Today in London riotous history: police attack anti-poll tax demo, Brixton Prison, 1990

Saturday 20 October 1990 saw the second national UK demonstration against the hated poll tax, which ended in a police riot outside Brixton Prison.

“Well in March of 1990
We had some fun, all do agree;
The West End burned and the cops did flee,
As we paid them back their poll tax.
6 months later they had a rematch.
I don’t have to tell you, we didn’t win that.”
(Paddy Goes on the Demo, Dr Feelshite – sung to the tune of Paddy Works on the Railway)

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 flat rate, so everyone in a Borough would pay the same regardless of how rich they were or how much their property was worth, rather than paying more if they owned more. Obviously this re-drew the burden of paying for the Council – reducing costs for the wealthy and much of the middle class, and increasing the cost for the working class and

Thatcher and co thought they would get away with this after a decade in which they’d largely mashed up organised working class opposition – steelworkers, miners, printers, etc had been defeated and trade unions cowed. The tories thought they were on a roll, and that the Poll Tax would not only make them more and more friends among the middle class and consolidate the wealth of their traditional supporters, but also stick the knife into the Labour Councils they hated so much, forcing them to slash services or impose crippling poll tax… The government clearly felt they would push the tax through whatever the opposition…

However, they had miscalculated somewhat.

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, defending people’s homes against bailiffs, blockading and occupying council chambers, bailiffs offices, to riots and clogging up the courts with legal challenges, spurious and otherwise. Hundreds of people were jailed for refusing or not being able to pay, and for taking part in protests against the Tax.

However, there were divisions in the campaign; fundamental differences over strategy and ways of organising. Broadly speaking
• Labour activist campaigners thought you could fight through the Council and the TUC,
• the Socialist Workers Party was for stopping the Poll tax through workplace resistance (ie by council workers, organised in then public service workers union NALGO, which became part of today’s Unison) organisation, and that community or street anti-poll tax groups were pointless;
• the slightly more working class oriented Militant Tendency {now the Socialist Party} was for building community groups but under their direct control and run top down by their activists;
• the anarchists and other non-aligned types weren’t against trying to get NALGO members to strike against implementing the Tax (although sceptical of the likelihood of NALGO taking a strong position – from experience!), but felt the best strategy was self-organised local groups run from the bottom by the local people themselves.

As it happened the SWP flitted in and out of the anti-poll tax movement with all the attention span of a slightly dizzy gnat, depending on what other exciting things were going on (“Non-registration is a damp squib, comrades, the Dockers Strike is the Big issue Now.”) Militant and the anarchists fought constantly as the Milis tried to impose as much control over the campaign as they could.

The fighting between police and protestors at local anti-poll tax demonstrations around the UK, and the huge Trafalgar Square March 31st Poll Tax Riot had increased tensions within the anti-poll tax movement – mostly hostility between Militant cadre and independent activists and groups, especially after Militant bigwigs threatened to grass up Trafalgar Square rioters, on top of the manipulations, threats and lies they were using to try and control the resistance… But the battering the cops had taken at Trafalgar Square led to a massive repression, 100s of arrests, raids on activists’ houses (which added 70 odd more defendants to the original 381 nicked on the 31st itself, this blogespondent being just one of them); and a determination by police to get one back on us…

The cops had lost it in a big way on March 31st, and tactically fucked up, allowing rioting to spread through the West End, instead of containing us in one area, which had transformed the protest against the Poll Tax to a short lovely insurrection against the consumer culture of central London. (The Strangeways Prison revolt next day and the other jail rebellions/protests that followed were like icing on the cake).

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 both local and Trafalgar Square rioting, and (whatever they afterwards claimed) did threaten to grass up those who had taken part in fighting with the police (in Bristol and Nottingham Militant members DID rat out rioters.) The next big anti-poll tax demo was to be October 20th: group of anti-poll tax campaigners had marched all the way from Scotland in time to arrive for that date; the London Anti-Poll tax Federation organised a demo to greet them. The route was set to be from Kennington Park (where the March 31st had begun, and a symbolic gathering point for protest for over 150 years) to Brockwell Park in Brixton, to be followed with a march to Brixton Prison, in support of several prisoners from Trafalgar Square who were locked up there. The Militant-dominated All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation had refused to organise the main march, so the equally Militant-run London Federation of anti-poll tax groups had taken it on; the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign, around which many dissident elements had grouped, had planned the prison demo, which the London Federation leadership had initially refused to support but had reluctantly backed after parts of their own affiliated membership protested. The Police bigwigs must have seen an opportunity to get their own back (and maybe drive a further wedge into the movement?)

