Today in London housing history, 1986: Pullens Estate squatters resist eviction, Walworth.

The Pullens Estate, in Walworth, South London, was built over a 15-year period from 1886, by builder James Pullen. Origially 684 flats in four storey mansion blocks, with workshops attached to the rear of the residential blocks, in rear yards.

The first block of 16 flats was built on Penton Place without the required consent of the Metropolitan Board of Works but Pullen managed to schmooze local officials and continued building until 1901 – ten years more than he’d been granted permission for.

When the philanthropist Charles Booth was surveying London for his poverty map in 1899 he described meeting Mr Pullen at work: ‘Old Mr Pullen in a top hat and fustian suit was on a scaffolding superintending’. Booth stated that demand for the ‘well built’ flats was high and they were ‘Occupied before the paper is dry on the walls’ often by police officers from Whitehall and Lambeth districts. The rent was ‘eight shillings for three rooms, kitchen and scullery, plus 6 pence a week charged for cleaning the stairs and gas’. Each had to make a deposit of 24 shillings which was an effectual bar to any poor tenants.

The full estate, which originally extended southwards as far as Manor Place, comprised 684 dwellings in 12 blocks. Attached to the rear of the dwellings, arranged round four yards, were 106 workshops. The estate’s shops were located at the entrances to the workshop yards.

By 1973, the estate was still owned by the family company that had originally built it. But many of the flats were in a poor state, having built for largely single people and with few amenities. Southwark Council proposed to compulsorily purchase the estate with the aim of demolishing it, in order to build a vast new council estate, but this went against the wishes of most of the tenants, who had built a community and didn’t want to see it broken up. In 1977, the council bought the Pullens and by 1983 had demolished blocks on Crampton Street, Amelia Street and Thrush Street (accidentally creating open space at Pullens Green in the process).

Continued plans in the 1980s to knock down the rest of the estate, were met by a tenants campaign to save and renovate the blocks, including putting in hot water and bathrooms, which many flats still lacked. Tenants who wanted hot water and a bathroom had to pay themselves or apply for a statutory improvement grant. The whole future of the estate lay on doubt for many years.

As a number of flats lay empty, partly due to disrepair, they began to be squatted; this was generally encouraged by the remaining tenants, to prevent the estate falling into complete decay. By 1983 squatters were established in many of the “voids” on the Pullens. Many of the ground floor flats on the estate in particular had lain empty, and a number had been fire by dossers; tenants preferred squatters who generally committed to doing the places up, renewing plumbing wiring etc. An alliance of tenants and squatters evolved.

The workshops in the adjacent yards had also become to host radical projects, a process that both stimulated and was boosted by the squatting on the estate. Women In Print, a women’s print collective ran from a space in Iliffe Yard, (as did as Seeing Red women’s poster making collective in the 1970s-early 80s). In 1982, like nearby print shop Union Place in Camberwell and the Advisory Service for Squatters in Islington, Women In Print were firebombed by fascists.

The squatted Pullens Centre in Crampton Street then hosted Cafe Bouche, and had become a community centre for both squatters and tenants.

The annual Pullens free festival was held on the vacant land at Pullens Green. This rocking alternative gathering, self-organised by residents, was often hassled by cops, ending in arrests more than once… the festival came to an end in the 1990s, and most of the Green, born from demolition, has since been built on, (adding insult to injury, part of it is now lying under the Walworth copshop!)

The large-scale squatting of the estate and the alliance of tenants and squatters frustrated the council’s long-term plans to demolish the whole of the Pullens. Southwark had become the most heavily squatted borough in London, largely due to the poor quality of the housing stock and the incompetence of the council. More than 60 per cent of empty council property in Walworth was squatted by the mid-1980s. A local squatters network, SNOW (Squatters Network of Walworth), highly organised, not only publicised empties and supported squatters against eviction, but built solidarity across the area. However, a massive crackdown/eviction campaign was underway across the borough.

An attempt at a mass eviction in November 1985 was seen off as squatters barricaded the stairwells.

But by June 1986 a plan to clear 800 squats from Southwark estates was underway. The council claimed they were intending to house people from the housing waiting list in the flats after they were evicted, and had pressured the squatters to move, and put their names on the list, with promises of rehousing. Since many squatters were already on the list, but as single homeless had small chance of actually getting allocated anywhere, this tactic didn’t wash.

On June 10th 1986, the Council tried to hold a mass eviction of 30 squats on the Pullens, with bailiffs backed up by squads of riot police, who arrived at 6am, breaking down doors with sledgehammers.

According to one supportive tenant, “The first family they threw out was a Vietnamese family who had no idea what was going on…”

But the council’s forces were outnumbered by resistance from 300 squatters, tenants and supporters – including from other areas of London. Cops and bailiffs were splattered with flour, paint and water bombs; “about 100 of us were blocking doors, jeering, stabbing tyres. It was SLOW, heavy barricades! Rain stopped & band struck up merrily again. More paint splatters the pigs… Van Burgh removal lorries, council, TV, thugs, scabs and wall to wall FILTH.”

The struggle in the streets and stairwells went on all day. The residents were aided by the architecture of the mansion blocks, with narrow doors to each stairwell, easily barricaded; the layout of each flat was an aid to barricading. “It took too long. Each door had to be smashed to bits, by 12 noon, they still had five flats to evict…

The flat roofs of the blocks were also easily accessible from the stairs, which helped with bombarding the forces of eviction from above (materials for the purpose had been stored on the roofs for a number of weeks in advance).

The tactic of painting out the numbers of the flats at the bottom of the stairwells also confused the bailiffs no end!)

It took an hour for the first flat to be evicted… Other flats were heavily barricaded with barbed wire, boards, steel and a concrete block. In the meantime, the convoy of council vans parked in Amelia St were forced to move onto Crampton Street after several of their tyres were let down by unscrupulous persons…

“WE WANT PETROL” we shouted as the sound system blared out ‘Anarchy in the UK’ from the barricaded flat. (They got in nevertheless, by sheer brute force, though at the next flat they had to give up… There were solid concrete blocks preventing the scum from entering!)

Bailiffs, council thugs and piggies all lined up and then pissed off as we jeered and cheered from the sidestreet. We all went back to the Pullens Centre for coffee and a meeting. Many squatters had crashed out after being up all night, but the place was packed and downstairs was full to the ceiling with evicted possessions and furniture. Outside the streets were littered with people’s furniture…”

In the end 16 flats were actually evicted on the 10th, but 19 were re-squatted the same day:

“A few squatters got up and talked at the meeting, explaining that no-one would be affected by PIO orders [allowing instant eviction without a court order if the flat had been allocated to a tenant before it was squatted] if the flats were re-taken by 2.30 pm, and proposing that people who wanted to re-squat with them put down their names and numbers… and volunteers and tools would be gathered…. We got down to business with a list and a crowbar and set out to re-squat.

It was all too easy, with few cops about, and in ten minutes we’d ripped the boardup crews best efforts off half –a-dozen squats. One was immediately re-squatted, but there was no sign of the other evictees. Then we started carrying furniture back in to squats. Phew what a job! [The steep and narrow stairwells made access with anything bulky a nightmare at Pullens at the best of times.- ed] Then we found a woman ready to move back in and set out to put a new door on her flat – No easy proposition as the old one was in little bits, the door frame badly damaged and the promised tools hadn’t arrived. But the magic of the Pullens worked again… that is to say a couple of years back the Pullens tenants had invited squatters to move into empty flats and half the squatters had become legal tenants in this way. We only had to knock on a few doors and we had all the tools we needed. In fact we spent the whole afternoon working on that one door… What with finding a door, cutting it to size, repairing the frame, fitting a lock, etc, etc… But all the flats were re-squatted by the deadline, at least symbolically, by sticking something in the doorway with a legal notice on it…”

The eviction cost £10,000 plus a claimed £8000 in damage and, er, alleged, theft of tools from contractors vans. And given the mass re-squat, was pretty futile.

The same day as this battle took place, around 22 flats were also evicted on the nearby Rockingham estate off New Kent Road, with no resistance and in under an hour. An attempt was made to re-squat these flats too that night, but 5 were immediately repossessed next morning “with bailiffs and council spouting PIOs…” In the end just 8 of the re-squats on Rockingham were held on to.

8 people were arrested during the Pullens resistance, on charges of obstructing bailiffs, assaulting police, damaging vehicles and police uniforms, and nicking council documents…

In the aftermath of the battle of Pullens, Southwark Council was forced to admit that clearing the estate of squatters was a waste of time. Many Pullens squatters eventually were granted tenancies [this also happened elsewhere on other nearby run-down estates, like the Kinglake), and a rolling program of improvement to the flats was begun (ironically several Pullens squatters were employed to carry out some of the work installing hot water and bathrooms).

Pullens squatters had managed to defend themselves because of a fairly unique situation, including widespread support from tenants, partly due to massive discontent with council disrepair, and general counter-cultural ethos to the estate. This ethos continued for many years, and an element of it remains today. A couple of years after the 1986 evictions, Fareshares Food Co-operative moved to the squatted empty shop at no 56, with volunteer workers providing cheap wholefoods an vegetables at cost price. In 1991, the disused rear of the shop was opened up as 56a Infoshop, social centre, archive, meeting and organising space. Both projects continue to this day (with the addition of a free self-help bike workshop), though many of the flats on the Pullens have since been sold off and now go for wodgy prices, as the once slummy Walworth/Elephant area is gradually repackaged as trendy and fit for the middle class… No doubt many of the newer Pullens residents would be horrified by the estate’s past – or even worse, thrilled but in a disgusting de-politicised hipster way. Urgh.

