner of Coldharbour Lane and Brixton Road we ran across a group of police officers; we followed. About 20 ran down the road. One, sobbing, when asked whether there was a senior officer present, cried, “senior officers, mate, I haven’t seen a fucking sergeant all night.” They seemed to be the local police, running scared. Further up the road, some policemen had armed themselves with pick-axe handles and were laying out anyone in sight.” (The Leveller)

So much seems out of time context, my mind jumps forward and back: I can recall observing the police maneuvres in Mayall Rd. In Particular a group of plainclothes detectives /vigilantes / police in uniform but without their hats, coats and ties, with their sleeves rolled up. Uniformed (and looking very young) formations were lining up nearby with shields. Then I noticed the long sticks (the ‘pick axe handles’ rarely mentioned in the media) which these plainclothes lot were handing to each other. One bloody faced and overweight pig, who I recognised from an SPG (State Paid Gangster) raid the week before, was letting off a tirade to those who would listen about ‘fucking niggers’. The sight of these goons cursing and tooling up for further aggro made me at once very sick (and I mean really churning inside – have a piss or shit now – and dry throat gagging) and shakingly angry with incredibly strong desire to be a sniper and blow the thugs away with a rifle or some explosive. Together with some other observers we yelled out “FUCK OFF” and they started to look at all the windows on the side of the street facing them across the derelict site . We were masked and I am sure they did not know what we were capable of, so they closed up closer together and then two with shields moved up to pry sheets of corrugated iron apart to get in across the vacant block at us. Suspecting we might become the victims of a snatch squad we checked out the place for escape and where it was likely the pigs would enter. Somewhere in the street a voice called up and asked us if we were thirsty and we came downstairs and onto the street for some quenching beers – the Managers of the George [a local pub notorious for racism, which had barred black people and gays] had pissed off leaving us a lot to drink heh, heh, heh we were all grinning. It was exhilarating; adrenalin and booze went straight to my head, from the street it looked like several cars were on fire in surrounding streets too and I felt like I was really living. Someone actually said “This is history and we’re here, YAHOO!” and I felt amazing, no drug can compare to that exuberant rush/high fun feeling. I warned those nearby to look out for possible snatch squads and went up to see the George, Windsor Castle, Post Office, Plumbers and Dr. Khan (I once was refused to be seen by the good Doctor’s Secretary and the ‘menstrual pain’ turned out to be appendicitis) getting looted and burned. All the bad memories attached to places came back and I thought Brixton is going to explode now that we have a chance to get even. I think the Pakistani newsagents in Effra Parade getting burnt out was a mistake as the woman and two kids only just got out in time and the amount of cash or goods was fuck all. What was a target and what was not (the Tory Club and the local Police Doctor were left alone!) Well it was only the mercenary jerks who were indiscriminate and if the cops had kept out of it for a few days, I think the shithead element would have gotten some aggro back. A woman who was being hassled by some big guys was suddenly surrounded and the men made to leave her alone; likewise some black racists who were picking on a young white were told to fuck off by a quickly gathering group of black, Asian and white, young and old, male and female gay and straight people. The story in the Sun about the rape of a woman which occurred on Saturday night was chosen to divide and frighten people (Black rapists attack white woman headlined!). If the cops had not kept everyone on the run then this and other incidents which the media did not publicise but I know of ( a lone individual who gave shelter to some fugitives from a police raid, then had to put up with 3 hours of machismo display and knife threats for example) would have been dealt with,

Unable to pass through the police cordon at the base of Railton & Mayall road triangle we walked through the back streets which seemed barely changed compared to the picturesque ruins of Railton Road. A stroll past the police meant no harassment because they were desperate to keep up some face it seemed; only those running were stopped. We joined in the window smashing and looting in Electric Avenue and managed to get some booty back through the police cordons by surrounding the person holding the box of goodies and then walking briskly on as if we meant business and did not want to waste time, just get off the street and safely behind doors Once deposited we went out to see the pitched battle between the rigid lines of police and the dancing rebels. We got in a few bricks, bottles and even saw the shit bags get run off the street by one firebomb armed group who then got stuck in with iron bars on fallen cops. On television was the Space Shuttle but it seemed so ridiculous that I could not watch and went back to the street where real decisions were being made then and there. Fires were up and down the street and on the FM band of the radio the Old Bill seemed to be panicking in the Frontline. But Lima Delta Control urged them on as they had orders from ZULU (Whitelaw or MeNee’s sick joke?) If only we had been able to break out of Railton Road as a large group and actually attacked the police station and freed the prisoners… But it was surrounded and the tourist element or passive spectator/innocent bystander types had come as more cops secured the streets. The skirmishes that flared later in the night were hit and run battles, after some soup and sugary tea I collapsed asleep.

SUNDAY – white ribbons with tourists hanging on staring at the burnt out places like zoo exhibits or a fun fair; the idiot priests and social workers who were allowed behind our lines yesterday to get the ultimatum POLICE WITHDRAW and FREE THE PRISONERS, for an arrogant Police Chief and media to coldly deny, had today returned with camera and note taking sociologists, TV, radio and paper journalists (I even met one from Brazil TV),self-appointed Community Leaders and the Left who had come to organise us into their dead Parties, slimey fronts and so on to add insult to our police-inflicted injuries. Rumours of fascist vengeance and off-duty police and Army paramilitary attacks were rife. Politicians who never said a thing about South London let alone Brixton were suddenly falling over themselves to talk about unemployment, the race issue (sic) housing, criminals and or ‘political extremists’ whom the Tory hacks saw as the brains behind the riot. By late afternoon people were brawling with cops again and some looting broke out again. I saw this group of kids grabbing Easter eggs and shouting “It’s Easter early. HA!HA!HA!” which lifted me right out of the depression I was beginning to slide into. Dogs were being used to keep people on the move, especially away from Brixton Police Station with its ridiculous Crime Prevention Exhibition tent outside. I heard lots of youth decide that there were too many coppers and instead to go up Stockwell/Clapham/Herne Hill/Streatham and then it hit me: What has happened in those areas, why haven’t people risen up there? I met people from Balham who had heard nothing but sketchy /flimsy reports and some others from North London who said that nothing was different up there. This was jarring, we had been so well Contained, Isolated, Dispersed that it was all over bar the odd brawl which the bastards would surround and smash much more efficiently second time around One group of people we ran into were not even prepared to stand and fight, we just ran for several blocks. Surprise was gone and I began to worry about those arrested and the slow painful readjustment to routine and survival – paying up and working again- began to take its toll. Most changed their appearance except those who cannot go back to the old slow death and lie low waiting to get back to the ‘no-go’ exhilaration: the chameleons and the bitter will go much, much further next time be it next April, or before?

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK

About 4.30 on the Saturday, I went out to buy some tobacco and saw a crowd gathered outside the Car Hire in Railton Road. There’d been cops up and down our street all day and rumours of police activity over the previous week. Something was going on, so I hung around to see what. People were milling about, some shouting and arguing with the cops, half a dozen or so, who were standing about doing nothing. People continued to gather on their way home from shopping, and more policemen arrived. I couldn’t understand it at all, what everybody was waiting for . The police arrived, gathered in a group at the tip of the triangle, couple of dozen of them, discussing among themselves and from the back of the crowd were thrown a few bottles and insults. As soon as they turned around the throwing stopped, but pretty soon more cops arrived. One van was parked in the middle of the street, and suddenly half a dozen blacks ran out and started rocking it, trying to turn it over. The back doors flew open and out leapt 3 or 4 cops with shields and truncheons, and the blacks disappeared into the crowd. Odd bricks and bottles were being thrown whenever the police turned their backs. They were presenting themselves as a target. There wasn’t any violence until there were 20 or so cops on the scene. I got the impression that if the original cops had kept their cool and just stood around swapping verbals with the crowd, they’d have got bored and gone home, and no riot, but as it was everybody resented more and more cops arriving. What were they there for if not to threaten? So the missiles got more frequent, the thud of a brick against a van or car is a very distinct sound, gets the adrenalin going The police decided to do something and formed a line across the street, which was immediately bombarded.

They started to charge, and everybody ran, so they stopped and the crowd regathered. This happened a couple more times, and then someone tipped over and set on fire a police van at the tip of the triangle, behind the police. This was the first fire of the day. Once again the crowd formed, a bit further away this time, and again the police charged, this time chasing the crowd right down Railton Road. After that it seemed to quiet down a bit. In fact the scene shifted the other way down Mayall Road and Railton Road.

Later in the evening, about 7.30pm, I went out again, walking down Rattray Road. At the Railton Road end of every street leading off Rattray Road, a vehicle was burning. I could see a lot of smoke from Railton Road so I walked on down to the top of Effra Parade where a dozen or so cops were standing about, dishevelled, smoking. I’d never seen a cop roll a fag before. I walked past them and down to Chaucer Road, and down there. People had been looting the plumbers there, had got the safe out of the Post Office and were trying to open it while others were wandering about with bottles of booze, and others were setting fires. The road was littered with bottles, bricks, sticks and riot shields. A Fire Engine was slewed across the road, apparently abandoned There were no uniforms to be seen anywhere. Railton Road was swathed in smoke, so I crossed over and went up Mayall Road, where all seemed oddly quiet, after the destruction going on in the next street. The Windsor Castle pub was smashed up, people scrounging round inside. The little shops opposite Leeson Road were open and doing a fine trade in iced drinks. Thinking it was all over I went home, ignorant of the battles still going on and the looting that had taken place in the market area. There were cops at the scene of the beginning of the riot and at the junction with Coldharbour Lane, but none at all down Mayall Road, Railton Road or the back streets immediately off it. The police had obviously abandoned all hope of controlling the rioters, and I figured they’d withdraw, and let them wear themselves out burning and looting, which is what happened. There wouldn’t have been any riot if the police hadn’t tried to prevent it..

About ten o’ clock I went out again. This time there were thousands of cops everywhere, the whole of Railton Road seemed to be on fire, cars still smoking in the street, the fire engines had got in and were hosing down the buildings, illuminated by searchlights, people wandered up and down, still locals, outsiders wouldn’t come gasping until the next day, if they could get through the blockade . It was like a scene from the Blitz and my initial exhilaration at the people fighting back, turned to depression, that the result should be the destruction of their own neighbourhood and not that of Sloane Square, say. This time I walked around the market area, every other window seemed to be smashed, several shops on fire, including Woolworths, which produced a loud bang just as I walked past, the only incident, apart from the police charges, that frightened me all evening.

People kept ringing up to see if we were all right, apparently not realising how specific the fighting was, under the impression it was a race riot, which it wasn’t. It was a reaction against the police attempt to regulate if not repress local West Indian culture, which taking place as it does on the street, offends the eyes of Authority. People sitting indoors smoking are not a threat, people doing it in the street are, they get to know one another and form a community, rather than being atomised, and rendered impotent. Without that street culture the blacks wouldn’t have been victimised by the police, and without that culture they couldn’t have fought back so successfully.

a young fellah getting busted by a gang of coppers, dragged into a van and bashed so loud you could hear the blows against the walls of van outside in the street. Much adrenalin/fight or flight flows in these circumstances… It is like drinking way too much coffee, you run around get winded, go for it again, always being startled, noises seem harsher as your brain tells your body DANGER. Finally you crash out from exhaustion after talking your friends, family, fellow inmates ears off for hours as you come down from the roller coaster of traumas. Stepping in blood on the streets – whose, when, why questions questions flood into ya mind – oops no time for that, sounds of cop car swerving on the streets, cops bash their – then long – shields with batons to psyche crowds out, while local pensioners fill up bottles with petrol from heaters for the youths to use to defend the area from invading cops…meanwhile a paper seller from a Trot group stands there, ignored, as shop windows are smashed in and loot quickly removed …yikes the memory hole sucks ya in alright – old codger scratches grey beard well young fellah in my day we gave the old bill a right fright that’s forsure … drones on and on and on about the battles of the class war, got this scar in the attack on the cop shop itself blah blah.

WARNING: THE LAUGHTER IS EXPLOSIVE!

SATURDAY 9pm

Sitting in a flat in Streatham – pleasantly pissed after a picnic on the Common . nice weather. cup of coffee. – anyone mind if I put the radio on?        no.

–the London suburb of Brixton is in a State of siege tonight after a night of rioting. Shops have been burned and looted and forty seven police have been injured

-bloody hell –

-let’s go –

confusion, indecision, fear, hope.

wait for the bus . ten minutes. black teenager says – no buses to Brixton – we walk. quickly.

Brixton Hill – we see smoke over towards the market. thousands of Police. they’re scared. very scared. cross Acre Lane to go down the high street. they stop us. “CAN’T go down there”. up Acre Lane. line of cops with riot shields across Delmere Close. We try the pavement anyway. – “oi YOU, you can’t go down there.” “well which way can I get home then?” (try them out a bit) They’re angry and frightened. “DON’T ARGUE, just move”. they start getting edgy – riot ‘ shields twitch visibly and some move to wards us. “I’m not arguing – I’m asking.- “MOVE” one of them repeats “don’t argue”. – they get closer. we back off quietly up the Hill.

Skirt around Brixton. Back home at Kennington for a coffee and a change of clothes into something inconspicuous and empty all our pockets. We talk about what to do. We want to see Brixton, but we’re also feeling a bit adventurous.

– every copper in South London will be in Brixton now. How about a bit of looting in Camberwell or Kennington? spread the area of revolt – let’s see Brixton first – ok – we take rucksacks anyway, move in cautiously down Coldharbour Lane, corner of Atlantic Road – under the bridge – we stop and gape in wonder. Coldharbour Lane seems to be on fire . Railton Road can’t be seen for smoke fire engines, police cordons, SPG vans, police seem to be calmer here, taking control, not many of them. a familiar face.

“been here long?” “ten minutes. “same.” “seen much?” “I heard a rumour that the old Bill killed someone “Shit!” but then I realise it’s too quiet for that . He pisses off. Old lrish guy starts talking about rebellion. We realise he could go on for hours so we move on – sightseeing. We try to get down towards Railton Road. “You can’t go down there!” we move off politely, more sightseeing – looted shops, broken glass everywhere . Up and down the High Street. big gaps in memory

Brixton Oval – big group of old friends. Fifteen of us suddenly together. “I been here since it started” a friend says grinning from ear to ear. A few stories . Wander down the High street. Wall to wall cops. We scare them a bit . They’ve been trying to stop groups gathering. Fifteen of us amble casually down the street . It looks like something starting. They move us on when we stop, keep us in pairs or threes when we move . Everywhere is smashed. It’s beautiful.

walk up and down sightseeing. gaps in the memory

A guy is pulling a lighter out of a broken jeweller’s window through the grille. I stand between him and the nearest police fifty yards away. He walks off with it casually.

Hanging around near the Lambeth Town Hall. Suddenly blue lights flashing. Blue, blue, flashing lights lights lights lights dozens of them, vans cars, bells, sirens, screaming down the Hill – its on – summat’s up – start walking down the hill – casual like.

Someone yells “the young black coloured kids are here. the coloured kids have arrived.”

No time for questions – walking quickly – black teenagers on the other side of the road start running down the hill – they’re not scared at all – some in the road – some on the pavement.

Some of us start running – big group of black women in front of us – more people in front of them. and blue lights – those blue lights.

Two or three vans stop – they pile out – riot shields. “BACK! BACK!” –they stop us and force us back up the hill – maybe thirty of them. Fifty of us. Pushing and shoving. I stay near the front. Pushing – they get us to the top. Guy next to me says we could turn, take them on, push them back, fight them back. I treat it with the contempt it deserves. Keep moving.

They give one black guy a hard time, he pushes back at the corner, they grab him, women grab him back screaming – a voice shouts Charge! let ’em have it! – they run.

Screams, running boots. I’m well in front so I hang about a second. People run down a dark alley. The cops are running still.

I can see truncheons flying I just fly out up the street no time for bravery.

Suddenly in a strange housing estate, a group of a dozen cops, some in shirt sleeves jog in step like army double time through a courtyard .

Bottom of the hill. fuck where is everyone? must find them.

no sign of anything happening here. cop station quiet . it was probably all a false alarm. I look around – lost. a big cheer. I look up the Hill and a Police Landrover is limping down slowly the back left tyre flapping uselessly about. laughter all round.

Back up to the estate. meet two friends again. the cops are looking for someone in the estate. this is low profile time. let’s re-group, find the others – who got done?

Eventually we gather together a few more. Sightseeing. people going home, cops arriving by the busload. when we leave at midnight the ratio is about one to one and they’re still arriving. everyone goes home.

Back at the flats . two people busted – they ran down the alley – there had been cops at the bottom!! sod’s law – the two who got busted were the one’s with the worst records .

Home to bed. I close my eyes and there are blue flashing lights everywhere.

Next day I expect the afternoon to be quiet so I go out, arrive back in Brixton at six – reach Saint John’s Crescent – they’re stopping people – residents only allowed in. the road block was at Camberwell New Road. I don’t even try to get through . up Saint John’s Crescent down the back streets – literally thousands of cops in buses behind the station. Lots of horses. I walk through them all unhindered and come out about fifty yards past where they had stopped people .

Walk up and down sightseeing – no-one I know is about. look at a few burnt out buildings. Railton Road carpeted with bricks and glass. burnt out cars everywhere. It’s beautiful.

Top of the Hill by the Town Hall. the road’s blocked so everyone hangs about in the middle of the road watching. we get too many for their liking so they charge up the Hill, clear us out of the church yard. a woman had some bricks that she’s throwing on the ground trying to break them . I show her how to break them cleanly in half against the corner of the kerbstone. fighting in Coldharbour Lane – they charge again and clear us off Effra Road. not enough of us.

Black teenage gang. one says ” ok who’s, for the burning and the looting and the pilfering in Streatham? “

Great!

They set off – maybe a dozen. I wait ten minutes, watching the to-ing and fro-ing on the Hill then I follow.

I get to Streatham. nothing. dead. I sit in a doorway and wait half an hour.

Nothing doing. I wander back. get back to the end of Brixton Hill by the road block – another group heading South, maybe twenty this time, black and white, mainly early teens. I tag along.

Three or four police vans pass us and stop a hundred yards ahead. we stop and cross the road. they turn and come back, piling out. we piss off into a housing estate. I find I’m quite good at hurdling fences. wait on the grass in the shadows. More running. three or four of us start going over the chain link fence into the school – about 8 feet high . someone says wait and see if they come around. we drop down and wait. they come around the back. we run. I yell “they’re coming round the back”. everyone gets out into the street. down by the lights outside the pub. people disperse. one guy gets arrested as a few more vans arrive and about a dozen go screaming off towards Streatham. well that’s the end of that idea.

Sit down by the road block. I watch the cops and consider the possibility of a brick through the window of the car in front of me. too many cops. nice idea though. sit for half an hour then back to Brixton. quiet. very quiet. it’s all over.

Walking back down the Hill two black teenagers behind me. one says to his friend “I bet there’s all these coloured Ladies really glad they brought up their kids proper and then a copper knocks on their door and says ‘excuse me have you got a son called Kevin?’ and she says ‘yes’ ‘well he’s in Brixton nick’ “ Laughter. we’re criminals in a way our parents don’t understand. back home.

think about it. “next time- ‘ “next time” “if only…” but whatever else, next time I won’t be so scared.

As well as the usual “wasn’t it great” tales though, it should never be forgotten that some rapists preyed on local women, stand-over merchants armed with knives and machetes robbed & bashed other looters, one nasty gangster after failing to find a safe in the local newsagent in Effra Parade set it on fire and yelled “fuckin’ Pakis”… squatters across the road got inside and helped the family escape with their kids and not much else. As ID was a little easier then some of the more active locals departed to the Continent others who did not alas got busted eg Patrizia Giambi whom the media pilloried as crazed Italian red Brigade organiser manipulating “the Blacks” and she was detained awaiting trial and deportation.

A RIOT A DAY KEEPS THE COPPER AWAY

I hadn’t heard about what happened on Friday night (10.4.81), so when I got down to Railton Road Saturday lunch time, I wondered why there were so many police hanging around. The police later said that they had done a low-key operation that morning, but that was obviously rubbish. There were groups of police every fifty yards and others in cars and vans, so they were out in force and prepared for some kind of action. I was told about the events of Friday night and most people I spoke to felt very nervous about the numbers of police hanging around like gangsters.

When we heard the sirens coming from the bottom of the triangle (the

junction of Mayall Rd and Railton Rd) we walked down to see what would happen. A lot of people were doing the same, mostly out of curiosity. The police later said that the riot was planned because a lot of people were hanging around the area on street corners etc., but that just shows their ignorance. In Brixton there are always people hanging around the streets, especially when it’s sunny, simply because there’s nowhere else to go.

When I got to the bottom of Railton Road I saw a police van and a car with a crowd around, blacks and white. I had no idea what was going on but people were arguing with the police who were quite aggressive. One of the ‘higher officers’ was really nasty; he had taken his ID numbers off his shoulders, and the crowd were pissed off about that. People with cameras were taking photos and police later claimed claimed these ‘white photographers’ were in leading or organising positions but again it’s rubbish. After Friday night people knew something might happen and a number of local people wanted to take photos if anything happened. No one was in a leading position. Finally one copper pushed a black kid hard and that was it. People just threw everything!

That was the spark and for the next six or seven hours we were involved in one of the ‘worst breakdowns of law and order’.

Nothing I can write can describe the exhilaration I felt when that first police van went up in flames. From that spark it spread up and down Brixton. For so long the police had an arrogant air of invincibility, as if they could do anything they liked and get away with it. But that burning police van and retreating cops did more to boost our confidence than anything else.

Most people grouped around the middle of Railton Rd. The police had moved up to Mayall Rd up as far as Leeson Rd and many of us were stoning them to get them to retreat, but they made a wall of riot shields. It was totally spontaneous., no one told us to attack here or there, we saw for ourselves and if we felt the need to fight here and there we did so. The crowd kept a constant barrage of bricks and bottles but the police wouldn’t move. People called for petrol bombs but none had been prepared. Police talk about bomb-factories is the result of their own inability to understand how a riot works, they cannot understand how a non-hierarchical system works.

It didn’t take long for the petrol bombs to appear… all it takes is some petrol a bottle and a bit of paper or rag, it doesn’t need any experience or brains.

It’s just another sample of the racism of the state to say that black people need white experts to make petrol bombs. We were using any bottles we could find (black polythene rubbish bags were ripped open to get bottles); there were enough cars around to siphon off all the petrol. The first bombs were used at Leeson Rd and the crowd cheered their appearance. I never knew how easy it was to turn over cars, they go over so easy; the symbols of consumerism only need a couple of people to go over and they burn so well! It was like being high, we felt so powerful for the first time ever.

The police retreated to cheers and a rain of missiles. People started smashing the windows of the pub and others went in and began breaking everything, pulling out drinks for all of us! I’ve lived in Brixton most of my life and I never saw anything like it before. Blacks and whites, rastas and punks, men and women, young and old, gays and hets. Unity just isn’t a strong enough word as we shared drinks and cigarettes, everyone patting each other on the back smiling. It was like a street party, with no tension between us at all. Words just can’t express that feeling, and in the distance the lines of police watched.

At about this time the looting started, the police just fell back and no one was really trying to move forward. There was a lull in the fighting, and behind our barricades was a free area, no leaders and no authority. The second pub was smashed up and burned, and then the plumbers (who really disliked the people in the area) and soon every shop was open target. For the first time ever people took what they wanted without having to work like slaves to get the cash or beg from the state. When the sweetshop was gotten into, those who got inside were throwing things to those on the outside! A lot of the negative things happened at about this time, but that was because we had ceased to be on the offensive and people had started to get drunk. Also it was a good chance for people to get what they wanted for themselves and forget about the rest. Most of these anti-social acts were on the periphery; next time we should be ready to deal with these sorts of acts as a collective mass as we did with the fighting. On the whole people acted together; before any buildings went up in flames, some of the crowd made sure that no one was inside. If you believe the media the rioters didn’t care. Someone suggested putting a brick through the anarchist bookshop window; the rest of the crowd said no (and not just the anarchists either).

Gradually the police began moving forward again and we fought hard but a lot of us were getting really tired. It was dark and people were drifting away, buildings collapsing around us. Its how I’d always imagined the blitz. The police were moving closer yards at a time, they were armed with pick axe handles and base ball bats, they kept banging their sticks on the floor to raise the tension, they had their war cries and chants prepared (all the best psychological warfare techniques learned at school).When they charged they were like animals grabbing hold of anyone and beating shit out of them. The police violence was more vicious and painful than any of ours.

On escaping from the immediate area I was surprised to see how far it had spread. The people in the main riot had very little idea of what was happening outside their immediate area; lack of communication is one fault we mustn’t make again. The people I spoke to wanted to join in but were cut off from the Railton Riot, but everyone was glad the police had received a beating even if only temporarily. Brixton was practically under siege, police were everywhere and sporadic fighting was taking place – The police station was ringed and they obviously felt vulnerable because they knew it would be our next target. The police couldn’t let it go because it served as their communications centre and because it’s their symbol of power over us.

The area had been cut off, trains and buses stopped so that reinforcements for us couldn’t get there. Fires had been started and some of the main department stores looted! The police tactic of isolating the riot only in the Frontline had failed partially at least.

COPS, DAMN COPS, AND STATISTICS

7.472 police officers were used to police the area, some on more than one occasion.

285 arrests

415 police officers and 172 members of the public injured

118 police vehicles damaged

4 police vehicles destroyed

61 private vehicles damaged

30 private vehicles destroyed

158 premises damaged

28 premises seriously damaged by fire

– Met Report on the Riot

The first state/media reaction-to say the riot was a race riot-failed miserably. It was so obvious that the riot was anti-police and anti-authoritarian; when a priest asked for our demands the crowd asked that the police fuck off and all prisoners released. But even these were not true demands because a demand requires some level of negotiation which none of the rioters were willing to engage in.

From the very beginning the police had said that the riot was pre-planned but their theory is easily demolished. Firstly they say there were a lot of people on the streets but what do you expect on a sunny Saturday. Secondly they say white photographers were in leading positions but those white photographers were mostly residents and in no way leaders or organisers. Thirdly the police say petrol bombs had been prepared but you need no skill to make them and it doesn’t take long either. And lastly they say ‘white anarchists’ were in the crowd, but those white anarchists are part of the community, we all live and some of us work in the area. I’ve lived in Brixton most of my life.

When the race riot tactic failed the police fell onto the theory of white anarchists organising the riot. The state cannot admit that people are sick and tired of the system and that they are capable of rising spontaneously and successfully attacking the state and its representatives. The main lesson of Brixton is that it can happen anywhere without the need of leaders or organisers. Therefore the state must find scapegoats and invent leaders where none exist. Anarchists are that scapegoat and the police decided we are all terrorists and plotters. The reasons we are chosen must he because we made no secret of our wish for another Bristol and we are known to be active in the community and easily identified as well as the only politicos active in the riots.

The state media brought on ‘international terrorists’ as stage props in a well-orchestrated bid to use us to explain away the hatred people feel for the system. For a start this is inherently racist, the refusal to accept that black people can act without white leaders. Secondly it gives the state special branch a chance to get back at troublesome anarchists.

When the raid on the flat in Coldharbour Lane happened it had the effect of frightening us, as far as we knew it could be the start of an anti-anarchist pogrom. Thought of Persons Unknown* etc. ran through my mind and it made us all a lot more tense (which may be the whole point anyway). It’s certainly not over yet; the press has caught on to the name ‘anarchist’ with parasitical glee and are harping on about international links (making us out to be in touch with the spirit of Ulrike Meinhof practically).

After the riots, community leaders descended on Brixton like flies (the press haven’t attacked them as outside agitators, because they serve the very useful task of pacifying us). These self-appointed leaders have been loudly apologising for the riot blaming bad housing and unemployment, asking for more cash etc. But there can be no apologies for the riot, none. Unemployment and bad housing are contributory factors but discontent goes much deeper than that. The riot can only be interpreted as the free expression of anger and disgust at the whole farce. During the riot there were no demands for jobs, we wanted everything then and there. It was a rejection of the system of which bad housing and unemployment are parts.

The left have been attempting to colonise Brixton for a long time; practically every Left group is active in the area in some way or another. Their calls for revolution and action have been shown to be nothing but hot air. During the riot the Leftists were nowhere to be seen; they had disappeared as soon as the action began. They returned only when the police had cleared the streets. Now every sect is claiming the riot as a victory but still making the usual pathetic apologies. They too blame unemployment, bad housing and racism. But if racism is to blame why did the rioters attack pubs etc? Racism is a factor but not the whole story. The left are no no doubt electing themselves onto committees and looking for recruits, but I wonder how effective they will be. The people in the area generally treat them with the contempt they deserve.

As anarchists we must learn from the riots and be prepared for the next, also we must not apologise for the riots. This is probably the first riot of its kind in this country where a large number of anarchists were involved. It’s a danger and a mistake to claim the riots as anarchist, in the same way the leftists claim it for themselves. Nevertheless the riot was anti-authoritarian in character and spontaneous; those of us involved felt the thrill of liberation even if only for a few hours and we also saw that the state is not invulnerable.

The struggle was limited in that we stayed in one area (the main riot in Railton Road); this was due to a reluctance to give up territory already won, though there was much talk of attacking the police station. If we had had more reinforcements it might have been possible. The police did their best to hem us in and to a certain extent their presence succeeded in discouraging any more advance. The next time we should make concerted attempts to a advance; the only way to do this is by our own example. I’m sure that if we had managed to get into other areas people would have joined us.

Better communication would also be a step forward; those of us in Railton Road had very little idea of what was happening in the rest of Brixton and vice versa. A press black-out would also be a possibility next time so a feasible communication system as in Europe is a must if such riots are to spread. The majority of police in London were probably in Brixton on Saturday night, so actions in other parts of the city would have been appropriate.

Even during the riot some priests and social workers made attempts to mediate but we did not want any negotiations. as soon as negotiation begin the battle is lost. All attempts at negotiation should be resisted vigorously. If we want prisoners released we shouldn’t beg for them but either get them ourselves (anti-snatch squads?) or capture prisoners ourselves if possible.

As anarchists we do not need to beg the state for crumbs but take what is rightfully ours. The policy of direct action was put into practice on Saturday 11th April, and it was a celebration of our power over our own lives. Next time we should use the experience of Brixton ’81 in an attempt to further the struggle, to spread the action to new areas, to adapt new tactics and still keep our aims in mind.

All this was written as a purely personal response to the Brixton Riots, events which have not yet finished and will no doubt be talked about for a long time. This article only represents the beginning, we are all still learning from the experience.

1.The attitude of the left press has shown only a slight difference to that of the state press. They have gone overboard in apologising and excusing our actions whilst presenting a package deal of community leaders with answers to the ‘problems’ in the way of begging the government for money. They have gone ahead and printed photographs of rioters engaged in action which the police can use for identification and victimisation (it is said police are using these photos as evidence already). Yet there are no such photos of police attacking us.

2.The police were obviously ready for something on Saturday; their numbers suggest this, some had taken off their I.D. numbers in readiness. But they were not prepared for the militancy and size of our attack. Rumours about the army were going round on Saturday night, but we can be certain that the army were made ready and trucks were seen in Kennington ready to reach Brixton. It is also said that the SAS were prepared to move into the area at the first sign of guns from the rioters. We also know that a navy liaison officer was called into Brixton police station with a quantity of CS gas. Rumours among the police were that two of their number had been burnt to death, this was guaranteed to cause greater tension on their side.