I’ve mix-maxed a few accounts into a roughly coherent chronology here, some of it is from my own recollections and others lifted from a couple of other accounts. Apologies if it reads a bit disjointed.

October 20th: A feeder march of 2,000 organised by the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign (TSDC) picketed Horseferry Road Magistrates Court at 9.30 that morning. This court had heard many of the cases of those arrested on March 31. Magistrates there were jailing as many people as they could but publicity and pickets of the court had caused them to be more restrained. The TSDC organised and stewarded the march themselves. It met up with the main London Federation march at Kennington Park. The main march had people from all over England, it was a beautiful day and the occasion was lively with a few bands, kids, dogs, Class War and the usual lefty paper sellers. Unfortunately the route was mostly down quiet roads so it wasn’t very visible but residents waved, shouted slogans and hung out banners. The march reached Brockwell Park without incident, this of course did not interest the media who were looking only for trouble. A large rally in the park heard speakers from the Scottish walkers, a Trafalgar Square defendant and Tony Benn.

At 3.30 in the afternoon, following the Brockwell Park rally,  a TSDC demo of over 3,000 people marched to Brixton Prison where four Trafalgar Square prisoners were being held. As before it was well organised and stewarded by the TSDC.

“The police had earmarked the people participating in the prison picket as the trouble-makers. Whereas they had lightly policed the rest of the day, the march to Brixton was saturated with police officers – 3,000 of them (almost more police than demonstrators). To put this in context: on March 31st when 200,000 people took to the streets, there were only 2,000 police.

The route was lined by three layers of police on either side. The songs of the demonstrators were optimistic and upbeat, but there was a strong air of anticipation. There were rumours flying around that the police wanted a rematch for March 31st. The police officer responsible for overseeing the march (Deputy Assistant Commissioner Metcalfe) had told the march organisers the night before the demonstration that he too had heard ‘rumblings’ to this effect.” (Danny Burns)

“After the initial march to Brockwell Park, people’s spirits started to rise, and the atmosphere walking to Brixton Prison became more intense, and seemed to have more purpose. Everyone was shouting Anti Poll Tax chants and the cops were telling people to shut up. As we approached the jail the march came to a halt’ and a few of us sat down in the road.” ( a report from a Sussex Poll Tax Resister)

The march arrived at the prison only to find that the police wanted to hem everyone in behind crowd barriers. As the march stopped on Brixton Hill the crowd became very compacted behind the barriers. TSDC organisers asked the police to allow the march round the back of the prison, the officer in charge of the police seemed to make sure he was not around at this point. The police were asked to move the barriers further up the road so the crowd could move up and ease congestion, this was also refused. The police took the megaphone from the TSDC organisers who were very visible in their bright pink bibs. They did not, as they claim, give out megaphones – this is yet another POLICE LIE.

“I was sat up on one of the pillars in the fence round the little park between Elm Park & Endymion Roads. Having been nicked at Trafalgar Square and several other times recently I fancied staying out of it (Bottler! I hear you shout!). All the marchers were funnelled into this tiny space and you could see the filth tooling up and licking their lips. “Aye aye,” I thought, ” here we go again.” It felt a lot like the moment just before it kicked off in Whitehall on March 31st – but this time there a lot less of us and A LOT more cops. Shit loads of ’em everywhere.” ( T.Barker)

“As early as 4.10 p.m. one of the legal liaison volunteers heard PC MS112 shouting (so that the demonstrators could hear): “I’d like to start kicking some people’s heads in now.” Not only were the demonstrators hemmed in, but the march stewards were prevented from crossing police lines. This made communication extremely difficult, especially as the van with the demonstration PA and megaphones hadn’t been allowed by the police to join the march. As the march reached the prison it was still in good spirits, the chants were about the Poll Tax and not the police. The march stopped on the opposite side of the road to the prison and gradually the police built up the numbers of their cordons on each side of the picket. Police Support Units (riot formations) were also deployed in an open show of strength.” (D. Burns)