Fareshares and 56a continue the counter culture tradition on this unique council estate, despite the pressures of these times – privatisation of council housing, gentrification and speculation, community atomisation… The community created in the Pullens that turned out in its own defence in June 1986 and refused to be moved on, is less and less evident in London these days, though many such semi-autonomous zones evolved during the 1970s and 80s and gave birth to some inspiring and interesting ways of life. Squatting of course, in 1986 a huge part of urban London life, has now been largely outlawed and survives as a marginal relic, where 30 years ago it was a normal way to house yourself. This has taken place for a number of reasons, including a cultural change in the way people work/don’t work, a turn to property values as a driver of economics in the capital, the destruction of economies elsewhere in the UK and wider… a change in the way people grow up and what they want out of life. And much more. To those of us who lived through some of those earlier times, the dismantling of the lovely self-made cultures like the Pullens feels like a serious loss; an opportunity to alter the way we all live that got reversed. It’s worth noting that many London estates are now under attack from gentrification, demolition, re-shaping for a wealthier class of people and in private hands… Many of them have also evolved over many decades; a diverse and cosmopolitan culture also now threatened with being usurped by a bourgeois inanity. Resistance is building however…

Some things survive…

Thanks to the lovely 56a archive for information gleaned – there is loads more material there on London’s experience of squatting, housing, gentrification, development, etc, as well as numerous zines, mags, books and so much more.
Fareshares is great still too (not paying £16 for fancy-schmancy olive oil though, that seems a bit against the spirit of the place!). And the bike workshop is brill…

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in London radical history: the 1981 Brixton Uprising

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE FIRE THIS TIME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE WEEK BEFORE THE RIOTS

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Long Week

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ALL IN A DAY’S WORK

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

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

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

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

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

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

WARNING: THE LAUGHTER IS EXPLOSIVE!

SATURDAY 9pm

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

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

-bloody hell –

-let’s go –

confusion, indecision, fear, hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

walk up and down sightseeing. gaps in the memory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Great!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A RIOT A DAY KEEPS THE COPPER AWAY

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

COPS, DAMN COPS, AND STATISTICS

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

285 arrests

415 police officers and 172 members of the public injured

118 police vehicles damaged

4 police vehicles destroyed

61 private vehicles damaged

30 private vehicles destroyed

158 premises damaged

28 premises seriously damaged by fire

– Met Report on the Riot

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published in pamphlet form so far:

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

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

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

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

Trouble Down South:
Some thoughts on gentrification in Brixton.

Most of the above can be bought online here

and several good radical bookshops in London.

In preparation:

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

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 transport history: 20,000 busworkers strike, over planned privatising of some routes, 1987.

Plans for an attempt to introduce private tendering on some London bus routes, linked to plans for major cuts scheduled to take place over the following five years, sparked a 24-hour bus strike, on May 10th, 1987, in which 20,00 bus workers took part. The Thatcher government’s decision to open up London’s bus routes to private operators was a part of the comprehensive campaign to offload state-administered industries and infrastructure wholesale onto the private sector. Now, of course, mostly achieved, but in 1987, still a battleground whose outcome was uncertain.

Workers on London’s buses, as elsewhere, were aware that an essential element of this was an attack on wages and conditions – crews working longer hours for less money. This was the only way a bus service was likely to be profitable and thus attractive to the private sector. In London, however, services were not entirely deregulated, as they were elsewhere (under the 1985 Transport Act) – contracts to run a number of routes were basically up for auction for a specified term. For a number of reasons related to London’s position as capital, population, economy, this model was judged more appropriate than the wild west approach allowed to open up in the rest of the country (which led to chaos at bus stops, and, eventually, huge price rises in some cities).

The process of privatising London’s buses began with the creation of London Bus Ltd, which immediately began reducing wages and increasing hours. As one bus-driver, Graham Burnell recalled:

“I was a driver at Kingston and Norbiton garages from 1975 until 1990 … Unfortunately in June 1987 Norbiton became the first London bus garage to become a low cost unit where all routes were put out to tender and were won by reducing the drivers’ pensionable pay to £3.20 per hour whilst the London fleet rate was £4.17 per hour. We were also given decrepit vehicles to drive and the 39 hours week became 45 hours. Instead of the economical operation of a garage each end of the route i.e. Sutton and Norbiton, the tender trap meant all buses must come from one operator and consequently Norbiton ran empty buses to and from Sutton and West Croydon as positioning journeys whereas previously all buses ran in service. Our pay cut helped pay for this uneconomic operation.”

During the strike, an arson attack destroyed a double decker bus in Shepherds Bush Bus Garage.

The dispute continued to trigger stoppages and protests for several days after the one-day strike. On May 22nd, 20,000 workers were called at short notice to their garages for emergency meetings by their union, paralyzing most bus transport in the capital.

There were further bus strikes throughout the summer that year: on 21st August buses in the Norbiton area were again hit by strikes against the proposed competitive tendering as 2300 engineers stopped work.

None of which prevented the tendering process taking root. Undeniably, from the perspective of bus workers, in the years since, wages have been reduced. Employees are required to work longer hours, the infrastructure has been damaged (large numbers of bus garages have been closed down and replaced by depots with “third world” facilities). Technological changes first wiped out conductors completely since 1987, resulting in a more isolating, stressful and sometimes dangerous job for drivers. However, statistically, the tendering approach, as opposed to the fuller de-regulation applied in the UK more widely, has been associated with a rise in the numbers using buses, and in the general profitability of the contracts. This may well have something to do with the economic uniqueness of London as compared to almost everywhere else.

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Reports on some more recent strikes among London bus workers can be found here

……. here 

……………..here

……………………….here

……………………………..and here……

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in Publishing history: leftwing tabloid, News On Sunday, launched, 1987.

In the mid-1980s, sick of the right-wing bias of the press, a group of Uk leftwingers decided, instead of complaining about it, they would set up our own newspaper: “a radical, campaigning tabloid that would speak truth to power.”

Thus was the News On Sunday born. It lasted 6 weeks.

Below we reprint an account of the birth and death of News on Sunday, which we have unscrupulously nicked from the Big Flame history blog. Sorry, but theft comes natural. The account does emphasise former Big Flame members’ role in the paper, but others were involved…

“Possibly the most ambitious project to come out of Big Flame was News on Sunday. The aim was to set up a radical campaigning tabloid Sunday newspaper, to challenge the right-wing domination of the media. It was created, and launched on 26th April 1987. We raised £6.5 million. And lost it all in 6 weeks, though continued to publish for a further six months – funded by the TGWU in partnership with the eccentric millionaire Owen Oyston.

The idea came from Ben Lowe, and was first set out in the Big Flame discussion bulletin in 1978. His idea was to go beyond the ambitions of newspapers like Socialist Worker and the Morning Star and establish a paper that was a popular tabloid – selling in the newsagent alongside the mainstream press. His belief was that, if we could establish sales of 100,000, it could be commercially viable. He was to be joined by Alan Hayling (a long-time Big Flame member who had been a TV producer before going to work at Ford on the assembly line), who fronted the project, built alliances and co-ordinated the raising of the funding that made it possible.

By this time Big Flame had dissolved but this was certainly a project inspired by the ideas of BF. Many other projects inspired by left-wing groups did happen then, but News on Sunday was probably unique in the scale of its ambition, as shown by the £6.5 million needed to make it happen.

Alan and Ben brought together a range of people on the left, inspired by the idea of taking on the mainstream media rather than just complaining about it. All working for free, and with no promise of any reward, a rather good pilot edition was produced in the Autumn of 1985.

With persuasive market research – on the basis of the dummy edition – and a strong business plan, Alan persuaded Guinness Mahon (a City of London merchant bank) to take it to the city. But the mainstream City investors could not understand it. “Where do the founders make their money?” was a common question. I don’t think we ever consider making money out of it – not beyond a basic salary. That wasn’t our motivation, we wanted to change the world. To most city investors the lack of a financial incentive was just weird and they were out. (It was the equivalent of going on Dragons Den and asking for a large amount of money, but then saying they could have 100% of the shares.)

I was one of the group known as the Founders (though I stepped down when I was employed on the paper). Although the newspaper was owned by the shareholders, the Founders held a Golden share, designed to protect the values of the paper and prevent a takeover by the likes of Murdoch or Maxwell.

We also, over many months, set down the political charter on which the newspaper was to be based. This was intended as the guiding principles. The idea was that just as every journalist on the Mail knows, almost intuitively, the Mail angle on any story so would any journalist on News on Sunday know the angle to approach news from. In practice, though pinned up around the office, it was largely ignored and people went with their gut feeling – which was sometimes a radical and alternative interpretation and sometimes wasn’t.

The Independent had just succeeded in raising the investment it needed and it always struck me that there was a far less clear gap for that newspaper than for a radical Sunday tabloid. It seemed very unfair that the city had been prepared to back it simply because of the experience and the authority of the management team, but not to back our project. Sadly, they turned out to be right.

The money was raised from trade unions, from individuals and – the majority – from local authority pension funds. To my mind this was the Big Flame approach at its best – building bridges, working imaginatively and with great ambition. And there was no subterfuge. We laid out very clearly, in the Charter, what the paper was about. Core to our argument was that it could only succeed commercially if it was genuinely radical. I always described it as a left-wing version of the Mail on Sunday. I remember Ron Todd (General Secretary of the TGWU, who invested £550,000) questioning the position on Ireland, which called for British withdrawal. He was won round after Alan pointed out that this was exactly what a recent Daily Mirror editorial had called for.

I remember well the party on the night where the offer closed and we had succeeded, we had raised £6.5 million. So many on the left had told us it could not be done but we had worked with the system and raised the money. It was an incredible moment.

If that was the Big Flame approach at its best, we were about to see the approach at its worst. The revolutionary left, Big Flame included, was oppositional. It campaigned against things. We had no experience of organising anything except political struggles. I could check with ArchiveArchie but I doubt there was a single article in the Discussion Bulletin, over more than a decade, on how to manage an organisation.

Shortly after publication, as the crisis hit, a ‘company fireman’ called Roy Barber was called in to sort things out. I remember him being very puzzled. “I get called into companies in crisis and normally I find de-motivated people who are really not very good at their jobs. Here you have highly motivated and talented people – and yet you are heading for bankrupcy.”

Those involved will point to many explanations of what went wrong. Some say it was because John Pilger (involved during the dummy period) was pushed out, some that it was because of his behaviour. Some that we should have been based in London, not Manchester. Some blame Alan Hayling. Some blame Keith Sutton, the man we hired as editor (after he produced the strikers’ Wapping Post during the Times newspaper strike). Some blame the advertising agency with their inflamatory slogan “No tits but a lot of balls”.

