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
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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.

Today in London’s festive history, 1832: National Union of the Working Classes mock government-sponsored day of fasting and prayer

Cholera first arrived in England at a time of significant political change that affected the way it was understood by various groups within Britain.  The poor, the ill-defined middle-classes (comprising diverse groups of people from small business owners and clerks to owners of large factories and many professionals like lawyers and doctors), and the traditional land-owning elite were all in the process of redefining their access to political power through the gradual extension of the right to vote.  The cholera epidemics, poorly understood by medical experts of the time, were understood by these groups in different ways as government and the medical profession experimented with responses.  Cholera provides a useful lens to see how an externally generated stressor like an epidemic intersects with other cultural and historical forces, giving insight not only into medical but also political and cultural history.

Between 1832 and 1866, four cholera epidemics struck Great Britain, as part of pandemic outbreaks that affected the entire globe. In 1817, before the first British epidemic, there had been a smaller epidemic that spread in Europe but did not cross the channel. The 1832 epidemic was the first one to enter Britain—and also spread to the Americas and Australia—and wreaked panic as well as high death rates where it struck.  The 1848 second epidemic was global and caused high death rates in Britain.  By the mid-1850s, Britain was more ready when cholera again entered the islands but still suffered considerable mortality.  The last and least, but still murderous, British epidemic was in 1866.  After that, in the 1870s and 90s, cholera did sweep across the European continent again but did not cross the channel in epidemic force.” (Pamela K. Gilbert, “On Cholera in Nineteenth-Century England”)

In the spring of 1832, London was experiencing a serious outbreak of cholera, the waterborne disease that at that time killed 1000s. The second great cholera pandemic of 1827-35 was raging across Europe.

“In the 1830s, the disease was still unfamiliar in most of the world beyond parts of the Indian subcontinent.  Terrified patients had never seen such symptoms before, and doctors were helpless to do anything but try remedies that they thought had worked for other diseases.  These remedies, from the relatively merciful giving of opiates to more aggressive approaches such as bleeding or burning the skin, were largely worthless, as were most theories of how the disease was transmitted (including, but not limited to, bad weather, foul smells, electro-magnetism and divine vengeance). We now believe cholera to be a waterborne disease caused by a comma-shaped bacillus called vibrio cholerae, which is transmitted between humans via the fecal-oral route. It usually enters the body through contaminated water or food and then multiplies in the intestines.  Although easily treatable today in developed areas with abundant clean water and medical care, cholera remains an important epidemic disease in parts of Africa, India, and Latin America and it has recently taken thousands of lives in Haiti. Untreated, it can kill within a few days through rapid dehydration, caused by copious, uncontrollable diarrhoea.  As the disease progressed, the diarrhoea becomes a clear, straw colored fluid, described in the period as resembling “rice water.”  It is hard to see and can quickly soak bedding and floor coverings.  As people in the 1830s did not understand what caused the disease nor, indeed, know about germs (which were not understood until much later in the late-nineteenth century), caregivers did not even know to wash their hands after tending the sick.  In an era without running water in most homes, and with many people living in small spaces, it was easy for contamination to spread.  And in industrial early nineteenth-century cities with rapidly growing populations and no sewer systems, most people disposed of their waste in cesspits or in the streets. From there, it eventually ended up in rivers that provided drinking water, spreading it far beyond its origin.  Because dehydration was so rapid, apparently healthy people became weak very quickly.  Their appearance was frightening: skin shrivelled, eye sockets collapsed, and complexion blue from oxygen deficiency.  Patients first screamed and thrashed as their muscles spasmed, then lay exhausted and unresponsive, and soon died—sometimes within the first 24 hours.  Mortality for cases who reached the stage of weakness and “collapse” was around fifty percent.” (Pamela K. Gilbert)
Scientific investigation into the causes of cholera was still in its infancy; it would be another 17 years before John Snow suggested that cholera had a microbial origin, and that drinking contaminated water caused the spread of the disease.

But in 1832, the church of England and the government had a solution. “Seeking to conciliate knaves and fanatics on the one hand as well as to feed the gullibility of the ignorant on the other”, they solemnly called for a mass fast, a day of refraining from eating, to show God (from whom all plagues come) that the population were worthy of being spared. They set 21st of March for the National day of prayer and fasting, as  “the disease … was proof of the judgement of God among us”.

The Fast was announced in Parliament after the Strangers’ Gallery had been cleared; a speech deplored the sins and state of the nation, the ‘houses of the nobles and gentry entered and robbed’.

“When cholera was first discussed by the British public, as it marched across the continent in 1831 and 32, Britons were already preoccupied with a big political topic: Parliamentary and voting Reform.  Reform had been a perennial focus over the last several years, but in the form that finally became law it had been hotly debated from June 1830, when dissolute King George IV died.  After long discussion, it was passed in Commons and then defeated in the House of Lords in 1831. Rioting ensued, and a revised Bill was brought forward subsequently that year.  Through the spring of 1832, the Lords dithered and the mood of the country grew increasingly tense.  When it finally passed, on 7 June 1832, it gave more representation to large cities that had gained population as a result of the Industrial Revolution and eliminated representation for areas where the population had diminished to the point that a Member of Parliament was often elected by only a handful of landowners.  Most importantly, although it didn’t increase the size of the electorate that much—it is estimated to have raised it from about 400,000 to 650,000, allowing one out of six adult males to vote—it began to redistribute some power from landowners to the mercantile and manufacturing class, as it allowed those who did not own, but merely rented valuable property (as was common in towns, for example), to vote.  The full title of the Reform Bill was An Act to amend the representation of the people in England and Wales. (Separate reform bills were passed in the same year for Scotland and Ireland).

As authorities argued over cholera’s causes, treatment, and prevention, various publics formed their own opinions of what was going on.  Middle-class and working people who hoped that Reform would bring them representation in Parliament suspected that the talk of cholera was being used to distract the populace from Reform in the interests of the elite retaining control of political power.  Many people were not sure the cholera was even real; perhaps it was a bugbear invented to let the powerful take control of the poor’s few belongings, or even their bodies. After all, scandal was rife about medical schools paying grave robbers for bodies to use for dissection.  In Scotland, William Burke and William Hare had been convicted in Edinburgh in 1829, not only of grave robbing to sell to anatomists, but of providing themselves with merchandise through several actual murders in 1827 and 1828.  Outrage against graverobbing spurred Parliament to deliberate on a “Dead Body Bill” or Anatomy Act, passed in 1832 (See Richardson).  The Act, which provided that bodies of paupers not claimed within 48 hours by family members able to pay for interment would be available for dissection, was designed to prevent grave robbing by providing a steady source of bodies, but it also had the effect of making the poor particularly vulnerable to the seizure of their bodies after death.  People diagnosed with cholera were often forcibly removed in the name of public safety to specially designated “cholera hospitals,” where, of course, many died, outraging the feelings of families and fueling suspicions that they were actually being killed. In response, many families hid their sick from inspectors or resisted their removal.  In the minutes of a meeting of the St. Olave’s District Board of Works, it is recorded that, “The bodies of those who have died have been removed as speedily as possible, but in the case of the young woman who died in Vine Street, about 200 and [sic] 300 persons collected to prevent the removal of the body.  It was, therefore, not persisted in” (“St. Olave’s District Board of Works” 4).  Although violence against doctors and government officials was not as prevalent as it was on the continent, there was still some rioting and vandalism of cholera hospitals.  Meanwhile, property owners compelled to spend money to clean up “nuisances” or merchants whose businesses were hurt by cholera panic were also suspicious of the motives of government.

So the first epidemic was immediately understood in a context of class struggle.  The clergy was the traditional source of local authority at times like these, but the Church of England was also under considerable stress from a religious reform movement, which had in the late 1820s sought to grant other Protestant denominations and even Catholics more political representation (historically, Catholics, for example, could not be Members of Parliament, whereas Bishops of the Church of England sat ex officio in the House of Lords). These religious disputes had a class component: although not always true, in general, Church of England members tended to be wealthier, upper class, and from Southern England, where power was historically seated.  Lower middle-class industrial and manufacturing districts to the North and West tended to include more dissenters, and Catholicism was associated with the Irish, both those in Ireland and the many poor Irish in England.  So, the same class hostility that was linked to political Reform was closely connected to religious conflict, and this undermined the authority of the established Church to speak for the larger community in this crisis.  When the Church of England, backed by Parliament, declared a day of fasting and prayer to ward off the cholera, which they attributed to divine punishment, labor organizations satirically declared a feast day for their readers, arguing that the poor had already fasted enough. Meanwhile, political Reformers observed, sometimes mockingly and sometimes in earnest, that if God was angry, it was probably because Reform was being stalled.  Radical press and labor organizations emphasized the absurdity of the solutions proposed by the upper classes for an audience in very different circumstances.  Henry Hetherington of The Poor Man’s Guardian—who himself died of cholera in 1849 (Durey 195)—ridiculed the notion of the general fast-day through several issues, beginning on 11 Feb. 1832: “a general fast is all very fair; for God knows that as yet the fasting has been partial enough . . . . if not merely fasting but if the most abject want be any propitiation for the evil, never would CHOLERA MORBUS have made its appearance among us!” (Hetherington 1).

