Today in London’s anti-racist history, 1981: Southall youth burn down the Hamborough pub after racist skinhead provovations

On Friday 3 July 1981, several ‘Oi’ (streetpunk) bands were set to play a gig in Southall, an area of west London with a large South Asian population. The line up at Southall’s Hambrough Tavern included the 4-Skins, The Last Resort and The Business. Oi may not itself have been a solely fascist movement, for sure, not all its bands and adherents were racist. It was quite distinct from the White Power music scene around bands like Skrewdriver. But gigs by Oi bands did often attract skinheads with neo-nazi sympathies, and their presence in an area like Southall was asking for trouble. (The 4-Skins in particular had close links to nazi groups like the British Movement).

Southall was one of the most racially diverse areas in London: in five wards surveyed in 1976, 46 per cent of the population had been born in the Commonwealth: many were Sikhs from the Punjab.

This was an area where racists attacks had taken place: in 1976 a National Front-inspired gang had stabbed teenager Gurdip Singh Chaggar in Southall, prompting the formation of the Southall Youth Movement. After the killing, Kingsley Read of the National Party was quoted as having remarked, ‘One down – a million to go’. Chaggar’s killers were never convicted. The failure of the state to take action gave the later events at Southall their edge. The widespread belief that the police were generally sympathetic to the National Front, and institutionally (and in many cases personally) racist, was heavily reinforced in April 1979, when 1000s of police swarmed the area to protect a National Front election meeting. 100s of the demonstrators who came to protest the NF provocation were battered by the Met’s paramilitary Special Patrol Group, and anti-racist teacher Blair Peach was killed when police hit him over head. After the killing, a whitewashed inquest covered up evidence of police involvement, and a report which found a wide range of racist and fascist sympathies among the SPG officers – and identified the officers suspected of killing Peach – was suppressed (until 2010).

Rage in Southall was matched only by the solidarity of youth in the area. They knew police would not defend them against racists. One incident which particularly angered young Asians in Southall was an attack on Satwinder Sondh, by three white racists who carved swastikas on his stomach. The police did not believe the victim and charged him with wasting police time. Racism had been institutionalised in Southall Police Station for years.

The Southall Youth Movement formed in 1976, emerging from a meeting at the Southall Dominion theatre the day after Gurdip Singh Chaggar’s murder, where various groups of local youth came together in anger.

For the background to the Asian youth’s anger against racism – watch Young Rebels – The Story of the Southall Youth Movement – a great film made by Southall young people more recently interviewing people involved in the events of the 1970s and 1980s. Many of those who formed SYM had experienced ‘bussing’ in the early 1970s- Asian schoolchildren from Southall were transferred to schools across the borough of Ealing, dispersed after protests from white parents. Most were sent on coaches every day to school where they would be the only Asian child or one of a few, and all faced racist attacks and abuse on daily basis. School, police, authorities, did nothing. Many of their parents were keen to keep their heads down, not cause or attract trouble, to respect authority – a theme that emerges was youth feeling their parents had accepted racism and violence, but that they were not going to knuckle under…

The Southall youth organised self-defence and kept their memories sharp. So, when in early July ‘81, reports of racist incidents involving skinheads heading to the gig in the Hambrough spread through Southall, the youth quickly took to the streets.

The Hambrough landlord had helpfully warned shopkeepers near the venue that racist skins were coming and they might want to close up early. However, when one went to the police his warnings were ignored… Busloads of Skins on their way to the pub arrived in the area all day{ they harassed people, shouted NF slogans, smashed windows of Asian shops, abused an Asian shopkeeper, and kicked an Asian woman and threw a shopping trolley at her. This kind of racist provocation was routine in many areas with Black and Asian populations in the 1970s and early 80s. This time, though, the racists would not get it all their own way.

An angry crowd gathered and marched on the Hambrough. The police formed a cordon around the pub, protecting the skins (many of who  were sieg heiling and shouting abuse) and tried to disperse the ant-racist crowd by using truncheons on them. Petrol bombs were thrown and the pub was set on fire.

The police then herded the skins out towards Hayes, barricading the route behind them to prevent further attacks on them, but allowing many to fan out into the area and carry ut random attacks on Black and Asian people. Police also harassed and arrested passers-by.

A running fight between police and the angry local youth ensued. Cars and police vehicles were overturned, and a police coach was burnt out. Walls were demolished to provide bricks for ammunition. 61 policemen were injured and at least as many civilians; there were 70 arrests, 68 of black or asian people.

There’s some footage of the riot on youtube in the course of an old documentary about Oi

After the riot, police said they had no evidence that the white youths were members of the National Front, but locals begged to differ:

“The skinheads were wearing National Front gear, swastikas everywhere, and National Front written on their jackets,” said a spokesman for the Southall Youth Association. “They sheltered behind the police barricades and threw stones at the crowd. Instead of arresting them, the police just pushed them back. It’s not surprising people started to retaliate.”