I believe we created an environment in which it was impossible to succeed. It was full of endless meetings, back-biting, lack of clear responsibility and a sense of blame if you got things wrong. The debate over “No tits” became so heated that there were groups of people who wouldn’t talk to you if they suspected you of supporting it. You had to watch what you said and who you said it to. It was, with hindsight, what you would expect if you put a group of 80s lefties in charge of running an organisation. And I include myself in that.

When Vanessa Engle (who worked as an editorial assistant at News on Sunday) was producing the BBC2 programme on the newspaper, she asked when I knew it would fail – imagining I would say 26th April 1987, the Sunday of the first issue, when we realised how low the sales were. I replied that it was two months earlier. It was the end of a heated day of meetings when we had decided to pulp £85,000 of posters that were ruled unacceptable. I walked round the block and wept, for I knew then the newspaper could not succeed. It wasn’t even that I liked the posters. But I knew an organisation that was capable of agreeing to commission and spend this amount of money, and then – in its schizophrenic decision-making structure – decide to ditch it, could not succeed.

We, those who set up the newspaper, took over the management and hired a group of journalists. I often think it would have better to do the opposite, to hire a group of managers and take positions as journalists. Many of us knew how to write, as we showed in the dummy. And we knew very clearly the radical angle we wanted to put on the news. We had no idea how to manage.

The result is best expressed in the title of the book about News on Sunday, “Disaster” (by News on Sunday journalists Peter Chippendale and Chris Horrie). The advertising – the TV ads and posters – that survived the internal rows was feeble. An argument with retailers over the % of the cover price they received resulted in lack of enthusiasm on their part. And the paper itself, in my view, lacked the radical political bite that we had envisaged – and had succeeded in producing in the dummy.

The paper only rarely lived up to our hopes and was often hard to distinguish from competitors like the Mirror and the People. I remember one shameful cover story ‘exclusive’ proclaiming that a convicted rapist was to be freed because his victims had been found to be prostitutes. The article, from any radical perspective, should have been asking why that made any difference. It was published from this angle because we had got hold of the transcript, not yet made public, and so were first to reveal this information. (And, in fact, the transcript revealed that the judge still regarded him as guilty but he got off on a technicality.)

On Ireland I did manage to get a freelance journalist commissioned form the North, who could give the nationalist perspective and had great connections with the Republicans. Her first artic le, published in one of the pre-publication dummies, was hard hitting. But then I discovered it was, word for word, the same article as she had written for An Phoblacht, the Sinn Fein weekly newspaper. She couldn’t understand why that was a problem and wouldn’t agree to write different articles for us. It would have made News on Sunday an easy target for some.

After the SAS killed 8 IRA men in an ambush I did write an editorial asking whether eight more mourning families would make peace more likely. To my astonishment Keith Sutton published it. (I had joined the project partly because of my desire to be involved in journalism but this was the only thing I ever wrote for News on Sunday.) But after that the Ireland coverage reverted to the media norm of British troops versus the terrorists.

By the time of launch the costs had ballooned to the point where News on Sunday needed to sell 800,000 to break even. This was a long way from Ben’s original hope of 100,000 but, given the market research sales predictions of over 1 million, didn’t seem at the time to be a problem. It would be interesting to see what we would have created if all our plans had been based on a break even at – say 250,000. A tougher business person could have insisted on it.

In week 1 it sold barely half a million and we knew it would go down from there, as all new launches did. Owen Oyston, a Lancashire multi-millionaire who had made his money in estate agency, was already an investor and stepped in to try and rescue the paper.

The 1987 general election was imminent and it seemed for a time that if the newspaper, funded by Labour local authorities, went bankrupt in the middle of the campaign it would be a gift to the Tories – as a great example of “loonie lefties” in action. Oyston went to see Neil Kinnock, leader of the Labour Party. I don’t know what happened in the meeting but Oyston believed he was promised a knighthood if he could keep the paper going until after the election. With the TGWU he put in more money and the bankruptcy was delayed until the week after the election. The paper staggered on for four more months, owned and funded by Oyston and the TGWU.

I was by then Finance Manager and I remember bizarre trips to his mansion (where bison wandered the gardens) to have payments approved. Oyston was a strange character, for whom the newspaper – fresh off the press on a Saturday night – would be delivered by models from a local agency. He is better known now for the prison sentence he was to serve for rape.

I also came across a list of payments to local politicians, including £3,000 to somebody who is now a prominent North-West MP. It may have been perfectly legitimate but, when he discovered I had a copy, he went to great lengths to get it back. It was a sad end to have him in charge of our great idealistic project. I eventually left the newspaper, before it went bankrupt a second time, after refusing to sign the cheque to the model agency for ‘consultancy’. The head of the agency was later to go to jail with Oyston. It was a very seedy business.

The Golden share had proved to be no protection. Faced with the financial crisis and an ultimatum from Oyston (“give up the golden share or the paper closes”), the Founders had no alternative but to give in and hand over control.

After I left News on Sunday I set up a training business, now called Happy Ltd. When I am asked what motivated me to start Happy, I always refer back to News on Sunday. The greatest irony for me was that, for all our ideals, it was a far worse place to work than IBM – the great capitalist monolith where I worked in my year off. I left determined to find out how to create a company that was both principled and effective – and a great place to work in. I learnt most of what I know about how not to manage at News on Sunday.

We had great dreams. We would show it was possible to engage with the capitalist system and create an alternative within it. We succeeded in raising millions and, if we had succeeded, we could have set an example for others to follow. Instead we made it virtually impossible for a similar project to get funding again (though the actual amounts the pension funds lost was dwarfed by the losses caused by the crash of October 1987.)

And we didn’t even manage to create a publication that was especially radical or challenging. And, to me, that was down to our lack of ability in how to manage and organise to get the most from our people.

It could have been a truly great legacy of Big Flame. In fact those of us involved from BF did not play any separate role and certainly didn’t have a caucus of any type. We did have strong views on what should go in the Charter, meant to be the guiding document for the publication, but had no common view on the key question of how to build an organisation that could create a great paper – or the experience to make this happen.”

Henry Stewart, September 2010

Note on Big Flame

Big Flame were a Revolutionary Socialist Feminist organisation with a working class orientation in England. Founded in Liverpool in 1970, the group initially grew rapidly in the then prevailing climate on the left with branches appearing in a number of cities. One of the key sentences in the platform published in each issue of the newspaper was the statement that a revolutionary party was necessary but that “Big Flame is not that party, nor is it the embryo of that party”. This had the advantage of distinguishing them from some small groups who saw themselves as much more important than they were, but posed the problem of the ‘party’s’ real reason for existence.

They published a magazine, also entitled Big Flame, and a journal, Revolutionary Socialism. Members were active at the Ford plants at Halewood and Dagenham. They also devoted a great deal of time to self-analysis and considering their relationship with the larger Trotskyist groups. In time, they came to describe their politics as “libertarian Marxist“. In 1978 they joined the Socialist Unity electoral coalition, with the International Marxist Group.

In 1980, the anarchists of the Libertarian Communist Group joined Big Flame. The Revolutionary Marxist Current also joined at about this time.

However Big Flame was wound up in about 1984.

Much more on them here

For the fun of it: a TV ad for News On Sunday. Yes, it is bad.

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

Follow past tense on twitter

Today in London’s radical history: North London dole-workers’ strike ends, 1988, in defeat.

Throughout the 1980s the civil service, broadly speaking the UK state government’s employees, had seen a number of struggles against the Thatcher government’s attempts to reduce it in size, re-organise if on levels more amenable to their ideological worldview, and to enable it to more useful to them for their onslaughts on working people generally.

However, the Thatcher government was also desperate to reduce the huge, and exponentially increasing, benefits bill, which was eating a larger and larger share of the national budget (particularly in the late 70s-early 80s recession), to simplify the vast complexity of welfare regulations; but also to cut the dole queues by forcing people into a plethora of schemes, scams and training programmes, so as to make the figures look less disastrous.

Civil service ‘re-organisation’ began relatively early in the Thatcher years, when in 1981 a massive strike, the biggest civil service strike in history, erupted when the tories scrapped the pay agreement that had been in place since the 1950s.

This was a prelude to what Cabinet Office ministers called the “bonfire of regulations”, as numerous national pay structures and agreements were reneged on, and a systematic attack on pay, jobs and conditions began. This reflected the government’s wide front of attacks on trade union conditions and workers’ rights at that time.

In 1984, the government unilaterally banned trade union representation at GCHQ, (the intelligence listening centre where all forms of communications were, and are, monitored, to provide the government, through the secret services, with info on what other governments, organisations, individuals and all are saying to each other), claiming that joining a union was incompatible with ‘national security’. A number of mass national one-day strikes, and appeals to courts as far as Europe, failed to overturn this; meanwhile the government offered a sum of money to each employee who agreed to give up their union membership.

(NB: The ban was eventually lifted by the incoming Labour government in 1997, and in 2000, a group of 14 former GCHQ employees, who had been dismissed after refusing to give up their union membership, were offered re-employment, which three of them accepted).

GCHQ was a major defeat, and encouraged Thatcher and friends to press ahead with plans to cut and totally redesign the civil service.

Civil service employees in what could be jointly described as the welfare departments – ie Department of Employment and the Department of Social Security, faced some of the most far-reaching changes to conditions and staged some of the fiercest resistance.

One stronghold of stroppy civil service fightback was across Job Centres and DHSS offices in North London. A number of disputes climaxed, in late 1987-early 1988, in a wildcat strike, made official, by workers in a number of job centres and unemployment benefit offices across North London (and some other parts, of the capital, briefly), against forced transfers, in response to a swathing re-organisation of working conditions. It’s worth noting that shortly before this strike, in April-May 1987, a large-scale strike across London and the southeast, lasting several weeks, in unemployment and social security offices (as well as magistrates courts, air traffic controllers, and customs officers – over 70,000 on strike at one point) had paralysed the payment of benefits to the unemployed. In several North London boroughs, this had resulted in collective action by claimants to force local councils to pay out emergency payments to people who could not get their dole cheques – in Hackney, Haringey and Camden, Town Halls had been occupied, (in Camden, joined by some strikers, and in Hackney, they stayed for 2 days; in Haringey, Saint Bernie Grant, the black Labour Council leader, famous for backing rioters against the police, er, called the police, to evict the claimants), until the council paid out. Although these payments were later deducted from benefits in some cases, direct action got the goods – and some tentative links between strikers and claimants must have narked both govt and civil service management. The onslaught was to continue…

Below we reprint an account of the December 1987- March 88 North London civil service strike, by a participant.