Such gestures dramatised the opposing physical circumstances in which rich and poor lived.  Ballads that were printed on single sheets, and given away or sold for pennies on the street, promoted the views of Reformers: one example warns: “They tell such tales our hearts to fear/ Of Cholera raging here and there,/ But bread, pudding, and good cheer,/Will drive the Cholera Morbus . . . //But Reformers will not be deceived,/ For by them it is all agreed/ That one and all we shall be freed,/ In spite of the Cholera Morbus” (“A New Song”).  Meanwhile, by both the poor and merchants, the doctors and clergy might be seen as allies of the elite.  In one small town, for example, notices saying “No cholera at Ely/ The Parsons Liars/And Doctors Pickpockets” were pasted over cholera warning handbills distributed by the Board of Health (Holmes 32-33).  Thus, the middle-classes were often agnostic or actively skeptical on the issue of cholera’s threat and were inclined to be more concerned with gaining political representation and avoiding disruptions to trade.

Although most popular responses to the cholera were political and religious, public policy focused on two initial responses: quarantine to keep the cholera out of Britain and, subsequently, cleaning up “nuisances”: that is, things that were perceived as smelly and dirty.  Since disease was largely believed to be caused by atmospheric problems, and by bad smells, cleaning up open cesspits, garbage piles and so forth was thought to be a way to avoid the spread of disease.  This was viewed as more of an engineering problem (how do you get rid of this stuff?) and a legal problem (how do you make property owners clean up their property?) than a medical problem, per se.  After all, one didn’t need a trained professional to tell if something smelled bad.” (Pamela K. Gilbert)

The organised working class of London, many of who knew what it was like to refrain from eating (for economic reasons), felt that ‘causes that matured and extended the disease were greatly within the power of the government to remove’. The Poor Man’s Guardian replied ‘No, no; to tell the poor to fast would indeed be superfluous’, as they were lucky to eat meat once a week, let alone be able to forgo it’; they labelled the fast day a ‘farce’ day.

No sooner did the members of the National Union of the Working Classes (NUWC) “hear of this farce, than they were actively engaged in asertaining [sic] how they could best show their contempt for this knavery or hypocrisy. They first thought of a public meeting on the occasion, but after consulting several eminent lawyers on the subject, they found that no exhibition of numbers could so effectually evade the laws, as by their walking peacibly through the streets of this Metropolis. They therefore resolved that a procession of the union should be held on this occasion after which they should adjourn to their classes or places of meeting and that the most able to afford it should help their poorer bretheren [sic] to feast and not fast on that day.” (See P. M. Guardian March 24 1832.)

Over 100,000 people were said to have joined the NUWC procession, from Finsbury Square, up Fleet Street and Chancery Lane, (the police barred the way up the Strand), to Holborn and Tottenham Court Road, where according to William Lovett “the police, coming down Howland Street, threw themselves across our procession.”

In a sly act of political theatre, the NUWC organised a number of feasts across the city, and the demonstration broke into parties that determinedly ate drank and feasted, to express their contempt of the government’s attempt to “father their own iniquitous neglect upon the Almighty”.

The same day, a crowd reported to be about 500 threatened to demolish the Bethnal Green Workhouse, but desisted, although only 25 police were present.
Soon after the procession, NUWC leaders, William Benbow, William Lovett and James Watson were arrested as the leaders of the procession and being bailed out, their trial took place at the sessions house Clerkenwell Green on Wednesday the 16th of May 1832.

Read some interesting accounts of the 1832 cholera epidemic as it hit in East London

Today in London’s criminal history: renowned cutpurse Jenny Diver hung, 1741.

On this date in 1741, at Tyburn‘s largest mass-execution of the mid-18th century, renowned cutpurse Jenny Diver was hanged along with 19 others.

Born Mary Young in Ireland around 1700, the girl was abandoned as a child but deserted a benefactor’s household to take passage to London where she meant to work as a seamstress.

Like countless others, Jenny found making a living in the metropolis through honest labour less profitable than relieving others of their possessions… Unable to live on her stitching, Jenny found more lucrative employment for her manual dexterity in a sizable gang of thieves — of which her uncovered criminal puissance gave her mastery.

The Newgate Chronicle lists some of the achievements of her agile fingers;

[S]he procured a pair of false hands and arms to be made, and concealing her real ones under her clothes she repaired on a Sunday evening to the place of worship above mentioned in a sedan-chair, one of the gang going before to procure a seat among the more genteel part of the congregation, and another attending in the character of a footman.

Jenny being seated between two elderly ladies, each of whom had a gold watch by her side, she conducted herself with seeming great devotion; but when the service was nearly concluded she seized the opportunity, when the ladies were standing up, of stealing their watches, which she delivered to an accomplice in an adjoining pew.

She also engaged in scammery of the credulous:

Jenny dressed herself in an elegant manner, and went to the theatre one evening when the king was to be present; and during the performance she attracted the particular attention of a young gentleman of fortune from Yorkshire, who declared, in the most passionate terms, that she had made an absolute conquest of his heart, and earnestly solicited the favour of attending her home. She at first declined a compliance, saying she was newly married, and that the appearance of a stranger might alarm her husband. At length she yielded to his entreaty, and they went together in a hackney-coach, which set the young gentleman down in the neighbourhood where Jenny lodged, after he had obtained an appointment to visit her in a few days, when she said her husband would be out of town…

The day of appointment being arrived, two of the gang appeared equipped in elegant liveries, and Anne Murphy [another thief] appeared as waiting-maid. The gentleman came in the evening, having a gold-headed cane in his hand, a sword with a gold hilt by his side, and wearing a gold watch in his pocket, and a diamond ring on his finger.

Being introduced to her bed-chamber, she contrived to steal her lover’s ring; and he had not been many minutes undressed before Anne Murphy rapped at the door, which being opened, she said, with an appearance of the utmost consternation, that her master was returned from the country. Jenny, affecting to be under a violent agitation of spirits, desired the gentleman to cover himself entirely with the bed-clothes, saying she would convey his apparel into another room, so that if her husband came there, nothing would appear to awaken his suspicion: adding that, under pretence of indisposition, she would prevail upon her husband to sleep in another bed, and then return to the arms of her lover.

The clothes being removed, a consultation was held, when it was agreed by the gang that they should immediately pack up all their moveables, and decamp with their booty, which, exclusive of the cane, watch, sword, and ring, amounted to an hundred guineas.

The amorous youth waited in a state of the utmost impatience till the morning, when he rang the bell, and brought the people of the house to the chamber-door, but they could not gain admittance, as the fair fugitive had turned the lock, and taken away the key; when the door was forced open the gentleman represented in what manner he had been treated; but the people of the house were deaf to his expostulations, and threatened to circulate the adventure throughout the town, unless he would indemnify them for the loss they had sustained. Rather than hazard the exposure of his character, he agreed to discharge the debt Jenny had contracted; and dispatched a messenger for clothes and money, that he might take leave of a house of which he had sufficient reason to regret having been an inhabitant.

Jenny was caught a couple of times, dodging the noose in 1733 and 1738, sentenced on both occasions to transportation to the American colonies. But life in Virginia being miserable she returned illegally from both sentences at the risk of her life (she only survived her second arrest by passing herself off under an alias). The third time broke the charm, sadly, in her last adventure she was nabbed like a tyro trying to pick a younger woman’s pocket of a few shillings. The victim snatched Jenny’s wrist in the act.

Jenny Diver’s hands, in their time, had profited her far more than needlework could have; they had given her a life of some comfort to compensate its perils; and at the end, they afforded their owner the last indulgence of a “mourning coach,” an enclosed carriage separate from the carts that hauled this day’s other 19 victims.