The police claimed later they had been tipped off that there would be racial violence in West London, but their informant sent them to Greenford instead, two miles away. (Wonder if the tip off was deliberately misleading? And who was the informant? A copper with NF links? An – as yet unexposed – Special Demonstration Squad undercover officer embedded in the nazis?) Conveniently leaving the area free for skins to rampage?

The morning after the riot, some 6,000 people from Southall gathered around the ruins of the pub. “It became a shrine for the Asian community,” said Borough Councillor Shambhu Gupta…

The week of the Hambrough riot saw riots sweep across the UK, from Liverpool, to Brixton, Hackney, and many other parts of London and elsewhere… here’s a commentary on the 1981 riots written shortly afterwards: Like a Summer with 1000 Julys

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In the aftermath of the Hambrough incident, the Oi band the 4-Skins struggled to book gigs – understandably! – which contributed to their breakup in 1984. Some enlightening (?) debate can be read here on whether they were a racist band…

Here’s also a post linking to an article on the reggae and punk scene in Southall and its involvement in anti-racist movements.

There’s some photos of anti-racist demos in Southall here

Today in London anti-racist history, 1981: the Black People’s Day of Action protests the New Cross Fire

On Sunday 18th January 1981, 13 black youths, all between the ages of 15 and 20 years old, were killed in a fire at a birthday party for Yvonne Ruddock and Angela Jackson, at 439 New Cross Road, in the heart of the South London neighbourhood of New Cross.

The victims of the New Cross fire were Humphrey Brown, 18, Peter Campbell, 18, Steve Collins, 17, Patrick Cummings, 16, Gerry Francis, 17, Andrew Gooding, 14, Lloyd Richard Hall, 20, Patricia Denise Johnston, 15, Rosalind Henry, 16, Glenton Powell, 15, Paul Ruddock, 22, Yvonne Ruddock, 16, and Owen Thompson, 16.

Twenty seven others were seriously injured.

Anthony Berbeck, caught up in the fire, was believed to have committed suicide following the trauma of the event, in July 1983.

The police initially concluded that the fire was caused by a firebomb, and many believed that it was a racist attack – not unreasonably, as racial attacks and racist fire-bombings had been endemic against black and asian communities throughout the previous decade.

“The suspicion was that it was a racial attack. A lot of that was happening in the country at the time, in the East End of London, everywhere. So it seemed perfectly reasonable to believe the place had been fire-bombed. I genuinely believe that, and everybody believed that at the time. A policeman told Mrs Ruddock on the night of the fire that there was a fire-bomb – from his mouth came the words.” 

Over the preceding two decades, elements of the political class and the media had stoked a climate of racism in which horrific levels of brutality, including murder, became routine. The incidence of racist attacks was closely related to government and media-inspired resentment against immigration; of the 64 racist murders between 1970 and 1986, 50 occurred in the five years – 1976 and 1978-81 – when immigration scares ‘reached fever pitch’.

The New Cross fire occurred in the context of racist arson attacks across South London, particularly in New Cross and Deptford. In 1971, three petrol bombs had been thrown into an African-Caribbean party in Sunderland Road in Ladywell. The immediate response of the police was to arrest eight members of the Black Unity and Freedom Party on their way home from visiting victims in Lewisham hospital. Both the Moonshot youth club in New Cross and the Albany centre in Deptford had been burnt out by fascists in the preceding few years.

After initially suggesting that the New Cross Fire might be a racist attack, the police quite quickly back-pedalled on the racial aspect of the tragedy. Police officers had told Mrs Ruddock twice, within the first couple of hours of the fire, that it had been caused by a petrol bomb. The first officer to point to arson was on the scene outside the house, the second at King’s College Hospital. Other witnesses reported the suspicious behaviour of a man who pulled up and drove off in White Austin Princess. Four days later, the South East London Mercury reported that the police were trying to trace the driver of the vehicle which was parked outside the house (22 January 1981)

Survivors and witnesses were grilled by the police and treated with suspicion, and hostility, even at the inquest: “I was one of the last people to give evidence, and so I had to watch everyone – you know, all my friends go in and do their bit, and then it was me. And I was scared. But I used the inquest as an opportunity to let everyone know what had happened the night when the police did interview me, ‘cos I felt as if they were asking me the questions and then they were answering them themselves. So I used that as an opportunity to say, Well, okay, this was what was happening. But I think the build-up to it was a lot worse than the actual day was. Bishop Wood was a big help. And he was in there with me, and I suppose I needed someone in there with me, anyway. And he was my support, really, yeah. It was an experience, for my age. It was an experience, and not one I’d like to go through again in a hurry. Yeah, it was terrible. Every morning, you’d pull up at the court and it would be sort of, like, cameramen and all that, every day…. There were times when I did feel, especially when 1 was being interviewed by the police, I felt like, Hold on, I am the victim here, yet I feel as if I’m a suspect.”