  1. What is surprising is that in the circumstances no one spoke about Belfast, and only Bristol was mentioned. The riots are presented as purely due to local conditions and circumstances but it is truer to say that the same conditions exist in other places, all over Britain and beyond. The hatred most people feel exists from Belfast to Berlin, anywhere where authority shows itself. It is very important that we stress this fact and the belief in our power as individuals to confront the system is applicable everywhere. People are saying ‘where next’, anarchists should be saying and hoping ‘here next’.

4.Unity and co-operation were unspoken principles; everyone helped build barricades, no one was ordered to help. No one was pressured into fighting or looting. Middle-aged white women celebrated beside teenage rastas and white punks (this is a feature which was reported in other riots but which I never quite accepted until I saw it for myself). Whenever people felt that more ammunition was needed, groups of people would collect bottled or crates full of bricks for everyone to use.

  1. The reformist Left have always stated that rebellion cannot happen, that people do not need to resort to violence. The fallacy of that argument is obvious to most people. On the other hand the argument of the so-called ‘revolutionary’ left that action is not possible unless led by the vanguard party is not so easy to discredit. But the events of Brixton as well as Bristol and across Europe “prove that” the only successful riots are not led and that leftists and their vanguard parties play no part at all. No doubt while we fought in Railton Road, the left were selling their papers or attending meeting meetings or conferences.

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Other accounts of the 1981 riots are available… Undoubtedly the above is coloured by the anarchist ideas of those who contributed –

The original edition of ‘We Want to Riot Not to Work’ contained much more on the post-riot aftermath, arrests, the campaign to defend those nicked, and the reaction of the left… As well as much class analysis of the wider context. We haven’t room to print it all here.

Past Tense republished much of this in a pamphlet reprint of ‘We Want to Riot Not to Work’, in 2013, which is itself now out of print again, though we are working on reprinting this.

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Past Tense has written quite a bit about Brixton (and reprinted/posted stuff written by friends and other earlier residents), relating to policing, riots, black radical politics, racism, squatting, gentrification, and much more… Because most of us lived there, through events, took part in struggles and daily life there, and think about it all. More to come – there’s lots to say – though it’s only part of what we are interested in, its an area that has helped shape us and still makes us think.

It isn’t to claim uniqueness for the area (though that is true!) – whatever ends you’re from, the tale needs telling.

Published in pamphlet form so far:

• In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist policing, Resistance, and Black Power in 1970s Brixton

• Black Women Organising: The Brixton Black women’s Group & the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

We Want To Riot, Not to Work: The1981 Brixton Riots.
(Reprint of 1982 classic our mates put out: Currently out of print again, but plans are afoot…)

Through A Riot Shield: The 1985 Brixton Riot
(More incendiary stuff reprinted from Crowbar…)

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online here

and several good radical bookshops in London.

In preparation:

It is our intention eventually to publish history and thoughts on: Brixton’s early history, the growth of working class and migrant communities, the birth of council housing and squatting, Brixton women’s scenes and gay scenes, music and streetlife, further riots, race relations, the council and the left, the poll tax, and more on social change, development and gentrification. Because we are self-funded, have families and need to survive in the morass of wage labour, and also because we have a million projects on the go, we have no idea when any of this will appear. Lots of it is also talked about elsewhere… other people are writing about it and posting up pictures etc.

10th April 1848: the Chartists vs the State

Expanding on our post from earlier today on the Kennington Common Chartist rally of 10th April 1848, it is worth looking in further detail at some of the forces of the state and its supporters arrayed against the Chartists and especially against the possibility of the rally sparking a working class uprising.

Socialist historian John Savile’s account of the government’s preparations for the day are instructive:

Chartism and the State in April 1848

J. Saville

The announcement that the third Chartist petition would be presented on Monday 10 April had been formally made in the Northern Star on 18 March; but it was the assembling of the Chartist Convention in London on Tuesday 4 April that enormously heightened public alarm. Everyone, whichever side they favoured, felt the levels of excitement rising throughout the country. The whole of society had been reading for weeks past about the clubs in Paris: their communistic statements, and their importance as the bases for the popular demonstrations that seemed to be taking place daily. The month of March in Britain had seen a series of minor riots and disturbances, and against the background of a Europe in turmoil the tide of fear was already seeping into the consciousness of the better-off classes throughout the kingdom. And now here was the Chartist Convention meeting publicly in the centre of the capital city, bringing together the local and national leaders of a great mass movement which had been stirring the country for the past decade, and which now seemed stronger than ever. The debates and deliberations of the Convention have been somewhat ignored by historians in the build-up to the Kennington Common demonstration, yet it was the daily reports, published in full in the London press and copied by the provincial papers, which steadily influenced, and hardened, public opinion against the general aims of the working-class movement; and which, above all, convinced the propertied classes that physical force was being planned.

The Convention opened on Tuesday 4 April at the Literary Institute, John Street, Fitzroy Square, and Philip McGrath was elected chairman, with Christopher Doyle as secretary. The number of delegates was limited to 49 `in order to escape the penalties of the Convention Act’. The first two days were spent mainly in listening to reports from the delegates of different towns. Ernest Jones representing Halifax, made a somewhat wild speech on the first day in which he said ‘that his constituents had urged upon him the desirability, if possible, of conducting the movement on moral force principles; but they warned him not to stoop to one act of unnecessary humility in urging their claims. To a man they were ready to fight (cheers). They were eager to rush down the hills of Yorkshire in aid of their brother patriots in London’; and the delegate from Barnsley reported that he had been instructed to say that ‘if the Government let the military loose upon Ireland, something else would be let loose here’. On the second day the most militant speeches were made by Cuffay and the Irish delegate from London, Charles McCarthy. Both favoured the establishment of rifle clubs. There were other speakers, however, on both these and later days, who specifically repudiated violence. A letter on behalf of the Metropolitan Committee from John Arnott had appeared in the London Times of 4 April dissenting from the violent language which Vernon had used about the forthcoming Kennington Common meeting; and the chairman of the Convention appealed for less rash talk at the beginning of the session on Thursday morning. It was, inevitably the violent language which impressed the outside world as well as the constant reiteration of the new unity between the Irish and the Chartists. On Wednesday 5 April the Convention issued a placard which was extensively posted throughout London and which made a special appeal to the Irish in the metropolis:

Irishmen resident in London, on the part of the democrats in England we extend to you the warm hand of fraternisation; your principles are ours, and our principles shall be yours. Remember the aphorisms, that union is strength, and division is weakness; centuries of bitter experience prove to you the truth of the latter, let us now cordially endeavour to test the virtue of the former. Look to your fatherland, the most degraded in the scale of nations. Behold it bleeding at every pore under the horrible lashings of class misrule! What an awful spectacle is Ireland, after forty-seven years of the vaunted Union! Her trade ruined, her agriculture paralysed, her people scattered over the four quarters of the globe, and her green fields in the twelve months just past made the dreary grave yards of 1,000,000 of famished human beings. Irishmen, if you love your country, if you detest these monstrous atrocities, unite in heart and soul with those who will struggle with you to exterminate the hell-engendered cause of your country’s degradation – beggary and slavery.

In its final paragraph the placard reminded the working people of London that `the eyes of EUROPE are fixed upon you’ and it concluded with a general exhortation that the great demonstration would strike a great `moral blow’ for the achievement of `liberty and happiness to every sect and class in the British Empire’. The discussion in the Convention during Thursday further revealed the differences of approach and opinion within the movement, and the Friday session was dominated by the decision of the metropolitan police to ban the meeting and the procession. There was again some very violent language from certain of the delegates, but the Convention agreed in the morning session to send a deputation to the Home Secretary to emphasise the peaceful nature of the demonstration on the coming Monday. Reynolds led a deputation of three and he reported back in the afternoon. Sir George Grey was not available and the deputation had been received by the Under- Secretary at the Home Office, Sir Denis Le Marchant, the Attorney-General and the chief magistrate from Bow Street. It was indicated that Sir Denis Le Marchant `exhibited great coldness’ and it was made clear that whatever the deputation said on behalf of the Convention there was no possibility of the government changing its mind. A letter was left for Sir George Grey which he read to the House of Commons that evening.

Some of the discussion on this day continued the previous days’ threats of physical force. Charles McCarthy `would not say what would be the fearful consequences if a blow were to be struck by the police force or the military. They were determined, in the name of liberty, if attacked, to resist the blow to the utmost’. Ernest Jones argued that the government did not seriously intend to stop the procession, and in a later intervention he moved a resolution to the effect that they should circulate all towns asking for simultaneous demonstrations on Monday `in order that in case the lamentable event of a collision with the troops should take place here, the myrmidons of the law would be kept in their respective districts’. And Harney, just before the Convention closed its session for the day, moved for a committee to select alternative delegates `so that in the event of the present Convention being mowed down in the streets of London or swept into Newgate, there would be others to take their place’.

Reports of this kind in the press were hardly calculated to allay fears, and middle-class hysteria continued to mount. The Saturday session of the Convention heard a long rambling speech from O’Connor and in the afternoon reports from some delegates who had been to see various members of Parliament. All these matters were reported in detail in the London press on Monday morning as was a public meeting in Victoria Park on Sunday, 9 April, at which Ernest Jones was the main speaker. Jones had been among the most violent speakers during the Convention and this speech, as reported in the Morning Chronicle on the day of the great demonstration, would have been confirmation again of the militant intentions of at least some of the Chartist leadership. After repeating his argument that he did not think the government were serious in their intention to suppress the procession, Jones continued:

‘If the Government touch one hair of the head of the delegates – if they place them under arrest, or attempt the least interference with their liberty – every town represented by the delegates, would be in arms in less than 24 hours [tremendous cheers]. If I were to be killed, or wounded, or arrested, the moment the intelligence arrived at Halifax the people would rise and disarm the troops – imprison the authorities – and 100,000 Yorkshiremen would march upon London [enthusiastic cheers]. So help me God I will march in the first rank tomorrow, and if they attempt any violence, they shall not be 24 hours longer in the House of Commons [cheers].
These words of Jones were echoed by the chairman of another Chartist meeting at Blackheath: `We are determined to conquer tomorrow; nothing shall put us down. We shall not be terrified by bullets or bayonets. They have no terrors for oppressed starving men.’

It is not by any means surprising, as the general level of apprehension rose, that precautions and countermeasures were put in hand. The Queen and her family left London for the Isle of Wight on the morning of 8 April. Waterloo station was cleared and several hundred special constables moved into place. The day before, Palmerston had written to Lord John Russell: `I conclude that you have made all the necessary arrangements for the security of the Queen at Osborne; but it is a rather unprotected situation, and the Solent Sea is not impassable.’ The Royal Family themselves were concerned at the public reaction to their departure from the city where so many were fearful of what was likely to happen in the coming days. Prince Albert instructed his equerry, Colonel C. B. Phipps, to report on the public sentiment in this matter, and in a letter dated 9 April Phipps noted that he had found no negative reaction in general, and that he ignored the tittle-tattle of `aristocratic Drawing Rooms’. The justification for the Queen’s departure was clearly that of a constitutional monarch accepting the advice of her prime minister. Phipps ended his letter with a statement of his impressions of the public temper:

There is every shade of opinion as to what will occur tomorrow. Some say that there will not be the slightest disturbance of the peace, others that there will be serious riots – and then again that there will be some partial disturbance, such as breaking windows – the latter is my opinion – I think that in the present excited state of the lowest classes, the day can hardly be expected to pass over without some disturbances but that they will be easily suppressed.

Colonel Phipps travelled from Windsor to London early on the morning of 10 April, and his report to Prince Albert, written at 5.30 p.m. the same afternoon, gives an interesting statement of what so many were thinking and discussing in the hours before the expected demonstration:

The morning, which was very beautiful, brought all kinds of sinister reports; even at Windsor before arriving at London by the train I was informed that immense bodies of people were collecting, and that all the bridges would be occupied by troops and Guns pointed, and that an immediate battle was expected. Coming from Paddington Station to Buckingham Palace the town certainly wore a most warlike appearance – all the Park Gates were closed and each guarded by a Picquet of the Foot Guards, with haversacks and Canteens upon their backs, prepared for actual service. At Buckingham Palace I heard that very large bodies had assembled at Kennington Common, and that numerous additions were marching towards the meeting in different directions.

The correspondence of leading politicians and the columns of newspapers all over the country were full of the expressions of anxieties and fears which had affected the whole country, and which without question had a very marked influence upon the Chartist leaders themselves. One piece of evidence of the latter is the well-known statement which Ernest Jones is reported to have made on the evening of 9 April concerning the willingness of some at least of the Chartist leaders to abandon the Kennington Common meeting. The most pervasive sentiment was undoubtedly that which equated the possible outcome of 10 April with what had occurred in France. It was revolutionary Paris, and the rapidity with which the revolution had spread, that was in most people’s perceptions of what might be the possible consequences of a large gathering in London of those hostile to the existing order. Every paper in the country, without exception, carried in each issue the news from France; and along with the rising phobias against the French and French ideas about work and property went the reports of the violent speeches in the Chartist Convention. As The Times wrote two days after the Kennington Common meeting, on 12 April,

It cannot be denied that the public mind, stunned and confounded by the events on the Continent, had become, as the ancients would have expressed it, meteoric, unsteady, open to strange impressions and diffident of its own most habitual beliefs.

It is necessary to distinguish the attitudes and responses of those concerned in the practical business of maintaining public order from the rest of the propertied classes, whatever the size of their property stake in the country. Government ministers in Whitehall were in no doubt about the gravity of the situation in early April. The revolution in France had shocked them with the rapidity of its escalation, and they were fully alert to the consequences of accidents such as the shootings in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris. Moreover they were equally aware of the possible repercussions in Europe of any demonstration of weakness on the part of the English government in dealing with unrest and disturbance. The reports that had appeared in the French and Irish papers of the quite minor rioting that had occurred in Britain during March had greatly exaggerated the scale of the incidents; and uncertainty and irresolution at this time would only encourage the Jacobin element in all the nations affected by revolutionary movements. British diplomacy in March had achieved its main objective: the neutralisation of France as an active military force in Europe. This, for the Whig ministry, was as important for western and central Europe as it was for Ireland.

There was, however, never any doubt among the leading political groups in England that the coercive forces at the disposal of the British government were wholly capable of dealing adequately and successfully with any confrontation that might occur, either on the mainland or in Ireland. The problem, and really the only problem, was that Britain was not Ireland. The Irish had always been treated as a colonial people, and a scale of deaths acceptable in Ireland could not possibly be admitted in England. A soil stained with English blood would bring forth martyrs. No minister at this time seems to have mentioned Peterloo in his correspondence or in speeches, but the need to avoid bloodshed and implicitly the political consequences of bloodshed were clearly understood and strongly emphasised on a number of occasions. At the same time the Whigs never allowed their liberal principles to obstruct the security requirements of the state. Their own position in society depended on the preservation of the existing order, and they were conscious of how far class hostility from the lower orders should be allowed to express itself given their own capacity for constraining its violent manifestations. Clarendon wrote to Sir George Grey on 7 April during the period of growing anxiety and concern prior to the Chartist meeting on the 10th:

There is so much loyal and good feeling in the Country, such mighty interests are at stake, the circumstances of Europe are so grave, the future is so menacing, that I feel sure you will not appeal in vain to the `Haves’ in England against the ‘Have nots’. But this is not the time for stickling about Constitutional forms or party consistency. If we lose Ireland, it will be as much owing to the want of an Arms Bill and to the imprudent policy of the Whigs two years ago as any thing else.

The impression accepted by many historians that the plan for the defence of London was largely the work of the Duke of Wellington is incorrect. The reputation that the Duke enjoyed in the country was an enormous asset to the government of 1848. Greville wrote on 13 July 1847: ‘the Duke of Wellington was if possible received with even more enthusiasm. It is incredible what popularity environs him in his latter days; he is followed like a show wherever he goes, and the feeling of the people for him seems to be the liveliest of all popular sentiments; yet he does nothing to excite, and hardly appears to notice it. He is in wonderful vigour of body, but strangely altered in mind, which is in a fitful uncertain state, and there is no knowing in what mood he may be found: everybody is afraid of him, nobody dares to say anything to him; he is sometimes very amiable and good-humoured, sometimes very irritable and morose.’

The much quoted comment of Chevalier Bunsen which suggested that Wellington was in command of the preparations for the Chartist demonstration was no doubt an accurate statement of what passed between them. Wellington was certainly brought into the discussions at a rather late date when the crucial choices had been made, and he was present on the day of the demonstration itself, but all the basic decisions had been taken by Sir George Grey and Lieutenant-General Lord Fitzroy Somerset, the Military Secretary. Wellington had contributed his own memorandum on 5 April which began very curiously:

Having seen in the newspapers statements that 200,000 Chartists are to be assembled in and around London on Monday next the 10th instant; and knowing that Her Majesty’s Servants have ordered the movement of certain troops upon the metropolis . . . I have not heard that the Government has adopted any measures to dissuade or to prevent these large bodies from assembling near the Metropolis. I do not know whence they will come, or what is their avowed or their real or their supposed object.

Wellington then proceeded to set out quite reasonable precautions which could be taken. He was especially concerned to place great emphasis upon the need to keep communications open: similar to his insistence on the matter for Dublin in his memorandum of 2 March which has been noted above. His main points, however, had already been well taken.

It was on 3 April that Sir George Grey issued a general circular to all the relevant authorities in the country recommending the swearing-in of special constables, although by this time many thousands had already been enrolled. The Home Office was in continuous correspondence with all parts of the United Kingdom, but until the Kennington Common meeting, except for Ireland, there was an inevitable concentration on the preparations within the London area. The tactics overall were simple and straight-forward. The decision of the metropolitan police commissioners to ban the procession on Monday was phrased as `assemblage or procession’ and this was generally taken to refer solely or mainly to the procession back from Kennington Common which would accompany the petition to the House of Commons. In a memorandum to the Lord Mayor of London dated 9 April Sir Denis Le Merchant set down the precautions which had been agreed and which were already for the most part in operation. Le Marchant wrote that the meeting on Kennington Common would be allowed provided that it remained peaceful, but no procession would be permitted under any circumstances. The main force of professional police would be on and around the bridges across the Thames, with a special concentration on Blackfriars Bridge. Cavalry and foot soldiers would be stationed out of sight at various strategic points and especially at the bridges. At Blackfriars, for example, four houses at the north end were taken over, with the consent of their owners, for a large party of infantry. Only in the event of the civil forces being unable to contain the demonstrators would the military intervene, and it was assumed by all who were involved in these decisions that military intervention would come only as a very last resort. There were 7,122 military including cavalry in London for the 10th; 1,231 enrolled pensioners; just over 4,000 police – metropolitan and city – and about 85,000 special constables. The disposition of troops was the responsibility of the London Military District subject to the agreement of the Home Office. The main problem was to find suitable accommodation for the military in order that they would be out of sight but within reach of central London. Several owners of large houses put their stabling at the disposal of the cavalry, and a director of the South West Railway arranged for 500 infantry and 100 cavalry to be accommodated at Nine Elms station on the Sunday and Monday. Many of the infantry were inside government offices and buildings.

Army morale had always been appreciated as a matter for close concern. This was the great objection to billeting. Palmerston’s experience at the War Office had taught him that the contact of ordinary soldiers with civilians could be a subversive matter. In Ireland, partly because of the potentially more explosive political situation and partly because of the very poor housing conditions in the country as a whole, there was no choice but to provide accommodation; and almost all the army was quartered in their own barracks. On the mainland, however, even by 1848 there was often not sufficient barrack buildings to house the troops as they were moved rapidly round the country where disaffection was threatened; and tented camps, as in Liverpool in the summer of 1848, often had to be accepted.

Every scrap of information about the political conversation of ordinary soldiers – nearly always supplied by the local police – was carefully scrutinised; but there was very little. In London a constable of the E Division reported a conversation with a sentry on duty at the west entrance of the British Museum in Great Russell Street in which the soldier was alleged to have said: `You’ll find that if we are called out we shall not do much, and he thought that plenty of his people had signed the Charter but did not say if he had signed it’; and in the week before 10 April there were reports of up to a dozen soldiers of the Scots Fusiliers, stationed at Charing Cross barracks, talking in public houses of the Kennington Common meeting: one of them further stated that he had an aged father and mother in the country, who were reduced in circumstances and who now received for their maintenance from the Parish only three shillings a week – and what use was three shillings a week to an old couple of their age – He, for one, knew others of the same mind, would never fight for any Government or any other system which would behave so to any poor people’.

On another occasion, again with no precise dating but in the week before 10 April, a report of four soldiers of the same regiment stated that a civilian addressing the soldiers said: `I hope my lads you will not interfere with us next Monday’ and one of the soldiers replied: `There is little fear of that, my boy. Do you do your Duty and we will do ours – And if we are called out and ordered to fire – we shall fire over your heads.’ In this episode one name was quoted with identification markings. The only other incident reported in this particular War Office file was a short report dated 5 April when a police constable noted that he saw three privates of the Grenadier Guards stop and sign the Chartist petition on Westminster Bridge.

These were trivial affairs and cannot have caused the military authorities any serious concern. It is worth remarking that there do not appear to be any reports in government papers of the slightest anxiety about the metropolitan police. It was, of course, the Roman Catholic part of the army which the authorities were worried about in 1848, but this was a new problem. In the years preceeding 1848 the Catholic hierarchy in England had always come out strongly against physical force politics, and the influence of O’Connell against the Chartist movement was powerful. In 1848 itself there are a number of reports in the Home Office papers where evidence was given of the steadying influence of the local Catholic priest, evincing disapproval of the link with militant Chartism. The new situation in 1848 was one in which Irish soldiers might come into contact with Irish Repealers united with English Chartists. As events turned out, there was nothing to worry about on the English mainland. Ireland was, as ever, likely to produce disturbance; and on the night before the Kennington Common meeting in London, when there was rising excitement in Dublin as everywhere else, fighting broke out in Dublin between the soldiers of two regiments over the Repeal question. Clarendon, in a letter dated 10 April, described the incident in a letter to Sir George Grey:

There was a disagreeable row here last night between the soldiers of two Regiments about Repeal and they fought in the street. They were soon brought back to Barracks . . . We have heard too that the Repeal soldiers will attempt to break out of their Barracks tonight – the whole spirit of the garrison (or the R.C. part of it) appears to have altered since the 57th came here. We have fortunately got rid of them now by sending them to the North but P[rince] George tells me he inspected the two foot companies before they marched yesterday, and that he never saw such a mutinous and sullen set of fellows – he expected they would knock him down.

In later letters of the next few days Clarendon reported that the military commanders had investigated the incident and were now less troubled. He especially emphasised that the account in the Nation was `entirely false’ and that only two regiments had been sent out of Dublin; and it was the 57th alone about which there were still doubts.

The protection of strategic buildings was an important part of the general security precautions. In the early weeks which followed the Paris revolution there had been a number of reports in The Times especially from various correspondents in the French capital, which provided much detail as to the logistics of revolution by the masses; and Normanby, in his despatches to the Foreign Office, was also full of information on these matters. It was plain that the occupation of important buildings in the centre of the city, thereby providing permanent bases, was a quite crucial factor in the escalation of the revolution, allowing the possibilities of constant demonstrations, invasion of the Assembly, and a continuous renewal of revolutionary spirit and morale. The matter was well understood in Britain beyond the small groups of ministers and their military advisers. There were constant demands from those in charge of buildings for additional troops and arms in the days leading up to the Kennington common demonstration, among them an interesting letter from the director of the British Museum, Sir Henry Ellis, who asked the Home Office for additional protection, on the grounds that it could now be expected that disturbances would be more serious than had previously been anticipated. He added:

Please to remember if it should by any accident happen that the Building of the Museum fall into the hands of disaffected persons it would prove to them a Fortress capable of holding Ten Thousand Men.

The date of the letter was 9 April. All the main buildings in Whitehall were heavily protected. At Somerset House a portcullis had been built; the roof of the Bank of England was parapeted with sandbags, and guns mounted through the apertures; all the prisons in the central London area were reinforced with additional arms and soldiers or pensioners. Other precautions included the earlier lighting of public lamps in the areas of London most likely to be affected; renewal of the instructions to gunsmiths to make their weapons unusable in the event of looting; and the compulsory taking over by the government of the national Electric Telegraph system for the whole week beginning Sunday 9 April. A month earlier the Home Office had asked for a special line to be constructed between the central office of the Electric Telegraph at Euston and the Home Office.

The distinguishing feature of the measures taken by the British government against its own radical movement, compared with the situation in Paris in the days before 22 February, was the overwhelming support given throughout the country by the middle strata of society. It could be taken for granted that the landed aristocracy and gentry would support the forces of order, but it was the middling groups – from the wealthy bourgeois at the top to those referred to in contemporary literature as the shopkeeping class – who rallied in large numbers and with great determination to oppose the radical disaffected. Already, in the aftermath of the Glasgow riots of 6 March, Archibald Alison, the high Tory deputy sheriff of the County of Lanark, had written to the Home Secretary commenting on the `most excellent’ disposition of the `whole middle classes’; and in London Rowan, the senior commissioner of the metropolitan police, was also taking it for granted that he would be able to rely upon a large inflow into the ranks of special constables. It had not always been so, which is why leading Whigs and Tories were now so ready to congratulate their middle-class allies. Corn Law repeal was, after all, still in everyone’s mind; and there had always been hesitation and uncertainty among some groups of the middle ranks of society in times of social crisis: in part ideological, but much more, it may be conjectured, because of doubts about the efficiency as well as the efficacy of government security measures. Even in 1848, when the Whig government acted throughout with competence and expedition, there was hesitation in the early days in some areas; but this was probably the fault of the local authorities rather than of central government. What can be said of this year is that the firm direction of affairs by the Home Office encouraged confidence that demonstrations of support by middle-class groups would be strongly reinforced by government action. Certainly by the middle of March the tide of opinion was running strongly in favour of the government; and in the weeks preceding the Kennington Common meeting an upsurge of confidence and support for the government of a quite extraordinary kind took place. Normanby had been constantly emphasising to Palmerston the failure of the July monarchy and of the Guizot government to maintain the confidence of its own supporters, and Normanby came back again and again to what he regarded as the crucial factor in the revolutionary process: the falling away of middle-class support for Louis-Philippe and all that he stood for. The urban middle classes in Britain were, of course, more numerous and more powerful economically than similar groups in France; but there was at the same time a widespread anti-aristocratic sentiment among many business circles and within middle-class nonconformist chapels. The threats from below to social stability and to the rights of property were, however, of such a kind that there was no doubt on which side the middle classes would stand; and the firm determination of the government overcame doubts and fears that the middle-class support of security measures – in their role as special constables – would receive the full backing of the coercive powers of the state. These considerations were especially important for the shopkeeping classes; and all over the country the middle classes offered their services in overwhelming numbers. Never before had there been such a mobilisation of all who for many different reasons were self-interested in the preservation of the existing structure of society. The mayors of all the large towns in the industrial North reported large numbers of special constables having been sworn in, and there were similar reports from less threatened areas. But it was London, inevitably, upon which national attention was focussed in the days before the Kennington Common meeting; and here the response was solid everywhere in the central parishes of the city and in some it was overwhelming. By 27 March Hackney had 200 special constables each with a staff and white arm-band. Limehouse divided their recruits into sections with different colours in their button-holes: the rank and file wore blue, sub-leaders red and the leader of five or more sections had blue and white. Towards the west of the town the upper classes took over. Marylebone had a printed notice calling for a meeting on the Saturday evening. The officers had already been elected, presumably more or less self-elected. Lieutenant-General Sir James Bathurst, a Peninsular veteran on the retired list but still Governor of Berwick for which he received £568 15 shillings and 10 pence per annum, was Superintendent-in-Chief; his deputy was Lieutenant-Colonel Sir J. J. Hamilton; and among the superintendants of the divisions into which the special constables were grouped were two rear admirals, one knight and one colonel. There was a good deal of self-help. Before the Kennington Common meeting – the exact date is not given – between thirty and forty tradesmen formed themselves into a company ready to be sworn in as special constables. They met at the Bell Inn, Kings Cross.

There were, inevitably, some rather unusual offers of help which the government felt it necessary either to do nothing about or to reject. On 7 April a gentleman farmer from Essex offered his services: `I am an experienced sportsman and a good steady shot’; the young gentlemen of Rugby school who were seventeen years or over offered to assist the authorities; and two days after the Kennington Common meeting the Keeper of the Queen’s prison in London wrote to Sir George Grey enclosing letters from various inmates serving time who were offering their services to help put down any disturbances: the Keeper adding that `I confidently believe I should have received the most loyal and efficient support from most of the Prisoners had there been any real occasion for their services’. Thomas Allsop, in a letter to Robert Owen, who was in Paris, summed up the prevailing mood in London: `Very great alarm prevails here, and very grave apprehensions are entertained for the peace of the country generally by grave and reflecting men. The worst feature is the antagonism of classes shown by the readiness of the middle classes to become special constables.’

Allsop’s letter was dated 8 April. Two days after the Chartist meeting The Times summarised the political lessons: `London will crush treason at once, and that all classes are at one in this respect. Such is the new strength we have gained by that noble day’s work, a strength we could not easily have gained in any other way’; and on the same day the Nonconformist, whose anti-aristocratic sentiments have already been quoted and whose political position was liberal-radical and certainly not Whig, insisted that while armed forces cannot kill `a living sentiment’, it nevertheless emphasised the importance of the `counter-demonstration on the part of the middle classes, not against the principles of the Charter, but against that recklessness of counsel which sought to realise them in social confusion and streams of blood. A physical-force revolution is thus, we hope, become an impossibility, never again to be attempted.’

The most controversial question concerning the special constables of 1848 is the extent to which working people themselves enrolled for 10 April. It was widely stated, and if not stated then assumed, by contemporaries of most political views outside the Chartist movement itself that at least many of the respectable artisans had volunteered in London and elsewhere in the country. What happened in the months which followed has hardly ever been discussed, and it is still a matter unresolved. We can list the working-class groups who wore armbands as special constables in London and other towns and about whom there is no argument. These were those employees who were either in a close master-servant relationship in which it would have been impossible to retain employment without being sworn in. Such were male domestic servants and the country employees of the landed classes. Many aristocratic families sent their women and children out of London and kept back their male servants as well as bringing up from their estates their gamekeepers, on the principle no doubt that good marksmen might be useful – as the Essex farmer noted above had assumed. There were a number of accounts in the contemporary London papers of titled persons enrolling as special constables along with their complete male establishments. Then there were the employees of railway companies and of public utilities such as gas companies. The railway companies ran their organisations for decades with a quasi-military discipline, and it was expected that their employees would volunteer. A letter of 5 April from the London and South Western Company to the Home Office reported that three to four hundred were already sworn in and that the number would increase to 800 on the day following: `of this number 40 or 50 are superior officers and clerks, upon whom I can thoroughly rely.’ Among the gas companies which provided lists of officers and workmen sworn in during the period preceding the Chartist demonstration were the Commercial Gas Company of Stepney; the Imperial Gas Works, Margaret Street, Shoreditch, and the Independent Gas Company, Haggerston. There was some opposition by workers to this voluntary conscription, but hard evidence is difficult to establish. The magistrates who received the oath also had problems, and there were several letters to the Home Office asking for guidance when large establishments tried to enrol their workers in the mass. The original circular from Grey of 3 April had referred to the enrolment of `respectable individuals’ but as 10 April approached the Home Office indicated its approval of these mass registrations. There was one particular group which received much publicity and which was certainly beyond the pale of working-class respectability. These were the Thames coal-whippers for whom Parliament had legislated in 1844; and their offer of service was widely used to indicate the extent to which the Chartist movement did not represent the whole of the working classes. It was also used, by Gladstone among others, as an example of the returns governments could expect from social reform measures. The coal-whippers were at the lower end of the labourers’ group, and although so much publicity was given to their commitment to public order, a report in the Weekly Dispatch suggested that many in fact had been more or less compulsorily enrolled by their labour superintendent. After the demonstration of the 10th was over, the coal-whippers demanded payment for their services since they had lost a day’s work, or in some cases, part of a day. Their request set up a mild flutter in Whitehall, but they had been so useful in the government’s propaganda that there was no question but to pay them. Richard Mayne, the metropolitan police Commissioner wrote to C. E. Trevelyan at the Treasury – whose economic heart must have been much displeased at the prospect of this frittering away of public funds: `it would be mischievous and impolitic to make them dissatisfied especially after the public notice taken of them’. There was careful calculation of the rates of pay deemed politic.