It was a rowdy hanging day with an unusual guard detail of soldiery: one of the prisoners had reported a pending rescue attempt, and for her resources and gang affiliations, Jenny was thought to be its intended beneficiary. (If the stool pigeon was hoping his own tattling would reprieve him, he was disappointed.) For reasons related or not, the crowd was in an ugly mood, as reported by the Newgate Ordinary:

In this Manner were they convey’d through a vast Multitude of People to Tyburn, some of whom, notwithstanding the Guard of Soldiers, were very rude and noisy, hallooing, throwing Brickbats, Mud, &c. at the unhappy Prisoners, as they passed.

Her notoriety would live on in cheap publications hawked by itinerant peddlers — 18th century precursors of the penny dreadful — that in Jenny’s case helpfully doled out tips on foiling pickpockets.

“Diver” as street slang for a pickpocket dated back 150 years before Jenny’s time.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s racist history, 1973: Black Panther Unity bookshop destroyed by arson attack, Brixton .

Working class communities have always been subject to systematically hostile policing. But conditions in Brixton as in many other areas in Britain became much worse in the 1970s. Local communities, black mainly but white as well, were often in a state of siege, confronted by repeated raids, with or without warrants, trashing of people’s houses, intimidation, harassment on the street, searches, assaults. Black people were told that if they didn’t want to get nicked they should stay indoors. In fact many parents did forcibly try to keep their teenage (and younger) kids indoors at weekends to stop them going out. Partly this was fear of them getting nicked, though many older more law-abiding Caribbean folk did feel they were losing control of their more rebellious and militant kids. The massive widespread use of Section 24 of the 1824 Vagrancy Act to arrest people on suspicion that a crime may have been about to be committed, led to its infamous nickname – the ‘SUS’ law. The charge was “loitering with intent to commit a crime”_ – cops only had to state that the suspect had done something to arouse their suspicion and then something else that led them to think a crime was about to be committed (usually theft), to justify an arrest. No evidence, independent witnesses, anything, was needed get a conviction.

SUS was heavily aimed at young black people; for instance 89% of sus defendants attending Balham Juvenile Court in 1976 were black. Lambeth was consistently the highest area in London for sus arrests.

Among the places where black kids could get off the street away from police harassment, were local black youth clubs; but as a result, raids and searches of the clubs gradually were a regular occurrence. Police would storm in: “Twenty to thirty police burst into the premises, they knew every door, toilet etc… They burst in like commandos in Africa. They grabbed people by their hair and necks… they said they were looking for somebody… They took away almost everybody out of the club…”_ Raids caused increasing anger: another incursion “caused chaos in the club. Some members became very restive and excitable; others were aggressive as they were not allowed to leave the building… The end result was one of noise and anger against the police.”_ In at least one case they brought a bloke in who they claimed was a mugging victim, to look for the alleged perps, only it later turned out this guy was another copper, posing as a ‘victim’.

Brixton, with its large west indian population and a strong street culture that police saw as threatening, was a major target for police operations, which often turned into sieges of the area, mass arrests and beatings.

To this day, but even more so in the ’70s and ’80s, in Brixton, any small incident could escalate, often because any call for assistance by an officer (often over the most minor ‘offence’) would be answered with massive force. Cops over-reacted routinely. The open police radio allowed coppers not actively engaged with anything else to race to any incident.

In response, younger black activists, increasingly influenced by the powerful Black Power movements in the USA, began to organise resistance to police violence. Visits from US leaders like Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (who spoke at a rally in Brixton in 1967), and later the activities of the US Black Panther party, inspired a number of UK-based groups. But they were also forged by their own daily experience on inner-city streets. Many of the activists who formed the early radical black groups shared a similar background – predominantly arriving in Britain as young children or early teenagers (often between 1959 and 1963), children of the first generation of migrants. The culture shock of arrival here, the experience of racism, both casual and institutional and low quality of life, the lack of opportunities, was blended with the realisation that they were likely here for good, and would have to fight to establish their position. This militancy began to distinguish them from the majority of their parents. Attempts to turn existing race relations groups into black militant groups, led to splits and divisions in organisations like the Institute of Race relations, the Campaign Against Race Discrimination and others.

The Universal Coloured People’s Association, Britain’s first Black Power group, founded in 1967, had a branch in Brixton, holding Black Power rallies there. It only lasted a few short years, but from it emerged the UK Black Panthers in 1968. Another group that fed into the British Black Panthers, in its embryonic phase after the Mangrove 9 trial was called the Black Eagles, which met I think in West London. Later the Black Unity and Freedom Party also emerged from the UCPA.)

The UK Black Panther Movement was strongly influenced by its US counterpart. Based at the Black People’s Information Centre, 38 Shakespeare Road, Brixton, at their height they had 300, mainly working class, members in London, They produced a paper which they distributed door to door and in Brixton market, held public meetings, agitated, demonstrated, publicly opposing police violence and supporting people attacked, and framed by the cops. From this their activity spread into housing, education, supporting anti-colonial movements, producing revolutionary literature.

Black power groups mobilised hundreds and later of mainly younger black people up and down the UK; through “demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, pickets, study circles, supplementary schools, day conferences, campaign and support groups”, aimed at racist immigration laws, police harassment, discrimination in housing, employment and education, many more were to be drawn in as the 70s went on.

The Panthers set up education classes for local kids, running Saturday schools and Black Studies groups, and had a library as well as organising anti-racist demos, producing both propaganda and informational material about black struggles around the world. They also ran social and cultural events: Black power activities also had a strong cultural element – dances, with sounds systems, poetry groups…

But the war by the police on the local black community remained at the heart of their practice.

The celebrated Mangrove case in Notting Hill, (where a march against police harassment had led to nine leading activists – including Darcus Howe – being charged with incitement, but who had defended themselves in court and been acquitted) had been a coalescing force in the development of black militant politics in London. It brought together small groups and individuals and began the process of turning them into a movement. At every stage of the case, both in the legal arena and on the streets, black self-organisation had pushed to a new collective level; both defendants like Darcus Howe and supporters/participants in the campaign were drawn into groups like the Panthers.

The groups opposed everyday police racism and violence. And of course in the nature of such things, Brixton Police responded, by harassing the Panthers at every turn. British Black Panthers warned in October 1970, of a deliberate campaign ‘pick off Black militants and to intimidate, harass and imprison black people prepared to go out on the streets and demonstrate’.

Panthers and other black activists were followed and stopped, in the street, while selling their papers; their fundraisers and the Brixton HQ were repeatedly raided. The usual catalogue of bizarre arrests and colourful charges visited by the peelers on rebels and protesters mounted up.

In March 1970 (in fact 48 years ago tomorrow, the 16th) four members of the Fasimbas, a Lewisham-based radical black organisation, were pounced on the then notorious Transport police led by the notorious Sgt. Ridgewell, at the Oval tube station, and charged, with trying to ‘shop’ (mug) two old people and attempting to steal a policewoman’s handbag, also assault on police (as usual). All actively involved in the Fasimbas’ supplementary school, they were carrying books with them for the school project when they were arrested. Beaten up inside the police station, forced to sign confessions, the ‘Oval 4’ were sentenced, the youngest to Borstal, the three others to two years imprisonment. However they were later all released on appeal.

In August 1971, a Black Panther dance at Oval House, Kennington, turned into to a mini-riot, after cops were refused entry to allegedly follow two ‘suspected young thieves’. More police turned up, carried out a search, but no two youths found. A fight then broke out, several people arrested, and three at least charged. They got suspended sentences.

On the eve of the National Conference on the Rights of Black People in 1971, the Panthers HQ was raided, their files rifled; the group was bogged down in court for months.

Unity Bookshop

In 1973 the Black Panthers squatted 74 Railton Road, to open it as a black bookshop to sell their increasing black literature, and their paper, Freedom News. Farrukh Dhondy, then a leading Panther member, takes up the story [a warning: it’s a shocking tale of a narrow escape from fire.]