NB: In the fine tradition of British state bureaucracy, names of almost all the benefits, departments and so on have been changed, merged or abolished since 1988. Other mentions in the text also merit some explanation. A glossary is therefore included at the end of the text.

“Inside Info on the North London Three Month Long Civil Servants Strike

By a woman civil servant who has worked for 10 years in one of the offices in dispute.

A strike has taken place by low-paid civil servants over the last 14 weeks across North London Department of Employment offices. It has also involved Job Centre and DHSS staff who came out in solidarity when they were asked to do UBO work. They were also suspended when they refused. It ended on March 31st, in defeat.

Apart from one short news slot on London TV News, it has been virtually blanked in the newspapers, national as well as local London papers. Indeed, it seems La Republica, the Italian daily, mentioned the dispute more than the English-based newspapers! This has led many of us strikers to conclude that perhaps there might have been an orchestrated conspiracy of silence, as it was rumoured that Alan Robertson, the new principal manager for the D.E.s, had Thatcher’s full backing.

Certainly management acted in an unusually hard, but predictably clever, fashion, and quickly dampened down and gave into disputes elsewhere in the civil service. Basically, management wanted some issue, to get rid of once and for all the militant disruption which has taken place over the last few years in the north London offices. A few days after the strike started, a mole at Head Office let us know that one of the top managers had walked out of a meeting saying, “This is the end of the CPSA [civil servants union]. It’s finished.” It seems the government wanted to inflict a defeat in the heart of North London’s militant offices in preparation for a long attack on civil servants’ work conditions. In order, perhaps, to prepare the stage for the horrendous April social security changes, merit wages, and flexibility, YTS employment, the privatisation of the Employment Service, the possible abolition of the dole and/or welfare paid through a cash card unit you can’t argue with! No civil servants. No problem. No claimants. No problem.

Since the amalgamation of the Job Centres and UBOs under the new title of Employment Service, staff at some North London UBOs would be compulsorily re-deployed to Job Centres without then filling the subsequent UBO vacancies. Previously transfers had been conducted on a voluntary basis with the union. Camden ‘A’ was selected as the pilot office. On December 21st (just before Xmas and fitting in with increasing managerial sadism) casuals at Job Centres were sacked and those – on a last-in first out basis – at Camden ‘A’ UBO were compulsorily transferred to the Job Centre. One girl casual in tears came to say goodbye to her friends in the UBO.

There was an immediate angry response and the strike started. On Jan 11th, after a ballot, Marylebone ‘A’ and ‘B’ and Westminster UBO walked out in support of their Camden colleagues. From then on the dispute accelerated to affect 30 to 35 UBOs, Job Centres and DHSS offices in North London.

Initially the strike was a spontaneous angry response to managerial diktat. Strikers visited other offices to win support. Very quickly, however, the strike was taken over by Militant and Socialist Workers Party Trotskyists who tried to use the striker as cannon fodder for their own party political ends. Some non-party strikers didn’t like the fact that SWP members were usually the ones to visit offices because they knew colleagues elsewhere would be suspicious of their motives.

As more offices joined in, mass meetings were held every Friday on Camden’s claimants union office [1], who were expecting any day to be evicted by the Labour party-controlled Camden Council. In no time, a self-elected strike committee, comprised mainly of SWP members, came into existence. After that the meetings were totally monopolised by the SWP, who used the occasion to have their own private (but much publicised) battle with Militant (who, in their turn, had a lot of influence on the official, [CPSA National Executive Committee]-appointed, disputes committee). Macreadie, deputy General Secretary of the CPSA, and Militant member, was present on the platform at all these mass meetings. Basically, Militant didn’t want the dispute escalated, while the SWP wanted an all-out London strike.

There was, in fact, a token one-day, all-out London strike on Feb 18th.

Brixton UBO wanted to come out in support but was denied strike pay by the NEC. Macreadie didn’t really want to see the strike extended to South London. In fact Brixton did come out for a while, and some staff there stayed out to the end.

After the mass meetings, Macreadie would report back to the NEC about the strikers’ decisions. Finally, after weeks of procrastination, a ballot was prepared for an all-out London strike but with the rider that Macreadie and the NEC decided – there should be no strike pay at all from the coffers of the CPSA, which is one of the richest unions in the UK. It was a calculated shoot-yourself-in-the-foot policy, which (as was probably intended) gave hard-nosed management a good laugh. As it was, after a low turnout, with only 60% of CPSA members voting, and with some offices not having ballots, the voting was reasonably close: 41% for, 59% against. Nobody really expected any other result. And like the miner before us, we’ve returned to work without any agreement, which has filled more than a few of us with the horrors.

The mass meetings became jargon-slanging matches with many determined and well-meaning strikers not realising what was going on. Generally, the same long-winded boring speakers would have their say every week. They weren’t talking to the meeting but trying to prove themselves to their party. A lot of strikers felt too intimidated by this speechifying party atmosphere to ask questions. Moreover, all speakers had to submit their questions to the chair and many questions were passed over with the excuse of insufficient time. One excellent proposal suggesting there should be a mass picket targeting on a particular office decided secretly the night before (a tactic which would have terrified many scabs and possibly would have gained much needed publicity) wasn’t even considered because it was a non-party proposal [2]. Tactics, in fact, didn’t emanate directly from the mass meeting but had been decided in advance in closed party sessions. In fact, the different trotskyists didn’t want direct action and relaxed open communication, but behaved as pressure groups on lumbering union bureaucratic procedure. Because all real discussion was suppressed, the meetings finally degenerated into mad debates on any unrelated, fashionable issue. One of the last meetings spent half the time drooling on about whether members could smoke or not!

Non-Militant, non-SWP strikers got rapidly pissed off and didn’t turn up for future meetings. Then strikers started to get suspicious about what was being discussed between the strike committee and management. Management let it be known to the scabs that all the strike committee wanted to talk about was SBS (Staff-basing Scheme) figures, which they wanted to stay over the 10% level. It wasn’t what Camden ‘A’ had walked out over in the first instance. Issues were being sling in by the self-elected strike committee which strikers knew nothing about and weren’t informed about. This resulted in more scabbing, plus the fact that the strike seemed to be going nowhere.

Towards the end of the strike, a union rank ‘n’ file group called ‘Workhouse’ produced leaflets criticising the running of the strike (a little too late). They had valid points (e.g. condemning the party political games, emphasising the need to take control of the strike fund etc) but after so much manipulation of strikers one was left with the feeling – maybe they had an axe to grind! [3]

In the militant offices in North London, because management over the years has been pushed back a lot, there’s often quite a merry-prankster, bawdy, joking atmosphere which can make it a pleasure to be with your workmates. It’s been said of these UBOs that strikes there are an unholy alliance of the hard left and the hard drinkers. Some of this atmosphere got carried over into the strike. Although the dispute was a serous business, the way it was conducted meant the strike became farcical. Joking was one of the outcomes. In fact, in no time at all, the joker occupied the front rows at the meetings purely to wind up the platform and to bring in a bit of comic relief. When arguing over dates for an all-out London strike, (the 14th or 28th of March) one hard-drinking striker loudly said ‘April 1st would be more appropriate’. Another loudly mused ‘Is Macreadie anaemic?” Another proclaimed, after a meeting’s conclusion, that ‘I haven’t had so much fun since my leg fell off.’ This repartee got the Trotskyists furious. Other comments were more serious. One person asked if Macreadie and co. would contribute 50% of their wages towards the hardship fund. The platform remained silent.

A lot of UBO/DHSS staff earn a lot less than a sizable proportion of the claimants moonlighting in the black economy (and good luck to them!). Throughout the 1980s, because we’ve been constantly standing up against further incursions by the Tory government plus a growing recognition of just how badly paid we are, there’s been a growing sympathy from many claimants [4] In one of our local West London pubs, where UBO staff were having an Xmas drink, a claimant gave a bottle of champagne, with a nod and a wink, to a desk clerk. Delighted cheers all round!

It’s unfortunate, but during the strike it was the poor claimants who were the real ones to suffer. Outside one office, pickets on a stint were confronted, on a bitterly cold winter’s day, by a mam and dad with 2 kids who had no socks on their blue-with-cold tiny feet. These parents were enquiring about emergency payments. The pickets were devastated, and suggested a whip-round to help them. In other circumstances, this has happened before in the past.

Of all people, though, the fraud squad was running emergency offices for pay-outs. One such was Paddington Green church hall. In fact, there were heavy scenes and police were constantly called in. Obviously, the fraud squad were scabs and ready to fill in for striking staff but they also did this ‘service’ with an eye to their future career. Obviously they were trying to nail claimants who were claiming and working. Job Club and Restart didn’t strike (though in the one-day strike against YTS in late ’87 some Restart staff did strike).

Although receiving half take-home pay from the CPSA, strikers supplemented their hand-outs by finding jobs – ironically considering our function – in the black economy. When doing these jobs, they were afraid to say they were striking UBO/Job Centre staff because they were often working alongside people who were signing on. Strikers were worried in case some claimant recognised them and thought they were undercover fraud squad agents!

Once it became apparent we were being manipulated by the SWP and others, a lot of strikers forgot virtually about the strike – even though they’d never cross picket lines. They silently got their heads down waitressing, baking croutons in a bakery, pairing up shoes in a factory, handing out free rush-hour mags etc. Sadly, quite a few of the best people who could have made an imaginative contribution to the strike, left the civil service during the course of this dispute. The danger is that this could make the scabs cockier.

We returned to work on the 31st March, defeated, but with our heads held high, to be told ‘Welcome back’ by management. Maybe this was an individual response but it makes one suspicious. A lot of the scabs looked shame-faced and so they should – the amount of overtime they had been clocking up meant they had been doing very well by stabbing their striking colleagues in the back.

Management seems wary of crowing too much, because of the imminent restructuring of the civil service. It’s going to mean many fights in the offing.