Many workingmen were either committed Chartists or like Mayhew’s costermongers, were for `us’ and against `them’, but there must have been quite large numbers who took no clear attitude or who followed their masters. Any quantitative analysis is obviously not possible, but there is an interesting phenomenon that has not been much commented on, and yet was to be found, in these early days in April at any rate, both in London and in the industrial North; and it may be significant as an indication of changing political attitudes. This was where working operatives refused to be sworn in as ordinary special constables but were prepared to act within their own works to protect their working premises from outside attack and, presumably, in Manchester, against visiting bands – pickets – who in the past had forced a turn-out. Magistrates who accepted workers on these terms were acting illegally in that the terms of a special constable’s appointment were such that while it was usual to employ them within their own neighbourhood they were obliged to serve anywhere in their own county; and according to a later ruling from the Home Office, even in another county as well. Service within their own working establishment was much more common than has so far been noted. There is, in the return of special constables made by the metropolitan police to the Home Office an interesting comment against Lambeth (St Mary’s parish): `Mr Maudsley, Engineer, has 1000 for his own premises most of whom are thus secured from taking the wrong side as they are on ill terms with the Police.’ There are also scattered pieces of evidence which show opposition to enrolment, one of the most important being a letter of 8 April sent to the Home Office by a London magistrate, a Mr P. Bingham who attended the Geological Museum to swear in the considerable number of workers employed in its building:

I am sorry to have to apprise that the feeling exhibited by them was anything but satisfactory. Some refused to be sworn, and those who consented, insisted on limiting their services to the inside of the Building. I willingly assented to this under the circumstances I have stated, considering they might otherwise be on Kennington Common.
I was then desired to attend at Lord Ellesmeres, where a very large body of workmen is employed. The Foreman informed me that the whole of them, with the exception of three, refused to be sworn, but that they had promised to defend the building in case of attack.
After this, I thought it better to abstain from going further.

Much was made by contemporaries of the business establishments who signed up all their workers and this support has been used by modern historians to buttress their own belief in working-class involvement in the maintenance of public order against the potential or threatened Chartist violence. One of the most striking examples of a large-scale opposition to service as special constables came from the industrial North during the second half of March. The story was told by Sir Thomas Arbuthnot commanding the northern military district who added to his report that he had made particular enquiries on the matters stated and found them to be `essentially correct’. What happened was that the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company swore in 700 of their workmen as special constables. The day after, a mass meeting of the men was held to protest against their involvement `at a moment’s notice’ and the resolution given below was unanimously adopted:

Resolved, first: That we, the workmen of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, do disapprove of the abrupt manner in which we were called up to be sworn in as special constables by the authorities, and that we did fully expect to be treated as men capable of comprehending right from wrong – Secondly: That this meeting is of opinion that it is in the interest and duty of all classes to protect life and property, and that we, the workmen of the Lancashire and Yorkshire Railway Company, do pledge ourselves to do so, as far as it in our power lies, providing the middle class do pledge themselves to protect our capital, namely, our labour – Thirdly: That it is the opinion of this meeting that the present distress of the working classes arises from class legislation, and that it is their unanimous opinion that no permanent good can be effected for the community at large, until the working classes are fully and fairly represented in the Commons house of parliament, and that intelligence and virtue are the proper qualifications of a representative. The workmen here present do pledge themselves to offer no resistance to any body of men who may struggle for such a representation.

The resolution just quoted was taken from a press cutting from the Manchester Examiner of 18 March which Arbuthnot enclosed in his report to the Home Office. His accompanying letter said that it appeared that a number of the railway workers were well-known Chartists and some were in well-paid positions; that at the meeting there were some good speakers and that cheers were given for the Charter. Without doubt the resolution had been drawn up by someone or group accustomed to political activity.

One example of a group of militant railway workers does not make a case for the total opposition of working people to middle-class appeals for the law and order approach of the Whig government; even when put alongside the evidence already quoted from London. It does, however, encourage scepticism and highlight the need for more serious research into working-class attitudes, both in the run-up to the London demonstration of 10 April, when the hysteria in the country at large was widespread and pervasive, and in the months which followed. Most of the discussion about working-class involvement as special constables has related to the April days, and little to the weeks which followed when in some parts of the country – in particular London and the industrial North – the combined Irish and Chartist movements were growing and violence was coming to be accepted. From the evidence which is available, it would seem that the gap in later months between social classes was widening. This was certainly true of the liberal grouping within the middle classes whose attitudes towards working-class radicals were appreciably hardening; and, as political bitterness developed, it is probable that working-class enrolment in the security forces, whatever its original size and social composition, was lessening or being completely eliminated.

On the morning of 10 April the National Convention met at 9 a.m. in its usual hall in John Street. G. W. M. Reynolds took the chair in the absence of Philip McGrath, and Doyle reported that he and McGrath had waited on the police commissioners on the previous day to inform them that the Convention, as an indication of their desire to lessen tension, had changed the route of the procession as originally planned, and now intended to keep it some distance from the Houses of Parliament. The police, on their side, had replied that there could be no change in the decision to ban the procession. The Convention then heard Feargus O’Connor at his most rambling and, after shorter speeches from the floor, the Convention concluded at 10 a.m., and the leading Chartists then entered the vans outside the hall. These wagons contained the petition and were drawn by horses supplied by the Land Company. This official group then drove slowly down Tottenham Court Road, through Holborn and Farringdon Street over Blackfriars Bridge, and arrived at Kennington Common about 11.30 a.m.

The police had set up a control centre in the Horns Tavern on the edge of Kennington Common early on the Monday morning. Richard Mayne, the junior of the two Police Commissioners, was responsible for its direction. Messages from all parts of London came to this control point where the Chartists were assembling and later marching; and these reports were then sent on to the Home Office. Some examples follow:
9.15 a.m.:
`Report from Clerkenwell Green that 3000 assembled.’ (The Globe reported in its second edition that on two poles carried by the demonstrators there was a cap of liberty, a tri-coloured flag and an American flag).
Police Station, Stepney, 9 a.m.:
`There are at present about 2000 persons assembled on Stepney Green, who are now being formed in procession five deep, with Music, Flags etc. All seems peaceable, and no appearance of their being armed’
E. Div. 9.50 a.m.:
`The procession is now moving from Russell Square about 10,000.’
11.15 a.m.:
`The procession is now filing onto the Common having arrived by the Walworth Road. There are numerous flags and banners but not the slightest appearance of arms or even bludgeons.’

Soon after O’Connor arrived at Kennington Common he was called for a discussion with the police who informed him that the meeting would be allowed but that the procession would not. Mayne reported the interview at length in a communication to Sir George Grey. O’Connor returned to the demonstration and addressed it from one of the vans, arguing that they had established the right of meeting and to avoid a physical confrontation with the authorities they should accept the presentation of the petition by a few people; and that the meeting should disperse. `He would again call on them for God’s sake not to injure their cause by intemperance or folly’, and he ended: `Let every man among you now take off his hat and bow to the Great God of Heaven – thank him for his goodness, and solemly promise not to break his law.’ Ernest Jones was the next speaker and, to quote the Morning Chronicle report:

said that he was a physical force Chartist, but in their present unprepared state he deprecated any attempt at collision with the authorities. He had recommended that the procession should not have been brought on this side of the water, and that the bridges should not have been placed between them and the House of Commons. He believed that if they had met on the other side of the water the police would never have attempted to stop the procession. But at present they had been completely caught in a trap. They would, however, meet on the other side of the water, if their petition were not granted, and carry their remonstrance to the foot of the throne. He entreated them to disperse peaceably on the present occasion, and they might depend upon it, if they followed his advice, they would be able to meet in larger numbers upon another occasion, joined by thousands of the middle classes.

There was opposition to the platform from militants such as Cuffay, and this was the beginning of an alternative leadership in London to the hitherto accepted personalities of Chartism. It is possible that Ernest Jones, despite the discredit which this day must have brought upon him in the minds of some Londoners at any rate, might have continued to move to the Left; but he was the first of the major figures of the movement to be arrested in early June, and was not therefore part of the illegal movement that began to grow during the summer months. In the rest of the country the failure of the Kennington Common meeting had remarkably little, if any, effect upon the morale of the Chartist movement; in the industrial North especially, it continued to increase its political activities until the mass arrests of the late summer.

For the government 10 April was of crucial importance. The Chartist demonstration was never intended to be a physical confrontation with the government; and when the Chartist leaders protested their peaceful intentions, they were not dissembling. The Whig government, however, did, not overreact, as has often been suggested. A demonstration of their coercive power over their own radicals, in the context of this period, was of central importance, both at home and abroad. As the Chartist Convention correctly noted, Europe was looking anxiously and carefully at what was happening in England; and it was not hysteria but calm resolve that moved the Whig ministers to their elaborate precautions in their own capital city. They had absorbed the lessons of Paris, and to have permitted a mass demonstration to accompany the petition to Westminster might have offered opportunities for disturbance or riot the consequences of which, in the tense atmosphere of these days, were certainly incalculable. Again there would have been no doubt about the outcome; but a bloodless victory – one indeed that could be laughed off, as this one was – offered confidence and relief not only inside Britain but in every European capital that was beleaguered. To contemporaries in 1848 the affair of Kennington Common was certainly not as trivial as it has mostly been portrayed in the history textbooks. It provided evidence, as noted already, of the wholehearted support of all the various groups within the middle strata. The House of Commons could have its fun at the expense of the fictitious names on the Chartist petition as well as at the grossly exaggerated claims of its total signatories, but the government was under no illusion that the radical movement had disappeared or was suffering any serious loss of morale. As Palmerston wrote to Clarendon on the day following the Kennington Common meeting: `Things passed off beautifully here yesterday, but the snake is scotched, not killed.’

Taken from J. Saville, 1848: The British State and the Chartist Movement (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 102-20.

Today in radical history, 1848: the last great Chartist rally on Kennington Common.

Sometimes called “the first great British working class political movement”, the Chartist movement, which spanned the late 1830s to the early 1850s, was in many ways the culmination of a diverse collection of radical and reform movements that had been developing in Britain for the past 70 years. Pressure for political reform, a wider franchise, and a greater say in how society was run for the ‘lower orders’ (almost everyone except the aristocracy and the high bourgeoisie) that had been slowly gathering pace since the early 1760s. This movement had been re-galvanised by the ideas of the first French Revolution of 1789, and spiced with the coagulation of resistance to rapid and traumatic economic change and the imposition of capitalism, by the people most impacted, the industrial working classes – still wet behind the ears from recognising its own existence.

The movement combined the traditions of political liberty with the struggle for economic power in a bewilderingly altering society, adding in a powerful influence from the scene of blasphemous writers, seditious preachers and agitational journalists that had articulated rebellion against religious and social restrictions and raged against enclosure, the dispossession of people from the land, and in some cases, slavery… The movement that had built the mass opposition to the stamp tax on newspapers…

Chartism inherited and amplified the demands and the language of these traditions, but was also heir to the deep divisions over tactics, methods and – ultimately – the true goal. Like groups as far-ranging as the London Corresponding Society and the National Union of the Working Classes before them, the movement argued about whether ‘moral’ (campaigning) pressure could win the vote for working men, or whether the aristocracy and the increasingly dominant capitalists would ever allow this. Could middle class and working class reformers really work together, given the obviously divergent interests? Was representation in parliament enough, or was total working class power needed to ensure their aims? And if radical means were required, how was it to be done – underground plots, mass strikes, grasping control of the land en masse?

These questions had been fought over within and around Chartism since its birth, and had already produced one abortive general strike, and a wave of desperate plans for uprisings of which only one had really got going (in Newport in 1839). The defeats of 1839-40 did help send the movement into something of a decline nationally, but it this masks a different reality locally – the ideas of the movement were spreading into the daily life of millions of people, adding to and enriching a working class political and social culture, in self-education, history lessons, songs, alternative ceremonies and the creation of meeting places and social spaces. We don’t have space to go into this here, but in many ways the historical concentration on the big petitions, the monster rallies, the secret plots, highlights the less significant aspects, at the expense of how Chartism helped change a way of thinking in millions of people… (Something this blog with its concentration on ‘events’ and anniversaries also tends to fall into, we admit…) However, the big events served as a focus for the grassroots level, a coming together, building from the bottom up, so the two are not really separate.

“Not a small active party with a large passive membership but a movement which deeply affected every aspect of people’s lives. It was an inclusive organisation with popular leaders who were Catholics, Protestants and Freethinkers. West Indian and Asian people were prominent and in fact the organiser of 10th April was William Cuffay, a black Londoner, who was subsequently deported for his efforts. The Irish, in the midst of the great potato famine at home had good reason to take part and did. There were also women’s groups in spite of the charter only demanding male suffrage. Chartist meetings sometimes had a carnival like atmosphere, and at other times were preceded by hymn singing and processions. There was a Chartist culture which had its own christenings and funerals and its own songs. It was a counter-cultural experience that changed people’s perception of themselves… through this process they became conscious of a profound and unifying new urban class identity.

The main political strategies of Chartism became the petition and the monster rally. The petition also grew to be a monster and assumed the status of an unofficial referendum. The great rallies were a show of strength which also gave the participants a direct sense of community.

… it was such a collective network of groups that it is difficult to reduce to conventional narrative history, partly because the fieldwork is still being done and partly due to the class bias of historians and their publishers who have done their best to undermine its importance.” (Kennington Park: Birthplace of People’s Democracy, Stefan Szczelkun)

In April 1848 the Chartists’ national profile had been in eclipse for some years, but was visibly reviving. The third great Chartist petition codifying the 6 demands of the People’s Charter was gathering pace. The revived Chartist movement was growing stronger: a many thousand strong Third Petition to Parliament.

The petition for The Charter had grown huge, by then it had between three and six million signatures depending on which side you choose to believe. A carriage, bedecked with garlands, was needed to transport it. Parliament was to be presented with this petition, for the third time, after a monster rally on Kennington Common on the 10th April 1848.

The Chartist Convention, meeting in Fitzrovia, had seen some intense debate between those advocating moral force and those believing armed uprisings might be necessary, especially as an attack by police or the army was anticipated.

This moment in the struggle for democracy was recorded in a historic photograph. William Kilburn, an early portrait photographer, took two daguerrotype plates of the Kennington Common rally from a vantage point in The Horns, (the famous pub on the edge of the Common, long a venue for radical debate itself) – the oldest surviving photo of a crowd.

But mirrored to the enthusiasm from a mass of working people, for the upper and respectable middle classes, the increasing agitation induced probably the greatest fear of the lower classes since the Gordon Riots. Revolutions and uprisings which were breaking out all across Europe gave the usual violent rhetoric from some of the Chartist leaders a slightly more threatening edge, to the ears of the authorities and the middle classes, and the government made elaborate preparations to resist any attempted insurrection. Thousands of troops and police were moved into London, and hundreds of middle class volunteers and special constables were signed up (reminiscent of the Volunteers of the French Revolutionary wars, and foreshadowing the specials of the General Strike eighty years later).

“In the morning (a very fine day) everybody was on the alert; the parks were closed; our office was fortified, a barricade of Council Registers was erected in the accessible room on the ground-floor, and all our guns were taken down to be used in defence of the building.” (Charles Greville, Diary)

Bundles of old copies of the Times were also used to barricade buildings on the river adjacent to the bridges, in case of armed attack by insurgents.

The royal family were even moved out of the capital. The bridges and important and strategic buildings were barricaded:

“The bridges were the chief points of defence, of which Blackfriars-bridge appeared to be a sort of centre, as it had the strongest force..” “About 300 gentlemen of the Stock Exchange were sworn in special constables, 100 of whom attended under their respective leaders in the Royal Exchange, from whence they were marched to Blackfriars-bridge…”

“The proceedings in its neighbourhood were nearly as follows:- By ten o’clock a considerable crowd had collected in Farringdon-street and New Bridge-street, and at the point where Fleet-street and Ludgate-hill join this line of street. The stable-yard of the Rose Inn, in Farringdon-street, had previously been occupied by a body of cavalry. Special constables were also mustered in great force by the authorities of the ward, but kept out of sight. Soon after ten the crowd assumed a “processional” shape, and by half-past ten began to pass over the bridge. Men who had been talking together in groups joined arm-in-arm, and the march commenced. From half-past ten till half-past eleven one continuous stream of people crossed the bridge – the pavement on the east side being occupied by the more systematic procession, and the roadway being thronged by a closely-packed body. At the latter hour vans, decorated with flags, and containing some of the leaders of the “demonstration,” made their appearance, and passed on without any appearance of confusion. With the exception of a few closed shops, there were, in this locality, no signs of alarm, and no symptoms of disorder.”  (Illustrated London News)

The Chartists’ national leadership was divided as to how to proceed. Some were for all out pressing ahead while the movement was on the up; others were scared by the clear willingness of the government to arm itself. On the one hand this was recognition that where force was concerned the stare had the upper hand; but the more radical elements also accused some of the more vocal mouthpieces of the movement of being happy to shout and bluster but not being really up for real confrontation. The fiery orator Feargus O’Connor, always more mouth than trousers, came in for much criticism. The Chartist Convention, meeting in London, was riven with argument.

William Cuffay, the black tailor delegated from the London Chartists to represent them at the Convention, was notable in calling for radical action and denouncing the vacillators. Cuffay’s actions around this time illuminate some of the division, suspicions and rows the Chartist leadership was falling prone to.

For Cuffay, as for so many other working people in western Europe, 1848 was ‘the year of decision’. He was one of the three London delegates to the Chartists’ national Convention that met in April. From the start of the proceedings he made his left-wing position plain. Derby had sent as delegate a sensational journalist and novelist called George Reynolds (he gave his name to the radical magazine that eventually became Reynolds News) and Cuffay challenged the middle-class newcomer, demanding to know if he really was a Chartist. Cuffay also at first opposed the granting of credentials to Charles MacCarthy of the Irish Democratic Federation, but the dispute was settled, and MacCarthy admitted, by a sub-committee of which Cuffay was a member. The convention’s main task was to prepare a mass meeting on Kennington Common and a procession that was to accompany the Chartist petition, bearing almost two million signatures, to the Commons. When Reynolds, moved an amendment declaring ‘That in the event of the rejection of the Petition, the Convention should declare its sitting permanent, and should declare the Charter the law of the land’, Cuffay said he was opposed to a body declaring itself permanent that represented only a fraction of the people: he was elected by only 2,000 out of the two million inhabitants of London, He moved that the convention should confine itself to presenting the petition, and that a national assembly be called – “then come what might, it should declare its sittings permanent and go on, come weal or come woe.” At length the idea of a national assembly was accepted. In a later debate Cuffay told his fellow delegates that “the men of London were up to the mark, and were eager for the fray”. 

When a moderate speech was made, Cuffay burst out: “This clapping of hands is all very fine, but will you fight for it?” There were cries of ‘Yes, yes’ and cheers. Appointed chairman of the committee for managing the procession, Cuffay was responsible for making sure that “everything… necessary for conducting an immense procession with order and regularity had been adopted”, and suggested that stewards wear tricolour sashes and rosettes. Things had now come to a crisis, he said, and they must he prepared to act with coolness and determination. It was clear that the executive had shrunk from their responsibility. They did not show the spirit they ought. He no longer had any confidence in them, and he hoped the convention would be prepared to take the responsibility out of their hands and lead the people themselves. At the final meeting, on the morning of the demonstration, Cuffay opposed endless debate.

“The time is now come for work,” he insisted. An observer recorded that, as the convention broke up and delegates took their places on the vehicles, carrying the petition, Cuffay ‘appeared perfectly happy and elated’ for the first time since the proceedings opened.

In contrast, Feargus O’Connor, facing the reality of the forces arrayed against the march, was getting cold feet:

“Presently Mr. Mayne [Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police) appeared on the ground, and sent one of his inspectors to say he wanted to speak to Feargus O’Connor. Feargus thought he was going to be arrested and was in a terrible fright; but he went to Mayne ‘ who merely said he was desired to inform him that the meeting would not be interfered with, but the procession would not be allowed. Feargus insisted on shaking hands with Mayne, swore he was his best of friends, and instantly harangued his rabble, advising them not to provoke a collision, and to go away quietly-advice they instantly obeyed, and with great alacrity and good-humour. Thus all evaporated in smoke. Feargus himself then repaired to the Home Office, saw Sir George Grey, and told him it was all over, and thanked the Government for their leniency, assuring him the Convention would not have been so lenient if they had got the upper hand. Grey asked him if he was going back to the meeting. He said No; that he had had his toes trodden on till he was lame, and his pocket picked, and he would have no more to do with it.”

O’Connor and other leaders abandoned their attempt to process to Westminster to hand in the petition.

When the crowd at Kennington Common heard this, many of them were very angry. There were shouts that the petition should have been carried forward until actively opposed by the troops then withdrawn altogether on the ground that such opposition was unlawful. One of the protesters was Cuffay, who spoke in strong language against the dispersal of the meeting, and contended that it would be time enough to evince their fear of the military when they met them face to face! He believed the whole Convention were a set of cowardly humbugs, and he would have nothing more to do with them, He then left the van, and got among the crowd, where he said that O’Connor must have known all this before, and that he ought to have informed them of it, so that they might have conveyed the petition at once to the House of Commons, without crossing the bridges. They had been completely caught in a trap.

However thousands of demonstrators did attempt to march across the river, and were blocked off at the bridges, leading to clashes with police. Blackfriars Bridge saw the most vicious fighting –

“After the meeting on Kennington-common had dispersed, an immense crowd on their return straggled irregularly along Blackfriars-road. Upon arriving at Stamford-street, they of course came face to face with the mounted police, who refused them passage, and ranged themselves across the road. Together with these were the police and special constables. Many strenuous attempts were made by the Chartists to get across the bridge. As fresh numbers arrived from Kennington-common, those in advance were pushed forward, but were immediately driven back by the horse-patrol without drawing their sabres. The metropolitan police made use of their staves, and, from time to time, repulsed the crowd, which grew thicker and thicker every minute. In about an hour and a half, however, the mob, which, by this time, reached as far down as Rowland Hill’s Chapel, made many vigorous attempts to force their way through; and, notwithstanding the cool steady courage of the police, the latter were, at intervals, separated. The special constables at these times were very roughly handled, a great many of them having their hats broken and being deprived of their staves. Showers of large stones were every few minutes thrown on the bridge, and the police received many severe blows, but gave more than equivalent in return with their batons. A great number of men who were seized by the police for throwing stones were rescued, and the yells and shouts were deafening. At half-past three o’clock the pressure of the concourse was so great that the line of police was forced, and a great many of them carried with the throng over the bridge, holding their staves up as they were borne along. On the City side of the bridge a great many arrests were made, and the mob, which seemed inclined for a minute to make a stand, were uniformly repulsed by the horse patrol, the sight of whose drawn sabres, wielded over the heads of the mob, soon put the more noisy and impudent to flight. Both on that and the other side of the bridge there were numbers of men with their heads bleeding, who were led away by their friends.” (Illustrated London News)

Preventing the demonstrators from reaching parliament defused some of the ‘pre-revolutionary tension’ the ruling class was suffering from… Although there was localised fighting around different working class areas of London and wider afield all summer, usually after Chartist rallies were attacked by emboldened police, given their head to disperse any challenge.

This forced the still determined radical elements of the movement back into the old pattern of insurrectionary plotting for an armed seizure of power, which while it did have some support, was by necessity more fractured and hard to pull off.

Small numbers of physical force Chartists met throughout the summer of 1848, planning a revolt, but their organisation was heavily penetrated by police spies, one of whom was actually a member of the seven-strong ‘Ulterior Committee’ that was planning an uprising in London. William Cuffay was one of those on the Committee. But the plans were not to bear fruit.

On 16 August 1848, 11 ‘luminaries’, allegedly plotting to fire certain buildings as a signal for the rising, were arrested at a Bloomsbury tavern, the Orange Tree, near Red Lion Square. Cuffay was arrested later at his lodgings. At the Orange Tree, a regular Chartist meeting point, a meeting was raided; cops found “a number of loaded pistols, pikes, daggers, spearheads, and swords, and some of the prisoners wore iron breast plates, while others had gun powder, shot and tow-balls.” Cuffay, Fay, W. Dowling, W. Lacey, William Ritchie were convicted of ‘levying war on the Queen’, and sentenced to be transported to Australia for life; 15 others were jailed for 18 months to 2 years.

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1848 represented Chartism’s last big push; although the movement survived several years longer it increasingly split and fell into factions, which withered in a more prosperous economic climate in the 1850s.

But it had sown many seeds in the among working people, which were to continue to influence future movements. Many Chartist activists continued to fight for social change for decades, taking part in the more obviously ‘successful’ reform movements in 1866-7, which did win an extension of the franchise, in the secularist and republican agitations, in trade unions and the co-operative movements, and can be seen in the early british socialist and anarchist groupings. Chartism should certainly by seen as partly a product and itself an influence on a didactic working class culture that evolved, often through local clubs and discussions/debates, and which was to continue changing and producing bursts of political energy into the 20th century.

It’s difficult to analyse the events of 10th April, especially if you view it through the prism of ‘revolutionary moment missed’ as it is tempting to do. Was it really an opportunity for radical upheaval? In many ways the chance to overthrow the state in one great push was an outdated ideal, especially in Britain. Across Europe, where more autocratic regimes had not yet experienced anything like the UK’s experience of industrialisation and the bourgeoisie forcing the aristos to share power with them, the revolutions of 1789 and 1848 etc were always more widely supported by the middle class, eager to get their share of influence. Here, the traditions of the 1689 ‘glorious’ settlement, social change in the 18th century, and the 1832 reform act had already broadened the spread of power to the newer wealthy capitalist classes. Chartism was in reality never going to win cross-class support (leaving aside the many working people who loyally stood by their ‘betters’ or who religion persuaded to abide in their ‘place’). Can insurrections by themselves, without a base in a mass agitation already prepared to take power, succeed? Chartism had a mass base but the preparedness to build any kind of dual power was not there. In many ways the earlier Plug Riots of 1842 had been more threatening, although too localised; and there too the authorities had been able to repress and arrest many activists. Possibly it was not a ‘revolutionary moment missed’ because revolution would have needed to be more organic, growing from below towards the centre, only succeeding because it was already inevitable by the time of a mass confrontation like April l0th. It’s worth reflecting on the Chartist idea of a ‘sacred month’ or general strike, compared to Rosa Luxemburg’s later conception of how such a movement might win working class power.)

But perhaps looking at April 10th this way is to take too narrow a view of events. As Stefan Szczelkun has observed:

“The fact that the events of the 10th April 1848 did not herald a British Revolution or immediate voting reforms has been held up by official historians as the ‘failure’ of Chartism. But the success of Chartism should not be measured in such terms but rather in the effects it had on the consciousness of the millions who took part. This is something historians have found difficult to register. There was a real democratic culture and powerful desire for social justice behind The Charter which remains unrealised to this day.”

Check out a really good site on Chartist history

And a local group working to commemorate April 1848 and the Chartists

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Today in London’s drunken history: a gin riot in Seven Dials, 1735.

The Gin Craze was a period in the first half of the 18th century when the consumption of gin increased rapidly in Great Britain, especially in London. The heavy drinking culture of the time became a virtual epidemic of extreme drunkenness; this provoked moral outrage and a legislative backlash that some have compare to the modern drug wars… Although more recent parallels with minimum alcohol pricing spring to mind…

Cheap gin, first imported from the Netherlands in the 1690s, became an extremely popular drink in the early 18th century. Politicians and religious leaders began to argue that gin drinking encouraged laziness and criminal behaviour. In 1729 Parliament passed a Gin Act that increased the tax on the drink. This law was deeply unpopular with the working classes (or at least the drinking strata thereof), which resulted in mass agitation against the laws, widespread avoidance, attacks on the numerous informers out to make money by dobbing in unlicensed ginsellers, and to a number of riots in London. The government eventually gave in, reducing duties and penalties, claiming that moderate measures would be easier to enforce.

The British government tried a number of times to stop the flow of gin. The Gin Act 1736 taxed retail sales at a rate of 20 shillings a gallon on spirits and required licensees to take out a £50 annual licence to sell gin, a fee equivalent to about £7,000 today. The aim was to effectively prohibit the trade by making it economically unfeasible. Only two licences were ever taken out. The trade became illegal, consumption dipped but then continued to rise and the law was effectively repealed in 1743 following mass law-breaking and violence (particularly towards informers who were paid £5 to reveal the whereabouts of illegal gin shops). The illegally distilled gin which was produced following the 1736 Act was less reliable and more likely to result in poisoning.

By 1743, England was drinking 2.2 gallons (10 litres) of gin per person per year. As consumption levels increased, an organised campaign for more effective legislation began to emerge, led by the Bishop of Sodor and Man, Thomas Wilson, who, in 1736, had complained that gin produced a ‘drunken ungovernable set of people’. We we’ll drink to that…

Prominent anti-gin campaigners included Henry Fielding (whose 1751 ‘Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers’ blamed gin consumption for both increased crime and increased ill health among children), Josiah Tucker, Daniel Defoe (who had originally campaigned for the liberalisation of distilling, but later complained that drunken mothers were threatening to produce a ‘fine spindle-shanked generation’ of children), and William Hogarth. Hogarth’s engraving Gin Lane is a well known image of the gin craze, and is often paired with “Beer Street”, creating a contrast between the miserable lives of gin drinkers and the healthy and enjoyable lives of beer drinkers. Arf arf.

The Gin Craze began to diminish after the Gin Act 1751. This Act lowered the annual licence fees, but encouraged ‘respectable’ gin selling by requiring licensees to trade from premises rented for at least £10 a year. Historians suggest that gin consumption was reduced not as a result of legislation but because of the rising cost of grain. Landowners could afford to abandon the production of gin, and this fact, coupled with population growth and a series of poor harvests, resulted in lower wages and increased food prices. The Gin Craze had mostly ended by 1757. The government tried to ensure this by temporarily banning the manufacture of spirits from domestic grain. There was a resurgence of gin consumption during the Victorian era, with numerous ‘Gin Palaces’ appearing.

The late 1730s saw a constant battle in the streets over gin, with the ‘mob’ targeting informers, fight off the constables, and, if possible, grab as much free booze as they could… In 1735, one small riot seems to have involved the simple storming of a gin shop…

“Tuesday, 8. At Seven Dials occurred a Riot at the closing of a Gin Shop owned by Captain Speke. When the Mob became outrageous in their attempts to force the stoutly defended Building, Justice of the Peace Mr Maitland read the Riot Act but the Mob refused to disperse peaceably as required, the Guard of the Tower was called to enforce the Peace with Ball, Butt and Bayonet, after which all was quiet. The Shop was wrecked by Intruders and all the Genever Spirits lost.”

The attack is also referred to in a bizarre satirical report, attributed to ‘Charles Cholmondeley-Fitzroy, Lord Foppingham’, which contains cryptical references and head-scratching complexities… (Note that ginsellers had invented the slot machine by 1735…)

“To : Mr Berry, Secretary, Society for Effectual Redress.