“We used to run a newspaper called Freedom News and we had a lot of books for sale which we used to sell outside Brixton from another handcart, and Ridley Market in Dalston. So we had all these sorts of bookshop and we thought we should have a proper bookshop and so we squatted a place called 74 Railton Road on what was then playfully known as the frontline because people used to hang about there all the time and other activities. So we had this Freedom News bookshop on the ground floor, and it was a derelict building, but a friend of mine called Keith, Keith Carling, he was an architect, he’d just finished architecture school, so he knew how to build and plaster and stuff. So, he put in toilets and showers and we made it decent. So we had two flats and we had a basement room in which a fellow who I can only remember as Afrika, because he called himself Afrika with a K, and he moved in there and he played the bongo drums most of the night and disturbed everybody, but the bookshop ground floor, me first floor… Keith first floor, me second floor, and on the 15th of March 1973, the date is printed in my head, I was asleep about four in the morning and suddenly I woke up choking, I didn’t have a bed, I had a mattress on the floor, or a couple of mattresses on the floor, and I woke up choking wondering whether I’d left the fire on or what, what was choking me. I couldn’t see because the smoke was so thick, so I got up and stumbled towards the fire, but of course the fire was off, and then I saw the smoke coming through the shut door of the first floor. I opened that door door and the fire was raging on the staircase and I couldn’t get the door shut because of the draught, it was… it banged then and I went to the window, all this time not breathing now, so a minute/two minutes without breathing, you know what it’s like when you duck under water, and I opened the window and took one deep breath of fresh air or whatever there was. Nobody about and the glass of the front, the glass front of the bookshop was breaking outwards with booming noises, you know, which fire does, I believe, it heats up the glass, and blasts it outward, and I heard all these blasts and then I heard the neighbours shouting, ‘Oh god. Oh god’, you know all this, and I just shouted, you know, ‘Don’t call god, call the fire engine, yes?’ I was only in my underwear, so I didn’t know what to do, whether to grab my clothes, go back into the smoke-filled room, I was just gasping for air. I jumped from the thing, I had to get out because the fire was coming up, so I jumped and I landed in the burning glass, you know, red hot glass and cut my feet and broke my ankles and that, but I struggled up and by that time some neighbours had gone and called the people at Shakespeare Road, which was one of our bases, and Ira [ ]and I think Neil [Kenlock], people came out, they came rushing out to see if I was okay. A neighbour opposite, just a guy I didn’t know even, he got a coat and he put a coat around me and sat me down on the steps and I waited until the fire engines and police and so on came. The fire chief definitely came to me and said, ‘You’ve been set on fire, there’s a petrol bomb.’ Yes a chap threw a molotov cocktail in through the glass. I didn’t hear a crash. So, I hung about, they phones friends for me and a couple of mates came. They said ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I just want to go to school’, right, where I was teaching, even though I had broken ankles. They took me to the thing and they bandaged it up, there was nothing they could do, that was it, so I sat on the steps until school opened, this was kind of 6.30, 7.00, and I sat there until the headmaster and people turned up and said, ‘Why are you in a coat and underwear?’ ‘Because I’ve got nothing else [laughs], this is a borrowed coat, the underwear is mine,’ and so that it was it. The newspapers said that evening, the morning papers didn’t have it, the Evening Standard, or whatever it was then, the Evening News, had five places had been bombed that night, and this bookshop was one of them, some Asian shops and some black project somewhere and all in the same day… the police never did anything. One neighbour said that it was a motorcyclist who chucked the bomb and moved on, so nothing ever happened, no prosecutions took place and the place was a shell, it was burnt out, that was the story…”

Police apathy towards the attack was hardly surprising – the frontline was widely despised by the cops, enemy territory they policed only in numbers and violently. The Panthers were vocal opponents of the cops; and police racism was notorious. In the 1970s, sympathy towards the rightwing nationalist National Front (the NF, many of whose core members were long-time Nazi sympathisers, though they had gathered increasing support among the wider white population), agreement with its views, if not actual membership, was widespread among the police, and this was true of Lambeth. Black people coming up against the police, facing or reporting racist attacks, or crime against them in general, would usually be faced with racist comments and treatment, if the cops bothered to turn up at all.

And bizarrely, even in Brixton, the then growing National Front did attempt to show its ugly face publicly. Several times in the decade, and at least twice in 1978, the police protected the National Front in Brixton. In April at Southborough Park Junior School, 1500 police protected an NF electoral meeting, while 800 anti-fascists demonstrated nearby. Police co-operated with NF stewards, and closed off access to parts of nearby estates and harassed people who were trying to get to their homes, as well as nicking 6 black youths leaving the demo (under sues). In May cops protected Front members selling their racist shite along the Frontline in Rail ton Road – where they might otherwise have had difficulty leaving in one piece. A tiny number of Nazis were escorted by large numbers of police. Coming so soon after the NF march in Lewis ham in 1977 – which had seen a massive police operation protecting a Front march from thousands of anti-fascists, locals and leftists of all stripes, ending in huge battles throughout southeast London – it seemed obvious that the police were hand in glove with the Front. Contrast this with police treatment of black or anti-racist demos – many of which were systematically attacked by the cops in the late ’70s and ’80s.

The arson attack on the Unity Bookshop, presumably by fascists of one stripe or another, was not a unique event. Racist fire-bombings in the 1970s were not even uncommon, often against Black and Asian people in their own homes, but also against black and anti-racist spaces, cultural venues or leftwing centres. Other high-profile targets of arson that was suspected to be fash-inspired at the very least, included the Albany Centre in Deptford, the nearby Moonshot youth Club in New Cross, the Commission for Racial Equality HQ, the SWP’s offices… to name but a few.

The most high profile fire believed to be the result of racist arson was the New Cross Fire in 1981, where 13 black teenagers died (another died of injuries later), which was ignored and played down by police, who did nothing to investigate. This horrific event sparked the Black People’s Day of Action in March 1981, a huge angry march through London… And the climate of racist policing and blatant refusal to do anything about these kind of attacks contributed to the rage and hatred of the cops that gave birth to the 1981 riots…

But rightwing arson attacks didn’t end in the 70s or 80s… in our own time attempts were made to twice burn the 121 anarchist centre, just down Railton Road from the Black Panthers’ shop, in the early 1990s… (Their friendly neighbour chased off the crap arsonists in 1993)… and in 2013, the anarchist Freedom bookshop in Whitechapel was badly damaged by arson, again, probably by Nazis. The police stirred themselves again on that one… And its not only political targets: in recent years, tens of mosques have been targeted for arson, as have eastern European homes both before and since the Brexit referendum. Whether its active fascists, common or garden racists, little englanders – rightwingers love nothing so much as burning out foreigners and people who won’t put up with their swivel-eyed bollocks.

Postscript: The terrace that the Unity Bookshop was part of has, I think since been at least partly demolished. Many shopfronts were run down and empty at that time, and were regularly squatted for various projects. A couple of doors down from the short-lived Unity shop, a year later, no 78-80 Railton Rd, (in front of the also squatted St George’s Residences), included a squatted Claimants Union office, a women’s space, and the famous South London Gay Community Centre, around 1974-6.

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A brief introduction to the UK Black Panthers in Brixton and the racism and police violence they were resisting, can be read in past tense’s pamphlet ‘In the Shadow of the SPG’, which can be bought here

The interview with Farrukh Dhondy (who went from the Panthers, to seminal Black magazine Race Today, to writing and Channel Four), was lifted from the excellent ‘The British Black Panthers and Black Power Movement’, interviews with and photos of the UK Panthers, published by Organised Youth.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

Follow past tense on twitter

1968-2018: A Celebration of 50 years of Resistance and Campaigning – despite 50 years of police spying

Past Tense are taking part with many others groups and individuals, in planning the following program of events for July 2018, celebrating 50 years of resistance since 1968, but specifically focussing on groups spied on by undercover police from units like the Special demonstration
Squad, the National Public Order Intelligence Unit and others…

There will be many ’50 years since 1968′ events this year – but one element we and others targetted by spycops are hoping to push high on the agenda is that it was the demos against the Vietnam War in March and October 1968, the size and combativity of which which caught the
Metropolitan Police on the hop, that led directly to the creation of the Special Demonstration Squad. The SDS and its successor units targetted thousands of activists in hundreds of groups, from peace campaigners to trade unionists, from anarchists to MPs, from the families of people
murdered by racists to environmentalists; they abused women, acted as agent provocateurs and passed information to blacklisters.

We hope people will support this event among the many others going on; but although this is initially called to take place in London, we would encourage everyone out there to also take part and hope people will be inspired to create your own spycop-related events; to include links to
the repressive measures used against those of us fighting for social change in the debates, commemorations and discussions taking place in this important anniversary.

In particular, we encourage radical history groups and networks to get involved, either supporting the COPS event, or creating your own to coincide…

Spread the word!