April 1st 1988.

According to the Wise brothers on their Revolt Against Plenty site, the above was written by Jean Richards:

Jean worked as a civil servant in a UBO (Unemployment Benefit Office) in Marylebone and Kilburn, northwest London. What an eye! She saw and just as often provoked the hilarious in any given situation driven by an Irish sense of the absurd in daily life. Hardly surprisingly during the 1980s the offices she worked in were packed with a radical ferment combined with many a ‘mad’ incident amidst the personal chaos of office affairs etc and “Allo Allo”(TV sitcom) type piss-takes on the same. Secrets and peccadilloes were also something to be played with as a means of pushing the daily grind into the background and anything, literally anything, could be transformed into a comic turn subverting the bureaucratic boredom… a strike broke out in a number of offices and Jean’s office joined in. Though instigated by local branches of the civil servants union, by now other more consciously aware forces were developing a focus, mirroring to some degree what was happening on building sites and perhaps elsewhere which we knew nothing about. In Jean’s office in Kilburn this involved a small caucus of autonomists calling themselves Workhouse and guided by a studious but dedicated Chinese guy and his girlfriend whom Jean amusingly referred to as “the stick insects” – simply because they were so thin. Visible enough they occasionally distributed leaflets but looking back historically they just didn’t really have enough time to make their presence felt before the big, general crackdown throughout society. The union caucus in her office though opposed to the union big wigs was Trotskyist (SWP) and really didn’t know what to make of this caucus, this ‘new force’ appearing within their midst. There was however no problem with this during the strike as the main problem concerned scabs. One night, Jean together with one of the writers of these reminiscences regaled with super glue and sand sealed up the back entrance locks to the buildings, which the scabs crawled through every morning. To support Jean financially we took her to work on building sites as a cleaner upperer (all on equal wages) and she instantly became the best cleaner upperer in history! We also gave Jean the task of typing up “Once Upon a Time there was a Place called Nothing Hill Gate” awarding her the best wage rates of any office or typing pool. Sadly though the strike went on for weeks the outcome was again defeat.”

This account was reproduced as a leaflet after then end of the strike by BM Combustion, and reprinted in a News From Everywhere Bulletin in 1988. BM Combustion also compiled the following notes on the text (so the views there were theirs, not necessarily those of the original writer of the above):

1 – Camden Claimants: During the strike some people at Camden Claimant Union (CU) wanted to produce a leaflet in support of the strike but claimed they couldn’t as the council had cut off their funds. This was a poor excuse – they could easily have got them printed at other claimants unions. The excuse was probably to hide more secret reasons: as a claimant from another C.U said of Camden C.U., “what gets put out doesn’t depend on what you say but who you are – Camden C.U is largely organised around cliques…”

2 – Mass picketing: The outright rejection of even a discussion of mass picketing could have been a starting point for a challenge both to the bureaucrats, and to the union form of the struggle: in order to discuss such basic actions a completely different form of struggle has to arise. It’s worth considering some of the struggles elsewhere, whose actions could be exemplary. Like, for instance, the French railway workers strike of 1986-87. There, over a month before the strike, a class-conscious train driver put out a petition calling for a pledge from other drivers to an indefinite strike, listing the various demands. It was asked that this petition/pledge be reproduced and passed round by those in agreement. It receive an overwhelming response, & so later a leaflet was produced by other train drivers, two and a half weeks before the strike, also to be reproduced and passed around: it clearly put the strikers’ demands, stating exactly when the strike would begin, asking for the unions involved to support the strike, threatening them if they didn’t. the strike began without a single command from the unions – and developed partly by means of daily assemblies of strikers held in each station, in which no particular striker held any greater power than any other. Where delegation seemed necessary, it was subject to immediate recall by the assemblies. Of course, many exemplary actions – such as sabotage – were carried out without discussion in the assemblies, and occasionally specifically against the desires of the majority. But, without wishing to make out that assemblies are some insurance for active commitment, they did provide an environment of direct communication which made manipulation largely impossible, and provided the strike with some continuity. And it’s a challenge to traditional left-wing notions that such a magnificent collective activity had been launched by a simple individual initiative. Of course, you can never mechanistically transplant workers’ struggles elsewhere and in other times to the here and now, but they’re still worth considering and applying to different circumstances.

3 – Workhouse: At a meeting on the Wednesday before the return to work strikers from ‘Workhouse’ put forward – as a bloc – the idea of returning to work on the Tuesday after the bank holiday, rather than the Thursday before Good Friday, an idea also hoped for by sections of management. After all, since every striker knew they were returning on the Thursday just to get their two day holiday money, it could only mean that Workhouse were, as one striker put it, “just wanting to be different.”

4 – Claimants: see the (mostly) excellent leaflet ‘The Strike and other struggles – some views from a claimant’s perspective’.

On which note; here is the text of that claimants’ leaflet:

The Strike… and Other Struggles

Some views from a claimants perspective.

It is unfortunate that this strike should end just when real links were being developed between strikers and claimants – discussion was underway for the joint organisation of a demo by claimants and strikers to publicise the dispute, joint leaflets for the national unwaged day of action on April 11th, joint action for emergency payments if necessary… Formal and informal links always exist but its hard to forget that our daily contact is across a counter and shatter-proof screen, as well as less physical barriers. But your struggle is not over, and we too have many battles ahead, through which to develop our common struggle. Maybe the horror of returning to work alongside the scabs could be lessened by pointing them out to claimants as those (partly) responsible for lack of improvement in our conditions.

The most important factor in the success of the strike, and the respect gained from claimants (and others) was the fact that it was organised, run and controlled by the strikers themselves. There have been continual attempts to disguise (and so sabotage) this strength, by the SWP’s constant complaining that the union bureaucrats weren’t leading it. Their bleating about leadership is really nothing more than whining about the fact that nobody’ll follow them, the self-proclaimed leaders of the working class! The party bickering merely sabotaged debate, while the part lines themselves served to stunt the development of more direct tactics, mass pickets etc. – those who know the difference between discussion and parroting the party line must learn to deal with those who don’t. But recognising this strength of the struggle must also mean taking responsibility for the failures, not blaming them on those we should’ve known years ago will at best do nothing and at worst sabotage [sorry there’s a bit missing here!- typissed]

The union leaders and bureaucrats are not being forcibly transferred to Job Centres, their jobs, ages and conditions are not threatened by cheap labour schemes, they don’t have to face screaming, homeless, broke, confused claimants day in day out, their jobs aren’t being moved across the country into clerical factories… which is just as well for them, as if they did have to go on strike, who’d notice? The only threat to their jobs comes from ‘their’ members, getting out of their control, organizing their own struggles, making and enforcing their own demands and making their own real contacts with other sectors of the working class. Today we have the unpleasant spectacle of union leaders queuing up to offer their services to the bosses, to make deals that will mean greater control of the workforce, by the bosses, through the unions. We’re offered for sale, at any price, so the leaders can get their cut, which sounds rather like pimping. In Italy, where railworkers, airport workers, teachers and others have been running their own strikes, through ‘committees of the base’ (Cobas), mass assemblies with revocable delegates to the national co-ordinating committee, the union leaders having gone to the government to demand the banning of strikes in the public sector. Is this leadership?

The restructuring they’re trying to impose in dole and SS offices is the same as in every other sector, the same re-imposition of profitability, the same screwing the last ounce of labour out of the workforce. They tried to force UBO staff into new jobs the same as they try forcing us claimants onto cheap labour schemes. But this unified attack means that our immediate interests are even more unified, along with our common experiences and struggles. And the enforced flexibilisation and the de-skilling technology are themselves destroying the separation of those who happen to do different work, leaving only our ability to labour ,and our ability to fight. It has never been more clear that each struggle is the struggle of us all. Together we can not only fight these attacks, but also destroy the domination of profit over our lives and our production.

On April 11th we’ll be outside Archway Tower 9-11 (and probably other local offices) and outside Alexander Fleming House at 1. Where will you be – inside carrying out the cuts? [Again, there may be a line missing after this. Typissed. Not sure who produced this leaflet, either…]

Glossary/explanations/locations

Now these are past tense’s, and ours alone, so snipes to us and no other.

CPSA – The CPSA has now become Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS).

Department of Employment – Possibly the lostest cowboy in the west… amidst a bewildering succession of name changes and mergers of branches of government since 1988, the functions of this Dept, and that of the DHSS (via some mind-fuckingly rapid amalgamations and subsequent rethinks), now come under the Dept of Work and Pensions.

DHSS –  the Department for Health and Social Security, the central government branch running the Health Service and all areas of benefits and welfare at the time. In 1988 Health and Social Security were separated into two Departments; so the Department of Work and Pensions is the DHSS’s modern successor. Many claimants in the ‘80s just called them the SS, after everyone’s favourite nazi unit. There is NO truth to the rumour that the DHSS break up was prompted by govt ire at the anti-authoritarian funkability of the name’s being evidenced in the Wham! Rap (RIP George Michael, if only for that little number alone).

UBO – Unemployment Benefit Offices, where you used to go and sign on every two weeks, so you could get paid your girocheque. Yes, a cheque, which you’d mostly get posted two days later, and then cash at the post office, assuming your dog hadn’t ate it, or you’d dropped it in the canal while cycling there at 12.25 on a Saturday, or Mad Terry, your ‘mate’ had not nicked it and (allegedly) given the money to oxfam. Etc. (the sacredness of the cult of the Giro most excellently giving rise to the Men they Couldn’t Hang’s fine version of an Irish classic, “Whack-fol-me-daddy-oh, I’ll buy Whiskey with Me GIRO!!!”)
UBOs are now merged within the Job Centre. Or Job Centre Plus, but they make you work a lot harder for your money, filling in those slips lying about the jobs you’ve tried to get, and sending you on those weird courses where you learn to sell yourself.

Thatcher – (is it daft, surely there are no young people reading this!) – this refers to then Prime Minster Margaret Thatcher, figurehead for the restructuring of capital and labour in the UK over the last 40 years – objectively the needle is currently favouring capital. If ‘impact on society and class relations’ was an arcade game she’d be up there in the high scorers.