Sir,

In accordance with the customs of our esteemed Society, I have the honour to submit for your Observation the following Intelligence, being an Account of the recent Motions of those worthy Fellows of our Club, Messrs Church, Elmhill, ben Ezra, and the Rev Munro, somewhat aided by Myself. For all that no one Principal, in search of Redress, has enlisted our Aid, we nonetheless hold it True that some Deviltry is plainly afoot, and have taken up the Burden of combating these latest dark Manifestations of the Juniper Scourge.

The business in hand was first observed thanks to the vigilance of some of the Hon Members above, they having witnessed a Riot in the street, evidently occasioned by mass consumption of Gin. Notwithstanding the commonplace nature of this event, they (being Gentlemen of some penetration) decried some Singular factors in the business. For one, the mobile nature of this disturbance. The odd behaviour of some members of the mob; viz, that they rallied to the cry “get the monsters!”, even though none such were evident. More singular still, one of the rioters, a strumpet, was seen to dive into an alley, and entice therefrom a worthy footpad of the town; who had, but moments before been lurking about his improper trade, as befitted any trueborn English criminal. But one kiss of the Maenad’s gin-sodden lips had him dancing along with the rest. Much effort was expended by the crazed mob in the destruction of any glass, windows and mirrors alike becoming objects of their wrath. And yet, within a very short time, this revelry petered out, as though a summer storm had passed. Seeking for some intelligence as to the cause of this baseless riot, Jack Church was able to divine that, before reaching its apogee in the destruction of a glaziers shop, the disturbance had its origin by the gin shop of one Capt. Speke.

Of this remarkable emporium, I shall have more to impart in due course. Suffice to report, that, upon meeting at Kent’s, we formed the opinion that the business had been the work of no common distillate. The antiquary ben Ezra identified one kind at least of monstrous agent with an affinity for mirrors, the Geburith of ancient fable. Having been but lately pursued by just such a creature, I thought it sufficient reason to take such warnings with no small gravity. Thus encouraged we paid a visit to the glazier whose shop had suffered at the hands of the mob. From this worthy, one Sydenham, we obtained the information that the broken mirrors (fine quality Venice glasses, tho sadly but poor trumpery work for the settings) had been obtained as a job lot from a vessel in the Pool, one “Black Pig”. Bespeaking a few samples, we left.

Here I must add, the remarkable facts that the honest builder Jack Church had obtained in regard of the gin shop of Captain Speke. This novel innovation of trade has no entrance, doors, nor any visible shop-man. In their stead, one pays custom by introducing coin into a slot, whereupon gin issues forth from a spout below. The expense is of the common sort for such trade – perhaps one shilling for a pint bottle. Their trade was brisk. Church struck up an acquaintance with two Tipstaffs, there to serve a summons (Sir John, naturally, being vigilant against this new outrage). They had, he heard, been unable to serve it, their diligence baffled by the extraordinary nature of the place. None had been observed to enter or leave. Boldly, that night, Church effected an entry to the premises, in search of incriminating evidence. He reports that the place is so shuttered as to be wholly dark within. The gin is stacked up, crammed into every space. Once in, he was accosted by a crone, who in some fashion, overwhelmed his will, and forced him to consume the raw Geneva. Being of stout heart, he was able to recover his senses and escape; tho he has informed me, that the noxious liquor engendered fantastickal visions akin to waking nightmares. Some light was to be shed on this the next day. Having been at study, ben Ezra confirmed that, while mirrors were innocent, the Gin sampled from Captain Speke’s carried a taint, for those who could sense it. It reeked mightily of the Geburim.

It is at this juncture that I must acknowledge a great debt to Old blind Tom. Hearing of our difficulty, (we being somewhat at a stand) this gentleman examined the bottle and gin from Speke’s. Wise in the ways of these things, he imparted to us the name of both bottle manufactory, and of distiller. The Gin was made, it seemed, at Danvers distillery in Southwark. Naturally, we repaired to Danvers forthwith. Through the agency of Jeremiah Elmhill, we heard tell that a new process had of late been introduced, one that had allowed the manufacturer to make do with fewer workers. However that may be we soon determined that all the products of Danvers work had the taint of Geburim.

It was clearly to be seen that, once more, confidential nocturnal investigations would be needed. On this occasion, Church took ben Ezra as his guide to unravel any mysteries of antiquity. It was well that he did so. In the distillery hall, but one of the five vats was alight. This last was raised on a most unusual brickwork wall. To their eyes the resemblance of this to the brickwork of Capt Speke’s shop was unmistakeable. More than this; stamped into the bricks was some strange writing. Even our Mosaic Sage could not decipher these. Indeed, it was only after great effort that he found an answer, by consulting his coreligionst, one Mendoza the Apothecary. From this learned son of Abraham we heard that the inscription – cuneiform, a writing used perhaps before the Flood – was an incantation. The purpose of the sorcery, in design, was to make good gin. In execution, thanks to a mistake in the script, rather a different result was obtained. Few living men, of any creed, would have known how to make the writing. We hold that the brick makers may be but dupes or tools in the affair; they being the Tom Yardsman company. ’Twas in the exact placing of the bricks, said Mendoza, that the Art consisted. So it is that our efforts must now turn to how we can identify that person.

As I finish this summary, I have from my fellow members one further receipt of news, touching the investors in the Danvers company. One Downsman, whose son Cartmel so heroically and tragically met his end at the hands of a beast in the affair of the Guys, was an investor. You will, Sir, doubtless remark the coincidence that those plotters against the realm, also had at their command one of the Geburim.

Of our continued efforts to root out this, latest, mischief from the hands of Bottled Ruin, you may be assured.

I remain, with the highest deference and respect,
  Your Honour’s
   Most obedient
    And most obliged,
     Humble servant,
      Foppingham”

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London riotous history, 1990: anti-poll tax riot rocks the West End.

In 1989 (Scotland) and 1990 (England & Wales) the Conservative Government introduced a new tax to replace local rates as a way of funding local councils. The Tories called it the Community Charge. Everyone else called it the Poll tax, after the famous levy that triggered the 1381 Peasants Revolt. The poll tax was radically different from the rates in that it was a single flat-rate charge on everybody, based on the number of people living in a house rather than its estimated price, and not taking account of income or property ownership (as the rates system had). So everyone would pay the same rate set by the local council, regardless of how rich they were or how much their property was worth.

Obviously this threw the burden of paying for the Council on the working class, and lightened the load for the better off, by thousands (millions in some cases). Nicholas Ridley, Conservative Secretary of State for the Environment, bragging that, “A duke would pay the same as a dustman”.

Thatcher and co thought they would get away with this, after a decade in which they’d mashed up all working class opposition – steelworkers, miners, printers, etc. They were on a roll. The Poll Tax, they thought, would not only make them more supporters among the middle class, but also stick the knife into the leftwing Labour Councils they hated so much, forcing them to slash services, especially in inner cities… They clearly felt they would push the tax through whatever the opposition…

“Those who the Gods wish to Destroy they first make absolutely barking.” (Some old Greek fella)

For those as don’t remember it – the power-that-be made a bollix of this one.

The introduction of the poll tax was widely unpopular from the outset, and increased when tax rates set by many local councils turned out to be much higher than initially predicted.

Huge campaigns sprang up against registering to pay, filling in forms, giving the local council any info etc., and then against payment. Thousands of local anti-poll tax groups or unions were set up. Opposition ranged from marches, occupations, resisting bailiffs seizing property for unpaid poll tax, to riots and filibustering the courts with endless arguments. Hundreds of people were jailed. At least 3 people died (that I can recall) directly as a result of the Poll Tax.

Community networks of members were set up to watch out for and resist bailiffs, and the operation became so successful that debt collecting firms in some areas went out of business. In Edinburgh local APTUs patrolled working class areas with cars and radios to watch for bailiffs, and in London some cab drivers fulfilled the same role. Bailiffs offices were often picketed and occupied, and in Scotland hundreds of people defended houses against the forced removal of goods by sheriffs.

The campaign for non-payment gained in strength through the early months of 1990, and eventually became the single most damaging reason for the government to continue with the poll tax. By August of 1990 one in five had yet to pay, with figures reaching up to 27% of people in London. 20 million people were summoned for non-payment. Many local authorities were faced with a crisis, and councils faced a deficit of £1.7 billion for the next year. Initial successes with non-payment campaigns led to several large demonstrations in cities across the country, including the famous disturbances that occurred in central London on March 31.

In the end the resistance proved too much and the Poll tax was abolished, to be replaced by the marginally fairer Council Tax, (which has now of course slowly grown to be almost as heavy a burden as the Poll Tax! Ah well)

As non-payment grew in Scotland (where the poll tax had been brought in a year earlier than the rest of the UK, in April 1989), and anti-poll tax groups prepared for its introduction in England and Wales, a large national demonstration was called for March 31st in London. Throughout March, as local councils all across the country met to set the level of their poll tax, demonstrations and occupations by the anti-poll tax movement had grown larger and more intense, and many had ended in fighting with the police. An atmosphere of mass resistance was building, the suppressed rage and frustration was being harnessed to a well-organised network of opposition. Tension ratcheting up. Lots of us who were involved felt this was a powerful social movement that could reverse the sense of defeat that had pervaded for the last few years, and held many possibilities…

Many of the hundreds of thousands who flocked to the march from London and all around the country were expecting trouble, and so were the police. In retrospect it was inevitable that it would go off.

The atmosphere around the country in March 1990 was in some ways like the Summer of ’81, an electric fever of rebellion sweeping the cities, a feeling among some of us that there was a possibility, not only of mass revolt, that was already happening, but that the community organising and rioting might lead to something more, a swing away from the defeats of the eighties (miners, printers etc) and towards building a new movement of resistance… The massive explosion of Trafalgar Square, coming on top of 50 or so smaller riots around the country at various town halls, felt inevitable and empowering. The cops lost it in a big way, and tactically fucked up, allowing rioting to spread through the West End, turning protest against the Poll tax to a strike against the consumer culture itself. The Strangeways Prison revolt next day and the other jail rebellions/protests that followed were like icing on the cake.

Below we reprint accounts of the Pol Tax Riot, originally published shortly afterwards by Acab Press. Numerous other accounts are out there.

THE POLL TAX RIOT

On the morning of March 31 around 200,000 people gathered in Kennington Park, and by the afternoon marchers began to flow into the planned destination of Trafalgar Square. Parts of the march were cut off by police, and a large group of protesters were penned in when police blocked the top and bottom of Whitehall. After several heavy-handed arrests a series of scuffles broke out as protestors tried to break through police lines and march to Trafalgar Square.

Serious rioting broke out after mounted police attacked crowds in Trafalgar Square, and several police vans were driven at demonstrators in an attempt to disperse them. Builders cabins in the square were set on fire by demonstrators, as were parts of the nearby South African High Commission. Fighting spilled out into nearby streets where numerous shops were attacked, and continued into the early morning. 5,000 were reported injured, including police officers, and 339 demonstrators were arrested.

A Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign, committed to the release of the 491 people arrested in connection with the riot, was set up in the following days, and was successful in securing the release of many. Influential in trials of defendants was the fifty hours of security camera footage acquired by the Campaign, parts of which showed police officers launching unprovoked attacks on demonstrators.

The police, trade unions, the Labour Party, and a number of left groups were quick to condemn the violence, and blamed the rioting on anarchists. Despite these accusations and the willingness of some anarchists to claim responsibility, a 1991 police report into the disturbances concluded that there was, “no evidence that the trouble was orchestrated by left-wing anarchist groups”. Although the march had been organised by left groups, the large number of people taking part and the sheer scale of the riot (believed to be the largest to have taken place in London in the 20th century) point to the deep discontent the poll tax evoked throughout Britain.

With widespread opposition to the poll tax growing, the Conservative government was forced to abandon their plans. Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister in November of 1990, and her successor John Major immediately announced the abolition of the community charge. Although replaced with the council tax, which took account of some ability to pay, the campaign against the introduction of the poll tax had been successful. The unpopularity of the tax had been brought into sharp focus by the rioting in London, but it was through nationwide organising of resistance and the tactic of non-payment that the state had been forced to back down.

  1. I BOOKED A BABYSITTER 
    It was only the second demonstration that I’ve been to, and I didn’t really know what to expect, but I decided that I was not going to miss it, so I booked a babysitter for the weekend and got a train down to London. The atmosphere on arriving at Kennington Park was like a carnival. Bands were playing, the sun was hot, thousands of people were out to demonstrate their united opposition to the Poll Tax. It looked like it was going to be a good day!

The sound of a band of drummers drew me like a moth to a light, a stick and an old discarded beer can to mark the rhythm and we were off. It was a joyful experience, dancing and shouting through the streets virtually all the way to Trafalgar Square. When we reached the Parliament end of Whitehall, a line of police had blocked the road and the crowd was diverted towards the Embankment. We could see behind the police lines rows of mounted police, ominously still and waiting. That’s when I felt my first pangs of fear and anger. I remember thinking that they had some nasty plans for us, visions of being fodder for exercises in crowd control. The police in the lines looked incredibly smug.

I continued with the crowd, marching up Northumberland Avenue, the excitement and tension increasing as the band came to a standstill as we entered Trafalgar Square. The energy became warlike, the beating of the drums and the chanting seeming to get louder and louder and the crowd more and more dense as thousands more swept up Northumberland Avenue. I pushed my way through to the Whitehall junction where it became apparent that something had already started. A man was fighting his way back through the crowd, a real sense of panic hit me as I heard him shouting “Get any kids out of the way, they’re going to charge”. Images sped through my mind of the mothers with young kids, old people, disabled people that I had seen on the march. They were all here in the square, the bastards were going to charge us and there was no way out! Bloodbath! Severe panic.

I pushed my way towards the junction with the Strand, shouting the warning for those more vulnerable to try and get out. There was another police line across St. Martins Lane and the only road free for exit was the Strand. As I looked up the length of the road, I saw a police van speeding towards us. I got out of the road and watched in horror as it sped in towards the crowd and screeched to a halt as an unsuspecting body flew through the air on impact and landed in a heap on the side of the road. This was too much! My anger exploded and I ran towards the van screaming and shouting and pulled open the door on the drivers’ side, screaming blue murder as the terrified officer inside wrenched the door closed. I spat, banged on the windows, thought of broken glass, didn’t want to out my hands, looking for something to throw, something to hit with.

Everything was happening at once, the man in the road with people bending over him, people crying, me shouting, spitting, furious at the police. A woman gently rocking her baby, rhythmically, protectively as she made her way across the road away from the violence. I shouted at a policewoman in the lines to let her through with her baby, realising as I did so that it was the same policewoman I had just been screaming and spitting at when the van had hit its victim. I swallowed my fear as I walked with the woman right up to the police line, stopping just long enough to see that she got through to safety, then racing back to where the van was, thanking my fate they hadn’t grabbed me.

There was a frustrating lack of anything to hand to smash the van windows with, I pulled at something at the side of a building, it wouldn’t come loose. Wires attached, a light of some kind, leave it! Hands banging the glass again, feet kicking, not enough people! Things being thrown, we need more people, shit why wouldn’t the fucking glass break! Break away for a minute, I want a good hard brick. Nothing around. I see a woman sobbing on the kerb, uncontrolled sobbing helplessly. I had to get her out of the crowd, she’d be trampled. I remembered being . in a similar state on the tube once and home seeming like a million miles away. I managed to get her to her feet and then some other people with her took over and led her down the edge of the crowded road away from the battle zone.

I was at the back of a crowd now and couldn’t get back near the van. I pushed my way through. The mounted police had already charged and the police now had some measure of control and were moving people out of Trafalgar Square down the Strand, telling everyone to “go home, go home”. A young black boy, about 12 or 13 years old, yelled back at them “We ain’t got homes to go to mate” I smiled, I didn’t want to go home either. Somehow I managed to get down a side street and back onto Northumberland Avenue.

At the back of a crowd again, a crowd buzzing with its own energy. Occasional bursts of electric as the riot cops charged at the front and the whole crowd swarmed back in, a panic, then closed up again. I was terrified of being trampled and made my way towards the side of the road where the crush was less intense when the panic stricken running broke out.

Next thing I was up against the wall and riot cops were charging straight at us. I couldn’t move anywhere and was terrified as they came within a few fee, truncheons raised, manic frenzied looks on their faces. A moment later they were gone, swallowed from my view as the crowd stood its ground and surged forwards again. That was my first view of riot cops in action and I realised how frightened I was. No questions asked before the truncheon comes down on your head. I started looking for missiles to hand to those who were taller, could see where aiming and were a better shot.

Another rush from the crowd, running madly. Somebody grabbed me from behind. I spun around. “It’s alright, it’s only me”. A friend thank god. Hands held. “Don’t run, that’s what they want”. I’m running because I don’t want to get trampled. We get out of the crowd for a breather, talking excitedly, then look down the road to see smoke billowing out, something’s on fire. The news spread quickly down to us, “What’s burning?” “South Africa House”, “South Africa House has gone up in flames”. Sheer ecstasy. The joy on people’s faces as this news spread.

After this, we made our way back up Northumberland Avenue and tried to break through the police lines. l got thrown back, separated and stayed on the outskirts till l spotted some friends again. We decided to go and have a drink ’cos we all needed a break.

We made our way to Covent Garden and were amazed to see, as we ordered our tea, hundreds of coppers swarming through the place. We thought we’d just left the riot! “Look through there, broken windows”. We crossed over and couldn’t believe our eyes, the whole street had been wrecked. Glass everywhere, police everywhere, the banks smashed, the shops smashed. We’d arrived in the wake of a frenzy of ecstatic smashing and looting. It was the perfect scene to end the day with, as exhaustion overtook us and we headed home to watch the news on the telly.

  1. MAN IN SKI MASK SEEN 
    Hang around Kennington Park watching the march go by. After a few thousand have passed we see some friends and join them. excited talk…”Have you see the route?” “Yeah. Goes past Downing Street” “Nice weather for it!” Five minutes into the march we hear a loud crash. “Ladbrokes windows have gone through” somebody says. Christ! Already I think, but it turns out to be the sound of the cops’ traffic markers being tipped over. For about 20 minutes every marker is pushed over. Lots of noise. Cheering and stuff. The cops lose control and people march on both sides of the road. A cop chases our mate for knocking another cone over. The cop gives up. Just past Lambeth railway bridge, the cops try to take an anarchist flag from the march. A few scuffles. I think someone got arrested. Couldn’t see clearly though. Keep on marching. We cross Lambeth Bridge and go towards Parliament. Nothing much going oh. A few angry chants. Take a quick rest on the grass before Whitehall. Going down towards Downing Street was slow as the crowd was thick. We decide to rest again as we get to the Ministry of Defence opposite Downing Street. Nice bit of greenery to sit down and see if anything happens. By the line of coppers protecting Downing Street is a group of about 200 people who are shouting and occasionally throwing cans and bits of placard. This goes on for about 30 minutes. More people stood by the M.O.D. Eventually the cops block off Whitehall and divert the march. A friend and I piss off a Sky W crew who are trying to film the trouble by shouting rude things about Rupert Murdoch over each attempt they make to film their reporter. They fuck off to Trafalgar Square. The trouble is getting heavier and more people are either stopping or getting involved. The police bring in some riot cops – some mounted, others in little snatch squads. The next 20 minutes is pretty confusing. There’s some hand to hand fighting and some missile throwing.

A few charges by the cops. A big cheer goes up when a massive Class War banner arrives. Our lot get split up a few times. The horses charge the crowd and push us behind the M.O.D. building. Immediately a small barricade is built out of building rubbish from skips in the yard. A roll of barbed wire (I) is dragged across the top of the barricade. The mounted cops don’t charge again. By this time the adrenaline is flowing pretty neatly. I pick up a piece of masonry from out of a skip and smash it smaller. A cop sees me doing this but I don’t care. The M.O.D. windows start to get trashed. I love it. The M.O.D!

My first shot hits a window frame then the second one hits the wall. Oh well. More windows get done. My friends regroup and I moan at them to find some food. Convinced that we won’t miss much due to the likelihood of it getting much harder we wander off. At Charing Cross Road we lose one of our group when she wanders off to go the toilet. We walk into the punch-up that’s happening down by the South African Embassy. I throw a bottle at a passing riot van and miss. Shit. I hope my luck gets better. When we reach the Strand entrance to Trafalgar Square it’s just a fucking riot. The cops have driven two vans into the crowd and have been surrounded. Very brave people are right next to the van bricking the windows and shoving metal barriers underneath the wheels to stop it moving. A snatch squad charges us and we scatter in all directions. I lose contact with everyone. Walk around for a bit. Shit! Lost ’em. Trundle back to the fighting and see that the Army Careers’ shop has had its window smashed. So nice. I want to do something now. Chaos everywhere. I get a rock and wait by Midland Bank for the crowd to clear a path and then turn and chuck the rock into the plate glass. Bang. The rock splinters everywhere and the window is even dented. I apologise to a woman who was close by who had jumped at the unexpected noise. Walking off I see the need for keeping my head in the few hours. About a hundred yards down the Strand is a large group of spectators. One woman says to me after a chuck a stone at a riot van “That was pointless”. I don’t argue. I suppose I’d rather do what I can than just watch. At the South African Embassy some people pick up a crash barrier. I take hold of one end and we push it through an Embassy window. I shout at them to do the next one but they walk away. A punk guy tells me to “just attack the cop, not property”. I ask him why. “Because I said so” he tells me.

At Trafalgar Square someone I recognise tells me that one of the group has been injured by a shittily aimed rock. I walk around the crowd and find him. Luckily he’s not seriously injured. Just a bit dazed and pissed off at having to miss the rest of the fun. After chatting for 10 minutes we see thick black smoke in the air. Hum! What’s on fire’?

I say goodbye and walk back to Trafalgar Square. Jesus! The portakabins on Grand Buildings have been set ablaze. Massive fires climb up the side of this office development. I vaguely consider such an action as a bit over the top. Oh shit. I forget that’s what it is all about isn’t it. As I feel the heat from the fire, I wonder how more mental it’s gonna go. I still can’t see any of my friends in the area but over on the left I can see that somebody’s set alight to the South African Embassy. I love the person who did that!

Spend an hour looking all over the Square for someone I know. I must have walked past all the serious hand to hand fighting down by St. Martin’s In The Fields, completely oblivious to what was happening. I see a police coach leave its post at the South African Embassy and immediately a group of 20 people rush over and attack the Embassy with sticks and rocks. Still can’t find any friends. I leave the area to get some food as I’m really hungry and knackered. Couldn’t get back from Charing Cross Road to the National Gallery so I have to take the long way round. Eventually I rest up on the grass opposite Canada House. Watching the policing whilst eating my grub reveals that the police are like headless chickens. They are attempting to clear the area but instead of pushing us south to the Thames, they are pushing people into the West End. After about 10 minutes the police send mounted cops into the crowd in front of Pall Mall.

Really stupid. The crowd is incensed. Some people drag metal crash barriers into the road to barricade it off. A few gaps are left to let people get through. I drag another barrier into the road and hang around. Someone then pulls all the barriers back to the side of the road. Anyway the horses don’t charge again.

In Pall Mall the crowd is drifting off. I watch groups of people make their way out of the riot area. The cops are still pushing them along. Suddenly a group of about 500 people are forced together at the bottom of Haymarket and I sense further excitement. I join the stroll up Haymarket and my imagination is on overtime. Why are the police pushing us into the heart of the West End? We are a stone’s throw away from the capital’s most luxurious stores! We weave in and out of the traffic and reach Piccadilly Circus. All the time the chanting continues…”No Poll Tax…No Poll Tax”. This is so good. Some people sit down but such protest isn’t really in many people’s minds. One step, two step and we walk into Regent Street. This is unbelievable. More chanting, traffic still flowing. We are 300 yards into Regent Street. Someone says…”A chance to do some real shopping”. I don’t know anyone here but exchange a few smiles with a group of casuals.

Smash! The first window goes in. So excellent. The cops are at the back of us. They charge but this just pushes us further and faster. More plate glass goes through. C’mon. I must do some. I run down a side road to a skip and put some large bits of masonry in a carrier bag. Back to Regent Street and I dump them in the road. Take one for myself and pull my hood up and scarf over my face. Take aim. Fuck. I can‘t miss this time. Whack! A big hole appears in the shitty shop window. Keep on going. Up to the traffic lights at Oxford Circus. Pick up a paving stone and break it up in front of the cars parked at the lights. I don’t care. Turn around and crack…Hello plate glass windows. Keep on moving. I look in a skip for more rocks but it’s full of plastic and wood. A man comes down the road and sees me all masked up frantically looking for rocks in black sacks. He says something but I can’t understand his accent. He turns into Regent Street to confront the trashing.

Further…a cop van drives round to the top of the crowd and passes. It stops then reverses and fucks off. The sound of breaking glass continues. At Portland Place after the BBC and the BBC shop are smashed up, we run out of shops to trash. I mill about and am amazed by how most of the crowd have disappeared down side roads.

It’s like the riot popped up, did its stuff then became invisible at the click of a thumb. Real SF stuff. I take a side road to head for the West End again. Even here a bank has been attacked. I sit for a while but get cramp in my leg. Shit. It really hurts. About 20 cops walk past. I’m hopping on one leg trying to unlock the cramp and appear as normal as possible. They walk past towards Regent Street. Round the corner in Goodge Street someone attacks the Iran Airlines shop with a rubbish bin but the windows don’t smash. I catch a tube to Charing Cross but the police have sealed off three stations and I have to get off at Tottenham Court Road. One stop down the line! As I walk into Cambridge Circus I find the riot again. I thought that Regent Street was the only thing happening but the cops are using horses up here. Tourists and theatre goers are confused…and interested. I sit by a totally trashed bank and talk to someone who is loving it also. Smiles etc. Talk to a tourist who is lost. Explain about the Poll Tax and the riot. She’s really excellent about it.

Stroll to Charing Cross Road. Fuck…some serious looting is going on here. Loads of shops attacked. At a music shop I join a group of people pulling stuff from the window. I pull the shutter up a bit and see what’s left. Very little. There’s nothing here that I want. I walk off. Where are the cops? Someone puts a brick into another music shop window but it doesn’t break properly and the alarm goes off.

I talk to an Irish bloke who’s had his foot stepped on by a cop horse. He says “Jesus…l thought they only rioted in Belfast. These people really know how to riot”. Talk a bit more then leave the area as I’ve hung around for too long and feel conspicuous. Up to Tottenham Court Road where the police are chasing people around. They push the crowd into Oxford Street to give them new shops to smash and loot. A small fire is burning by the tube entrance. More cops arrive. It’s obvious that the police have lost all control. Their numbers are small and the cops that have been on duty since this morning have yet to be stood down. I keep saying in my head over and over again…”You’ve lost…you’ve lost”. It sounds so good.

Really tired now and my leg still hurts. I go down Charing Cross Road again. Past the fucked up shops. Past the wrecked TransAm sports car. A shop owner wrestles back a drum machine and guitar from a looter. Cops are around in certain places. Knackered…must get a train. Get back to see the news.

  1. BAD PENNIES 
    A Saturday afternoon stroll in the park on a warm sunny day is a chance to put on summer shirt and shades. In Kennington Park we look up the anarchists, who are raggier than ever. The demonstration is leisurely with no heavy police or Militant (stewarding) presence. It looked as though the massed Nalgos are about matched in numbers by the Convoy looking types (Vauxhall and S.W. London lumpenproletarian Residents’ Association). It looks as though the TUC have done an effective ‘distancing’ operation as there is just one union banner, from Bristol SOGAT. No doubt there will be printers, miners and other (ex-) workers somewhere, but they are just part of the crowd. We meet occasional friends, stop and talk, pass cynical comments; quite a lot of the bad pennies have turned up and later most of them seemed by good luck or good instinct to be in the right place at the right time, a notable first. We speculate about the timing of the traditional push for Downing Street.

Reaching Parliament Square a T.V. guy as a butch Maggie Thatcher is screamed at by a woman and then a young man tries to land a punch on him. The queerbasher is hustled onto the pavement and a cop asks if everything’s alright. The cops have kept a low profile and the official line that this is a family protest of ’ordinary’ people has so far held. Then the police throw a line across the end of Whitehall, diverting the back half of the demo down to the bridge and along the Embankment. We get split up, a few of the Convoys go nuts and one gets arrested. Further up Whitehall a strange slow motion escalation begins. There has been some pushing at Downing Street and some balsawood sticks and empty cans are being thrown. There is no ammo in Whitehall. A flag off the Cenotaph is burned. Then the horses are bought out – a crude way to control a crowd, especially one with nowhere to go as they’ve blocked the other end of Whitehall too. More sticks and cans and a crush is developing. Some of the peaceful protesters panic.

The window of a souvenir shop gets broken and they are lobbing small cuddly toys at the cops. l think, well that’s the day’s looting.

Serious fighting has begun in Trafalgar Square, where the riot cops have been bought in. There is concrete rubble, scaffolding poles and a few hundred people who are seriously having a go at the cops, unimpressed by the boiler suits and shields. The boiler suits charge into the crowd in a ’flying V’, hitting anyone in the way, but they can’t win any ground because people won’t run away. instead, the “working class heroes” charge back twice as ferociously, covering their own tactical retreats with crowd barriers so that the cops won’t have a clear run. This the police do not seem to know how to deal with. It is different from other recent political riots and many people are there to try and settle street fighting scores with the cops, who still seem astonished and who are perhaps inhibited by the setting and the cameras on them in broad daylight. They lose control of the Square and now the Portakabins are alight. In the Strand they are doing shop fronts and the South African Embassy, where it takes half an hour to batter a hole in the window and start a fire.

The police have decided that the only thing to do is clear the Square out any way they can, but it is going to be a long job. We are tired and decide to cut up St. Martin’s Lane for a drink and something to eat before going. But there, the next stage has begun and this is really something new to us. People had been pushed north into the theatre district; if the police had lost control in the Square, they were nowhere at all up here. Tony Roma’s won’t be serving any more ribs and margaritas today. There is more breaking and burning than looting although obviously people are getting a few presents. I’m not really dressed for it, although looking like a tourist helps. You can just stand still and look stupid if need be.

We have gone up St. Martin’s and Long Acre, and it is a running joke. Then into Covent Garden Piazza where the shop staff are politely asked to move back before all the windows are put in and the clothes taken out, mostly to be just thrown in the street for anyone who wants them. I need some proper trousers but you can’t get the plastic security tags out easily. A lot of people have joined the party, like the winos and kids who were just hanging out. Occasionally groups of people break into chants of “No Poll Tax”, at which they break down in giggles, although it is only partly a joke. The government of the last 10 years has committed acts of class robbery far worse than the Poll Tax, but this still seems to have hit a nerve. So “No Poll Tax” it is.

That night I am out drinking and dancing, but it’s only a few days later – when no-one I know has been nicked yet – that I realise what a good mood I‘ve been in. This lasts a couple of weeks, and during that time I have several ’political’ conversations of a kind I thought I’d given up. Maybe it’s coming back into fashion.

  1. FROM 1381 TO… 
    Listening to the squeals of condemnation from Thatcher, Kinnock and co after the Poll tax riot, you’d think that violence and direct action has never happened before in Britain. In fact, the working class heroes of Trafalgar Square were carrying on a very long and honourable tradition of violent struggle against the state and the bosses. This tradition is as old as the division of society into rich and poor, exploiter and exploited, oppressor and oppressed. Here are a few of the enormous number of examples of violent struggle in our history ….

1381 Peasants’ Revolt – across the country, hundreds of thousands rose up against poverty and tyranny: “We are men formed in Christ’s likeness and we are kept like beasts” was a common declaration.