Get in touch with past tense or the event email contact point below if you are interested.

…………………………………………..

1968-2018: A Celebration of 50 years of Resistance, Campaigning and
Alternatives for A Better World 
despite 50 years of police opposition, spying and repression
Sat 7th / Sun 8th July 2018  

Sat 7th: Anniversary Roll Call / Commemoration / Celebration in
Grosvenor Square, London W1 @ 1pm – 3pm

Sun 8th: London Gathering and Exhibition

1st to 8th July  –  week of local events and activities around the UK

Download Info/poster

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MOVEMENTS FOR A BETTER WORLD GROW –
POLICE REACT WITH REPRESSIVE TACTICS

In 1968, following demonstrations against the Vietnam War in London’s Grosvenor Square, the police set up a Special Demonstration Squad (SDS). Since that time, 50 years ago, over 1,000 groups campaigning in the UK for a better world have been spied on, infiltrated and targeted by
political policing. Their protests and demonstrations are also subjected to ongoing police opposition and control to try to limit their effectiveness.

This targeting has included groups campaigning for equality, justice, the environment and international solidarity, for rights for women, LGBTQ, workers and for animals, for community empowerment, and those campaigning against war, racism, sexism, corporate power, legal
repression and police oppression and brutality. Such groups have represented many millions of people throughout the UK who want to make the world a better, fairer and more sustainable place for everyone.

Yet almost any group of any kind that stood up to make a positive difference has been or could have potentially been a target for secret political policing. We now know this because of campaigners’ recent efforts to expose and challenge the SDS and other similar secret units,
and their shocking and unacceptable tactics. Individuals within those campaign groups have been spied on, subjected to intrusions in their personal lives, been victims of miscarriages of justice, and many deceived into intimate and abusive relationships with secret police, ie people that who were not who they said they were. In July 2015 we succeeded in forcing Theresa May (now Prime Minister) to set up the current Undercover Policing Public Inquiry, which was tasked with
getting to the truth by July 2018, and insisting on action to prevent police wrong-doing in future. Now, 3 years on, the public inquiry has achieved very little due to police obstruction.
When the SDS was formed they stated that they would ‘shut down’ the movements they were spying on. But despite disgusting police tactics, movements for positive change are still here and growing, and have had many successes on the way.

CELEBRATE 50 YEARS OF CAMPAIGNS AND STRUGGLES, RESILIENCE AND SUCCESSES

This planned two-day event in London, backed up by a call for a week of actions all around the UK, is in support of those campaigning for full exposure and effective action at the Undercover Policing Inquiry, and against police attempts to delay and undermine it. We aim to encourage
more groups to find out about the Inquiry and how they can get involved and support each other, and to unite the many different groups and organisations who have been victims of our police state because of their efforts to improve society.

Backed by the Campaign to Oppose Police Surveillance [C.O.P.S.] –

Full info:
http://campaignopposingpolicesurveillance.com/2018/02/13/50-years-resistance-celebration/

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Affiliate to the C.O.P.S campaign:

Donate to the C.O.P.S campaign yourself here (you can add a note
specifying its for 50 yrs events if you wish):

Subscribe to the C.O.P.S. campaign newsletter here

Solidarity and thanks from the 50yrs events planning group!

50yrsevents@gmail.com

Today in London rebel history: ranter Jacob Bothumley has his tongue bored through, for blasphemy, 1650.

The Ranters formed the extreme left wing of the sects which came into prominence during the English Revolution, both theologically and politically. Theologically these sects lay between the poles of orthodox Calvinism, with its emphasis on the power and justice of God as illustrated in the grand scheme of election and reprobation, with its insistence upon the reality of Hell in all its most literal horrors and upon the most verbal and dogmatic acceptance of the Scriptures, and of antinomianism with its emphasis upon God’s mercy and universality, its rejection of the moral law, and with it, of Hell in any but the most figurative sense, and its replacement of the authority of the Scriptures by that of the inner light. The Ranters pushed all these beliefs to, and sometimes even a little beyond, their furthest logical conclusions, which, when acted upon, soon brought them into conflict with law and authority. The conviction that God existed in, and only in, material objects and men led them at once to a pantheistic mysticism and a crudely plebeian materialism, often incongruously combined in the same person. Their rejection of scripture literalism led sometimes to an entirely symbolic interpretation of the Bible and at others to a blunt and contemptuous rejection. Their belief that the moral law no longer had authority for the people of a new age enjoying the liberty of the sons of God led to a conviction that for them no act was sinful, a conviction that some hastened to put into practice.

The political views of the Ranters were the outcome of this theology. God existed in all things.

But man alone could be conscious of his Godhead and this gave to all a new and equal dignity. The poorest beggars, even “rogues, thieves, whores, and cut purses” are “every whit as good” as the great ones of the earth. The Ranters, and they alone at this date, spoke for and to the most wretched and submerged elements of the population, slum dwellers of London and other cities, though to what extent their message reached these depths it is now hardly possible to say. In Coppe and Clarkson, in Foster and Coppin there is, in different degrees and forms, a deep concern for the poor, a denunciation of the rich and a primitive biblical communism that is more menacing and urban than that of Winstanley and the Diggers. Like the Diggers, and unlike Lilburne and his followers, they were ready to accept the name of Leveller in its most radical implications, but with the difference that for them God himself was the great Leveller, who was to come shortly “to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleyes, to lay the Mountaines low”.  It is hardly accidental that the Ranters began to come into prominence soon after the Leveller defeat at Burford and would seem to have attracted a number of embittered and disappointed former Levellers. Where Levelling by sword and by spade had both failed what seemed called for was a Levelling by miracle, in which God himself would confound the mighty by means of the poorest, lowest and most despised of the earth.

The ideas of the Ranters were not new. They may be traced across Europe and across the centuries from the time, to go back no further, of Joachim of Fiore in the twelfth century, with his doctrine of the three ages, in the last of which, shortly to be expected, the sons of God would enjoy perfect spiritual liberty. To trace the course of these ideas in any detail would take me far beyond my present scope – a few salient points only may be noted. A generation or so after Joachim, the Amurians in France added to his doctrine of the three ages a neo-platonic pantheism which declared that “all things are one because whatever is, is God”. Later, in Germany, the loosely connected groups which are known under the general name of the Brethren of the Free Spirit turned this idea into a way of living. While Joachim had expected the age of the spirit in the near future, the Brethren claimed that it was already here and exercised themselves the promised liberty of the sons of God. Sharing the perfection of God all that they did must of necessity be good: sin for them ceased to have a meaning. In the sixteenth century these beliefs received a new social dimension from Thomas Munzer, the leader of the great peasant insurrection of 1525, and among the Anabaptists of Munster. Through various channels they began to reach England, especially the artisans of London and East Anglia. As early as 1646 Thomas Edwards was denouncing those who declared,
That by Christs death, all the sins of all men in the world, Turks, Pagans, as well as Christians committed against the moral Law and the first covenant, are actually pardoned and forgiven, and this is the everlasting gospel; and thatthere is a salvation that shall be revealed in the last time which was not known to the Apostles themselves.

But it was among the Ranters above all that such beliefs and others related to them are found in the fullest and most uncompromising forms. What made them different in kind from their medieval predecessors was the fact that they were the heirs of a successful revolution which they still hoped to see carried to a victorious end. This is why Laurence Clarkson wrote on the title-page of A Single Eye that it was printed “in the Year that the Powers of Heaven and Earth Was, Is and Shall be, Shaken, yea Damned, till they be no more for Ever” and Abiezer Coppe that his Fiery Flying Roll was a “word from the Lord to, all the Great Ones of the Earth” printed “in the beginning of that notable day when the secrets of all hearts are laid open”. Many Ranters and their hearers had been in the forefront of the revolution and their sense of participation gave their message a force and universal applicability previously absent.

The central Ranter doctrine, from which all else logically flows, concerns the nature of God and man and their relationship. John Holland, whose book, The Smoke of the Bottomlesse Pit, though hostile, contains perhaps the clearest and most objective account of Ranter doctrine, writes:
They maintain that God is essentially in every creature, and that there is as much of God in one creature, as in another, though he doth not manifest himself so much in one as in another: I saw this expression in a Book of theirs, that the essence of God was as much in the Ivie leaf as in the most glorious Angel. . . . They say there is no other God but what is in them, and also in the whole Creation, and that men ought to pray and seek to no other God but what was in them.
The titles they give God are these: They call him The Being, the Fulnesse, the Great Motion, Reason, the Immensity.