“After a while we moved further up Brixton Hill where we could see a large crowd of people trying to get nearer the prison. There were hundreds of police stopping anyone getting to near. We could see everyone pushing between a wall of police. We tried to get on a wall to see if we could see the prison but the police started shoving everyone off. We could see loads of cop vans parked up the side street and as things started heating up in the centre of the crowd we could see them getting helmets and riot shields ready. Then a large group of them started to run towards us but stopped and turned back as if making a practice run.” (Sussex)

“At 4.40, for no apparent reason the police officers cordoned off Elm Park, splitting a number of demonstrators away from the main march. This was carried out just twenty minutes after the head of the march reached the prison, a clear indication that the police had decided to disperse the picket despite the fact that there was no public order problem. Two minutes later, the police attacked the crowd.” (Burns):

“The PSUs deployed in front of the churchyard push forward into the crowd, attacking demonstrators with violent and indiscriminate use of baton. There is much shouting and confusion, and a total of four cans are thrown at the surging pace. After 20-30 seconds, the police resume their positions in front of the churchyard and the crowd becomes calm again.” (Preliminary report on the policing of the Anti-Poll Tax Demonstration of October 20th, Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign.)

The angry and frustrated crowd threw one or two beer cans but the police needed no excuse to charge into the crowd. Those who didn’t move fast enough were truncheoned and arrested. A young mother asked a police woman to take her children over the crowd barrier to safety, the caring cop refused.

“At 4.46, the police cleared the forecourt of the George IV pub not allowing people to finish their drinks. The police were then seen to pick up the glasses and smash them on the floor. One was overheard saying ‘This is it!’ At about the same time I was passing through a line of police and heard a similar statement: “just wait until it gets dark, then the real fun will start.”

By 4.50, the police in Endymion Rd. had been seen putting on their riot gear. At 4.55, a police officer was heard to say ‘Clear area – shield officers will be deployed’. A group of TSDC stewards intervened in an attempt to block any attack, but a few minutes later 50 police officers charged into the crowd. (Burns)

“I saw Dave Morris, one of the main organisers of the demonstration, who I knew from TSDC, go down, truncheoned over the head, from behind. He had been arguing with some top cop minutes or even seconds before. Some beercans went over onto cops’ heads and WHAM, they waded in.” (T. Barker)

“Looking into the main crowd of people across from the prison, things looked to be getting hectic and a lot of people began to run down Brixton Hill away from an obvious police attack. Seeing the crowd splitting up we ran towards the main bulk of the demo. After that I became separated from the people I was with, and made my way back to the corner of the side street. to be greeted by masses of riot police charging down the side street. There was nowhere to get away and me and many others were shoved by cops with riot shields, other people were getting a lot rougher treatment.

I managed to get past the police and go to the parked vans where I met the people I was with earlier. This is when I found out one of us had been nicked and dragged into a van by four police. We tried to talk to the person and offer some money for them to get home, but the cops wouldn’t have it surprise, surprise. One of them told us which station they were being taken to.

After that, alot of the vans drove off.

There were still people hanging about but had nowhere else to go, the main bulk had been forced down Brixton Hill.” (Sussex)

“The old bill pushed everyone down the hill from Elm Park. I got pulled off the fence (haha) by a rather agitated riot cop, and legged it with the rest. I could sense we weren’t gonna win this one.” (T Barker)

“The crowd was pushed down Brixton Hill and scores of riot police, who had been waiting down side streets preparing to take revenge for March 31 came out and further charged the crowd.

For the next half an hour police in riot formations charged the crowd forcing it down Brixton Hill. In the side streets many demonstrators (including myself) were caught between lines of riot police. We were ordered one way, and then ordered back as we reached the next line of police. Gradually, the crowd was forced down towards the tube station at the bottom of the hill. Hundreds of people were milling around watching what was happening.” (Burns)

Individuals trying to leave the crowd and avoid trouble were pushed back in. The crowd was driven back into Brixton to the dismay of those trying to do a peaceful day’s shopping. People legging it with peelers on their heels tried to get into pubs only to find the doors barred against them.

“We walked down to Electric Avenue. The market stalls were still lying around. People dragged them into the middle of the road, throwing cardboard boxes and other rubbish on top. Then they were lit, more were dragged up, a burning barricade began to be formed. Then the riot police again. It was unclear where to go. The police were too close for us to run. They charged. I grabbed Susan and threw her up against the wall, covering our heads with my arm. The riot police ran past us, truncheoning down anyone in their path.” (Burns).