1549 Enclosure riots – against the forced enclosure of common land by the rich landowners, with a major rebellion in Norfolk and smaller uprisings in Essex, Hertfordshire, Rutland, Worcestershire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Somerset and elsewhere.

1649 Levellers’ uprising — against the sell-out after the English Civil War by such men as Oliver Cromwell who is reported to have said “you must cut these people in pieces or they will cut you in pieces” (he said it first); also the Diggers’ settlement (primitive communists) at St. George’s Hill.

1736 Edinburgh riots – many were killed by the state, but in a second riot the general responsible for the massacres was himself lynched.

1780 London riots – this led to the smashing of prisons and liberation of many prisoners.

1820 London – king attacked in the streets; in Glasgow, troops fought with 60,000 strikers.

1834 Lancashire – the whole area was paralysed by strikes for 16 weeks; workhouses were burned down; also the Tolpuddle Martyrs were deported to Australia for trying to organise

1840s Chartism – the first mass working class movement: it sent tremors of fear down the ruling class’ spine, as millions of workers organised, debated, demonstrated, picketed and rioted.

1888 Strikes – across the country, in the docks, busses, mines, etc.

1911 More strikes and riots – general transport strike in Liverpool, troops open fire on demonstrators (killing two), attempted freeing of prisoners at Walton Jail (Liverpool); riots and disturbances throughout the country (Llanelli, London, Bristol, Newcastle, etc) continuing up to the start of the 1st World War (1914).

1916 Clydeside — despite intense appeals to nationalism, strikes burst out in Clydeside, as well as riots.

1917 Mutiny – in France, British troops mutiny against intolerable conditions and a futile war.

1926 General Strike – millions of workers go on strike against the bosses’ attacks on working class living standards; the struggle is sabotaged by the TUC etc.

1936 Battle of Cable Street – fascists are stopped in East London by local working class people taking to the streets and fighting it out with the fascists and the police.

1945-51 Labour government – despite the first Labour government, many workers go on strike for higher wages, etc, refusing to believe the promises of social democracy; the supposedly ’socialist’ government use troops 17 times to break workers’ strikes.

1956 London – mass demonstration against the Suez War.

1968 London — mass demonstrations (ending with battle) against the Vietnam War.

1974 Miners’ strike – Tory government is bought down by miners’ strike.

1977 Notting Hill – anti—police riot.

1979 Winter of Discontent – millions of workers go on strike against the austerity programmes of the Labour government; Blair Peach killed by the police at anti-fascist demonstration in Southall. 1981 Riots — across the country: Toxteth, Southall, Notting Hill, Moss Side, Leicester, Brixton (twice); smaller riots elsewhere.

1984-85 Miners’ strike — enormous struggle waged against job losses by miners and other workers.

1985 Riots – Handsworth, Brixton, Peckham, Tottenham (where police officer is killed).

1990 Poll Tax — 609 years after a massed uprising defeated the first attempt to impose a Poll Tax, up to a million people in Scotland refuse to pay and there are demonstrations and disturbances outside Town Halls across England, culminating in an enormous demonstration in London which ends in a huge riot…

These are just a few of the many examples of us taking them on in our struggle for human dignity. Neil Kinnock might bleat “violence is alien to the British working class” but fortunately reality tells a different story. Everything we’ve ever gained has been through fighting. The struggle against the Poll Tax is a continuation of this tradition – our tradition!

  1. I SAW THINGS I’LL NEVER FORGET 
    The most important thing for me was the way people were prepared to face the riot police. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was incredible to see people running in to pull others out when they were being arrested. (Not that arrests were foremost in the pigs’ minds, it was take no prisoners as tar as they were concerned). The next thing that sticks in my mind was seeing the ordinary pigs in full flight down Whitehall, and the roar of the crowd chasing them. For an hour or so it was class war on both sides rather than them constantly shitting on us! And they got more than they expected, I’m sure. During the earlier part of the day, the animosity shown to the pigs by some marchers was uplifting, coppers being spat at and abused etc, instead of the usual quiet acceptance of their authority it was brilliant, and when they tried to arrest people they were shown how we can beat them when we try.

When we were stopped in Whitehall, after the “sit down” or the “attack on Downing Street”, neither of which were known to me at the time because of misinformation from the stewards, I amused myself by talking to some of the cops who were obviously shaken and nervous, some of them looked like they hadn’t a clue why they were there and their white faces looked more worried every time a copper was carried past them. Then the provocation started, the horses pushed us up the road, a few coppers found that this wasn’t an ideal tactic if they intended staying healthy. The rest of the afternoon passed so quickly, repeated charges and counter charges. It felt so good to be a part of the eruption of anger that had been bottled up, by the people involved, for so long. All sorts of ideas went through my mind. thoughts of Ireland, East Europe, South Africa, Orgreave, etc, thinking about how it will have to be like this more often if we are to get anywhere positive.

When I eventually got into the Square, it was incredible to see the people on the scaffolding. I remember trying to collect my thoughts and concentrate on how I felt, in order to remember it.

The noise was brilliant, the bravery of people on my side was enough to convince me that we are not so helpless after all. I was expecting tear gas at any time by now and also thinking about what would happen if we had to face plastic bullets or grapeshot. I don’t believe that people need to justify ever attacking coppers and I want to avoid saying that the events were purely self-defence, a lot of it was, but we don’t need any more excuses for fighting back, we’ve got enough already, we’ve always had. It’s important though not to get carried away with the events of the day, they pale into insignificance when put alongside the amount of work we still need to put into the anti-Poll Tax campaign and everything else if we are going to change this shit world for a better one. The real battle is a political one, and that includes beating the left scum (preferably with a big stick), all of whom have tried to make political gain out of the “riot”, none of them have any concept of people being able to act without leadership even when they see it for themselves. From Militant to Workers Power, they all repeat the words of the tabloids and talk of “troublemakers”.

As l had to get my bus at 5.00pm l left the Square before the fire. By this time I’d lost my friends or I might have stayed. As our bus was leaving though we saw the smoke and joked about it, not knowing that it really was coming from Trafalgar Square. We had a good laugh when we passed the cop car with no window in the driver’s side. I was surprised to see all the scapegoating of Class War and all the talk of anarchists but not too worried by it, we’ve cleaned up the house just in case.

Of the 341 arrests, quite a few were not charged but they didn’t mention that on TV. Most of the people I’ve talked to about it, not anarchists, are open minded about it, many of them have some knowledge of police tactics, the battle of Orgreave was just down the road and people can remember these things for a long time.

It’s interesting that Trafalgar Square has been the scene of battles of the class war many times in the past 200 years, but after the scapegoating (usually of “anarchists”), it is quickly wiped out of the history books to hide the tradition that is definitely there. My overriding feelings on the day is pride, I’m proud of the people involved and I’m proud of my own actions. I saw things that I’ll never forget, that were brilliant.

  1. DEVIL’S ADVOCATE 
    While everyone was joining in a massive back slapping wanking session over the riot, “fucking brilliant”, “well, that really put the shit up the state”, I must admit that my feelings were a little bit negative. Now don’t get me wrong – I totally support working class violence … when necessary” On the 31st when the police attacked the crowd they deservedly got fought off and battered. And yes the riot has a good effect on people not only in the UK but in Europe too. And, no, most working class people wouldn’t get scared off the anti-Poll tax campaign.

But listen … I believe a minority of the fighters were pissed up wankers and prats – how many people got bricks and bottles on their heads ‘cos the throwers didn’t or couldn’t throw properly? And what about the dickheads chucking rocks through pubs and Wimpy bars. Loot what you like but smashing windows onto pizza eaters is S.H.l.T shit. Did people organise to defend the old and young? No, they were more keen on getting their bit of personal glory. I’ve no sympathy for the Militant stewards who tried to clear the Square on the police‘s orders. But as the stewards abandoned the demonstration to the riot police, we abandoned the demonstration to the pissheads. And a fair few of the 370 arrested were again abandoned by us to the filth.

Next time around – and it’s going to come you’d better believe it…

respect for the old, young, disabled and scared (and why the fuck shouldn’t people be scaredl);

defend the demonstrators;

that real power, a police free Trafalgar Square with 200,000 people would have been a deeper statement, and then if people wanted to go for Downing Street, well so be it!;

no anti-social acts…no muggings, no trashing ordinary cars, no stupid brickings;

no photographers. All film is a danger even to the ‘innocent’ And last but not least – mass non-payment and mass local estate unions/groups …. that’s what really shits up the Tories, ’cos this is the base of the whirlwind movement that’s going to wipe out Thatcher and the sick system that she and Kinnock want to lead.

  1. ADVENTURES IN POLL TAX LAND 
    Another demonstration!!! Albeit the biggest one for years, much anticipation on this one though, will it go? or won’t it? Well, personally l thought it would, that is if it goes down Whitehall. There’s no beating about the bush, there’s only one way forward on this one, today as at any other time, extreme violence, a series of escalating confrontations between ’workers’ and the state (ie police) not on their terms, our terms our place our time, nothing was ever given in this country, everything was taken, every gain went hand in hand with violent civil disturbance (a fact to which I’m sure Wat Tyler would testify), just bear in mind the Chartists, Captain Swing, the Luddites and any number of strikes over a two hundred year period to prove the point social change and resistance always goes hand in hand with class violence, anybody who thinks otherwise is a fool or…lying.

Anyway, back to the day in hand, and sunny it was too, we make our way to Kennington through Brandon Estate and lo and behold Kennington Park and the demonstration seems strange, being as the demo business had all but gone down the drain (there hasn’t been a large one in London for ages) and here we are, out again just like old times, familiar sights and sounds, Maggie Maggie Maggie, and immediately a four letter word beginning with D comes to mind (but I refrain from shouting it). Strange accents from places like Mansfield and Barnsley and beyond, and of course the massed ranks of left paper sellers, convenient for expunging venom and such like. Walk around for ages but don’t see anyone we know; it’s pretty big, couldn’t have been one this big since CND and the muesli types came up from the suburbs to be all moral with everyone.

Try to get out of the park and there’s a huge sea of people in the way, trickling out like sand in an hour glass and pushing its way into this mass a large group of scruffy anarchos from god knows where (a soap manufacturers’ nightmare) banging drums and tins and anything else to hand, a trance-like din that’s probably guaranteed to last the entire way!

Well, as is our wont you test your toes first, walk on the pavement and have a look (after all you might not want to be involved with it!! and it does introduce a slight bit of uncontrollability at an early stage). It must be said though, there’s hardly any police and not a steward in sight, so it’s not so much like a march as a rabble (a good sign) but more of that later. Anyway, we get up as far as Kennington Lane and here are a number of familiar faces, out of the woodwork with the prospect of entertainment!!! Sitting on the sidelines, pondering the possibilities inherent in the day’s proceedings, contemptuous so far, but soon to be uplifted as events far surpass our expectations!! Brief discussions and then onwards in the direction of Westminster. In no time at all we find ourselves in Parliament Square and at a standstill for some reason I don’t know, thousands of people milling around, confusion (for the police as well as anyone else), this brief rest goes on for a few minutes before the police decide to block oft Whitehall and redirect the second half of the march down the back of the Ministry of Defence and who should be at the head of this little unpoliced and unstewarded bit ofthe march but some people with a Class War banner who promptly take it down the side of the M.O.D. and back onto Whitehall to huge cheers from the crowd, a slight coup for Class War! At this point it starts getting interesting, being as there’s thousands of people milling around, to all intents and purposes immobilised, it’s only a matter of time before ` “trouble” starts and sections of the crowd and the police introduce themselves to each other.

Adventures Part 2: Anyway, we’re on this bit of grass opposite Downing Street, going around acquainting ourselves with the various troublemakers, some of whom we know and some of whom we haven’t seen for years, some idle chit chat and then, god, all hell breaks loose!! Mayhem everywhere. A push, a shove the odd boot in here and there and then a running battle on the grass, everyone running this way and that, chaos, and in no time at all, horses appear. It’s some sweat trying to rip up paving stones (would have stopped them dead!!) – no luck. We’re pushed up Whitehall before it happens. Northwards it goes dispersed down the side streets, bump into some familiar faces (from Wapping), “seen it all before” say they. The street party regroups in the Square, magic sounds, smashing glass, an off licence goes in, cleared within minutes, (law and order watches helplessly), hundreds refresh themselves, illicit alcohol for all!! Lines drawn once more — demonstration in the Square – police at top of Whitehall – more confrontations on an historical location!!

The riot cops arrive, straight in they go, silly fuckers, is it worth 215,000 a year getting battered for the ruling class? ’Cos they do get battered, severely! From every side, boots, fists, steel poles, rocks, bottles rain upon them and like the dregs of humanity they surely are, they retreat in a sorry state, in front of which is (for the most part) venomous punks and squatters, the ignominy!

Back and forth it goes, for ages, a distraction black smoke rises in the sky, flames from on high, scaffolding poles fly down, from afar we look on amazed, tourists click their cameras it‘s proof an amazing place for a holiday! Slowly though it‘s pushed backwards, north (a costly mistake), the scene is now St. Martin’s In The Field, witness of righteous discontent, cops run round in circles thick as pig shit, their chain of command broke, by the church over a fence they climb (for what reason I don’t know), the last one over for a moment helpless, consider a boot to help him, but it’s lost, he’s over, shieldless though, stuck to a traffic beacon it goes a trophy. For a moment a fantasy goes through the head, a rampage through the National Gallery? Now that would be some real damage!! Some real costs, more than a few poxy windows!! At this point a large group departs, bids goodbye to the police and off we go intent upon destruction, up Charing Cross Road, into the West End everything a target, everything subject to our rage an deep down surely a demonstration of how hated this world is.

Joined now by numerous people not initially part of this Poll Tax thing, just out for the day enthusiastically they come along, Barclays gets smashed (as always), numerous other shops get wrecked, a restaurant with kids by the window, bad, not like this please! An American car turned over (TransAm), rubbish bins bounce off it into the gutter, it survives untorched. The Hippodrome gets smashed, repeatedly, object of particular bile, inside the bouncers hide sheepishly!! The windows all gone, the demo meets in mutual bliss with the city’s glaziers!!! Like a whirlwind it heads into Covent Garden, a showroom of expensive cars wrecked, grids are ripped off a jewellers, frantically a stamp shop smashed, stamps litter in the sky, the street covered, across them we tramp, Senegal and Lithuania stuck to feet!!

Adventures Part 3: A few doors down, a flash car showroom BMW‘s the lot etc wrecked completely, may never have one but neither will anyone else! Proceed eastwards, Long Acre now, with such speed and fury does this mob attack Covent Garden that it’s difficult to find your own window.! Sprint up the road, but still lag behind those at the front…Full of clothes shops, a spontaneous fashion show occurs, old clothes swapped for new, 30 40 50 people? Go to Cecil Gees, virtually cleared, clothes litter the street, cast aside. Into the mayhem strolls an unsuspecting special (part time cop), fuck off, piss off, physically he’s pushed aside, boots fly in his direction but mostly miss 2 minutes later, he’s lucky to be alive.

A sunglasses shop attacked, £150 Georgio Armani’s lifted, rioters not only furious but now cool! The Rock Garden goes, tables over, HP sauce flies through the windows. Into the covered area, 200 300 people every shop smashed, some rather becoming porcelain ducks lifted, discarded a moment later (through a window).

Police arrive – 12 police chase 200 rioters, wait a minute what’s going on here? About face, immediately they cotton on, retreat, bottles and rocks follow them, alone again, but momentum lost, dispersed, wonder off in search of regroupment. Charing Cross Road again, the dopey riot police have finally arrived (too late). On the corner we stand, 12 pass by, into my bollocks the last one’s truncheon goes – “Sorry” — “Cunt” (anti-sexist defence mechanism breaks down). Could have been a Swedish tourist for all he knew! Wander away now, knackered from the day’s exertions, not too tired to take the piss out of the cops though, “you lost, wankers”. Stony faced they stand and take it, uncertainties racing through their brains. And with that satisfaction, go to the pub tonight, to discuss the day’s events and contemplate the day they really will lose – everything…

  1. THE FINAL STRAW 
    It was a day to remember. It took a while for the sheer enormity of the events to sink in. It also took a while for the political lessons to sink in, to move beyond the politics of excitement to the politics of revolution. But all good stories should start at the beginning. It was a beautiful day — the bourgeoisie must really learn their need to sabotage the weather! The sun was shining. The demonstration was simply massive, enormous, a sea of people filling up and overflowing out of Kennington Park. And the atmosphere was wonderful: like a carnival. People were happy, but this wasn’t an empty, superficial happiness. This was happiness based on strength and power. And it was happiness that grew and developed as people realised the sheer size of the demonstration and thus of the whole movement against the Poll Tax. The collective was growing, flexing its muscles for the first time in years. No more individualised, atomised discontent. No more feelings of powerless anger. This was it: thousands and thousands of people out on the streets, angry and strong.

The political rackets on the left have desperately tried to contain, control and divert this enormous movement. But the limits on their pathetic plans were shown up by the vast array of banners and placards: “Bollocks to the Poll Tax”, “Bikers Against the Poll Tax”, “Tax The Rich”, “l exist on £46 a week”, “Yorkshire Miners Against the Poll Tax”, “Communities…Charge!” After ages spent waiting around, the march started to move off, like a vast snake coiling its way around the streets of London. From the beginning it was obvious that many people were unwilling to accept the boundaries that normally constrict and control us. The bollards and white tape erected by the police to hem in the masses were soon knocked over and cut to shreds. The march joyously spilled out across the road, leaving the few police to stare in bewilderment and fear. Suddenly, the aura of their uniforms was melting in front of our eyes. They were human after all! We walked past Parliament, with some shouts but not much else …

One of the racketeers tried to pin a sticker on me. I refused: “Not with Militant on it”. He replied “We built this”. My abuse against his lies was lost on his retreating back. The lies of the left are still sickening, despite years of exposure to them. Sure, Militant have played an important pan in helping to build the movement against the Poll Tax – but so have many other groups and people. And this vast movement against the Poll Tax would still be very much alive and kicking (probably even more alive actually!) if Militant didn’t exist. At least their narrow-minded arrogance is a reminder of the traps of hierarchical parties.

The march – or at least the part that I’m in – gets to outside Downing Street. Lots more shouting and a growing crush of people, particularly between Parliament and Downing Street. Some people have stopped outside Downing Street. I move out of the way onto the grass besides the Ministry of Defence. A few objects, placards, sticks and the like are thrown at the police lines. Then there is a bit more action, with some pushing and shoving, leading to hand-to—hand lighting. From my position it all looks very ritualised and symbolic — “well, we’ve got to do something”. Something might be better than nothing but that’s not much Of a recommendation. One person gets hit on the head by a bottle thrown from behind. Stupid bastards! If missiles are thrown, then they must hit their intended target. When excitement totally replaces thought, then we’re treading on thin ice. We’ve got to think about what we’re doing and be aware of the general situation. It not, then we’re mindless hooligans. That said, I’m sure that everyone has been a mindless hooligan at some time or other (I certainly have). We all make mistakes, but as Marx said “if you don‘t learn from history, then you’re condemned to repeat it”. So fucking learn!

I get tired of the ritual and move up towards Trafalgar Square. The police have sealed off the road and are diverting people via the Embankment. Trafalgar Square is totally packed out – and there are still thousands of people behind us. This must be the biggest march for years. We move around, via side streets, onto the Strand, besides the South African Embassy. There’s an impromptu band hammering away on drums and people are dancing. The few cops stand around looking bored. I want to get into Trafalgar Square to see what else is going on, but can‘t due to the enormous mass of people. I stand around in the sun, listening to the rhythms and chatting to people. I come across someone selling ‘Living Marxism’. Time for a political argument: “Fuck off you parasitical scum”. It’s the only way to talk to the robotic cadres of the ’Revolutionary’ ’Communist’ Party. Then everything starts to go slightly crazy.

I have no love for the state of their Aunt Sallies, the police. In fact, I have nothing but total contempt and hatred for them. Most people might believe, to a greater or lesser extent, in the myths of bourgeois democracy, but the ruling class certainly doesn’t! Our rulers believe in the class war, make no mistake about that. They’re not benevolent, nice individuals who occasionally make the odd mistake. Their system is one long mistake for the majority of people. The sheer uselessness of much of our lives is in sharp contrast to the potentials and possibilities of human existence beyond capitalism. I believe in taking the offensive, in attack as the best form of defence…and more. We can’t and shouldn’t wait for them to attack us (as they inevitably do) so it’s on their terrain and on their conditions. But where I was, on the Strand, it was the police that started the trouble. Suddenly, for no reason, four riot vans drove into the crowd. People were startled, shocked, frightened and then fucking furious. Missiles started to fly amid screams of anger and hatred. Why did they do it? Is it simply because they cannot accept people being on the streets, whether it’s at a football match, a rave or a demonstration?

The first couple of vans managed to get out without too much damage but the last two got severely attacked – as they deserved without any doubt whatsoever. Crash barriers were pushed underneath them to slow them down and a torrent of bricks, planks, cans, whatever came to hand was poured down on them. The last van very nearly got caught; the cops must have been absolutely shitting themselves. Amongst the crowd, there was opposition to the attacks. There were cries of “Stop” and someone with a megaphone was urging people to “go home”. Let’s ignore the fact that the police had themselves caused this particular trouble. Let’s look at why quite a few people fucking hate them. To deny that hatred is to place yourself very firmly on the side of the ruling class. That hatred stems from simple dispossession, from the powerlessness arising from marginalisation, from despair, from past meetings with the guardians of law and order, from straight forward class understanding of the role of the police: to protect the ruling class from the working class. Forget about burglaries, muggings, rape. That’s just the superficial coating that the filth need to justify their existence. Their real purpose is to guard the few against the many. lf this is untrue, why can’t they solve any fucking crimes? Well, not many anyway. But when it comes to the property of the wealthy in Hampstead or some bank in the City, then suddenly hundreds of coppers materialise out of thin air. One of the first things that Thatcher did when she became Prime Minister was give a bloody big pay rise to the cops…l wonder why? After the Battle of the Vans, all hell started to break loose. For a lot of people, the Poll Tax is the final straw of the last decade and now was their chance to let rip. All the accumulated anger, hatred, frustration and powerlessness came boiling out in a torrent of fury.

But it was much more than just the last decade. It was about the tedium of work, the bosses’ orders, the coppers’ intimidation when having one last drink before closing time: it was fucking everything. It was about the individual humiliation of surviving under capitalism. The degree of this humiliation varies, from person to person, job to job, area to area. Most people don’t realise it, pass it off as a personal problem and get pissed or depressed or kick the cat or take some valium or alcohol or nicotine or smack. Capital is living humiliation: selling our souls to survive, buy a few trashy goods and watch crap films. In Trafalgar Square thousands of people were overcoming their survival and living: rather than being passively part of history, people were making history. The powerless had become powerful for a change. For the coppers, this was bad news indeed. People climbed on nearby scaffolding and started to bombard the Old Bill with planks and lumps of metal. The traditional British sport of cop bashing had returned once again.

There was mass to-ing and fro-ing up and down the road. The cops would charge, then we would charge and the cops would retreat under a hail of hate and varied missiles. Then things started becoming slightly momentous. A large Portakabin on the building beside Trafalgar Square was set on fire. Black smoke plumed into the sky. People stood and cheered as the fire eagerly licked its way up. The cops were speechless and stunned. Things were getting out of hand. Democracy was being negated.

Later that evening, Roy Hattersley, a leader of the Labour Party, demanded that the rioters be given “severe sentences”. By the next day, he was calling for democrats to “unite across party boundaries” against this threat to democracy. Politicians from both Tweedledum and Tweedledee were talking democracy, a sure sign that they were worried. But the democracy they talk about is a load of bollocks. It means absolutely nothing more than the right to vote once every few years — and nothing more than that. Big deal. It means that when decisions go against them, the rules are changed. For the ruling class, democracy is merely the most efficient way of running society. Any doubters should look to Northern lreland or Chile or even the abolition of the GLC. What we are calling for is power. Power to decide our own lives. The power to throw away all the trivia and trash of capitalist society and keep its productive forces. The power to live and not work every day just making a different brand of biscuits. It’s no good just criticising the democratic process, calling for a Labour government instead of a Tory government in the dismal desire to “radicalise” people (that old Trotskyist chestnut, the transitional demand). Such calls only reinforce capitalist democracy because they strengthen the illusion that there is a difference between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, that voting can really change things. Ask some top boss if it can. lf they’re honest (which of course they’re not!) their answer would have two letters, the first one ’n’ and the second one ’o’. That’s capitalism for you. A social system based on accumulation of wealth by a tiny minority.

While the building burnt, the battle continued. Planks and scaffolding poles were rained down on the cops from above. They were under attack from all directions, but just about managed to hold their ground. About this time the South African Embassy was attacked and one room set on fire. More cheers. There were a lot of old scores that had to be settled. There was a lot of alienation that needed expression. Slowly, with the help of the police horses, the cops regained control of the area and fire engines moved in to dampen the flames. We moved up to the north end of Trafalgar Square besides the National Gallery. There was a face-off between the police and the proletariat. A few things thrown – better aim this time. People were obviously learning all the time: “Ideas change in struggle” (Marx). After a while, the balance of forces started to decisively shift in favour of the cops. Time to make a move. Time to go home? It looked as though the energy and explosive anger of the demonstration had gone. Rioting takes a lot out of you! We headed for Piccadilly Circus in search of a tube and found instead a spontaneous march heading into the avenues of the wealthy. Shops and commodities denied to the vast majority were suddenly at our mercy. Makes a pleasant change.

The police were fucked. All they could do was meekly follow behind, picking up the pieces. But their presence did lessen the level of looting. It was just destruction instead. Windows smashed by bricks, bins, anything that came to hand. People stood and stared or joined in. History was being made: the acceptable patterns of behaviour were being quite literally smashed. No-one who saw those scenes of destruction would forget them. At Oxford Circus, the South African Airlines office was totally smashed in. They might have released a symbolic Mandela, but they hadn’t changed the socio-economic relations within South African society. The rampage continued on up the road. Because I was at the back, I went down a side street to try and catch up. I didn’t fancy being too close to the cops. I knew that when their time came, they would extract maximum revenge. Walking past (I think) Vine Street police station, up to a dozen cops were outside it, guarding it. They looked nervous and unsettled — their world was in turmoil. I noticed a man in his early 30s behind me, jeans, trainers, casual top. I was getting severe bad vibes off him. I stopped to tie my shoe, letting him pass. Up the road, he did the same. But I managed to give him the slip; even if I wasn’t doing much, I still didn’t want to be followed by a plainclothes cop. They are a real problem who have to be looked out for and dealt with.

Past Oxford Circus, more police vans, someone lifted. I thought that the balance of forces was again swinging in their favour – at least, from where I was standing. I decided to take a stroll down Oxford Street, seeing what was what. There seemed to be no signs of major destruction unfortunately…until I came across Ratners (a jewellers’ shop). It had been cleanly and decisively looted. Further down Oxford Street, I bumped into some friends who had just come up from Charing Cross Road. Their stories had me reeling: burnt-out cars, fierce battles. There had been so much going on. I was desperate to see the sights, despite my aching tiredness. We walked down Charing Cross Road – it’s a pity that Collets (a trendy left bookshop) wasn’t looted. The manager has a huge poster of Marx besides his desk — I wonder what he would say if the proletariat had looted his shop? More scenes and sights of destruction. Then the police stopped us from going any further. There was obviously more trouble (it was now about 7pm). Fire engines were standing by, cops were looking tired and worried. We swung away to the left and down St. Martin’s Lane, a quiet street in the centre of London. Three cars idly overturned, completely on their roofs, wheels swinging in the air. And, oh what a glorious sight, a Porsche utterly burnt out. The next day the papers said that it was worth £35,000. Beside it, another car had met the same fate: death by fire. The sheer enormity had me stunned. I could only look on and stare in amazement. Class anger had come into the belly of the beast with true vengeance.

We walked down towards Trafalgar Square: more lines of cops stopping entry. All the tube stations had been closed. The whole area was in total confusion and crisis. The odd shout of “No Poll Tax Here” could be heard. Maybe this time they had taken on something bigger than them. Maybe this time people were not going to be so easily bought off by talk of the next election. There was still smoke drifting up from the building site. Whatever anyone had dreamed of, this surpassed all dreams. The cops had lost it. The rich had been directly terrorised. The disinherited, the dispossessed, the alienated, the angry, the militant had risen as a unified whole to confront the ruling class with its crimes. Nothing more seemed to be happening, although there were stories of other area of fighting. We heard that Carnaby Street had been done – smiles all around. That was it, time to go home and rest aching limbs and listen to the ritual condemnations of politicians.

Back at home, swapping stories and celebrating victories, checking who had been lifted, who had been injured and who had got what. Someone had looted a teddy bear for a baby. The media were already starting to blame organisations — they can’t accept people getting it together for themselves. They can’t accept that a lot of ordinary people are totally pissed off. If they did, then that would break down the silence surrounding our anger, help it develop and grow even further. Yes, people are angry so your anger is more than an individual situation – it’s a social problem. Capitalism survives (thrives!) on individualism – once collectivity is even half realised, then capital is under threat. The Battle of Trafalgar Square was a sign of things that could come. It was certainly a sign of the reality of struggle: a battle for human dignity. But excitement should not substitute itself for analysis and clear thought. Let’s go forward and build a movement that can shake the foundation s of the ruling class and create a new world.

  1. SUPERB! 
    I’m writing this partly to let people know what happened in Trafalgar Square on March 31st and partly to counter some of the rubbish put out by the media, police etc since then. l went to London with a group of friends that day because l was against the Poll tax, not because “a riot had been planned”. Leaflets had been circulating suggesting that anarchist groups should march in one big contingent, but that happens on all big demo’s and is no evidence of ’conspiracy‘. It was obvious from early on that this was going to be a huge march; motorways were full of coaches covered in anti-Poll Tax placards and when we got to London, the only people not wearing stickers were the cops! The march assembled at Kennington Park and we went to that part of it which had been suggested as the anarchist meeting place (near the Oval). When we got there, there were only 150 of us, standing around watching a band.

In fact the park was so crowded and things were so confused that the l anarchist ’block’ never really came together. The march began to move oft and people just joined the massive column in small groups. l wanted to be part of a big anarchist contingent, but it was just not there! We got behind a few Class War banners and were carried along by the mass of people coming out of the park. The media said there were around 40,000 on the march, but that was well out. I’d go for 200,000 – about the same size as the anti-nuclear demo’s of the early 1980s. The march itself was uneventful and we got a packed Trafalgar Square at about 2.30pm. Preferring not to listen to the speeches of Labour MPs, we stood away from the stage, chatting to friends and waiting for the rally to break up.

At 2.55 all thoughts of going home vanished when someone shouted “Look down there”. Mounted police could be seen pouring out of a side street half-way down Whitehall and charging into the marchers. The sight of the enemy attacking our demo had a dramatic effect on the crowd in the square and the mood changed from one of “this is boring” to “let’s fucking get into them”! l ran down Whitehall in a mob and we picked up more people on the way. Behind us the police formed a line across the road to block the crowds who were now streaming away from the stage towards the action. In the two minutes it took us to get there, the mounted police had ridden off towards Parliament leaving injured marchers behind them. The situation now was that almost all the police were behind crash barriers on the Downing Street side of Whitehall, while we controlled the other half of it. In the street from which the cavalry had charged from, people were busy putting half the contents of a skip through the windows of a nearby government ministry while the rest was passed forward to keep the police at bay. A TV camera crew arrived at this point but were pushed away before they could film anyone.

l don‘t know whether the cops deliberately provoked trouble on the march for reasons of their own, or whether they were just too heavy handed to deal effectively with the small sit-down outside Downing Street (they baton charged it, sparking a day of rioting), but either way, once it had begun, they rapidly lost control and had no clear plan of what to do. The first sign of this was the return of the mounted police. They cantered up ’our’ side of Whitehall, getting pelted all the way. Then, unsure, they turned round and ran the gauntlet again, before disappearing out of sight minus a few injured colleagues. What was the point of that! By now sirens could be heard and police transits arrived in the side street behind us. Several dozen ’short shield officers’ (riot cops to you and me) spilled out and charged us. If the Downing Street sit-down had been the spark, this action made the fuse which was to ignite the powder keg waiting up the road. Pausing only long enough to give the oncoming cops one last volley, we all took off towards the Square.