But the groups and individuals labelled ranters were quickly and heavily repressed by Cromwell’s more orthodox, if puritan regime.

As an example: On Monday, 11 March 1650 Jacob Bothumley, a Leicester shoemaker who had risen to the rank of Quartermaster in the parliamentary army, was tried by a court martial at Whitehall upon several articles of blasphemy contained in his book The Light and Dark sides of God (printed for the pro-Leveller printer William Larner at the Black-more in Bishopsgate-street, 1650).

Bothumley was reported to have taken part in possibly heretical services in Leicester earlier in the deacde, along with his family: At one Bury’s house 2 ministers Mr. Higginson and Mr. Burdin stood by while Bottomley the shoemaker of Leicester prayed.” Bury may be the same person as Jeremiah Burroughs’ who was a noted puritan preacher, an opponent of the civl war presbyterian parliament; Bothumley’s family were said to have been ostracised for hosting Burroughs’ preaching in their house. He was also in trouble for causing a disturbance in All Saints Church. Like many civil war radicals, he served in the Army, which is where he wrote his book. Bothumley is generally lumped in the doctrines of the group called ‘ranters’ by their detractors of the time, and he was treated by the authorities as many other ‘ranters’ were – his books condemned and burned, and he physically punished.

The town authorities of Leicester were sufficiently alarmed by The Dark and Light Sides of God to send it to London for advice, since it seemed to them to be “of a very dangerous consequence and lets open a very wide dore to Atheisme and profanes”.

If there was a central Ranter doctrine, it concerned the nature of God and man and their relationship. As Bothumley wrote:
I see that God is in all Creatures, Man and Beast, Fish and Fowle, and every green thing, from the highest Cedar to the Ivey on the wall; and that God is the life and being of them all, and that God doth really dwell, and if you will personally; if he may admit so low an expression in them all, and hath his Being no where else out of the Creatures.

Bothumley’s book hints at a spiritual struggle, a process which features in many ranter literature of the time; though he describes it in in much less detail than Salmon or Coppe:

I was continually suffering the torment of Hell, and tossed up and down, being condemned of my self … And this is that I found til God appeared spiritually, and shewed me that he was all glory and happiness himself and that flesh was nothing … God … brought me into the glorious liberty of the

Sons of God, whereas I was before in bondage to sin, law, an accusing Conscience which is Hell.

As a result of Leicester alerting the government, Bothumley was tried in London, and condemned to have his tongue bored through with a red hot iron and his sword broken over his head, to be cashiered from the army and to have his book burned before his face in the Palace Yard, Westminster and at the Exchange, London. Sentence was executed on Thursday, 14 March 1650. Copies of his book were also sent to Leicester and Hertford – where he had probably preached – to be burned. This attempt by military authorities to prevent Bothumley from spreading his opinions through the spoken and written word was partially successful, but he continued as an active Ranter in Leicester, to which he returned after his Army service, and Quaker George Fox met him at nearby Swannington in 1655:

“And the next day Jacob Bottomley came from Leicester, a great Ranter, but the Lord’s power stopped him and came over them all….
And we sent to the Ranters to come forth and try their God, and there came abundance who were rude, as aforesaid, and sung and whistled and danced, but the Lord’s power so confounded them that many of them came to be convinced.”

By about 1660, however, he appears to have become sufficiently respectable to be appointed library keeper and sergeant-at-mace in Leicester. He did dispute with Quakers at some point, but his only other publication apart from The Light and Dark Sides of God, his only other publication was A brief Historical Relation of the most Material Passages and Persecutions of the Church of Christ (printed for William Redmayne at the Crown upon Addle Hill, 1676). Dedicated to the Mayor and Aldermen of Leicester, this ‘little Treatise’ compiled from the first, second and third books of John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments was intended to show the sufferings of those in former ages ‘whom God hath called out and made eminent, in the witnessing of his truth’.

Read The Dark and Light Sides of God

More on the ideas and fate of the ranters can be read here

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Today in radical herstory, 1918: NUWSS celebrate (some) women winning the vote.

On the 13th of March 1918, the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies held a victory celebration, at Queens Hall, Great Portland Street, in London’s West End, after women over 30 won the right to vote. The 1918 Representation of the People Act, passed in 1917, given royal assent in February 1918, extended the franchise to all men over 21 years old, but only women over 30 who held £5 of property, or had husbands who did. This meant an additional 5.6 million men and 8.4 million women, were now entitled to vote.

Over fifty years of campaigning, through many different organisations, a wide variety of tactics, had brought women to this point. For some of the women activists of the NUWSS, they had literally devoted their lives to the struggle.

At the time the 1918 Representation of the People Act seemed a major victory for the suffragist movements. Millicent Fawcett called the enactment of the act the greatest moment in her life. A victory party was held by suffragist societies at the Queen’s Hall in March 1918. Having witnessed in one act a jump from 0 to 8.4 million in terms of the number of women who could vote, many did see the act as a victory. However, there were women who still saw the act as a betrayal as it still classed them as second class citizens to men. The 1918 Representation of the People Act gave all men over the age of 21 the right to vote (and aged 19 if the men had been on active service in the armed forces). Therefore, politically women were still not the equal to men in Britain even after the 1918 act.

While some continued to agitate for the extension of the vote to women on the same terms as men (which would take another ten years of campaigning), others were worn out and became disillusioned…

The Queens Hall celebration took the form of a concert; interestingly this featured a performance of the song ‘Jerusalem’, a William Blake poem set to music by composer Hubert Parry, who had happily accepted NUWSS guru Millicent Garret Fawcett’s request to use the song at the party – suffragists had been singing it for a year or so to Parry’s tune. Parry had been a supporter of suffrage and even assigned copyright of Jerusalem to the NUWSS. Jerusalem has come so far since Blake’s day, and is now considered almost an alternative national anthem – though this was clearly far from Blake’s intent (or even Parry’s, possibly).
The celebration also featured a large display of suffragist banners, speakers from the movement, most notably the NUWSS’s president and most illustrious activist Millicent Garret Fawcett…

“The Queens Hall celebration on March 13th, differed from all the thousands of Suffrage meetings that have gone before it not in degree, but in kind. We have. Most of us, very chequered recollections of the meetings of the past. We have all enjoyed some of them; it seems doubtful whether even the most cheerful member of the NUWSS can have enjoyed all. Even if some happy soul can look back with pleasure to all the gatherings in all the halls, and all the drawing rooms, and at al the street corners, which they have organized or at which they have spoke or listened in the past, they will admit that the enjoyment on the most delightful of those occasions was different and inferior in kind to what we felt on Wednesday night. Then we were striving for out freedom; now in great measure we have gained it. It was a wonderful meeting of numbers of those who have struggled side by side…”

Groups that took part included the Actresses Franchise League, the British Dominions Women’s Suffrage union, Catholic Women’s Suffrage Society, the Church League for Women’s Suffrage, Conservative and Unionist Women’s Franchise Association, Free church League for Women’s Suffrage, Hastings and St Leonards Women’s Suffrage Propaganda League, Irishwomens’ Suffrage Federation, Jewish League for Women’s Suffrage, Marchers Qui Vive Corps, Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage, National Council for Adult Suffrage, National Industrial and Professional Women’s Suffrage Society, New Constitutional Society for Women’s Suffrage, Scottish Churches League for Women’s Suffrage, Scottish University Women’s Suffrage Union, the United Suffragists, and the Women’s Freedom League…

Theres images on flickr of reports from the meeting here and here

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And here’s some musings… on the vote, campaigns for the vote, movements for social change, and the passing of time.

… on the hundredth anniversary of some women, and most of the remaining men) in the UK being ‘given’ the vote, in 1918.

Past Tense publishes ‘historically’ oriented texts, not because we want to live in the past, or as some sort of academic archeology, but because we desire a different present and hope to be part of building a future free from class divisions, hierarchy, and social relations based on property, wealth, and wage labour. We’re not historians; our interest in history is partly for inspiration and a link to people like us in the past, partly for a search for the origins of the world we inhabit, and partly to keep the story of struggles for a better existence alive. Exploration of ideas, shared experiences, ways of working and living freely together, are vital parts of this struggle, and discussion of ideas and movements of the past are central to why we study history, as is the geography of the areas we live work and play in, and understanding how they evolve, and are altered by social change. While we have used the term ‘radical history’ in the past to describe projects we have been involved in, some of us at are dissatisfied with it, both because the word ‘radical’ is broad and open to many interpretations, and because focussing on ‘history’ blinkers us a bit when what we’re interested inhabits many other fields as well: urban geography, philosophy, economics and much more.