YTS – Youth Training Schemes. Cheap labour designed to imprison the teenage jobless in pointless crap so they didn’t go out and riot; benefits would be withdrawn if you didn’t turn up. So shit even the government eventually decided simply cutting under 18s access to benefits completely was better value for money. YTS did however keep a lot of liberal lefties and other assorted bullies in work/voluntary work, though, and its legacy may well be remembered in the whole industry of parasitical scum who make fortunes by processing, administering, ‘training’ and assessing benefit claimants, and school leavers in particular. Now a multi-billion-pound privatised industry, one of the major changes instigated under thatcher and cemented by New Labour (obviously the gobbldy-jargon and bollokspeak increased dramatically after 1997).

Militant – The Militant Tendency, ideological heirs of the mainstream Trotskyist Revolutionary Socialist League, these days known as the Socialist Party. For may years a large faction in the Labour Party, their expulsion by the Kinnock-led Party hierarchy through the 1980s was reflected also in power struggles within unions, the CPSA being a notable example. Broadly speaking a more working class membership than its main rival, the Socialist Workers Party, also more dogmatic, a tiny bit more able to concentrate and stick with stuff (contrast the SWuPpies inability to hang around longer than you can shout ‘something superficially more photoworthy is happening down the road’). Equally able to fuck up almost any struggle though, as their titanic effort to control, and then sabotage the uncompliant sections of, the anti-poll tax movement witnesses.

SWP – The Socialist Workers Party – yes, that one, still around. Unlike virtually every other left grouping they have kept the same name/identity since the late 1970s, which might be because they have, a) found it a mite tough to keep any kind of stable consistent set of politics, b) decided to basically appeal to a new set of students every 3 years so the brand tarnishment affect hasn’t kicked in so heavy, or c) literally every other possible left-look domain name on the internet has been bought up now. The Swurp brand has been dinted even more in the last few years since the party hierarchy rallied to defend a leading member who raped a young party activist, leading to large numbers of members leaving. But since memory is short, turnover in leftist circles rapid, and willingness to ignore or condone abusive behaviour when it threatens other worldviews extremely common, the SWP remain ‘a force’ on the British Left. In galactic terms…hmm…

John Macreadie – Sometime General Secretary of the CPSA – Having worked in the civil service since the 1960s, and led the successful CAA Air Traffic Control Assistants strike in 1977, Macreadie, a long-time member of the group that evolved into the Militant Tendency, had risen within the Broad Left caucus of the union, to the point where in 1986, he stood for the post of General Secretary of the CPSA. In the elections, Macreadie initially won the ballot, but this was overturned after the ‘moderate’ union faction called in the courts; re-run, Macreadie lost. He was elected as Deputy General Secretary of the union in 1987, only to be named as one of a ‘dirty half-dozen’ by Gen Sec John Ellis in an ‘expose of the Militant-led left in the union.’ He remained a national CPSA, then PCS officer, till 2005, and died in 2010.

Tis worth noting that at the same time Macreadie was ensuring the 1988 strike was paralysed and sabotaged, Tory govt and CPSA officials were colluding to undermine him and other leftwing leaders.
Just because they’re seeking to control you and sabotaging your self-run struggles doesn’t mean that our rulers don’t have a jaundiced view of their dangerousness to capital.

Workhouse – A Rank and File group which emerged among workers in South London Dept of Employment offices from Autumn 1986. Dave Wise’s Revolt Against Plenty post calls them autonomists. A PDF of their 1988 pamphlet/manifesto gives a reasonable context to the above account of the N London strike in terms of the CPSA, government plans etc…
No idea what happened to them post-88… Would be interested to know tho…

Moonlighting – working secretly while claiming some kind of unemployment benefit. At the time the above was written, a widespread practice, even routine for many of us, and no morals attached. Also widely practiced was having more than one claim in either the same of different names at different dole offices. Developments in data sharing have made both mostly a thing of the past, these days (unless you are an out of work former undercover cop, who happens to have a false identity in the name of a dead child handy). It’s fair to say that the shift of ground socially and politically to the right/conservative over the last 30 years has made the idea of moonlighting, or even working cash in hand (ie plebs paying no tax), less socially acceptable, where it was once common ground. Legal, technological and ‘moral’ evolution has worked to push it into the fringes; we can’t really go into it here but this is an interesting point for discussion (tho possibly only to old folk like us?)

Fraud squad – the investigators who check up on and bust claimants suspected of making fraudulent claims, working on the side, lying about disabilities etc. Generally loathed not only by claimants but other workers in job centres too.

Some of the Offices mentioned

Camden ‘A’ Unemployment Benefit Office, was on Camden Road, near to Camden Road overground station.

Camden Claimants Union office – was located, I think, in a building next to the Unemployment Benefit Office on Camden Road.

Archway Tower – then housed DHSS offices for much of North Islington.

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The North London strike (and the 1980s struggles within the civil service that preceded it) was the immediate prelude to vast changes in how the civil service departments dealing with benefits and welfare were run, as well as huge alterations in the management of the unemployed, those on any form of disability benefits or benefits for raising children. It would be impossible to go into that now. Briefly it has become much harder to claim, restriction, surveillance and sanctions are drastically applied, and cuts are regular and increasing. A massive increase in those working minimum hours and also claiming in work benefits like Working Tax Credit has enabled wages to be kept low in many arenas. What did pass for a claimants’ movement that existed in the 1970s-80s mostly died off, to be periodically revived, but with great difficulty and mixed success. It’s fair to say that the culture has altered almost unrecognisably since 1988, not only in terms of the dole and people’s attitude to claiming, but also to collective resistance.

Similarly with the workers in the various dole offices: the 1990s saw vast swathes of civil service welfare work being either moved to call centres, compartmentalized in huge offices in farflung regions of the UK, or hived off to quangos or private firms. In many cases a combination of these. Organising in this modern situation is tough, though not impossible, see:

Read some interesting writings on more recent organising within the ‘civil service’

For a (slightly earlier) text on unwaged struggles in North London, see Unwaged Fightback: A history of Islington Action Group of the Unwaged.
Also available as a pamphlet re-published by past tense, which can be bought here.

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A final note on the left, and unions – A major arena of activity for all leftwing parties being trade unions, because even the doltiest Dimitrov can see that’s where there’s a lot of recruits to be gathered, sorry, ‘where the working class is organised’. The practical result of this is a massive amount of effort spent on capturing and keeping hold of, various union structures, from branch to regional to national level. Only a daft hap’orth suggests unions serve no useful function – and some of these are even in their members’ interests! Decades of anti-trade union legislation in the last 40 years have only compounded (or masked?) the basic reality of a leading role unions’ have been playing for years – as administrators, auditors, and all too often, pacifiers and gate-keepers, of workplace struggles.

To say this is not to say there aren’t and haven’t always been thousands of union activists and members doing useful and brilliant work for themselves and others.

The interminable hours of left maneuvering as described briefly in the strike account above reflect the wider obsession with control of union branches and other structures that fixates some of the left. It’s a complex issue, since members are also workers and union members; but Party strategy can often revolve around worming into union positions, and maintaining them, at the expense of the needs and desires of the workers in question. 1988 or now, this is hardly a dead issue. The catastrophic decline in union membership since then (and has anyone done a corresponding study of left group membership?), to be fair, results from many more myriad causes, but the alienating leninny dick-waving Jean describes above has been – and remains – utterly off-putting to non-leftists, while bafflingly many union branches routinely ignore the immediate needs of workers/slightly different reality of now to 1917.

Another question remains though, and its not trite – if an urgent fight is going on, and the leftists/union leadership are fucking it up, what do you do? Apathy, cynicism, disillusion are all options – taken by the vast majority. Many choose to be active both inside unions, because lots of people are there and there’s useful links to be made there, often despite the structures of the unions – both national AND local. But also, some people find they can often do more effective things individually or collectively beyond these structures. In the end both have their uses, and their drawbacks.

The examples BNC give in the notes of workplace vitality in other countries are illustrative – but as they point out, you can’t simply import tactics, or transplant cultures. This is a huge discussion that we can hardly even begin here, but its urgency is blindingly and headachingly immediate…

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An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in policing history: #spycop Bob Lambert sets fire to Debenhams Store, Harrow, 1987.

A few short years ago, Bob Lambert’s star was rising high. Having retired from the Metropolitan Police in 2008, he had built on his reputation as a Special Branch Detective Inspector, an expert on terrorism and how to combat it. He had moved effortlessly into academia and was a hit on the conference circuit, lauded as a mover and shaker in a number of projects both state-funded and grassroots-based, aimed at opposing Islamic jihadism. A darling of liberal opinion.

How the mighty have fallen.

Since 2011, Bob’s reputation has been somewhat on the slide: exposed as a former police spy, an agent provocateur, who had used relationships with several women he met while undercover to beef up his cover story… Later, a head of the same undercover police unit he had served, supervising other spies infiltrating social movements and grieving families. His liberal aura has lost its gloss; he has had to give up some lucrative and prestigious academic positions; he faces serious questions about his past.

Lambert is described as having joined the Metropolitan Police in 1977. He is said to have joined Metropolitan Police Special Branch in 1980, before being recruited to its secretive Special Demonstration Squad sometime between then and 1983.

Set up in 1968 in response to mass protests against the Vietnam War, and funded directly by the Home Office, the purpose of the SDS was to place long term spies in political movements in the UK, to gather ‘intelligence’ which was used to undermine those movements. The SDS spied on several hundred anti-capitalist, anti-racist, anti-war, environmental and social justice groups, and many more, over 40 years. The work of uncovering the more than 140 former police spies is ongoing.

As part of these undercover operations, agents, including Bob Lambert, had long term intimate and sexual relationships with campaigners and their friends, in the most abusive breach of trust imaginable. This abuse has had a severe and lasting emotional impact on those affected. Lambert has admitted he had four sexual relationships while undercover and even fathered a child before disappearing without trace from their lives.