Cast your mind back to the bobbies who’d lined up across the top of Whitehall. Well, they were still there! They were already having trouble holding off the massive crowd in front of them, and had drawn their truncheons, but that wasn’t much good against the missiles beginning to rain down. Imagine their horror on finding another baying mob coming up behind them. l was near enough to see the fear on their faces as they turned. The realisation that they were about to become the filling in a ’Blakelock sandwich’ was too much for them. The police line broke and as they fled down Whitehall through the oncoming crowd, hand to hand fighting erupted. Some cops kept their wits about them and tried to slow the retreat but most just put their heads down and ran into kicks and punches. Those that fell were dragged away along the ground by their colleagues.

In all the demo’s I’ve been on, seeing those coppers run was the most empowering moment ever. I wasn’t taken over by some sort of bloodlust, for me it was revenge, pure and simple. I’ve seen the police in action for years: making arrests for no reason, lying in court, smashing picket lines, beating prisoners – there’s no end to it. So given a chance, I want to get them back. People don’t attack tooled up coppers for no reason – it happens because we’ve been on the receiving end of their shit for far too long. The police aren’t just about helping granny across the road – they’re the first line of defence for the system, they’re there to keep us in our place. And don’t they know it! They deserve everything they get.

And don’t let the press tell you it was just “the anarchists” getting stuck in – it was all sorts. Face it – every genuine lefty will have a pop at the police if they think they can get away with it – no matter what their party leaders say! Also it wasn’t just politicos who were involved – loads of people there probably hadn’t been on any demo’s before. Afterwards it struck me that the reason that this turned riotous and the big CND marches didn’t was that it was the outraged middle classes on the streets then, worrying about the effect on careers and house prices should the bomb go off. This time the people present had no vested interest in the system and no qualms about fighting back. l bet you won’t find many lecturers, priests or social workers among the 341 arrested that day.

By now, lines of police had moved up Whitehall and there was a stand-off. We didn’t have enough ammo to drive them back and they didn’t have the numbers (yet) to charge so many of us. What happened was that the two groups stood only feet apart and every now and then scuffles would break out and fighting would spread along the line. Police would try and snatch someone, or some brave souls would grab a riot shield and drag the attached copper into the mob. On both sides gruesome ’tugs of war’ happened when an unfortunate cop or rioter would be pulled to and fro by us and them until one side or the other gave up. injuries were happening: coppers kicked in or felled by missiles, and rioters hit by batons. Whereas wounded cops went to the rear, most bloodied demonstrators stayed in the crowd — this, after all, was not one to be missed!

Gradually, as police numbers grew, they were able to push us back into Trafalgar Square. But, as it turned out, this was a mistake. In Whitehall you had a relatively small ’front’, but as the police line came into the square, more and more demonstrators were able to get at them. By now Trafalgar Square was completely in the hands of the marchers — all police had been withdrawn. This meant that hundreds of people were able to climb up scaffolding on a building opposite the South African Embassy, giving them a good view of the fighting. Apparently the march organisers were using their PA system to tell everyone to go home – but the square was still totally crowded, so obviously no-one was listening. At this point the police made their biggest mistake of the day. For some reason the left hand side of their line (as we looked at them) was ordered to charge into the Square while those on the right remained motionless. As they went forward they got hit from three sides and the charge slowed in a hail of missiles. They never made contact with the crowd, who just opened up and let them in – then let them have it with anything to hand. Instead of retreating the cops tried to form a shield wall but were rapidly getting thinned out.

But still they didn’t move up the other half of the line, and more cops were sent into the ’beach head’ and tried to push further forward. This just meant that yet more people had access to them and it brought them in range of the people on the scaffolding – poles, bolts and fire extinguishers were rained down and it was here that most police injuries occurred. l was near the right hand side of the police (near NeIson’s Column) and here we had very little to throw. People chucked what they could and the crowd roared when direct hits were scored. Those at the front were running towards the police and having to pick up the missiles thrown by other sections of the crowd. Every now and then dazed and unconscious riot cops would be dragged from the fray. All we could do was cheer! t was then some bright spark on the scaffolding decided to set some Portakabins alight (you must have seen this on the news). Then flames could be seen coming from the South African Embassy. More cheers!

By now the action had moved past the Embassy and up towards St. Martin‘s church. A line of ’ordinary’ cops had formed in front of us and things were pretty quiet. One incident showed though that people were still willing to have a go. A punk, who was totally pissed, picked up a rock and walked to within about three feet of the cordon. He threw it straight at a copper and then staggered back into the crowd. Two seconds later 3 plods and a flat-hat ran in after him. The punk started to run but because of his condition, he fell over. The cops pounced on top of him and one of them got a pair of handcuffs out. People crowded ` around and someone shouted “WelI come on then” and everyone piled in. The cops jumped up, forgetting their would-be prisoner, and l kicked the one with the handcuffs as hard as l could. They got battered and had to physically fight their way back to the cordon minus hats and radios – you could see the blood on their faces. Everyone was buzzing after that – this was our bit of the Square and we weren’t going to have pigs running round nicking people. As for the punk, he stayed on the floor a while, savouring his liberation in a drink and riot induced stupor.

After that I went up past St. Martin’s church. It was 6.30pm by the clock and I was separated from my mates and wondering if/how I was going to get out of London. But there was still rioting to be done! I walked through the furthest line of police and into the narrow streets of Covent Garden, an area where no cop had yet ventured. Most shops had been well and truly looted but it was by no means indiscriminate. For instance a kiosk was still open, selling food to the rioters while two doors down Barclays Bank had been trashed. Sports cars were forming a burning barricade across the road but 50 yards away motorists were being waved through the crowd. It was wealth that was the target – Stringfellows night-club, car showrooms, jewellers and West End yuppie shops – these were the victims, not small shopkeepers or passers-by as the gutter press would have you believe. For once it was the rich who got a taste of our anger – we should take it to the West End and Whitehall a lot more often. I had to leave after that, tired but happy. When I got home and turned on the news, people were still at it. Superb!

  1. MR. SWEENEY AND ME

[NB: Our comrade ‘John Barker’, who wrote this following account, later turned out to be John Dines, an undercover copper infiltrating anarchists and animal rights groups, and attempting to act as an agent provocateur. He was, interestingly nicked at the same time on the day and same area as your past tense correspondent, and demented memories tell me we were chauffeured off to the copshop in the same van, though this may be mis-remembering. Some of the story that follows may of course be bollocks, legend building as they say…]
As I lay face down in a gutter in Whitehall, with a policeman’s boot in the back of my neck and his two mates wrenching my arms from my shoulders, their macho sergeant bawling instructions on how best to incapacitate me, I briefly pondered my ‘wrongdoing’ in trying to prevent someone I’d never met before from being arrested for shouting his opposition to the Poll Tax. The kick in the forehead diverted my thoughts and l was bundled into one police van, manacled so tightly my hands went blue, then dragged across the road, booted and thumped as l was pushed into a second van. We sped off horns, sirens blaring madly, through red traffic lights, along the wrong side of the road and up pavements. l was sure that the guy l had tried to help who was being trampled upon by his captors must be the world’s most wanted fugitive. None of it, this was just members of the world’s finest police force maintaining the Queen’s Peace.

l was one of the thousands and thousands of people who had left Kennington Park about an hour earlier. l was with a group of friends, all much like me, not really poor but no spare cash at the end (or beginning) of the week. Some of us were working, some of us on the dole, some on housing benefit, some squatting because they couldn’t afford to pay for a reasonable home, others because there aren’t any homes available, some folks had worked all their lives to provide for their families, some had never been able to find work. We all had something in common – we were all working class, and in today’s wonderful British society we had become part of the growing, but powerful underclass. The Poll Tax was another financial burden to us, like all the other benefit and welfare cuts we’ve experienced, particularly in recent years. We’ve got no money left to pay now though, but nobody seems to listen or care. Well, we came to bloody shout it loudly enough so that we couldn’t be ignored, and didn’t we shout?

I was surprised by the huge, vast crowds who had turned up to demonstrate their opposition to the Poll Tax. Sure, there were many politicos espousing the virtues of other forms of extremist control. But overwhelmingly those present were ordinary families, pensioners, community groups, disabled folk, there were musicians, there was dancing, there were balloons, there was anger, annoyance and frustration – but our march was peaceful. There were ’suits’ in the crowd, there were cops in the air, they were high on buildings with their telescopic sights and their focused binoculars, their videos were running – and soon so were they, for this was going to be our day.

Such was the enormity of the crowd that the march eventually bottlenecked from Trafalgar Square to Lambeth Bridge. And then the realisation – we were stopped opposite Downing Street, the home of our democratic leader, “dear Maggie”. Nevertheless we stood in reverence, the occasional ribald comment of course, but there were no bricks, there was no barrage, there was no onslaught on the thin blue line guarding the entrance to No. 10. After all, we had no weapons, no truncheons, we had no specially designed riot overalls, no helmets and visors, no jackboots, no leaders directing operations, we didn‘t come charging on horseback, our dogs were strictly anti-Poll Tax mongrels. I remember children spilling onto a nearby glass verge, somebody uncoupling fencing to prevent us blindly falling over it, people sitting inthe roadway, nowhere to move, penned in by barriers manned by cops. In front of us thousands of marchers, behind us many thousands more. Obviously the Metropolitan Police Force’s expertly trained riot cops couldn’t handle such a confrontation. Passivity could not be tolerated. A foray by six brave Constables led by an Inspector was easily repelled. We weren’t _ going to be arrested for sitting on the bloody ground. Not to be defeated (not yet anyway), a charge by about 20 cops, truncheons out, fists, boots flying into kids, women, the old, whoever got in their way – I was soon to meet the gutter.

There were five of us in a cell made for one; 63 on a corridor of cells cosily constructed for 10 people. Food, no problem there. We each got a packet of custard cream biscuits after seven hours – shame I don’t eat them! Drinks, yep as much water as your bladder could hold, because the toilet didn’t flush. Air, sure, we swapped the contents of each other’s lungs for about 14 hours. Solicitor. I’m definitely allowed one of them, just a shame he wasn’t bloody interested. He reassured me that I could be charged with causing an affray even if I was acting on my own. There was nothing he could do for me however and it wasn’t worth his while coming to the station (his words). He must have known I’d be on legal aid. What about speaking to the lay visitors? Well, why not. Why indeed, these middle aged arseholes clad in Harrods’ latest fashions, blue rinses, adorned with jewellery, 1 lb. of plums in their gobs, just out of the “Upstairs…” part of Eaton Square, they’ll understand how I feel, they’re in touch with local issues. The scumbags could hardly bring themselves to inhale the putrefied air in the cell corridor. Someone further along just beat me in telling them to go back home, only I think she said “why don’t you fuck off?”

Cellmates: a traveller got himself arrested for shouting and using a profane four lettered word. A shoe salesman who protested to a senior police officer about the manner in which a person was arrested quickly found himself on the floor of a police van with a black eye. Still, the salesman was black, so guess he must have deserved it! An engineer was amongst a group of peaceful protesters who were charged at by cops on horses, he was one of those who fell over so he must have been guilty of something. And, finally, through the cell door walked this man mountain. 18 stone, 6’4″, beer belly, flash leather jacket, mohair trousers, crocodile skin shoes, Armani shirt – must be a fraudster – not at all. “I was on my way back home”, his story goes, “when I walked into this riot. Never have liked cops, so thought I’d have a bit of action”. This colossus found a half brick and with deadly aim caught a cop on the back of the head; out like a light he said. He was then jumped on by two riot clad officers, but our hero threw them off and eventually it took six of the bastards and burst eardrums to restrain him.

Tarzan could well understand their anger however, for he had once been a paratrooper and had served the good old British Army on the streets of Belfast, eh! A philosophical individual, but he was upset on two counts: firstly, his mum would go apeshit when she found out, secondly, having been arrested for “incitement to riot”, he was bound to lose a new job he was due to start the following month – he was to become a Prison Officer! Amongst other things, this character merited some in depth discussion, but I was halted from discovering the reasons for his actions, bearing in mind his former and intended employment, when he simply said “I fucking hate cops”.

Some 14 hours after being arrested, I was taken to the custody centre where some young Sweeney type ’inteIIectuaI’ asked me if I was a member of Militant, what an insult, and then suggested I must be “some sort of socialist”, before letting me go, warning me not to tail to turn up at court to answer my charge. Well, I did fail to turn up, so bollocks Mr. Sweeney. As I walked home I saw iron barricades still strewn along the length of Whitehall, a crushed cop’s cap lay amongst the rubbish on the pavement, hundreds of ’No Poll Tax’ placards were discarded everywhere, some decorating the Cenotaph, that meaningless monolith in the centre of Whitehall. The scale of the events I had missed were becoming excitingly apparent. The stench of burning wafted down Whitehall and as I reached Trafalgar Square I saw the ashen remains of buildings in Northumberland Avenue, the smell of wasted Portakabins was now overpowering, smoke still billowing around Trafalgar Square, fire fighters still dousing neighbouring premises. The shattered windows of the South African Embassy further lifted my spirits and I couldn’t resist an ear to ear grin as a mob of miserable cops walked towards me, peering out from under the brims of their helmets, hunched shoulders, literally ‘pIodding’ along. Though I had missed it, I knew the bastards had taken a real good hiding.

  1. OUR RIOT 
    March 1990, what a month! All across the country, every night on the telly, every day in the newspapers, all day conversations on the street, Poll Tax, Poll Tax, Poll Tax. After two years of continuous hard work against the tax in Scotland, a year everywhere else, and at last we seemed to be moving. Bristol, Brixton, Shepton Mallet, Leeds, Hackney…a rolling circus of hatred against the tax, each time becoming more angry and ferocious. There was a real sense of excitement, what would happen next? Even when Hackney went up, a few points were knocked off the Stock Exchange and rumours of Thatcher’s resignation started to flow. Once again we had them on the run. The March 31st demonstration felt like it was going to be the crescendo, the finale of everything that had gone before, it was the start to the long battle ahead, it was going to show the government and the councils what a fight they’ve got on their hands, this was where everybody would be together in the centre of “power”, this was going to be the big one…and it was.

The day started off as it was meant to continue. Marching into Kennington Park and having to run the usual gauntlet of lefty paper sellers, an RCP (“no revolutionary potential in the non-payment campaign”) seller loomed into vision. Swearing and spitting ensued, leaving him in no doubt as to what we thought of the cadre. Leaving Kennington Park, the police had locked a gate meaning people had to join the march in an orderly fashion. A woman pushing her baby in a pram couldn’t get through, and a fence was in the way. A few moments hesitation, shall we or shan’t we, fear, and down comes the fence and another. A sudden release of pressure and people stream onto the street smiling. Singing, shouting, dancing, drums and whistles playing and then boom. “Jesus, what was that? A car?” Just another yellow metal bollard being knocked over under the cops’ noses. Relief, it couldn’t have started already.

Approaching Parliament, one of my fantasies might come true. We storm it. But alas, only more “Maggie Out Out Out” chants with the occasional “Kill” distinctly heard. A symbol of power, “the mother of democracies”, around the world being left completely alone. Outside Parliament, as the cries of “Burn it down” became even more vociferous, one of the Liverpool Militant group behind us shouted “animals go forward, human beings back here”. A 10 yard gap was created. But this little incidental was lost, as we at last turned into Whitehall. The march had slowed down to a snail‘s pace. Of course, Downing Street! But what to do? A sit down had started, with other people arguing with them not to be so daft. A few bottles flew towards the cops guarding Downing Street. As the Union Jack came down from outside the Ministry of Defence, a howl came up from the crowd, the flag was ripped into shreds. The national flag of India remained aloof for a ridiculous reason. A hippy meditating up the pole refused to allow it to be taken down – “Get down from that pole mate, l want to burn that flag”. “No man, this is the flag of India”. Well…what can you say?

The next 30 minutes were frantic, fighting with the cops, desperate attempts at lifting paving stones, desperate attempts to get more people involved, filling pockets with rubble, spectators taking vantage points, injuries (self inflicted and by the cops), and more and more people arriving as the march came from behind. A woman steward made ’heroic’ attempts to keep people moving; she was just shouted at and spat at, and eventually some people tried to lift her megaphone. At this point she gave up. Standing on a corner amidst the fighting a lone Militant paper seller was trying to flog his wares. What the hell are these people about? On another part of the street stood a BNP skinhead. Unfortunately, he was left alone as there was just too much going on to deal with him. Next time though! Then the horses arrived on the green outside the M.O.D building. A total sense of panic and fear arose, until it became plainly obvious they didn’t have a clue what to do. The normally marauding thugs became sitting targets, they just didn’t move until the ammo became scarce.

The cops started charging into the crowd. It came to the ridiculous point that they only had to flinch and we would start. But lessons were quickly learnt, when they charged and we stood firm, they would not risk one of their number becoming isolated and given the treatment they deserve. The cop horses eventually gave up and moved around the back of Whitehall and reappeared further up. Hundreds of people charged after them, “shit we’re going to get split up”, but it was too late for that. The cop horses panicked and moved aside. This revealed the most amazing scene: a line of riot cops pinned between the crowds in Trafalgar Square and now us coming up rapidly behind them.

The fear on their faces, the sense of power, excitement, revenge was ecstatic. Not only had Whitehall been going up, but all the while there had been fighting in Trafalgar Square. At last we had got them!

Getting into Trafalgar Square was like coming from another planet. People high up in the scaffolding, chanting “No Poll Tax, No Poll Tax” to the heavy, sharp metallic beat of scaffold pole against scaffold pole. Then all of sudden poles, braces, concrete rained down onto the cops. The atmosphere was totally electric. lt was a good chance to take a 5 minute breather and just stare and wonder. Unfortunately this little break was rudely interrupted by the cops regaining some control and pushing crowds down Northumberland Avenue. The whole party seems to disintegrate, the initial energy gone, tiredness no doubt. But then, oh Jesus, smoke drifting across our view of the Square: tear gas?, smoke bombs? Oh shit, this is getting too much, and we are not prepared. Then the message got back, South Africa House has been torched. Total wonder, celebration and renewed energy. Eventually, virtually the whole of Northumberland Avenue was pushed down to the Embankment. Only a few attacks on the police, and a few attacks on rich cars, as most people are going home on their coaches.

Time to leave, for a cup of tea and to try to make our way back to the Square. Carefully walking towards the peace and quiet and the commercial deadland of Covent Garden, what a shock. Windows broken, cops everywhere, people staring in disbelief. It’s quite something having a cup of tea amidst gob-smacked faces, broken glass and cops without laughing and at moments crying.

On our way to Leicester Square more shop windows, burnt out cars and tourists picking their way through shop goods outside. To see the joy and secret smiles on some people’s faces was beautiful. Two Chinese young men, standing alone in the middle of Charing Cross Road, surrounded by admiring onlookers, taking pot shots at the cops at their leisure. The liberation and sense of achievement on their faces was great: “God, this is brilliant, hand me another brick”. The next few hours were spent cruising the streets, shouting and sniping at the occasional cop, and at moments just taking in the whole scene, trying to get to grips with what had happened. And then home to the welcome comforts of a bath, bed and normality.

A few weeks after the day, l saw a poster advertising a Socialist Workers Party public meeting: “Trafalgar Square Violence – Who To Blame’?” l felt really irritated and angry with it. It took me a while to sort out what l felt about it. Were they going to apologise for the violence? Were they going to say it was the Tories and “their fascist” boot boys who had started it? In some ways it was, the government introduced the tax and the police are there to enforce it. But what about us taking some credit for going on the attack. We started the violence and we’re proud of it. To do, rather than being done to. That‘s how March 31st 1990 should be remembered, not as a police riot but as our riot.

  1. THE AFTERMATH 
    The final score on the day was up to 500 police officers injured (with more than 60 hospitalised), 50 plus cars damaged, 394 shops and offices attacked (and many looted), several hundred demonstrators, 391 people arrested (and more in the subsequent weeks) and a total of 1900 crimes reported. Predictably, all newspapers, all media commentators, all politicians were united in their utter condemnation. From the ’DaiIy Mail’ to the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation, there was a torrent of outrage and disgust directed at the events that rocked central London. But we see what happened on that day differently from all the political professionals who need us far more than we need them. We see the Battle of Trafalgar Square as a positive and constructive contribution to the struggle against the Poll Tax in particular and the ongoing class war in general.

For a start, if there had been no riot then the demonstration would have got no more than a few lines in the papers and a brief mention on the telly. This is the reality imposed upon us because the media is controlled by the ruling class. This is not absolute totalitarian control – such a policy, at the moment, would be counter-productive. It is a subtle and sophisticated policy that allows ‘World In Action’ and Paul Foot in the ‘Daily Mirror to give the illusion of freedom of information – but still maintains a tight grip. Remember the Glasgow demonstration against the Poll Tax in April 1989? Over 20,000 people were on it, a massive display of defiance that was quietly censored.

But the riot was too big to be ignored — and they hoped to smear the anti-Poll Tax movement as well. So the demonstration and subsequent riot were spread across all front pages, on all news bulletins: nobody could now say that they did not know that there was enormous and powerful opposition to the Poll Tax. And this, of course, can only help to build mass non-payment of the Poll Tax. All the isolated, worried and frightened people around the country will have taken great heart from the undeniable fact that they’re not alone in their hatred of the Poll Tax and their desire to smash it into the ground.

But Militant Tendency declared that the riot would “alienate” people from the anti-Poll Tax movement. Militant obviously don’t believe their own propaganda. The struggle against the Poll Tax is not a matter of individual conscience or studied moralism. The rioting did not alienate l millions of working class people whose opposition to the Poll Tax is based on class interests: in plain language, less money in the pocket and even fewer needed services added to the total insult of being asked to pay the same as a millionaire. That opposition is not going to waver because of the rioting – it is going to be encouraged and stimulated even further. This is not mere rhetoric: on the day after the Battle of Trafalgar Square, a local anti-Poll Tax stall had even more people coming up wanting to join the struggle…and only two people actually bothered to mention the violence – and both of them thought that it was good! This is after the total onslaught by the media and all politicians on the riot and everyone who was involved in it.

Of course, the rioting probably alienated a few sympathetic politicians, priests and bureaucrats. People like ’Gorgeous’ George Galloway, Labour MP and ex-boss of ’radical’ charity War On Want. Such individuals can only see the working class as helpless, passive, pathetic victims. We need their support like we need a hole in the head. lI the Poll Tax is going to be defeated, it is going to be defeated by mass class action and mass class action alone. And such actions will inevitably come into conflict with the state and all its agencies. By mass class action, we mean struggle on all fronts: community and workplace organised non-payment and resistance to measures taken against non-payers and open displays of defiance on the streets. Does the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (and, by implication, Militant Tendency) really think that the state is going to sit back and watch mass non-payment of the Poll Tax? Of course not! The state attempted to firstly intimidate and then criminalise the anti-Poll Tax movement on Saturday 31st March. Unlike Militant and their friends, we are under no illusions about the state.

One of the main illusions about the state was voiced by the visibly shaken Home Secretary, David Waddington, who declared: “We live in a democracy”. This is open to question. It is certainly the cry of all politicians plus friends in the papers every time we do something more than actually ticking a box once every five years or so. But in reality there is very little genuine democracy in this country, nor anywhere else in this world. Parliamentary democracy is simply the most efficient and effective form of rule for the ruling class at this moment in time. In the past it has been absolutist monarchy and in the future it might be military dictatorship. But real power has always remained in the hands of the tiny elite who control the economy and the state. These people can never be voted out because they never stand for election.

A theory behind this practice was expressed by Sir Ian Gilmour, a Tory MP: “For Conservatives, democracy is a means to an end and not an end in itself…And if it is leading to an end that is undesirable or inconsistent with itself, then there is a theoretical case for ending it”. Such a case was made by Andrew Bonar Law, at the time leader of the Conservative Party and later Prime Minister, in 1912: “There are things stronger than parliamentary majorities”. Bonar Law was speaking during a period of intense class struggle in this country and in Ireland: the power of the ruling class was being threatened.

The most important function of parliamentary democracy is to disempower the working class. It makes us passive units that have the right to one tick once every few years. It ensures that we have no real power, that we are nothing more than cogs in the machinery of capitalism, unable to have anything more than extremely limited control over our own destinies. And it creates the illusion of choice where there is really no choice at all. Against parliamentary democracy, we uphold the genuine democracy that gives all of us real power to determine the present and the future. This democracy is directly opposed to the farce of parliamentary democracy and the self-seeking careerism of politicians (whether left, right, centre or supposedly revolutionary). It is the democracy of workers and community councils, mass assemblies to organise the running of human society for the benefit of all, not just the privileged few.

It is for these reasons that we don’t give a damn about parliamentary democracy, that we actively seek to “negate democracy” in the words of Neil Kinnock. We do not believe in wasting our time and effort fighting on their terrain of parliamentary democracy. This can only be a dead-end. We do not believe in encouraging any illusions that society can be changed through parliament or that parliament is in any way responsive to our needs and desires. It isn’t and never will be. Parliamentary democracy is a tool of the ruling class and must be treated with the contempt that it deserves.

On Saturday 31st March democracy came to the streets of central London. Thousands of working class people expressed their opinions about the Poll Tax, the police and a multitude of other things. But when this expression became more than token, people found themselves not only against the state but the state in waiting: Militant Tendency. This organisation is one of the leading left-wing parties (although it denies that it is a party).

The politics of Militant are simple – take over the Labour Party and trade unions and then legislate socialism. This means that Militant are utterly obsessed by being ’respectable’ as they base their ideology on bourgeois social democracy. So they support strikes — but only as long as they stay inside the framework of official union limits. And they support campaigns — as long as demands are made on the Labour Party.

Already, Militant are trying to use the Poll Tax to regain their dwindling influence within the Labour Party: “The biggest demonstration in Neil Kinnock’s Islwyn constituency since the miners’ strike took place last Friday (23rd March). lt was against the expulsion of Marie Welsh and Denis English from the Labour Party for fighting the Poll Tax”, (’Militant’, 30th March). The struggle against the Poll Tax offers many opportunities for the working class, after years of defeat and demoralisation — but organisations such as Militant will only attempt to stifle this potential into channels of respectable bourgeois politics. On 22nd March the Labour Party won a by—election in the Mid—Staffs constituency, turning a Tory majority of 14,654 into a Labour majority of 9,449. ’Militant’ hailed this as a victory and declared: “It was the (anti—Poll Tax) Federation’s campaigning that ensured Labour this seat” (30th March). But what was not mentioned was the fact that the new Labour MP is a personal friend of Neil Kinnock, shares his reactionary views and has probably paid all her Poll Tax bill in one instalment!

Instead of trying to help build a mass movement that can defeat the Poll Tax and challenge capitalism, Militant work hard to clean up the extremely tarnished image of the Labour Party and get it working class support. In ’Militant’ (30th March) it was declared: “The lives of the mass of people now suffering under the Tories can only be transformed by a Labour government which takes the levers of economic power out of the hands of the capitalist millionaires”. This is political analysis straight from the primary school: first, the illusion that the Labour Party can I somehow become ’revolutionary’ and, secondly, the illusion that such changes would be meekly allowed by the state and the bosses. But Militant are not alone in these positions – the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), although sounding slightly more radical (they didn’t threaten to grass people to the police for a start), share the same essential politics. In a recent issue of their paper, ’Socialist Worker’ (12th May), this was written: “Anti-Poll Tax campaigners in Haringey found overwhelming opposition to the Poll Tax when they went round with petitions, but time and again found they had to argue hard to convince working class people it was worth voting”.

Yet again, the working class outflanks the so-called ’revolutionary’ left! It is worth remembering that the Party that both Militant and the SWP work so hard for is the same Party whose shadow Home Secretary stated after the Battle of Trafalgar Square: “l hope there’ve been a substantial number of arrests, I hope the people responsible for the violence will be convicted and awarded very severe sentences” (Roy Hattersley, 31st March). Interestingly, Hattersley’s words echo the words of supposedly left-wing Labour MP Eric Heffer who said after the Toxteth riots in 1981: “rioters and looters must be punished with all due severity”.

What unites politicians from Hattersley to the SWP is the belief that the working class are unable to suss and sort things out for themselves. All authoritarian socialist organisations (whether left or right) believe that social change can only come through the Party: the Party is the leadership of the working class and always knows best. In the words of Leon Trotsky: “The Party in the last analysis is always right, because the Party is the sole historical instrument given to the proletariat for the solution of its basic problem”. (What do you do when there’s more than one Party claiming to be the sole historical instrument – toss a coin? And who “gave” the proletariat this present – sounds vaguely religious). Such an attitude as Trotsky’s leads firstly to Kronstadt, where thousands of rebellious workers were murdered by the Bolshevik dictatorship and then to Stalinism. Genuine human liberation can only come through self-activity, self-organisation and democratic debate within the working class. These parties are a threat to the anti-Poll Tax movement and will only sabotage, confuse and demoralise this enormous struggle. As millions of working class people defy the intimidation of the state and the lies of the media, the best they can come up with is “It’s time the TUC backed the action” (’Socialist Worker`, 31st March). The anti-Poll Tax struggle has been organised against the TUC and the Labour Party – and has been massively successful considering all the problems and obstacles that it has faced. This just shows our potential, a potential that can only be undermined and diverted by these organisations.

Trafalgar Square showed what was possible. The 200,000 people on the demonstration showed the depth of anger against the Poll Tax and the level of local organisation. It also showed that people were not prepared to take shit lying down and were able to organise resistance without leaders or parties. But we shouldn’t get too carried away by Trafalgar Square – there were many problems on the actual day and the struggle against the Poll Tax is much much more than just one riot. Too many people behaved stupidly and indiscriminately. Too many people were unnecessarily hurt by bricks from the back. Too many people were scared and frightened by this explosion of class anger. These problems and more have got to be acknowledged and sorted out ready for the next time. Because there will be a next time – the struggle against the Poll Tax (for a start!) is not going to disappear, although it will go up and down. The class war will certainly continue! The fight has got to be maintained and intensified – from leaflets through peopIe’s letterboxes to mass demonstrations on the streets to flyposting every available wall to talking down the Iaunderette to stopping the bailiffs to striking at work to…taking on the state and bosses, extending our struggles so that they’re not separated and defeated, unifying to fight the common enemy. they’re not separated and defeated, unifying to fight the common enemy.

The battle against the Poll Tax is much more than just the Poll Tax – and more than just the Tories. It’s about our standard of living. It’s about how we feel at work, at home and on the streets. It’s about our lives under capitalism. The Battle of Trafalgar Square showed both the potential and the problems of working class struggle. It showed working class anger and working class mutual aid. It showed the sabotage of the left parties and the stupidity of a few idiots. We have all got to learn and build from Trafalgar Square so that we can reach the day where there is no need to batter people into unconsciousness. Let’s get organised.

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THE TRAFALGAR SQUARE DEFENDANTS CAMPAIGN

In the wake of the riot the authorities went mental – 341 people had been nicked on the day, and another 90 were rapidly picked up afterwards, largely from the huge campaign of mugshots splashed across the tabloids and other media… Many were charged with heavy public order offences and lots went down for short sentences after summary hearings in magistrates courts. In response, the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign formed, to support all accused, both practically and politically.