Remembering events, personalities, and battles of days gone by is hollow and meaningless if not linked to social change in our own lives, and just as our contributions to present theoretical and practical debate should be critical of ideas we disagree with, we extend this to our delves into the past. While some historians believe in objectivity, refusing to comment critically on the ideas of past times (and while its true that you can’t impose the ideas and values of today on people living through times when those ideas and values hadn’t developed), its also fair to say that movements of the past were not monolithic, and a wide variety of ideas emerged, changed, evolved and conflicted. We don’t hold with shying away from being critical of ideas we disagree with; but we also see that its important to remember that a broad array of social movements in past centuries, with widely diverse ideas and tactics, contributed to improvements in people’s lives, to freeing up of ways of living.

As a result we feel it’s worth both celebrating the achievements of Emmeline Pankhurst, for example, AND being critical of her slide into nationalist chauvinism.

The current flood of stories celebrating the extension of the voting franchise to women over 30 in 1918 has speaked much discussion, both around how far women’s liberation has come and how much is yet to achieve, and around the militant tactics of many of the women’s suffrage campaigners of a century ago.

There is little attention paid to the very real split in the movement campaigning for women’s suffrage – the ‘Militant’ versus ‘Constitutional’ suffragette division… Or why it arose; or even whether one was more effective than the other; or whether both contributed to the 1918 victory.

And amidst all the lauding of suffrage movements, it is never explicitly stated – but terror tactics that the militant suffragettes employed would get you jailed today, no question, and also spied on by the police, as the militant suffragettes were, and campaigners have been more recently by the  Special Demonstration Squad, NPIOU, etc… Time, and the fact of having ‘won’, distances the ‘terrorist’ label… No tory today could get away with labelling Nelson Mandela or Emmeline Pankhurst a terrorist, though they did at the time and merrily do so to anyone carrying out similar direct action tactics now.

The other elephant in the room is the huge comeback of chauvinism and male sexism, and the equally huge undercurrent of feminism still necessary to combat it.

Some of the history of divisions, diversity of tactics, and contradictions of the women’s suffrage movement ought to be aired more widely, in the midst of the self-congratulations of politicians.

In 1888, a majority of members of the National Society for Women’s Suffrage, the first nationwide coalition of groups advocating women’s right to vote, voted to allow affiliation from organisations linked to political parties. This cause the NSWS to split into a number of factions. Emmeline Pankhurst formed the Women’s Franchise League, whose inaugural meeting was held at her Bloomsbury home in July 1889. The League was seen as a radical suffrage group, because it also advocated equality in inheritance and divorce law, and campaigned on wider social issues; more traditional suffrage activists denounced them as the “extreme left” of the women’s movement. The group was short-lived however, divisions arose when, in 1892, Emmeline disrupted a public meeting by pioneer suffragist Lydia Becker (who had come down on the other side in the NSWS split); in 1893 the League fell apart. In the same year the Pankhursts moved back up north. 
Emmeline and other suffragists later founded the militant Women’s Social and Political Union in 1903; they believed the existing pressure groups had failed, taking a too cautious approach, and a new militant organisation was needed… The WSPU went on to break new ground in direct action, with mass campaigns of criminal damage, window smashing and arson; many of its activists were jailed several times, (including Emmeline and her three daughters, Christabel, Adela and Sylvia), and force fed in prison repeatedly when they went on hunger strike. Both their ‘militant’ activity and the more ‘constitutional’ wing of the movement built up considerable pressure for reform up to the outbreak of World War 1; women’s suffrage became the dominant issue in British society, dividing opinion and provoking violent repression, attacks from hostile crowds of men, as well as increasing support. When the first World War broke out, though, both the ‘militant’ and ‘constitutional’ suffrage organisations ended their campaign (now’s not the time, stand by our country, blah blah) and threw their considerable organising ability into mass support for the war effort: or whipping up nationalistic hysteria to help push thousands of men to march off to slaughter and be slaughtered, as it’s known in the trade. Emmeline and other leading suffragists pushed for compulsory conscription, denounced pacifists, strikers and other war resisters as betraying the national interest; on at least one occasion Emmeline grassed up leaders of a strike and got them drafted and sent to the trenches. A small minority in the WSPU (including Emmeline’s daughter Sylvia, who had already been expelled from the WSPU for her left-leaning ideas), and a large minority in the NUWSS, plus some of the Women’s Freedom League, whose members had left the WSPU protesting the autocratic control of the Pankhursts) opposed the War and continued to fight for reform. Some, like Sylvia Pankhurst and Charlotte Despard, for instance, moved further left during the war, coming to communist and in some cases anti-parliamentary positions; an interesting trajectory from campaigning for the vote, though not without its logic at the time.

But the large-scale involvement of women doing the jobs of men off dying in the trenches was quoted as an influential factor in the introduction of suffrage reform in 1918, when women over 30 won the vote.

It wouldn’t be to denigrate their sincerity or militancy, or the viciousness of the repression they faced, to say their class backgrounds to a large extent coloured the ideas of some leading suffrage campaigners. For instance, Emmeline Pankhurst and her husband hired a servant to help with the children, so that “she should not be “a household machine” and could spend time fighting for Women’s Suffrage. Presumably then, the servant became the ‘household machine’. More than reflecting itself in their social relations, did their social position help to push the Pankhursts to assume autocratic control within the WSPU? To capitulation to class snobbery, as with Christabel Pankhurst’s later moral improvement campaigns against working class men’s ‘inherent disgustingness’, and to nationalism and war mongering when World War 1 came? Its hard to say with the latter case, as most contemporary socialists and radicals of both sexes and all classes, it has to be said, joined in the war effort supporting the slaughter of millions.
Emmeline’s early enthusiasm for socialism is often contrasted to her later Tory politics, but it would be interesting to know how much her increasing dislike of socialist groups and trade unions was influenced by the widespread hostility of many male trade unionists, and members of organisations like the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation, to the women’s struggle to assert themselves politically, especially around the 1890s/1900. (For example, when her husband Richard, a long-standing ILP member and worker for womens’ rights, died, a radical newspaper launched an appeal to support the Pankhurst family since their debts partly resulted from their political activity. Emmeline, however, refused to accept the money to pay for her children’s education, asking that the money should be used to build a socialist meeting hall in Richard’s memory. However when the hall was completed in 1903, she discovered that the Independent Labour Party branch that used it would not allow women to join. this and many similar examples of blatant inequality in the supposedly progressive movement gradually helped to push her out of it.) Traditional attitudes towards a woman’s role in society prevailed among men who in other ways were reasonably ‘progressive’, such that women’s suffrage groups had to on occasion fight physical battles to use ‘radical’ meeting places, and women workers were excluded from many trade unions and jobs… There were large numbers of exceptions to this, but the viciousness of the disapproval from what they may have at one time thought of as natural allies contributed to some of Emmeline and other WSPUers’ growing distance from the ‘labour movement’. (The WSPU has generally been characterised as a middle class organisation, but the majority of membership were working class women, especially in northern England, though also in London in areas like the East End, Lewisham and Woolwich; and there were several women of working class origins in the national leadership.While it’s also true that with no formal constitution, the WSPU could sometimes operate top-down, some historians have found evidence of greater democracy in many branches; others assert a democratic approach would not have been practical in its illegal militant activities… The last being an organisational question that rumbles on today…)

I hope it is not taken as ‘whataboutery’ to mention that this year is not only the 100th anniversary of women first being included, but also the 170th anniversary of the last great upsurge in the Chartist movement, possibly the largest political movement of working class people in this country of the last 200 years. A movement that had climaxed ten years before in mass rallies, an abortive general strike and then attempts at insurrection and revolutionary plotting, but had been heavily hampered by government repression, mass arrests and jailings, and drifted into infighting, dilution by alliances with middle class organisations. It’s worth noting that although the movement as a whole was bent on winning the vote for all adult men, Chartism contained a sizable female contingent (including the Female Democratic Associations), with some working to win men the vote and some even, heretically, suggesting that women too should be included… In 1848 the movement revived, focused on the 3rd petition for the Charter, with the famous rally and march from Kennington Common and attempt to reach parliament. The march did not achieve its aim, nor did a summer of riots or the plotting of the ‘Ulterior Committee’ that failed, again, to launch a radical uprising (like the suffragettes, the Chartists were under heavy police observation, penetrated by spies). The Chartist movement went into permanent decline after this… It took another 19 years before some working class men won the vote (again by mass campaigning), in 1867, then this franchise was again extended in 1884, but it was only in 1918 that anything resembling universal MALE suffrage was achieved.