Bob Lambert was deployed undercover using the alias ‘Bob Robinson’ from at least early 1984 until late 1988. For about 5 years up to 1988, Bob infiltrated meetings and events of London Greenpeace, an organisation which campaigned against nuclear power and war, and on other environmental and social justice issues. He was also actively involved with peace campaigns and animal rights activities and was even prosecuted for distributing ‘insulting’ leaflets outside a butchers shop. ‘Bob Robinson’ first appeared in the animal rights and environmental milieu in north London late 1983 or early 1984. His deployment followed that of the first known SDS officer sent to live amongst animal rights activists, Mike Chitty, who appeared in South London in early 1983.

His infiltration into animal rights circles began with regular attendance at demonstrations, where he made the acquaintance of genuine activists. He soon became a familiar face at protests, and offered to drive people to and from events. He took part in hunt sabotage, protests against businesses associated with animal products, and joined London Greenpeace, an anarchist-leaning group involved in environmental and social issues.

Having established himself on the scene, he took on more responsibilities and a more active role in various campaigns and groups, and “set about befriending campaigners suspected of being in the ALF” [Animal Liberation Front]. He wrote or co-wrote a number of activist documents, including London Greenpeace’s What’s Wrong With McDonald’s? factsheet – which was later subject to a notorious libel suit issued by McDonald’s. Throughout his undercover tour as ‘Robinson’, Lambert implied to activists that he was interested in or already involved in more clandestine forms of political activity, such as that associated with the cells of the Animal Liberation Front (ALF).

As an activist in an ALF cell, he took part in a co-ordinated clandestine action on the night of 12th July 1987, which saw the burning down of the Harrow branch of the Debenhams department store, using an incendiary device designed to set off sprinklers and destroy fur stocks. Two more branches of Debenhams, in Luton and Romford, were targeted at the same time on the same night. The 1987 attacks, which caused an estimated £340,000 worth of damage on the Harrow branch alone, with £4 million in fire damage and £4.5 million in trading losses across all three, was credited with precipitating the ending of Debenhams’ involvement in the fur trade.

In fact, Bob was acting as an agent-provocateur, encouraging and taking part in the action to ensure the arrests of ALF activists. The other two members of ‘Robinson’’s cell, Geoff Sheppard and Andrew Clarke, were both arrested and subsequently imprisoned. A 2015 “forensic external examination” of SDS-related documents undertaken by Stephen Taylor for the Home Office obliquely references Lambert’s involvement in securing the arrests of Sheppard and Clarke, and indicates that the then-Home Secretary Douglas Hurd complimented the unit on its operation.

Lambert remained deployed in the field as ‘Robinson’ until late 1988. Using the pretext of being under investigation by police for his involvement in the 1987 Harrow Debenhams’ arson – which included a Special Branch raid on the home of his then ‘partner’ Belinda Harvey “to add credibility to Lambert’s cover story” – ‘Robinson’ told Harvey and other friends, including his son’s mother, Jacqui, that he needed to go ‘on the run’ to avoid capture; to some he said that he planned to move to Spain until things quietened down. He then “abandoned his flat and stayed for a couple of weeks in what he called a ‘safe house’”, before spending a farewell week with Belinda at a friend’s house in Dorset in December 1988. With this, he disappeared out of their lives, with a few postcards postmarked Spain and sent in January 1989 the only indication that he still existed.

In reality, he continued to work within the police, rising to become a Detective Inspector in Special Branch, and to head the Special Demonstration Squad. He supervised other SDS agents who spied and lied while infiltrating groups such as London Greenpeace, Reclaim the Streets, anti fascist groups and campaigners against genetically modified crops. His experience in penetrating London Greenpeace and the ALF was used as a model for other agents. He is also directly implicated in police attempts to spy on, smear and discredit Stephen Lawrence’s family’s campaign against the police failures to investigate Stephen’s racist murder in 1993; and implicated in the scandal of SDS surveillance-derived intelligence being passed to private firms organizing blacklist against trade unionists.

After Lambert’s SDS past was exposed publicly by former activists in London Greenpeace in 2011, Lambert eventually ‘apologised’ for his sexual exploitation of women while undercover; but his is not an isolated case. Of some 15 other undercover police agents now identified as spying on activist groups in the last 20 years have, almost all have had deceitful and exploitative relationships with women. Top cops claim these spies were ordered not to form sexual relationships; but in reality supervisors turned a blind eye to what comes very close to rape. Ten women used in this way by police spies have won damages and an apology from the Metropolitan Police as the institution ultimately responsible for this; one is still suing the Met. More cases will surely result as further individual police spies are exposed.

Lambert continues to deny setting fire to the Debenhams Store in Harrow in July 1987. However Andrew Clarke and Geoff Shepherd have launched an appeal against their convictions, on the grounds that the failure to reveal the involvement of a police agent provocateur as central to the ‘plot’ constitutes a miscarriage of justice. Look forward to seeing Bob have his day in court THIS time around. And now the Met’s Professional Standards Department is investigating the 1987 attack. It’s fair to say that while the police top brass will enable some very dodgy practices and cover for you, it will only go so far – if you start looking like a liability, they will hang you out to dry. Sorry Bob. 

These undercover police were not involved in ‘anti terrorist’ operations, they were spying to disrupt and weaken the growing opposition to the domination of our society by the interests of multinational corporations, and attacking community campaigns dealing with police corruption, racist or state violence. Several official inquiries and investigations have been launched into undercover policing, because of the huge public outcry the exposures have created. But its worth stressing that Lambert’s activities – both in terms of spying and of exploiting women for cover and for sex – fit into a pattern, sponsored by the highest levels of the police and the state behind it. He was not a bad apple – the whole barrel stinks.

However, Bob’s exposure has dimmed his post-police career. His part-time posts at London Metropolitan and St Andrews Universities were called into question in the light of his past being brought to light, and in late 2015 he resigned both positions after protests inside and outside both institutions. Tragic.

The upcoming Public Inquiry into Undercover Policing may well also lift some lids off many practices top cops would rather stay hidden…

Much more on Bob’s career can be found here

(from which some of this post was brazenly lifted).

And for more on the fight to expose undercover police in the UK (and beyond):

The Campaign Opposing Police Surveillance

Spies Out Of Lives: The campaign supporting women exploited and deceived by spycops

The Undercover Research Group: uncovering undercover police agents, the units they worked for, and the police structures that backed them.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s rebel history: Second mass riot of the year, Brixton, 1981

As mass protests rock the USA against racist police killings… And thousands march in Brixton in solidarity… We remember events there 35 years ago today. Police violence continues: so does the resistance.

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After the seminal April 1981 Brixton Riot, the summer of ’81 saw a wave of riots, rebellions and uprisings across Britain. An explosion of rage and frustration against repressive policing, increasing poverty, and authority in general.

There was an amazing atmosphere throughout the country as riots kicked off everywhere: feeling of anticipation, where would rioting happen next… also spread of rumours (sometimes wildly exaggerated), of riots in other places, of National Front marches in response. In Walworth there were rumours of 10,000 NF marching, that trouble was going off in Lewisham, Greenwich, Battersea, Brixton… while “the citizens of Lewisham, Greenwich, Battersea, Brixton were at that moment believing the pillaging was taking place in the Walworth Road… Rumour, counter-rumour, fantasies and dreams… If someone was told a story then they just a little more to it and passed it on to somebody else…”

Press headlines definitely whipped it up, and rioters were conscious of making an impact in the media, eg Wood Green rioters played radio reports of other riots back at the cops facing them in the street, to wind them up.

In Brixton itself, tense and on edge since April, the cops were unpredictable, sometimes playing it ‘softly softly’ in case it went off again, sometimes turning up in numbers. A resident at the time wrote: “Police numbers have visibly decreased, but detectives are numerous and everywhere.” Houses were raided looking for looted goods from the April do, and most of those arrested in April were banned from Railton Road as part of their bail conditions.

People were waiting for the area to erupt again. In the last week of May “it nearly happened again! Policeman allegedly got a brick in the nose, and the perpetrator of this horrific crime escaped into no 50 Mayall Road… 2 coachloads of cops arrived and within minutes the street was full of cops and people. The cops withdrew as they were shit scared.”

As well as local tensions, other eyes were on Brixton. In June, the anarchists at the 121 Bookshop received a visit. “3 black-raincoated gentlemen claiming to be from the Municipality of Rotterdam came in for a “tete-a-tete”, sincerely desiring first hand information with the aim of preventing similar uprisings in Rotterdam!! It was explained to them that anarchists don’t collaborate with governments, local caring ones or otherwise. They bought 1 Libertarian Workers Group Bulletin and one said he’d come back later as a ‘human being’ as he’s ‘very interested.’””

For a wondrous romp through the riots of 1981, as well as a (only slightly dated) theoretical analysis of it all, BM Blob’s ‘Like A Summer With a Thousand Julys’ can’t be beat.

“AMMUNITION, BRING AMMUNITION!”

Over a week of urban insurrection began on July 3rd when heavy-handed policing sparked a riot in Liverpool 8… Scores of cities and towns went up all over the place.

On Friday 10th July 81, symbolically a few hours after Lord Scarman finished Part One of his inquiry into the April riot, fighting broke out in Brixton again.

At about 4pm on the Friday, DJ Lloyd Coxsone and a mate were nicked for obstruction in Vining Street, after trying to intervene in the arrest of a Rasta called Maliki over a dodgy tax disc. Their arrests sparked off another confrontation between youth and the cops on the Frontline. (Ironically, Coxsone, an internationally famous Rasta DJ/toaster, pal of Bob Marley and owner of a record shop in Coldharbour Lane, had formed part of a Peace Committee formed after the April riot to try to “act as a channel of communication between local youths and police”. Since neither side wanted to talk, this olive branch had withered rapidly.)

Within minutes a barricade had been built across Atlantic Road. Chief Superintendent Bob Marsh tried to calm the crowd… who promptly charged him and his goons, chasing them back to Coldharbour Lane… a panda and an unmarked car arrived, along with reinforcements on foot, but both vehicles were quickly overturned and set on fire. A middle aged Jamaican urged the crowd on, shouting “Ammunition, bring ammunition!” At the same time (4.30), while ‘community leaders’ used a megaphone to try and persuade people to go home, announcing that Coxsone had been released, (he and two others were later cleared of obstructing and assaulting police) a group had already started looting Ratners jewellers in Atlantic Road, following this up with some spontaneous window shopping at Curry’s in Electric Lane, using a metal battering ram to stave in Woolworth’s doors (the manager and some staff “armed ourselves with shovels and retreated to the roof”), and some free clothes shopping at Burtons and The Baron.