TSDC formed from an alliance of defendants, activists from poll tax groups (many anarchists or socialists), lawyers and other malcontents… The campaign publicly vowed unconditional support for rioters whatever the charges. Legal defence was organised, by a dedicated corps of court monitors, allied to friendly solicitors. The campaign produced constant publicity in defence of often vilified defendants; witnesses were recruited through publicity drives that helped clear people. Courts were picketed and vast amounts of subscriptions and donations helped TSDC support the accused financially.

Starting with the second big anti-poll tax national demo to Brixton in October 1990, TSDC also set up legal monitoring of poll tax marches to ensure police actions were accounted, arrests logged and names gathered. We worked all day, and night, and all day again to gather names of the nicked and make sure they had solicitors. This cover was continued for subsequent demos.

From the work of the TSDC emerged the Poll Tax Prisoners Support Group, as the more serious charges came to court, and defendants began to be sent down for longer periods. Set up initially by activists from the Anarchist Black Cross prisoners support network who were already part of TSDC, the prisoners group became an autonomous entity, both organising pickets, letter writing, spreading the word of people’s addresses, alerting people to prison moves and publishing the writings of the jailed… plus setting up both practical support in the form of visiting poll tax prisoners, sending in regular books and daily papers/other magazines, helping with legal and other problems… as well as allotting a regular monthly donation of money to all those jailed, helping pay for family visits, and so much more. TSDC and the prisoners group garnered massive support from the anti-poll tax movement, in large part because it was the movement that set it up, but also because the Campaign remained overtly politicised and linked to the grassroots anti-poll taxers organically. TSDC and the PSG grew to become a network; groups sprang up around the country, an offshoot of the poll tax resisters that survived the movement itself in some cases, as the prisoners on longer sentences remained banged up even when the poll tax itself was long abolished. My favourite action of ours was the prison solidarity pickets at jails holding several poll tax inmates, notably HMP Brixton and Wandsworth (where we once memorably floated a banner over the prison yard using helium balloons…)

The movement for defence of the arrested was not without its problems. There were divisions that had arisen in the anti-poll tax movement, largely coming from different conceptions of how to organise grassroots resistance, and who was to control groups. The ‘Militant’ (the ancestors of the modern Socialist Party)-dominated national Anti-Poll Tax Federation had repeatedly clashed with more autonomous groups, some of whom (though by no means all) had more anarchist leanings, at every point in the struggle, and this did feed into the post-Trafalgar Square fallout, as Militant spokesmen tried to distance themselves from the violence, which they feared would dent the mass popularity of the non-payment campaign; there were even threats to shop rioters to the police by some Federation leaders. Militant tended to see the TSDC as a hotbed of those they were already arguing with, and spent much energy trying to paint it as an anarchist front run to destroy the movement. Few bought this cack.

An internal dispute over tactics proved also fractious – over filming of future anti-poll tax demos as a tactic to gather evidence, which divided the group, and, though some of video evidence undoubtedly cleared people, remained thorny), over concentration on legal intricasies etc; there were also mistakes on a practical level over some prisoners. The first Controversy had in fact erupted over an initial decision of TSDC to allow only defendants to vote on crucial policy decisions and strategic directions – because we as defendants felt we had most to lose – but some lefty types outraged. As time went by further cracks opened up – some of those most wrapped up in TSDC legal work did have a dubious view and no real relationship to the wider anti-poll tax movement. While others totally opposed to militant’s manouverings thought TSDC should challenged Militant for the leadership of the movement, though really we had enough to do (given that we weekly meetings lasted four hours and often we’d reach barely half way through the agenda).

But TSDC left a good legacy all in all – a residue of the campaign kept legal monitoring up on demos of other campaigns for several years, and some of old TSDC people/anti-poll tax activists were later central to the setting up of the Legal Defence and Monitoring Group, which survives to this day.

WE GOT THE POWER?

That Spring & Summer always will remain special in the heart; although the rioting died down, although 100s got nicked and more picked up in raids, and thanks to media mugshots, and many went down; still what I remember is a feeling of POWER. Summed up I suppose partly by that bloody “I’ve Got the Power” song, the anthem of the year, which was playing everywhere and just captured the times. Thanks to the neighbours who played it over and over again out of their window, very loud, I did eventually get sick of it.

But the cops have long memories, and hate to be beaten. And the Government was willing to back them to the hilt in taking back the initiative. They must have seen potential in the divisions between the Militant-sponsored Anti-Poll Tax Federation and the anti-poll tax groups these trot hacks couldn’t control. Militant apparatchiks had condemned the rioting, and (whatever they afterwards claimed) did threaten to grass up rioters (in Bristol and Nottingham party members DID rat out rioters.) The next big anti-poll tax demo was to be October 20th, from Kennington Park to Brockwell Park, to be followed with a march to Brixton prison, in support of prisoners from Trafalgar Square locked up there. The Militant Fed had organised the main march, the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign, around which many dissident elements had grouped, the prison demo. The Police bigwigs must have seen an opportunity to get their own back (and maybe drive a further wedge into the movement?)

Time and space limitations mean we have not really had time here to discuss many issues – the significance of Trafalgar Square and other poll tax riots (big and small) in the defeat of the poll tax – how much was mass non-payment or the violence a factor? Was it a combination of both? (Probably) What is the real long term legacy of the massive movement that arose and then almost as soon disappeared? Are there deeper cultural roots in campaigning and resistance that the movement left behind…? We’d love to return to this another time…

The parts of this post not reprinted from the “poll Tax Riot’ pamphlet were scribbled by a former activist from the anti-poll tax movement, a defendant from Trafalgar Square, who was involved in TSDC and the Poll Tax Prisoners Group. There’s more in my head on all this and it’ll come out. One day.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London squatting history, 1969: Brixton’s first squatters? Empty offices occupied.

Brixton, South London: for many years one of the heaviest squatted areas of the capital. Occupying empty buildings and making use of them was for several decades an integral part of life in this area, not only housing hundreds of thousands, but giving home to hundreds of alternative projects and spaces – from bookshops, cafes, workshops, meeting places, to gig venues, art galleries… the list is endless.

The first record of squatting we are aware of if from March 1969; only a few months after the first actions of what is generally thought of as the squatting movement.

‘Squatters seized an empty five-storey office block in London’s Brixton Road on Saturday, 29 March. About a dozen squad cars, black marias and motor cycle police surrounded the building just before 9 a.m.) minutes after the “invasion squad” otherwise known as the South London Squatters, had got in through a back way.

A detachment of police headed by an inspector from the nearby Brixton police station and a plain-clothes man clambered over a ten-–foot hardboard fence at the back of the concrete and glass building and tried to get the squatters to leave quietly. They refused. A few minutes later large banners appeared over the balconies of the block reading: ‘Homes not offices’ and ‘Enough room here for eighty families’. Plus a red flag.

The building is next to Brixton Register Office. Astonished wedding guests watched as police tried to get the squatters out. According to a leaflet handed out by supporters outside, the building – 40,500 sq. ft of it – has been empty for three years. ‘Why can’t Cathy come home to this’!’ the leaflet asks. ‘We have occupied this building to expose the housing shortage. A building this size could be converted at only £1,000 a unit to house eighty homeless families. Eight million sq. ft of office building stands empty in London alone – enough to house all the homeless in Britain.’

The operation, the first carried out by the group, was surprisingly simple. The glass in a door at the back of the building was cut and Hey Presto! The next they heard were the sirens.

Said Ray Gibbon, travel agency manager and father of two, of Shakespeare Road, Heme Hill, “We intend staying here until 5.30. Then we’ll leave quietly after we’ve made our point.”

The squatters, all local people, passed their time listening to the radio, playing football and putting records on a record player they’d brought with them. At lunch-time fish and chips and bottles of beer were hoisted up by rope from outside. Rubbish was put in a Lambeth Council paper sack they had brought in with them. ‘We want to be as tidy as possible,’ said Mr Gibbon.

During the day, the squatters gave out over 7,000 leaflets in the Brixton shopping centre. One West Indian bus conductor said, ‘Give me a heap man. I’ll give them out to the lads when I get to the garage at Croydon.’ The leaflet said: ‘Some people try to blame immigrants for the housing shortage but we know we had lousy houses in Britain before we ever saw a black face or heard an Irish accent. The real for the housing shortage is that a small group of people make millions of pounds out of our need for a decent home.’

Source: radical newspaper Black Dwarf 1969: Republished in David Widgery, The Left in Britain 1956-1968 (London: Penguin, 1976) David has this down as 1968, but this we think is wrong, as Saturday 29th March was a Saturday in ’69, not ’68, and the squatting movement had not got going in March 1968 to the point described in the article above. However, if we are totally wrong on this please let us know. 

From these beginnings grew a massive scene, or myriad scenes rather.

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A SHORT HISTORY OF SQUATTING’S EARLY YEARS IN BRIXTON

Brixton became a centre of squatting for a number of reasons.

A century and a half of social change had transformed a once prosperous suburb into a mainly working class area. Much of the old Victorian housing had been sub-divided and multiply occupied, and was in a state of disrepair and over crowding.

The Borough was faced with a rising level of homelessness: a survey in 1967 reckoned that much of the housing in the area had less than ten years life left in it, and that to house the 14,000 homeless households, and cope with those who would likely be made homeless as these homes became unusable, the Council would have to build or refurbish 4000 houses a year for the next seven years. This didn’t even take account of those on the Waiting List. Given the then shortage of building workers this target was unlikely at best. But pressure was put on the Planning Dept to come up with a solution.

Lambeth Director of Planning, Ted Hollamby, had won a reputation for small-scale housing developments that blended with their surroundings, and came from a radical background, living as he did in a ‘progressive’ architectural commune in William Morris’s old Red House in Bexleyheath! While previously working for the London County Council, he had attempted to save old buildings from demolition. He seems to have been a somewhat contradictory character, or had a change of heart. Under Hollamby’s leadership (it was said of him at the time that “The planning process is highly centralised, taking place as it does entirely within [his] head.”) the Planners came up with a massive crash programme of redevelopment; of which the Brixton Plan was the central plank.

The Brixton Plan was also partly a response to the GLC approach, in the late 1960s, to the newly merged/enlarged boroughs, asking them to draw up community plans, to redevelop local areas in line with the GLC’s overall strategy for “taking the metropolis gleaming into the seventies”. Lambeth planners came up with a grandiose vision for Brixton, typical of the macro-planning of the era, which would have seen the area outstrip Croydon as a megalomaniac planners’ high-rise playground. The town centre would have been completely rebuilt, with a huge transport complex uniting the tube and overland railway station, Brixton Road redesigned as a 6-lane highway, and part of Coldharbour Lane turned into an urban motorway. (Interestingly that’s why Southwyck House, known universally locally as the Barrier Block, is built like a huge wall with relatively few windows in the side facing Coldharbour Lane: to cushion the noise from this (subsequently never built) motorway. Not just to make its residents feel imprisoned – although for years rumours have asserted the Block’s design to be modeled on a plan for a Swedish Prison. When it opened, after ten years in the building, huge problems with different contractors, it was declared unfit for families to live in. (It was gleefully pointed out in 1995, when then Prime Monster John Major described council estates as ‘grey, sullen wastelands, robbing people of self-respect’ that ex-Lambeth Housing Chair Major had been on the planning committee that had approved the Barrier Block!)

The plan was openly to re-engineer the area’s social mix, bringing middle class ‘urban professionals’ into the area, and (less openly) to disperse black people and other undesirables from Central Brixton. The 1971 opening of Brixton tube station was seen as the first step in “an attempt to upgrade the area on a very large scale.” Plans for a new office blocks, new schools, and new housing estates were scheduled; they would entirely replace the majority of the crumbling Victorian houses in Central Brixton. Some of the planned estates was to be low-rise, high density, but the centre piece featured Brixton Towers, five 52 storey tower blocks, the highest housing scheme outside Chicago, 600 feet high. A new park would serve the proposed 6000 new residents… In effect the plan would have restricted traffic to a few major trunk roads, encircling islands of high density housing with limited access. Such schemes carried out elsewhere quickly decayed into ghettos, cut off by perimeter roads; in fact the first new estate to be built, Stockwell Park, although low-rise, turned into a nightmare for many. Its purpose-built garages were not used for years, damp and disrepair set in and it rapidly began to be used as a dumping ground for supposed ‘problem tenants’.

Few of Lambeth’s 300,000 population knew much about this plan. But pretty soon, the effects of the processes set in motion under the plan began to bite. Lambeth had already obtained Compulsory Purchase Orders (CPOs) on areas to be redeveloped – all over the Borough large-scale demolitions were scheduled for replacement by estates. The Brixton Plan called for houses in the Angell Town area, now covered by Angell Town Estate, Villa Road and Max Roach Park, to be removed. And as part of the proposals a huge central shopping centre was to extend from Coldharbour Lane out as far as Kellett Road (this would have been built by Ravenseft, responsible for the Elephant & Castle folly). And so a huge area of Railton Road and Mayall Road was CPO’d.

All over the Borough CPOs were imposed, and indeed resisted by many local groups that sprang up to try and inject some sense into the plans. Blight and decline tend to become a vicious circle, especially in housing. They pointed out that many of the houses marked for demolition were not run down, and had plenty of life in them, that there’d be no Housing Gain (a bureaucratic term for how many more people would be housed after redevelopment than before), and that complex existing communities would be destroyed. The active opposition to Compulsory Purchase and demolition often came from owner-occupiers, who supposedly had ‘a greater stake’ in the houses, although in most CPO areas tenants outnumbered them 2 to 1… But most campaigns were aware of the danger of becoming just a middle class pressure group and attempted to involve tenants as well. Planning processes ignored tenants: only the objections of owner-occupiers or those who paid rent less often than once a month were allowed in any Planning Inquiries. But alternative plans were drawn up to include tenants co-operatives/take-over by Housing Associations as well as owner-occupancy instead of destruction. The Council of course, feeling as ever that it knew best, tended to treat residents objections and proposals with contempt or indifference. Its policy was to split tenants from owner-occupiers in these groups, presenting the owners as fighting only for their own interests, and offering tenants a rosy future in the new estates… they also, as you’d expect, tried to keep these groups and others in the dark about planning decisions. Where the Council owned or acquired houses, the inhabitants, many in sub-divided multi-occupancy, were promised rehousing (eventually, for some); but imminent demolition meant Lambeth spent little effort following up needed repairs and maintenance, tenants became frustrated and pushed for immediate rehousing.

Lambeth’s planning dream however, quickly turned into a nightmare, with a tighter economic climate and the end of the speculative building boom of the 60s. Much of the Brixton Plan was being cut back: the government refused to fund the Town Centre Development in 1968, as it would have taken up 10% of the total town centre development fund for the UK! The five huge towers, the six-lane dual carriageway, the vast concrete shopping centre and the urban motorway never materialised, and companies involved ran out of cash and ran to the Council for more (eg Tarmac re the Recreation Centre). The building of new housing slowed down. The Council had aimed at 1000 new homes a year for 1971-8 – this was never met.

By the early 1970s much of Central Brixton was in a depressed state. Many houses were being decanted, but for many reasons, large numbers of the residents found themselves ineligible for rehousing; one reason was the overcrowded state of many of the dwellings, with extended families, sub-letting, live-in landlords, etc: many people were not officially registered as living there, and so council estimates of numbers to be rehoused or the ‘housing gain’ were often wildly inaccurate.

Homelessness was on the rise. Rising property prices had led many landlords to evict tenants to sell off houses. There were also an increasing number of empty houses (officially in 1971, 5225, two and a half times the 1961 figure), many of which were occupiable and not scheduled for immediate demolition, as it could take as long as 7 years from CPO to redevelopment.

Two main results of all this were a rapid increase in the number of squatters in the area, looking for places to live and finding a rich seam in SW2 – this contributed to an upsurge in community, radical and libertarian politics in the Borough.

Incidentally planner Ted Hollamby’s trajectory lurched further from consultative architecture – after leaving Lambeth Council’s employ in 1981, he went to work for the London Docklands Development Corporation, helping to ‘regenerate’ London’s docks in the interest of big business in the face of protests from most of the local population.

In 1969-70 the Lambeth Family Squatting Group occupied homes for mainly local families; they considered themselves the official squatting movement, and had many negotiations with Lambeth Council.

By 1970, the Borough Council had made an accommodation with the Family Squatting Group to licence families to stay in occupied houses. This was very much in the spirit of the times, as pressure and media attention drew public support for squatting in empty property. However, licensed squatters were soon outnumbered by unlicensed ones, mainly single people, who the Family Squatting Associations wouldn’t house, although there was also a rise people who were squatting politically, occupying empties as shared houses or communes as a challenge to property rights and conventional ways of living, This neither the original squatting groups or the Council liked at all. Lambeth’s ‘official’ squatting group became Lambeth Self-Help Housing Co-op in 1971, the Council handed over 110 houses to them to administer (172 by 1974); in this way, Lambeth, like other authorities, was partly recognizing they could do little to stop squatting and might as well have it under some form of loose control, as it could take the houses back when it could afford to do something with them. Much divisions arose from the licensing of some squats; Councils slyly pitted co-ops against squatters and tried to drive wedges between them. It’s true that while co-ops saved many people from eviction, they also acted in many cases to pressurize people to leave houses when the Councils demanded them back, and helped to regulate squatters, tone down organized resistance and shovel people into paying rent for substandard houses. There was also a lot of double dealing; squatters would be offered rehousing on the day of eviction, and as the Council trashed the house around them they would be moved to a hard to let property, often unfit to live in. in some cases this house would be taken back very quickly too – in at least some cases the day after they were moved in!

In the mid-70s, Lambeth was widely held to be the most squatted borough in London. The upsurge created whole squatted communities and experiments: Villa Road, the Railton Road/Mayall Road in Central Brixton (known as the frontline); St Agnes Place and Oval Mansions in Kennington; Bonnington Square/Vauxhall Grove, Radnor Terrace/Rosetta Street/Wilcox Road, and Mawbey St/Brough St in Vauxhall; Heath Road/Robertson St, St Alphonsus Road and Rectory Gardens in Clapham, and Hubert Grove, off Landor Road; Priory Grove in Stockwell, and more. Later on there was Lingham Road, Stockwell, the Triangle in Norwood (Berridge rd, Bristow Rd), Effra Parade, St George’s Mansions and Loughborough Park, Stockwell Mansions…

Most of these arose in streets which had been part of Compulsory Purchase Schemes, then left largely or wholly empty by planning blight. Some remained squatted (or intermittently licenced) for nearly 30 years, some became co-ops in the 70s and 80s, some gradually were evicted. Some squatters formed action groups to try and preserve their houses, of these, as with the famous struggle at Villa Road, some partially succeeded and became co-ops, while others like St Agnes Place prevented their destruction but made no long-term deals with the Council. While many of the squatters were content to house themselves and live a quiet life, the growth of squatting as a whole bolstered a large and diverse radical scene in Brixton. Many of the squatters were alternative types, socialists, feminists, anarchists, bohemians or artists of one stripe or another, or lesbians and gay men trying to create new ways of living outside the traditional family set up… Many others wanted little more than somewhere affordable to live. But many communes, radical experiments in alternative ways of life to the traditional nuclear family, were also set up… These widely varying reasons for squatting led to disputes and splits, as some of the more ‘political’ squatters took a more confrontational line while others pursued licences and formed co-ops. In many cases though, a dual approach saved people’s houses, as with Villa Road.

Gradually many local black youth began to squat. From the early 70s the younger, more militant generation faced increasing black homelessness caused by massive overcrowding in traditional West Indian households, conflict with an older and more conservative generation in some cases getting them thrown out, and a hostile housing market, inflexible council housing policies or hostels. Many local black kids were sleeping rough, on building sites, etc. As a result, from about 1973-4 many occupied council properties. The black Melting Pot organisation played a part in housing many youth, their squatted HQ in Vining Street was attacked by racists in August 1983 (they later moved to Kellett Road).

Many houses, especially along Railton Road, were turned into ‘blues’ clubs, home to unlicensed drinking, smoking and reggae, in defiance of the authorities. The Blues had since the fifties been a response to the exclusion of blacks from many pubs and clubs, and this scene grew as younger kids with little respect for white society and white authority reached their teens. A lot of the black squatters had little contact with squatting groups, which were usually dominated by middle-class whites; relations were often fractious (see report on the 1982 frontline riot, below). Race Today in 1974 claimed that black people were squatting in the areas they grew up in, that they were more likely to receive support from their community, “whereas the white squatters, who are generally London’s floating bedsitter population, set up squats in different areas with no organic relation to the indigenous population around them.” Although this statement ignores many exceptions, and “indigenous population” is an unlikely term where London is concerned, there is an element of truth to this statement. Many white squatters WERE “outsiders”, and did often have little commitment to stay in an area, which they weren’t originally from. But a huge chunk of London’s population has for centuries been from elsewhere, transient, moving (often forced to move) from one area of town to another. Squatters in many cases would settle down if they could – it’s the landlords, council, cops and courts that drive them out.

Black squatters of course received their unfair share of agro from the local state and the bizzies. And the press, always up for a story about noisy blacks, spread tales of black squatters terrorising their neighbours.

Squatters were increasingly becoming a thorn in the Council’s side. Dissatisfaction with Lambeth’s planning processes and its inability to cope with housing and homelessness gave focus to a number of dissenting community-based groups. Activists in these groups were instrumental in establishing a strong squatting movement for single people – the main section of Lambeth’s population whose housing needs went unrecognised. Many had previous experience of squatting either in Lambeth or in other London boroughs where councils were starting to clamp down on squatters, reinforcing the pool of experience, skill and political solidarity. The fact that a certain number of people came from outside Lambeth was frequently used in anti-squatting propaganda. In response to Council tirades on squatting, squatters’ propaganda focused on Lambeth’s part in homelessness, what with the CPOs, refusal to renovate empties, insistence on buying houses with vacant possession, its habit of forgetting houses, taking back ones it had licenced out. They pointed out that many of the squatters would have been in Bed & Breakfast or temporary accommodation if they weren’t squatting – many in fact HAD been for months (in some cases years) before losing patience and squatting.

A strong anti-squatter consensus began to emerge in the Council, particularly after the 1974 council elections. The new Chair of the Housing Committee and his Deputy were in the forefront of this opposition to squatters, loudly blaming them for increased homelessness.

Councillor Alfred Mulley referred to squatted Rectory Gardens as being “like a filthy dirty back alley in Naples.”

Their proposals for ending the ‘squatting problem’, far from dealing with the root causes of homelessness, merely attempted to erase symptoms and met with little success. In autumn 1974 All Lambeth Squatters formed, a militant body representing many of the borough’s squatters. It mobilised 600 people to a major public meeting at the Town Hall in December 1974 to protest at the Council’s proposals to end ‘unofficial’ squatting in its property.

Most of the impetus for All-Lambeth Squatters came from two main squatting groups – one in and around Villa Road, the other at St Agnes Place in Kennington Park.

In parallel many tenants and other residents were organizing in community campaigns around housing, like the St Johns Street Group around St John’s Crescent and Villa Road… Direct action against the Council by groups like this led to tenants being moved out, the resulting empties being either trashed, to make them unusable, squatted, or licensed to shortlife housing groups like Lambeth Self-Help. Tenants groups in some cases co-operated with squatters occupying empties in streets being run down or facing decline.

Following the failure of the Council’s 1974 initiative to bring squatting under control, the Council tried again. It published a policy proposing a ‘final solution’ to the twin ‘problems’ of homelessness and squatting. It combined measures aimed at discouraging homeless people from applying to the Council for housing, like tighter definitions of who would be accepted and higher hostel fees with a rehash of the same old anti-squatting ploys like more gutting of empties. The policy was eventually passed in April 1976 after considerable opposition both within Norwood Labour Party (stronghold of the ‘New Left’) and from homeless people and squatters.

The Gutting and smashing up of houses was an integral part of this strategy: houses when evicted were to be rendered totally unliveable in. In some cases this got highly dangerous: houses in Wiltshire Road were wrecked with an old woman still living in the basement, while people were out shopping (puts a new slant on that old chestnut about squatters breaking into your house while you’re down the shops eh, after all this time we find out that it was the COUNCIL!). There was said to be a secret dirty tricks committee in the Housing Dept thinking up demolition plans and ordering them done on the sly.

There was resistance to the evictions/destruction. In November 1976, a crowd of squatters barricaded Vining Street off Railton Road, jeering off bailiffs and workmen, to prevent their homes being smashed up – much of Rushcroft Road and Vining Street was already semi-derelict from neglect. The Council had already admitted that evicted houses would lie empty for two years and more.

However Villa Road, and later St Agnes Place, were to be the main testing grounds for this new policy.

In Villa Road, empties had been gradually squatted 1973-76. In response to tenants campaigns, the Council pressed ahead with attempts to evict through the courts, all the houses in Villa Rd, which it proposed to demolish, to build a park (a part of the Brixton Plan that had survived), and a junior school (which even then looked to be in doubt). Families could apply to the Homeless Persons Unit; single people could whistle. In reply, squatters, tenants and supporters barricaded all the houses in Villa Road and proceeded to occupy the Council’s Housing Advice Centre and then the planning office.

Links with local workers were helped by squatters’ support for a construction workers picket during a strike at the Tarmac site in the town centre and for an unemployed building workers march.

In June 1976, 1000 people attended a carnival organised by the squatters in Villa Road. The following day, council workers refused to continue with the wrecking of houses evicted in Villa Road, after squatters approached them and asked them to stop. They all walked off the job, and “the house became crowded with squatters who broke out into song and aided by a violinist, started dancing in the streets.” There was a similar incident in a squat in Radnor terrace the day before. The local UCATT building workers union branch had passed a resolution blocking the gutting of liveable houses.

These links between squatters and building workers were built on into 1977: as squatters, tenants, residents in temporary and Bed & Breakfast accommodation co-operated on pickets of the Town Hall over the Council’s housing policy. Later in the year Lambeth Housing Action Group was set up, with Tenants Associations, Squatting groups, union branches sending delegates; they pledged to co-operate with Lambeth Anti-Racist movement as well…

Meanwhile some Possession Orders in Villa Road were thrown out in court. Negotiations opened up with the council, and after much trench warfare and court wrangling, half of Villa Road was saved as part of Lambeth Self Help, in return for the demolition of the southern half, with rehousing for most of the residents.

(Some of those rehoused were moved to Rushcroft Road, to face 20 years of mismanagement, bad repair, and uncertainty from Lambeth and London & Quadrant Housing Association… and then eviction in the early 2000s as the Council decided to flog off their flats off to developers. Those moved on including your past tense typist here. Many of these flats were in turn re-squatted after L&Q evictions, when the council did nothing with the flats, and many of this new generation were only kicked out themselves in 2013…)

In St Agnes Place, Kennington, squatters first moved into empty houses in 1974 – some of the buildings had been unoccupied for 14 years. By December 1976 over 100 people were squatting there. In January 1977 over 250 police had arrived at dawn to preside over the demolition of empty houses although the demolition was stopped within hours by a hastily initiated court injunction by the squatters. The street would survive until a mass eviction in 2005, though many changes of personnel had been gone though by then.

The remnants of The Brixton Plan had already started to crumble around the Council when Ravenseft one of the major backers of the Plan, had pulled out the previous summer. The planners had to go back to the drawing board. The Brixton Plan was even more of a pipedream than it had been in 1969. By the time the High Court hearing on Villa Road resumed in March, the Council had been forced into a position where it had to compromise with squatters at Villa Rd and elsewhere… St Agnes Place, Heath Road, Rectory Gardens, and St Alphonsus Road…

In May 1978, a new left-Labour Council was elected with the trotskyist Ted Knight, and Matthew Warburton, a first time councillor, as leader and housing chair respectively. The left had been fighting to try and take over from the old rightwing Labour guard for years. Squatters in both Villa Road and St Agnes Place had contributed directly to the leftwards swing and the new leaders had pledged to adopt more sympathetic policies.

Interestingly though, watered down versions of parts of the Plan were still surfacing in the 80s. In 1983, planning officers were proposing radical alterations to the lands cape, including demolishing many houses behind the west side of Brixton Road, to build shops and offices, and rerouting Coldharbour Lane through Rushcroft Road and Carlton Mansions (handily this would have got rid of hundreds of squatters and co-op dwellers living there). Central Brixton was once again being envisioned as hosting a grandiose block of flats on top of a car park and new shops. Opposition was rallied by housing co-ops and others, through the Brixton Action Group, who described the planners as “an elusive lot who lurk in Streatham making recommendations about land use and building design which we experience years later when we are told that although our houses are viable and necessary the council regrets that the land has been zoned for office development…” Fortunately amendments were made to the plans, which took objections into account, and ended up substantially humanised.

And the 1980s would see a whole new squatting revival in Brixton…

There’s so much more to be written about on squatting in Brixton… As and when, folks, as and when.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Follow past tense on twitter

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Past Tense has written quite a bit about Brixton (and reprinted/posted stuff written by friends and other earlier residents), relating to policing, riots, black radical politics, racism, squatting, gentrification, and much more… Because most of us lived there, through events, took part in struggles and daily life there, and think about it all. More to come – there’s lots to say – though it’s only part of what we are interested in, its an area that has helped shape us and still makes us think.

It isn’t to claim uniqueness for the area (though that is true!) – whatever ends you’re from, the tale needs telling.

Published in pamphlet form so far:

• In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist policing, Resistance, and Black Power in 1970s Brixton

• Black Women Organising: The Brixton Black women’s Group & the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

We Want To Riot, Not to Work: The1981 Brixton Riots.
(Reprint of 1982 classic our mates put out: Currently out of print again, but plans are afoot…)

Through A Riot Shield: The 1985 Brixton Riot
(More incendiary stuff reprinted from Crowbar…)

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online at:

http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past-tense-publications.html
and several good radical bookshops in London.

In preparation:

It is our intention eventually to publish history and thoughts on: Brixton’s early history, the growth of working class and migrant communities, the birth of council housing and squatting, Brixton women’s scenes and gay scenes, music and streetlife, further riots, race relations, the council and the left, the poll tax, and more on social change, development and gentrification. Because we are self-funded, have families and need to survive in the morass of wage labour, and also because we have a million projects on the go, we have no idea when any of this will appear. Lots of it is also talked about elsewhere… other people are writing about it and posting up pictures etc.

Today in London squatting history, 1984: the eviction of Effra Parade, Brixton.

In March 1984, Lambeth Council sent in 200 cops to evict seven squatted terraced houses in Effra Parade, off Railton Road, Brixton – houses which they planned to demolish. The squatters had been campaigning against the impending eviction, and planned to resist…

HISTORY OF EFFRA PARADE

The houses in Effra Parade were squatted in 1977 towards the end of the big wave of squatting in the ’70s. After the battle of Villa Road, Lambeth Council had toned down its anti-squat policies and many squats became housing Co-ops and got their licenses. The Effra Parade workers cottages were squatted as soon as they became empty. They became empty because the Council had decided they were unfit, and bought them under a Compulsory Purchase Order. Only 7 of the 9 cottages were squatted, 2 of them the Council re-let to tenants who occupied them for the next 5 years. The other 7 remained squats until 25th March 1984.

Effra Parade area lies just South of the Front Line; it was a heavily squatted place, sandwiched between on the North Brixton shopping centre and the Front line, and the mostly white, middle class Herne Hill & Dulwich to the South. The people there were mostly poor, from every country, extraction and background.

THE GOLDEN DAYS

Various generations of squatters inhabited the buildings. No Council repairs were done, yet they remained inhabited, the main problems were that some places had outside toilets and leaky roofs which the squatters repaired themselves. ln 1982 & 1983 the back gardens were cultivated, some of the fences removed to make bigger open areas. The squatters were happy.