Chartism was always divided (as the radical and reform movements had been for the fifty years before it) over the question of ‘physical force’ – whether violent action would be needed to push through the social change they demanded. Though the government feared Chartism’s revolutionary potential, in reality, revolution was always unlikely – mostly because the movement was kept in bounds by some cautious leaders and a largely cautious membership. The Newport uprising, the unrealised Sacred month of 1839, the Sheffield and Bradford plots of 1840, the 1848 plans to revolt aside, the rhetoric was often more violent than the reality. This is not to denigrate Chartism, which was a huge cultural and social force, as much as political and the legacies of its penetration into every aspect of daily life for millions did help produce the pressure in the 1860s and 1880s that did achieve part of the Chartist program.Why did chartists not go for individual acts of violence, while later movements did? By 1907, when the WSPU began their militant campaign for the women’s vote, time had very much changed. ‘Terror’ tactics had been common currency in many parts of the world for several decades, particularly individual acts of violence, which had proved effective shockers to the authorities when employed by nationalist or socialist/anarchist/etc circles (though their actual effect on social change remains open to debate). However, does class background, and the type/origin of your political movement, have an impact on the kind of direct action and violence you see as legit/effective? Are Middle class activists more likely to plump for individual acts of violence? Are class conscious proles more in favour of collective anonymous riot-style shindigs? Discuss…

The WSPU – NUWSS split shows that division over violence was still as fierce it had been 60 years before, and (despite the historically greater celebration of the actions WSPU) the ‘constitutional’ wing membership was always larger. But the question of the relation of mass movements to their smaller more ‘militant’ wings remains active, and the question of which achieved the results –  radical or moderate- is as hotly debated in present day activism as much as dusty historical exchanges. Did the poll tax see off Thatcher? If so was it mass non-payment wit dun it? Or the riots? Or both? The history of resistance to enclosure of common land and open spaces almost always shows up respectable campaigners and a direct action element – the list is as long as your arm.

The vote – for many chartists it wasn’t just about equality. Many saw even just getting the vote as a chance for working class to reshape society more in their own interests, redress economic power of the aristos and capitalists. A minority went further and articulated the need for working class power – to seize control of society completely. Many female suffrage activists 50-60 years later saw things in not dissimilar terms – that while equality was vital, the vote was a means towards a share in power, in the ability to decide policy and shape the way lives were organised, and in whose interests. Anarchists, and some anti-parliamentary socialists, of course, to some extent, decried the question of the vote, both as a distraction from where power really lies in capitalist society, and on the grounds that direct participation and control at a grassroots level trump representative democracy. Anarchist activists and writers also questioned whether the most immediate fight for many women was over the vote, or against the power the men in their own households had over them. Intelligent ruling class strategists worked out that ‘granting’ the vote could defuse more serious pressures… This was especially an issue at the end of World War 1 when revolution was seizing much of Europe and army mutinies and mass strikes seemed to threaten something similar here, at least to scared posh folk.

Press, politicians and all sorts of trite liberal commentators this month have been busy congratulating themselves that ‘we’ have reached the position of equality we have – decoded, meaning that further extensions in power to control our own lives on a day to day level are unnecessary, but that lip service can be paid to social movements that fought to bring us to where we are today. Actions celebrated when its historical would get you ten years in prison now, and the same voices lauding the suffragettes would jail anyone using similar direct action to

Neither the Chartist and suffrage movements were remotely homogeneous and both reflected wide class and other contradictions. Which were evident and open at the time, and should be discussed now, not brushed under a happy clappy carpet of ‘we’re all fine now ‘. Women fighting make violence, rape, systematic power imbalance, pay discrimination, unwaged reproductive labour, not to mention the intersection of race, class and gender relations, beg to differ. But I’ve also seen it recently expressed that ‘second wave feminism’ (meaning the women’s liberation movement of the 1960s-80s, broadly) achieved little and was only ever a movement of white middle class women interested in their own advancement. This huge historical slur is similar in some ways to some of the criticisms if the suffragettes (and not a million miles from over-simplifications levelled at Chartists). Yes, these movements had limits she seen from both our times and even according to the arguments of the time. But they all helped create the world we have, helped win gains we have enjoyed – limited as they be.

Their struggles also helped create the spaces our own movements operate in… People sometimes want to re-invent the wheel as if previous generations had never ridden, or pretend the wheel was square until they got hold of it and shaved off the corners. Young people eh? Read some fucking history.

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2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London’s anti-war history, 1900: meeting against Boer War attacked by police.

For socialists the Boer War of 1899-1902 was a prefiguration of their experiences in the First World War, and in many ways the similarities are quite marked. Jingoism had been growing for years, imperialism was at its height, the ‘rush for Africa’ – of which the Boer War was the culmination – all had contributed to a climate of the most extreme chauvinism.

War finally came on October 9th, 1899.

On October 22nd, the socialist movement around Islington, North London, a vocal and growing prescence on the streets, had its first test, when an anti-War meeting at Newington Green Road was broken up by a mob singing ‘Rule Britannia’ and ‘We are Soldiers of the Queen’. The only arrest was the Social Democratic Federation (SDF) speaker Percy Kebell, a 21-year- old clerk.

But the meetings, and the attacks, continued. On March 5th, 1900, a ‘pro-Boer’ meeting at Highbury Corner was attacked by a mob which had gathered in response to leaflets calling on ‘all loyal Englishmen’ to turn up and oppose it. On March 11th and 19th there were further socialist meetings at the same venue, both of which were broken up by the police after there had been serious fighting. It was probably one of these meetings which is described in W. S. Cluse’s entry in the Dictionary of Labour Biography.

Will Cluse with other socialists was on one occasion holding a meeting at Highbury Corner, and the crowd were becoming hostile. The socialists decided it was time to go, if they wanted to escape manhandling. Making a sudden rush, they boarded a horse-bus at the junction of Holloway Road and Upper Street, with the crowd at their heels. They climbed the steep ladder to the top deck, and kept their opponents at bay by stamping on their fingers as they reached the top rung. Finally they were able to put themselves into protective custody at the police station in Upper Street.

T.A. Jackson, in his autobiography Solo Trumpet, described another of this series of Highbury Corner meetings which had a rather different outcome:

The Tories resolved to smash the meeting up; the radicals took the precaution of mobilising the gymnasium class of the Mildmay Radical Club [Newington Green] to act as ‘stewards’. Quite a pretty battle was in progress when the issue was decided by the local SDF, who when the fight started were pitched nearby. Abandoning their own meeting the socialists, led by their Chairman, a useful middle-weight of local fame, fell upon the Tories and routed them with ‘great slaughter’. 

The active participation of the Mildmay Radical Club on Newington Green (still there, btw!!) in the agitation against the Boer War was no accident. The Club was one of the few remaining working mens’ political clubs which retained some remnants of the spirit they had embodied in the 1870s and 1880s. In particular these working-class radicals had a formidable record of anti-imperialism.; The regular and systematic attacks on ‘pro-Boer’ meetings were an ominous foretaste of the World War, as was the fact that it appears there was not a single arrest of those who attacked the anti-War meetings in North London. Another parallel with future events was the split in the ‘socialist’ movement. Both the Fabians and the Clarion newspaper supported the War. Robert Blatchford, the editor of the latter, which had by far the largest circulation of any of the socialist movement’s journals, wrote in its October 1899 issue:

I cannot go with those socialists whose sympathies are with the enemy. My whole heart is with the British Troops. . . until the war is over I am for the Government.

After the Boer War the socialist movement underwent a whole series of convulsions which reflected widely different approaches as to what socialism was and how it would be achieved. These divisions had deep roots, going back to and even beyond the formal emergence of the Social Democratic Federation in 1884. The Fabians, the Social Democratic Federation/British Socialist Party and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) all shared – although there were countervailing forces within all of them – a vision of socialism in which the main emphasis was on taking over the commanding heights of the economy by the state or municipal authorities.

(This post is a slightly edited excerpt from Ken Weller’s Don’t Be a Soldier).

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