Police tactics were noticeably different from April: instead of withdrawing from the Frontline, and sealing it off from outside, they formed squads of about 12, commanded by a sergeant, whose job it was to chase groups gathering and disperse them from Central Brixton.

Initially they attempted to push rioters out up Brixton Hill, and Effra Road, but crowds just escaped down the side streets and regrouped. By 8.30 though the centre was cleared, and the cops started sealing off Acre Lane and Coldharbour Lane.

Heartwarmingly reporters were attacked… a South London Press hack and his photographer were done over as the aspiring David Bailey tried to get an action shot of kids pulling a security grille off a shopfront.

After refusing polite requests to hand over the film, they received a short sharp lesson in not poking their nose where it wasn’t wanted.

42 people were nicked in Brixton on 10th July, and 31 Police hurt; but trouble was breaking out all over South London and the country…

Camberwell Magistrates Court was a tad busy on Monday and Tuesday: over 200 people appeared in court, having been picked up in Brixton, Streatham, Battersea, and Peckham over the weekend.

The night of 14 July was quiet, but on 15 July the police staged a massive raid on eleven houses (mainly squats) in the heart of the front line in Railton Road where the hottest fighting had taken place. They had warrants for bomb-making equipment, but didn’t find any, although they succeeded in smashing furniture, toilets, stereos, TVs, windows, with axes and crowbars, and ransacked several houses, including a newly renovated Railton Youth Club house (done up at a cost of £4000 from the Inner City partnership, a government attempt to pacify anger in the area. The Left hand giveth, and the Right hand smasheth up.) Railton Free Off Licence got done over (free beer for the filth). The raid took 176 policemen with 391 standing by, and it netted five people charged with possession of cannabis and one with obstruction. That was worth it then… According to L Division’s Commander Fairbairn, “a reliable source” had given them addresses of illegal drinking clubs and houses where petrol bombs were stored. Since local cops knew where the blues clubs were anyway, and no mollies were found (like we keep them under the sink), maybe this was the same “reliable source” who informed police and press that white outsiders had directed the riots…

Yet another night of rioting followed. 100 or so people fought the cops in Railton Road, building a corrugated iron barricade with burning wood behind it, and chucking the molotovs the cops had somehow missed in the searches. But the aggro lasted barely an hour and a half, as the cops contained the confrontation, beating back attacks and sending another force down from the Herne Hill end. By midnight they had moved up the Frontline, slowly, being pelted all the while. Shortly after they dismantled the barricade.

The cops were better prepared and equipped than in April. The increase in cop numbers on streets on April 11th led to a shortage of personal radios… so many officers were isolated and unable to communicate with each other/superiors… This led to tactical advantages for rioters, and also left cops feeling demoralized and under-supported. Many were not from Brixton and thus in hostile and unfamiliar territory. Also there had been a basic shortage of equipment: no helmets, riot shields etc. Many cops were going down especially to head injuries. In July cops were readier for trouble, and riot shields and helmets were on hand. The tactic to disperse any groups of rioters gathering worked effectively in most cases.

An excerpt from the updated and expanded edition of ‘We Want to RIOT, Not to WORK’: The April 1981 Brixton Riot, republished by past tense… Available from us at our publications page

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London health care history: Workers occupy St Leonards Hospital, Hackney, 1984.

In 1979, despite opposition in the form of a day of action and a march attended by over a thousand people, St Leonard’s Hospital Accident & Emergency Department was closed.

By the early 1980’s the future of the whole hospital was looking bleak; by late 1983 the Health Authority was actively looking to close the hospital under pressure from a Conservative Government keen to make cuts.

At a Health Authority meeting to ratify the cuts and closures at Hackney Town hall on 26th September 1983, the Health Authority and its multi millionaire, Jockey Club chairman Louis Freedman were overwhelmed in a turbulent day of protest, (later described as a “riot”) which ended with them being forced to abandon the meeting after the town hall was surrounded by thousands of angry locals opposing the closure plans. Freedman refused to use his casting vote to settle the closure issue; demonstrators demanded increasingly vocally that he use his vote to save the hospital.

As he dithered, the doors to the Council chamber were barred and padlocked, and after a 20 minute stand off he was escorted out of the building with the help of local Labour MP Brian Sedgemore.

Freeman, who lived in a central London penthouse, and had private health insurance, said in the Daily Mail “We might as well be living in a dictatorship”.

The incident was labelled a riot in the Evening Standard and Daily Mirror, though no-one was reported as being injured on either side. Admittedly there was an attempt to keep the Board members in the meeting and to stop them voting in private…

The disturbance was carried on all the main news channels that night and newspapers the next day and ensured health moved nationally up the political agenda.

On the 7th June 1984 Norman Fowler, Tory Secretary of State announced his decision to close all wards and remove all beds at St Leonard’s and leave just a first aid unit and a handful of community based services.

In response a small working group was established by the staff and Hackney health emergency to look into the possibility of the 180 staff working at St Leonard’s organising an occupation or work-in of the hospital. A decision was made to occupy the hospital on the 3rd July 1984. The occupation was ratified by a staff meeting of eighty staff on 4th July.

But by the 5th July (NHS Day) the management had somehow managed to secure and issue writs and summons against the key stewards. As NUPE had not made the occupation official, and fearing an injunction (similar to that used against the Miners) NUPE officers removed NUPE placards and began to distance themselves from the occupation.

Despite this thousands of people in Hackney were supportive of the occupation.

On the 16th July management repossessed the hospital, sending in security staff and bailiffs (probably illegally) to end the occupation. In the next three days management systematically interviewed staff and reps and suspended key stewards. Disciplinary action was taken against Andrea Campbell, a shop steward for COHSE, and Geoffrey Craig, a NUPE shop steward. They were dismissed as a result of that disciplinary hearing, and they then appealed.

However, local trade unionists organised a 24-hour picket line outside the hospital and the drivers from the London Ambulance Station refused to move the patients out.

On top of targeting union representatives and other members of staff involved in the occupation, the management also made life uncomfortable as possible for the patients remaining in the hospital (who refused to move) by threatening legal action. Frail, elderly patients were bundled out in the early morning or late at night, driven to other hospitals, torn away from staff they knew and their possessions being sent on much later because they hadn’t been told they were to be permanently moved.

After the Occupation was smashed, management employed a whole private army of security guards to ‘protect’ the building, costing the Health Authority almost £1,000 a day, money clearly better spent this way rather than used to maintain the crumbling local health services.

Much more on Hospitals occupations can be found in past tense’s pamphlet, Occupational Hazards, available from our publications page.

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An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online

Today in London’s rebel history: Marcus Sarjeant fires blanks at queen, The Mall, 1981.

On June 11th several million toadies celebrated the 90th birthday of the British queen, Elizabeth II. Not that June 11th is her real birthday, it’s her official birthday. Like just about everything else the greedy parasite has more birthdays than us plebs. (Although we could change that quickly enough – how about we all grant ourselves a second birthday a year? Why stop at two only?) But it could all have ended almost exactly 35 years earlier… If Marcus Sarjeant had been a slightly better shot (and put real ammo in his gun, duh.)

On June 13th 1981, seventeen year old Marcus Simon Sarjeant fired six blank shots at Queen Elizabeth II as she rode down The Mall to the Trooping the Colour ceremony. Sarjeant’s motives are far from clear… A former Boy Scout, member of Air Training Corps and drop out from the Royal Marines and Army training, it’s unclear whether he was purely seeking notoriety, or held anti-monarchist views. Unemployed after failed applications to join the police, friends reported that in October 1980 Sarjeant had joined an anti royalist group. He tried unsuccessfully to find ammunition for his father’s .455 Webley revolver, and to get a gun licence of his own, he joined a local gun club. Through mail order he paid £66.90 for two blank-firing replica Python revolvers. In the run-up to the annual Trooping the Colour ceremony, Sarjeant sent letters to two magazines, one of which included a picture of him with his father’s gun. He also sent a letter to Buckingham Palace which read “Your Majesty. Don’t go to the Trooping the Colour ceremony because there is an assassin set up to kill you, waiting just outside the palace”. The letter arrived on 16 June. On 13 June 1981, Sarjeant joined the crowds for Trooping the Colour, finding a spot near the junction between The Mall and Horseguards Avenue. When the Queen came past riding her 19-year-old horse Burmese, Sarjeant quickly fired six blanks from his starting revolver. The horse was momentarily startled but unfortunately the Queen brought her under control; and was unharmed. Sarjeant, who told soldiers who subdued him, “I wanted to be famous. I wanted to be a somebody”, and under police questioning said he had been inspired by the assassination of John Lennon in December 1980, and the attempts on the life of Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II. The police found that Sarjeant had written “I am going to stun and mystify the world. I will become the most famous teenager in the world.” Psychiatrists concluded that Sarjeant “did not have any abnormalities within the Mental Health Act”. Sarjeant became the first person since 1966 to be prosecuted under the Treason Act 1842, and was tried in September 1981. Pleading guilty, he was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. Sarjeant lost his appeal against the length of the sentence. After three years in jail which were mostly spent at Grendon Psychiatric Prison, Sarjeant was released in October 1984, aged of 20, changed his name and began a new life. Mad? Bad? In the relentless insanity of the current social system, denying virtually all of us power over our own lives, while feeding us a diet of aspirational pap, and parading a carnival of inane celebrity to obsess and slaver over… ? Going nuts and wanting to do someone serious violence is understandable. It’s possible Sarjeant was a deranged saddo… maybe he was a more conscious rebel. Possibly he intended to miss (and writing to let them know you’re intending to shoot them isn’t generally recommended in the Assassin’s Handbook). There’s a lot of it about. But better to knock off the wealthiest woman in the world than shoot up your neighbourhood, or take it out in violence against women generally – or in racist attacks – or daft nationalist shite like football hooliganism – or in gaybashing… Yes we know it’s no substitute for collective action from below blah blah. We still wouldn’t have mourned the removal of this gilded figurehead. NB: In a parallel universe, Sarjeant succeeded @@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@@ An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online