BRIXTON RIOTS

However things changed rapidly in Brixton. Several people from Effra Parade were charged after the 1981 riots. Police and Drug raids followed. During the riot, the George – a racist pub on the corner – was burned down along with the Post Office & a Newsagent opposite. After the riots the Authorities responded by saturating the area with Police, Social Workers, etc and demolished completely half of Railton & Mayall Roads, the shops, the clubs, the houses…

FRONTLINE EVICTED

The Squatted Georges Residences (20 flats, saved from demolition by its squatters), behind Effra Parade survived and became a Co-op. More Black Clubs sprang up around the Frontline on the corner of Dexter Road. These were evicted and demolished for an ‘open space’ in November ’82, leading to a riot. In return a pre-fabricated ‘Afro-Carribean Centre’ was stuck up at the bottom of Railton Road and the Adventure Playground was demolished in favour of a basketball court and still play objects. Railton Road changed, but the squatters in Effra Parade still stood.

121 THREATENED

The anarchist Bookshop across the Road with its meetings and meals had by 1982 become known as a squatting self-help centre. The Labour Party responded by trying to evict the Bookshop in 1983 (upon the Personal Orders of Council leader ‘Red’ Ted Knight) but soon realised they had ‘Stirred up a hornets nest’, and fearing the worst, they dropped the eviction case.

SAVE OUR HOMES

As a second choice they decided to evict Effra Parade. Since it was CPO’d 5 Years before they appeared to have a perfect case.

The Council’s demolition date was set for Xmas 1983, but some of the squatters began writing up graffiti and made a leaflet – Save Our Homes – calling people to resist the demolition. Squatters and other locals responded. Work parties cleaned up the gardens, patched roofs etc

Lambeth Council responded with a clever move – they offered re-housing. They had no obligation to house single people at all and such an offer could not be treated lightly. 4 houses were eventually to give in and accepted the offer – while still protesting that the houses need not be abolished.

Effra Parade was split, but as soon as a place became empty, new squatters, and even ex-squatters who loved their former homes, moved in and barricaded the houses. The 3 groups which had refused to be re-housed had already barricaded up their homes. More leaflets, stickers, posters were prepared (though the Press refused to mention the fight throughout, despite many efforts). The Council’s meetings were picketed and Councillors lobbied. Several months before some of the Squatters had joined Livin’ Bricks, a local Co-op, architects had come in and examined the houses and proved them sound.

DESPERATION

By January it became clear that persuasion would not work. The destruction of Effra Parade had become a vendetta to eradicate what the Council saw as a ‘nesting ground’ of anarchist squatters. Our response was to go for a campaign of public support – surely the threat of (another) Railton Rd riot would make them think twice? A protest march was called and about 30 people marched all over Brixton through the markets etc giving away leaflets and making noise. Another march was called. Pickets went to the homes of Hazel Smith (Housing Chair) and Ted Knight. Time was running out. A new lot of graffiti went up all over the place. The last thing holding up the eviction was that in no. 105 there was still the family of legal tenants. They were given a house and told to move out quickly. The Council was desperate to get under way! Before the Spring arrived and the street life on the Front Line got busy. Underneath the media blanket extensive and urgent preparations were being made.

1ST ALARM

On Thursday 21st March the Alarm was given, the date had been given by the Boarding up teams who had tried (and been chased off) to board up No 93 some weeks earlier. About 70 squatters turned out from the Alarm Network early in the day but the evictors did not show up, a meeting was held & it was decided to hold a jumble sale & street party on the Saturday afternoon. Many people volunteered to help barricade houses.

SATURDAY 23RD MARCH

Unfortunately a day of continuous heavy rain & icy winds. The jumble sale had to be moved over to 121 Bookshop, it was very successful. During the proceedings a rumour arrived (from where we cannot say – but a million thanks!) that the eviction was set for 4.00am on Monday morning. The tip-off could not be proven completely, but a meeting decided to call a General Alarm, to hold a meeting at midnight the following day, and an all night party in Effra Parade up until the end.

THE EVICTION

SUNDAY 24TH MARCH: FREE EFFRA AREA

The Effra Parade Alarm List went into action, and squatters from all over began turning up, joining in the barricading etc. As evening fell three Anarchist flags went up over the roofs, as well as a dummy in a gas mask. More banners appeared on the neighbouring buildings & squats. Barricading was elaborate. Some front doors had been closed off completely and most of the homes had holes knocked through to each other – escape holes – but there was no escape, as, the whole terrace could easily be surrounded & cut off. All windows had been sealed up with wire, bars, boards, Akros, corrugated iron, bed-springs etc. Volunteers were already up on the roofs, gathering bricks and bottles and setting up… hooters, sirens, bells etc. At midnight the meeting was packed out, first we discussed what to do when arrested, then 25 people volunteered to stay in the houses and fight. The rest would try and hold them off in the street. The party began, with the big amp blasting reggae music into the night. Since early evening chairs had been set in the street to prevent parking and neighbours had been told door to door (most by this stage were openly sympathetic, though Lambeth Council had delivered leaflets pleading their case). Volunteer patrols began their shifts and watched the local area. Beer, soup and sandwiches were distributed. Effra Parade was full of people, blocking the street. But the only indication of trouble was the fact that the police were nowhere to be seen. It was quiet…too quiet… For one night Effra Parade was ours: ‘Free Effra Area’ – the new graffiti proclaimed.

MONDAY 25TH MARCH 1984

2.30am: 2 police buses were spotted driving down Gresham Rd in Brixton. This was taken as a pretty sure sign. The party was in full swing.

3.00am: We began closing up the houses, moving out any last things we could save. The big Akros went against the doors, those inside could not change their minds now. No sooner was this completed than the walkie talkie link reported a removal van in Chaucer Road, a crowd ran around. The lorry was stoned and chased up Railton Road.

Almost simultaneously more removal vans were spotted, as well as police vehicles approaching the area. Now it was all coming true, we began pulling down the corrugated iron on the derelict sites and flinging everything we could in the street. A derelict car was pushed out and overturned on the corner of Effra Parade and Railton Rd, blocking that end, materials were carried down to begin a second barricade on the other side. Everyone was working furiously. Meanwhile the last tenants in 105 came out, and we moved the barricade to let their cars & a few more out. Then suddenly the derelict building on the corner burst into flames, and all the hooters and bells started going off.

MASSIVE OVERKILL

Long lines of police vans were arriving at Effra Parade from 3 directions. The first move they made was to occupy the flats of St. Georges Residences, lines of police on the balconies and roofs, cutting off the rear and most communications and refusing exit or entry on all roads to the area. Almost at the same time lines of police in full riot gear – fire-proof overalls, helmet & visor, shield, truncheon, order-following stupor – came marching down Effra Parade. At the same time from the South, down Railton Road, cutting off the 121 bookshop was another ‘riot’ group.

All of us we’re stunned by the sheer array of might against us. There we stood facing each other, about 60 of us in the street, at least 200 of them. Some people were preparing to fire the barricades and fight till the end. Bricks were being thrown at the daleks.

EVICTION

Then as they came marching in, we got everyone together and retreated, out into Railton Road, just before we were cut off. By the Frontline there stood only a line of civilian cops. We went through them, past a deserted frontline and ran down Barnwell Rd, past busloads of back up cops, and back into Effra Parade by a secret route. There the houses were totally surrounded and a terrific crashing came as the helmeted cops were still trying to get in. From the roof bricks and bottles came flying … Bastards – Nazis – Murderers – Vandals – Wreckers – AAAAEEEGHH!!! we let out screams as the first door gave and the roofs were evacuated (3 people escaped by leaping into the school yard, over walls etc). Crash! Crash! Crash! – all the neighbours were out, everyone was yelling, ‘Scabs – Nazis, get out of our street!’ As each door was smashed down a line of riot police could be seen rushing in. Inside all resistance had ended and all 25 inhabitants were sitting in one room, as the incredible violence continued. Then we saw them being led out, a dejected group, through line after line of police – Yes! they were letting them go free. A wild cheer went up in Effra Parade and screaming and jeering continued for the next 2 hours, as lines of riot cops were withdrawn past us, and lines of ordinary cops moved in, then a line of bailiffs, a line of scab workers to clear the barricades, a line of Council and Housing bureaucrats next.

Fights continued along with stone throwing till dawn. In all 10 people were lifted but only 6 held. By 9.00am the street was partly reopened to the traffic with only one line of police vans, and workers erecting a 10 ft high corrugated iron fence front and back. Lambeth Council had won.

AFTERMATH

Only one person was not released on bail. He was accused of assault, hitting a cop in the face with a brick, a case of mistaken identity because he was black. That evening 25 people assembled, screaming for his release outside Kennington nick, they were followed back to Brixton, even ordered off the bus by police when the 20p fare zone was passed… then the police raced off, the Ace (beside the Housing Office) had been set alight. The demolition men were relentlessly harassed. The new fence was taken down over and over again, the back section (30 metres) was removed entirely and thrown into the Old George site, tyres were spiked, windows smashed and mystery fires kept breaking out. By the end of the week the houses were mere shells.

Soon to be yet another Housing Office (which will probably never be built in such hostile territory) and an ecological garden (the Council demolished the already existing and never used one only 2 weeks earlier by “mistake”). It looks like total defeat, but all the lost residents have re-squatted, and to at least some of us Lambeth’s labour Council have been exposed as thugs & friends of the cops.

The story appeared in the Standard (complete with ‘glue-sniffers’ story) & a few lines in the dailies. The local South London Press gave it scant attention up until then their only mention was to refer to ‘the wasteland at Effra Parade’.

On the credit side, we now know who our friends are, who will come on the alarm etc and we put up a good show, with none of us injured.

A NEW SOCIAL ORDER

On the 28th of April, a group of about twenty Effra Paraders and friends went to the ‘Alternative Fayre’ to see if we could talk to Council Leader “Red” Ted Shite about his thoughts on our eviction from Effra Parade.

The place was full of middle class hippies selling your usual assortment of quasi religious bullshit, tarots, zodiacs, carrot cake etc …

When Ted finally entered the auditorium we set right into the bastard, stopping the “discussion” completely. Various wishy-washy liberal types tried to ‘mediate’ but they got nowhere. Eventually they got everyone to stand up and wing some peace song, which we didn’t know the words to. Some sort of attempt to soothe us savage beasts with music. Anyway it didn’t work and the meeting was still held up. Suddenly the Po-Lice arrived and were about to eject us but a vote was held to see if the audience of 400 supported their use.

This vote was unanimous: no Po-Lice to be used. So we carried on hassling Shite. He was getting really wound up, especially when three of us stood up and took the microphone, explaining our cause and taking the chance to insult him.

A couple of speakers got through their speeches, but each time Shite stood up, he just got shouted down again. Eventually Tony Benn (who was also attending) took the stage and said that by our action we had “disassociated ourselves with the “working class”. He didn’t have time to say any more on his microphone went flying. We then pulled the cloths off the speaker’s tables, sending papers, ashtrays, carafes, flying.

A steward got pissed off and tried to start on us but he was sorry he did ‘cos we landed a good few on him, before the filth started pouring in at Ted Shite’s request, over-ruling the democratic vote!

Just fancy that! Would you believe it! Well I never! etc, etc…

We all returned to various seats, and tried to look innocent, but the stewards pointed us out to the pigs. It took over 100 Po-Lice to “evict” us, and the entire building was encircled by them.

Outside the hall we were questioned and searched, but no arrests…

The meeting was called to discuss an “Alternative Britain” and a “New Social Order”… Judge for yourself!!

POSTSCRIPT

After the demolition of the cottages on Effra Parade, the council DID, despite the skeptical predictions of Crowbar, build a community garden (aahhh!) and a prefab housing office, irony of ironies.

In fact 3 squats survived in Effra Parade after the evictions – no 82 (used as an escape route when Ted’s riot police stormed the barricade) wasn’t evicted in March ’84, though it was evicted and resquatted shortly after. Nos 72 and 86 were also squatted…

The pre-fab Housing Officers didn’t have an easy time there: “apparently some of the nice middle class Housing Officers got mugged. Of course they blamed this, and everything else, on the squatters across the road. According to Mrs Adeferani, chief Housing Officer… word came from the VERY TOP that the    squatters must go.Ted couldn’t sleep at nights with them still there. And the reasons… 1) Because we were all Class War Anarchists! 2) Because we had mugged the Housing Officers 3) Because we had burned down the Housing Office (when it was newly built). LIES LIES LIES: We never burned it down. The cops’ forensic Dept. spent 3 days examining the wreckage and didn’t even question us. We never mugged the staff either but its not a bad idea. They know this very well in fact they and their pigfriends know all about us after a years constant surveillance.”

The Housing office symbolically closed only a coupla years later and remained unused for years until the late 1990s, when Lambeth gave the site to a housing association, who eventually built new houses where the row of homes had stood. Even the neighbouring school has now been sold off and developed for luxury flats. ‘Save Effra Parade” graffiti can still be seen on some Brixton walls… the struggle lives even longer in our memories.

121

“The first thing that comes to mind is the police riot shield hanging on the wall… There was something empowering about looking at that shield. I suppose my usual experience of a riot shield would be seeing it charging towards me in the street with a fascist bully-boy attached to the other end, wielding his truncheon penis extension.”

Several of the Effra Parade squatters had been involved in setting up the anarchist 121 Bookshop, a minute’s walk around the corner. The history of 121 runs like a tangled twisty thread through the story of Brixton in the 80s and 90s. Just about every time there was any trouble in the area, (or in Tottenham, Liverpool 8, Handsworth, or even later in the West End) the press, council and police would yell that it was caused by “outside agitators”, usually identified as “white anarchists”. The history of the outside agitator should one day be written; as far back as the 1780 Gordon Riots MPs were informed that “foreign gentlemen on horses” had been directing the mob… There seems to be a fatal inability to recognise people (especially the poor, and in recent times black folk) have the ability to organise themselves, and the motivation to get together – their poverty, anger and the acts of the powers that be in crapping on them.

In Brixton this was just such a joke; the influence of white anarchists on black youth was minimal. There was a lot of contact, of course, black people would use 121, especially during the years of the 121 Club, a late-night basement nightspot, usually run on Friday nights… (Admittedly some of them used it as an informal taxation on whitey, robbing the door on occasion, and the club came to an end for a while in 1988 after a stabbing outside). 121 was threatened with eviction from ’83 to ’85, the Council dithering between attacking it and granting it a licence, in the end they left the case adjourned in 1985 and didn’t return to the fray till 1997.

Brixton Squatters Aid operated from 121, producing the famed ‘Crowbar’ newssheet, at first every couple of weeks in 1982-3, then gradually less often. It started as a cheaply printed agitational sheet on scrap paper, rousing squatters round the borough to action, covering squatting news from round the Borough, London and the world; and attacked the council and the police. BSA/Crowbar encouraged alarm lists, so squatters under threat of eviction or police attack could get word out to others who would rush to their aid – in theory. They lent out tools, produced lists of empties. (Squatters coming in to leaf through the empties book could also check whether a place was owned by the Council in our highly prized List of Lambeth Council Property; forbidden to be revealed to the public, this goldmine was obtained during a squatters’ occupation of a local housing office.) Crowbar didn’t reflect the political views of all of Lambeth’s squatters – it was unashamedly pro-direct action, anarchist in its views and often savaged compromise (especially from co-ops), apathy (especially from squatters) and hypocrisy and bullshit – from politicos right or left. As the years went on it grew wider in its range, supporting Stop the City and the miners, printers and other workers in their struggles, and developing its lively controversial style. The Council hated it. When they were allegedly close to giving 121 a licence, they changed their minds (they said) because of 121’s association with Crowbar and Brixton Squatters Aid. (True to say they may never have been going to grant one!)

WHEN THEY KICK AT YOUR FRONT DOOR…

In August 1984, a few months after the eviction of Effra Parade, police raided 121 and several squats of people involved, looking for guns and explosives:

“TUESDAY 14th August 1984: 7.00am. The political police were out in force, smashing down the doors of 4 squatted houses and the local anarchist bookshop at 121 Railton Rd Brixton … The police, over 50 of them, used Firearms Warrants (which need very high up approval) and covered our homes front and back as the heavies rushed in. BUT THEY FOUND NOTHING. The nearest they came to a firearm was an anti rape spraycan. The woman who owned it was arrested and later released without any charge, likewise no charge for ‘stealing tools’ (she is a carpenter and has her own tools). One person was arrested for having 2 small marijuana plants. Another just because ‘his name rang a bell’, he was later found to have skipped bail on a small charge. The cops stole his address books after arresting him. They did not even look for firearms, not a floorboard was lifted. The cops were more interested in finding out identities and anything political they could.

At the bookshop they spent 3 hours going through everything, at times we were not able to get inside as the bomb squad went through with sniffer dogs. Anything ‘bugs’, drugs or “firearms” could have been planted by them as we were not able to follow their search. ‘Have you found the Nuclear weapons yet?’ asked one shop worker as the cops stomped in the basement And up to the roof.”

The cops were “acting on information received”. Could this be the SAME “reliable informant” who told the police which houses to raid in July 81, and that white outsiders led black rioters?)…

…How you gonna come?

There I was, dreaming blissfully of being asleep in a big warm bed with my friend. CRASH…CRASH…THUMP….

Mmmm. people breaking down the door? A herd of elephants charging up the stair? I opened my eyes and closed rthem, quick! – Oh Fuck – policemen standing round the bed! My friend was poking me urgently in the ribs. – We’re being raided – I opened my eyes again…. They were still there. I thought of resisting, let them drag me naked and screaming into the street. Better not. We got up and struggled into clothes as hordes of pigs searched the house. They got my passport. Radioed in. Oh Shit – I’m on their list!

Kiss goodbye and dragged out. Not knowing the bloke upstairs is also nicked for having a skinny grass plant. Not knowing that 3 other squats and 121 Bookshop were also being stormed at he same time, using search warrants for firearms! Brixton Police Station, cold and boredom, blood and shit on the walls and anarchist graffiti. Through the spyhole I see one of my neighbours being brought in. `How many have they got? I start worrying about all possible things I ever did against the law. Not much really.

Interview time. Tell us about 121 Bookshop. I keep complaining I haven’t been charged, they must be scouring the files for a frame-up. Sign here for the paint bombs and truncheon found in your house. – not bloody likely-

2nd interview, Special Branch. What do you know about Class War? -Never heard of it – What about Direct Action? – Not a member, as you probably know – What demos do you go to? Jesus what is this? –

I refuse to answer more questions, realising they’ve got nothing on me. Complaining that I’m being interned for political reasons. I expect them to get heavy but they don’t. Seems like a cock-up?

3rd interview. Shit. We suspect you skipped a warrant under a false name after Stop the City, ‘threatening behaviour’. – Certainly not, No way, would I lie to you?

Here are the papers. Here is your photograph…Oh yes so it is, um, er…-

I’m carted off to the City. Another 20 hours of boredom. Cops come down to ask silly questions about the next Stop the City. – Are the Hells Angels coming? – I see you got the paint bombs ready already – Will the miners come down? … I don’t know nothing.

They’re looking forward to it like it was The Big Match.

I have to stay overnight. Next day I trot out my excuses and get fined £40. Then off for breakfast with my friends.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door leading to the basement. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog, lowered down on a rope as there are no stairs… Shit, no guns down here either… Oh, er, no stairs, how are we going to get out…?

It has been suggested that the cops’ “reliable informant” in this case was a South African squatter who claimed to be hyper-active, opening squats for people and “sorting out” muggers, but when he got nicked, 121 and addresses of other local anarchos got raided immediately after… “There was an attempt to run him down in Effra Parade and the driver departed London quickly…”
” The suspicious character, gunning for the driver, later attacked a 121-er on the stairs of St George’s Residences…”

121 was always attracting this sort of friendly attention… Apart from the cops (who had smashed the shop’s windows in 1981 after the big riot, the glass having escaped rioters’ attention) there were at least three attempts to burn it down – once in November 1984:

A guy tried to set fire to the side door, while we were guarding it this morning. John and me saw rubbish piled upon fire piled against it … we got rid of it… While we were doing this a white guy wearing a cardigan said he had seen the… a white guy with fair skinhead hair…he lit… wallpaper from the rubbish fire and then saw the guy watching him and said “What do you want? I’m a police officer!” The guy didn’t believe him, and the arsonist ran down Chaucer Road…

The second and third time were in 1993… A friendly neighbour heard noises on the back, and looked out to see a group of blokes trying to set fire to the building – he chased them off.

DESQUAT THE LOT

Effra Parade In context: Lambeth Council made concerted efforts to reduce in squatting during 1983-84. 200 squats were evicted through the Summer and Autumn of ’83. Council tactics included leaning on Lambeth County Court, to speed up the wait for cases to be heard, and doing basic emergency repairs, when squatters were evicted, so flats could be relet that day. Desquat campaigns on Stockwell Gardens, Larkhall, South Lambeth, Clapham, Kennington Park, Myatts Fields & Moorlands Estates were carried out during 83-84. Well established groups of squatters had previously re-occupied empties, as repairs rarely got done. Now all squats would be evicted at the same time, and people well down the Waiting List were offered tenancies, even if flats weren’t up to scratch. Squatters who kicked up a fuss, petitioned or were Labour Party members sometimes got rehoused. Borough officers got more genned up on legal cases, warrants of restitution etc, and more efficient at going to court, so they won more cases. But council overwork and incompetence still often led to collapse of cases, and places remaining empty, being smashed up, or eventually resquatted.

Post-Postscript: The remaining squats in Effra Parade

In December 1985 bailiffs and cops started harassing the squatters, warning them of an impending eviction. “It began the previous Friday afternoon, when bailiffs and police arrived, posting nasty notices thru doors and kicking them, without response. At this moment 2 squatters arrived home from a CAP picket. Despite furious arguments the bailiffs refused to say when they would evict: ‘Could be in 5 mins we’re gonna smash you and your homes to pieces’ was their final word.”

The whole street including Effra Parade School’s headmaster (?!?) signed a petition in support of the squatters… Another resistance was planned. Friends came from North London again and the houses were barricaded. But about 50 cops smashed their way in using “Ted’s secret weapon… a Lambeth van with a roof beam sticking out the back” and all three houses were evicted and totally trashed, despite a barrage of missiles, water, slates, fireworks , flourbombs and washing up liquid-soaked floors (on which cops slipped when they broke in!)

LAMBETH STANDS FOR LOCAL DEMOCRACY???

What we did do was get a petition up over the week­ end, and 98% of the street signed it (only one person refused), Saying we were Ok and should be let stay. We even got an angry support letter from a local head­master. But Lambeth Council threw all these in the bin without even considering them. We also made some hand drawn posters and picketed the Housing Office when it opened Monday morning. Brixton Advice Centre tried their best to help us but it was hopeless, Ted had spent a whole year preparing this eviction! On the Sunday night 40 punks from Nth London came down, expecting a party and a battle. On Monday night the local squatters rallied round, but again nothing happened. On Tuesday we moved our belongings out of the firing line, people, cats, dog, rabbit and all our gear, plus a workshop and two darkrooms. All had to be moved to the squats of friends. That day the police started to talk to us!‑ which we took as very suspic­ious. They told us the eviction would be at 5.00am next morning, that the whole area would be sealed off in a big operation . They had orders, they said, via Ted Knight, and they didn’t like to do it but they WERE ONLY DOING THEIR JOB. One copper even said that he hoped we would put up a good show! Some people believed them, others did not, but we were all exhausted by this time.

Nevertheless we began boarding up our homes to resist, but there were more problems. Between two of the squats lived a very frail 92 year old woman, Mrs Bol­ton, who has spent her whole life in the Parade. Naturally she supported the squatters on both sides of her and knew we were good people. So we were not prepared to have a pitched battle round this woman’s house. (Ted Knight of course couldn’t give a shit).So we sealed up those two houses and stayed in NO 72.

By now one squatter had fallen ill, and two didn’t want to stay inside. But local people rallied round for one more night. At 4.00am that night there were 25 of us in that house, and more outside. The Temperature was minus 4C and nothing stirred… A good night for Ted Knight’s dirty work.

UNMASKING THE STALINISTS

The first thing we saw was just after 5.00am… a Hire Van circling the area. Though we didn’t know then,this was the Housing Officers who had come (at your expense) in style to see the eviction. Ted himself stayed in bed.Then we heard there was a line of police vans and buses in Brixton. We were on the roof and saw them come round from Railton Rd into the Parade, on foot, a big crowd of thugs, about 50 cops and bailiffs. They were led by Sergeant Grey, the chief Community Policeman!

SCREAMS AND BREAKING GLASS

I wont say I wasnt scared, but immediately our foot­ball horns went off, in a blast of sound, and everyone began yelling. They started on No 86. Without knocking their best thug laid into the front door with a hall of sledgehammer blows. On the door was nailed a big photo of Ted Knight, entitled Ted Stalin Knight, with a Hitler moustache and the caption.”Would you Buy A Used Car from This Man?!’ And on the roof parapet stood two half full bottles with rags hanging out of them (full of water as it turned out). The brave bailiff was going mad, but making no impression. Eventually the sledge hammer got wedged. Then they tried the window, but that was rock solid too. By now everyone was laughing, the whole street was up, and the noise was tremendous. Then the bailiffs brought up Ted’s secret weapon… a Lambeth van with a roof beam sticking out the back, and tried to drive it into my front door backwards! Imagine our howls of delight when they realised the lamppost was in the way!!

They began again with the sledgehammers… then some smart arse noticed the window above the door wasn’t even boarded (Shit I forgot). So they smashed that, climbed in, and took off the ACROS. What a laugh! All this for an empty house! The rabid raving hireling of Socialist Lambeth Council charged slavering into my little house‑‑‑and ended up in a heap in the hall… Someone had spilt washing up liquid on the lino…

5.30am. One down,two to go. No 82 wasn’t so well barricaded, and fell quite soon to the ‘truck and roof beam’ line of attack. Then they were coming to get us. We were throwing fireworks, flourbombs, slates and anything we could get from NO 72. We even threw the posters, petitions and letters of support at them. When we started lighting squibs they thought the petrol bombs were coming out. But this time we were not prepared to give them the Tottenham Treatment, or to risk the lives of our neighbours and supporters. Sergeant Grey the “Hero who smashed the FrontLine’ walked bravely up to the front door… and got a bucket of freezing water on his head. The chief bailiff got the same treatment. Then the sledgehammers began hitting the door, and there was a scramble to evacuate the building. As we were getting peoploe out the back door there was a gigantic CRASH… They had backed the truck through the living room window, where we had all been trying to sleep! Fortunately the would-be murderers climbed in to find not mangled bodies  but a roomful of fresh hate – walls of new anti-Ted graffiti. Everyone was out the back by the time they got inside.

Its not a pleasant thing to stand outside your home at 6.00am, and watch them smash it to pieces. The squatters were screeching at the police lines. Terrified neighbours came crying into the street. I saw them sledgehammer the toilet, I heard the back windows going. Then they were ripping pipes and hacking down the interior walls. In a few minutes they had destroyed the roof..THERE WAS NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT ROOF..in fact two of the three houses were in near perfect condition, due to the squatters renovations. I could have made them into palaces for £1000.

After the total vandalism of that night Lambeth budgeted over £150,000 to renovate them. (The exact figure is the secret property of the Leaders Committee which controls the Front Line. Chairman, of course, Ted Knight). Is this not a scandal? is this not a crime? Who are the real terrorists?

Of course its a crime and a scandal, and Ted is the political terrorist..But you will never read any of this in any establishment paper – You will never see it on the telly or hear it on the radio. Only if you were there, or if you read little papers like this one, will you ever hear of it at all..And in the meantime Ted has delivered to every door full co1our magazines dedicated to praising himself. When persons unknown burnt the Housing Office which they had built on the rubble of our homes it was plastered on the front page of the South London Press~-Alleging directly that we were the arsonists. But – for this eviction there was nothing. Every paper had got leaflets, and the local papers had got press releases and phone calls to ‘sympathetic’ journalist reptiles. BBC, ITN and the radio stations were all contacted, and told there would be resistance on the lines of the first Effra Evictions … In the event only the police and Lambeth’s police monitoring group filmed the evictions for their own ends. NOT ONE WORD of the atrocity was heard on air or printed in any paper. Except, for the anarchist paper Black Flag it has been totally ignored. This is the first and exclusive story (and this is 3 months late). Such is the power of Ted Knight. Such is the slavish Compliance of the upper middle class media. They had planned long, and gone to phenomenal expense. They have smashed our homes, and won the War Of Silence as well … But we are squatters,Ted, and we still have the last laugh!

Two days later all the squatters (including the dog, cats and rabbit) had been happily rehoused.. somewhere among the-thousands of homes left rotting by the Council and rich housing speculators.

Two days later, with newly derelict squats on each side, unknown thieves broke into the house of 92 year old Mrs Bolton, beat. her up and robbed her. Thanks a lot Ted

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Most of this was originally written for and published in various issues of Crowbar, the Brixton squatters magazine; other parts derive from personal recollections of some Effra Parade residents and friends (thanks to Viola Wilkins!), a leaflet about the raid in 1984, and odd other snippets from here and there.
Past Tense as a project did not originate in the 121 Centre/Bookshop, but several of those who have been involved in it worked there, hung out there, were part of the many projects that were based there or used the space. Some of us lived in squats in Effra Parade at later dates still than mentioned above… down the street though.

In 1999, when 121 was threatened with eviction and went into 24-hour occupation, we reprinted most of the Effra Parade story above as a pamphlet, to commemorate the 15th anniversary. Among lots of other adventures like making alliances with other occupied spaces in the area, fighting council cuts, producing a weekly free news-sheet for a while, invading then council leader ‘Slippery’ Jim Dickson’s office in Lambeth Town Hall (we still have the sign saying Leader of the Council from his office door, somewhere), then cheekily trying to negotiate a tenancy for 121 (not very successfully!). Eventually lots of cops with guns broke in while most people were out and exhausted and took the place back. Heyho. The full 121 story has never been told…

Past Tense has written quite a bit about Brixton (and reprinted/posted stuff written by friends and other earlier residents), relating to policing, riots, black radical politics, racism, squatting, gentrification, and much more… Because most of us lived there, through events, took part in struggles and daily life there, and think about it all. More to come – there’s lots to say – though it’s only part of what we are interested in, its an area that has helped shape us and still makes us think.

It isn’t to claim uniqueness for the area (though that is true!) – whatever ends you’re from, the tale needs telling.

Published in pamphlet form so far:

• In the Shadow of the SPG: Racist policing, Resistance, and Black Power in 1970s Brixton

• Black Women Organising: The Brixton Black women’s Group & the Organisation for Women of African and Asian Descent

We Want To Riot, Not to Work: The1981 Brixton Riots.
(Reprint of 1982 classic our mates put out: Currently out of print again, but plans are afoot…)

Through A Riot Shield: The 1985 Brixton Riot
(More incendiary stuff reprinted from Crowbar…)

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online at:

http://www.alphabetthreat.co.uk/pasttense/past-tense-publications.html
and several good radical bookshops in London.

In preparation:

It is our intention eventually to publish history and thoughts on: Brixton’s early history, the growth of working class and migrant communities, the birth of council housing and squatting, Brixton women’s scenes and gay scenes, music and streetlife, further riots, race relations, the council and the left, the poll tax, and more on social change, development and gentrification. Because we are self-funded, have families and need to survive in the morass of wage labour, and also because we have a million projects on the go, we have no idea when any of this will appear. Lots of it is also talked about elsewhere… other people are writing about it and posting up pictures etc.