Buses were stopped, the tube station was closed, so those wishing to leave were unable to. Groups were pushed into the market, the High Road and Coldharbour Lane. Market skips and a police motorbike were set on fire. People were pushed down to Camberwell and up towards Oval, many brutal arrests were made (135 in all, 120 charged, 27 of them with Violent Disorder, Section 2 of the Public Order Act – max sentence 5 years), demonstrators continued to fight back against the police till about 7 p.m.

“Many of those nicked were lined up in Jebb Avenue, the entrance to the Prison. Defendants I worked with later told me they were made to sit with their legs outstretched, while cops walked along, stepping on their legs and taunting them… It was clear the filth had been more than a little riled at taking such a heavy beating at Trafalgar Square and saw this very much as a rematch on their terms. I did find it noticeable that the police attack, while it did get resisted by those on the demo, did not spread to a social rebellion, attracting local youth and troublemakers, as much as earlier riots or even the other local anti-poll tax riots in Brixton that March. The cops won this one, decisively.

The only bright spot was the quality work done by the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign. Set up in the wake of March 31st to support all accused, both practically and politically, the TSDC had been the organisers of the Brixton Prison demo. As a defendant from Trafalgar Square involved in TSDC, I was involved I and saw at first hand the planning that was done in advance to prepare for a likely police attack, which didn’t stave it off but ensured that legal monitoring of cop activity, arrests and violence was carried out. 20,000 bust cards had been given out on the demo, video crews recorded police actions, 60 legal volunteers on the day took notes and got the names of arrestees and witnesses; plus office backup, meant that legal help and solicitors were arranged for as many of those nicked in Brixton as we could; friends and comrades rang in to report nickings and keep us posted about those released, and who was being remanded to prison. Visitors went to all police stations were those nicked were being held, welcoming people out when they were released. Many of us stayed up all that night, and all the next day, taking phone calls, arranging legal help, working out the train of events, making a list of who defendants were, what they were charged with, etc. Which meant by the next day we were in touch with nearly all those nicked and gave them support through court cases, prison etc. 60 defendants came to a meeting later in the week; the collation of witness statements

helped some defendants get off heavy charges, as well as being able to hold a press conference refuting the police official propaganda as to the chain of events.” (T.Barker)

Solicitors were provided for all those arrested and witness statements made. A picket was held at Southwark police station to support those arrested.

Within twelve hours the campaign had a complete record of what had happened throughout the day. When they organised a press conference the next day:

“The press thought that we would be a rabble, but they were stunned, they were surprised that we had the numbers of policemen who had said certain things; we had a complete chronology of events; and we were able to prove conclusively that the police had pre-planned attack.” (Dave Morris).

On Monday pickets were held at courts and courts for those still held in custody.

“It’s fair to say in retrospect that while the cops had, in meetings with the London Fed/TSDC beforehand, assured the demo organisers they wanted a peaceful day, they had block-booked Horseferry Road courts for Monday, cancelled all leave, heavily over-policed the march and allowed cops their heads in beating the shit out of us. They wanted to re-assert control after losing it 6 months before. To some extent we walked into a trap with our eyes open. While we none of us trusted the police, at least legal back-up was in place to aid as many arrestees as possible.” (T. Barker)

Several people did go to prison for long terms for the events of October 20th – due to confusion in the past tense archives I can’t list them here, but will add that if I locate it later.

One footnote for young folk – the march took place on the same day as that year’s London Anarchist Bookfair (which had been organised and booked long before the demo was announced), which then was held in Conway Hall. A good chunk of the UK anarchist scene was heavily involved in the anti-poll tax movement and most were on the Brixton demo. Hundreds of others went to the Bookfair instead. News of the riot/police attack was actually brought to the Bookfair by one enterprising anarcho, already facing charges from March 31st, who thought it better to disappear after the crowd was pushed to Brixton tube station, and who legged it by bike to Conway Hall and announced the news from the stage, no-one there having yet heard the word. This is before mobile phones became de rigeur for anyone other than yuppies – when news travelled at the speed of a second hand racing bike through London traffic (about 30 minutes from Brixton Hill to Red Lion Square).

There’s more on the TSDC at the end of our post on the March 31st 1990 riot

There’s some news coverage of the day here:

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An entry in the
2015 London Rebel History Calendar – Check it out online

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