Family members and the local black community felt the attack was ignored and belittled – there was little serious press coverage or official sympathy. Police fed stories to the media about gate-crashers and cannabis at the party, detained black youth for questioning and twisted evidence at every turn to ‘prove’ that the fire was not started by racists. Despite the fact that the New Cross massacre was the worst atrocity suffered by black people in Britain, it took the Day of Action to force MPs to raise it in parliament. Local Labour MP, John Silkin, said not one word in the House of Commons and for three weeks did not send even a message of condolence to the families. As one woman stated at a press conference, if the fire had taken place in a dog’s home and killed 12 dogs, there would have been more response.

“The action committee – which was Darcus Howe then, and Mrs Phoenix – they wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, and one to the Queen. And they never get a reply until six weeks after. Six weeks after! That’s when they get the reply. But, I think it was two weeks after the New Cross march, they had one in Ireland and forty-eight died. That was a Sunday, too, ‘cos that happened this Saturday night, some disco, and forty-eight people die. And straight away condolence went from here to there, and we had to wait for six weeks reply. That was bad! Bad, that very bad. Something happen in your country and you write to the authorities and you didn’t get no response from them. And six weeks after the time, that couldn’t look good, and 1 felt very bad about that. That wasn’t good enough, six weeks.”

To the families, friends of the dead, and wider communities they came from, the lives and deaths of black people were considered unimportant; black lives did not matter.

Racist attacks on black people in Britain had been part of black communities’ lives since the 1950s; the activities of fascist groupings like the National Front and the British Movement had been both capitalising on white British racism and encouraging and whipping it up though the 1970s.

An inquiry was launched, led by South London head of CID, Commander Graham Stockwell This enraged black activists, as Stockwell had been instrumental in reinstating the incitement to riot charges against the Mangrove Nine (including Darcus Howe). Stockwell’s form was not lost on the campaigners. Darcus Howe was convinced that the decision to put Stockwell in charge of the investigation was essentially “a political decision, because he knew some of the characters in the game”. Relations between the police and the local community were already strained, with the Metropolitan Police accused of lacking urgency.  There was a rejection of moves by police to bring the black community behind the Community Relations Councils (CRCs) and the Commission for Racial Equality, as this was seen as undermining an independent struggle for justice.

The NCMAC also established a Fact Finding Commission on 20 Jan 1981 to compile its own evidence through interviews with survivors and with the bereaved.  It not only carried out an independent investigation as to what had happened, but also found out through such interviews about the methods that the police were using to obtain their information.  Allegations were made that some of those interviewed by police had been forced into signing false statements under pressure. The Fact Finding Committee discovered that the police were detaining the young survivors of the fire, in some cases without their parents’ permission, and pressurising them into signing statements saying the fire was the result of a fight at the party. 11-year-old Denise Gooding, whose 14-year old brother Andrew had died in the fire, was questioned in a police station for many hours before finally being released at 1 a.m. During the interrogation, she was repeatedly told by officers not to lie, just to tell them there was fighting in the house. NCMAC would eventually expose how child witnesses were made to sign false statements under police duress at the Inquest into the fire, by which point the Met had abandoned the theory of a fight as the cause of the fire altogether. However, as La Rose later pointed out, the movement had been forced to “exercise every ounce of alertness and vigilance to stop the police framing a group of young blacks who were at the party”.

Rumours of a racist attack carried out by far right groups were too easily overlooked by the police.

For many Black Londoners the New Cross Fire was the last straw. The fire was to have a long and traumatic impact on black consciousness in the UK – in the short term it galvanised a sudden and angry movement in response. New Cross was after all, the arena for mass resistance to a National Front march in 1977: locals were less and less prepared to be pushed around by racists or treated like shit by the police.

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee, chaired by John La Rose, was mobilised to protest at the apparent bias and mishandling of the police investigation into the fire, to challenge the indifference shown by the government, and to highlight distorted media coverage.  Fuelled by a history of attacks on black people, including several incidents in the Lewisham, New Cross and Deptford areas, suspicions soon arose about police methods of detection and inherent racism.

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee coalesced around three members of the Black Parents Movement – Darcus Howe, John La Rose, and Roxy Harris, together with Alex Pascall – who formed a delegation and visited Mrs Gee Ruddock, owner of 439 New Cross Road, at the house of black community leader Sybil Phoenix.  Mrs Ruddock had lost both of her children in the fire.

“’I was in a meeting of the Black Parents’ Movement. There was an alliance between the Black Parents’ Movement, Race Today, which I edited, and the Black Youth Movement. That would be at Finsbury Park, around John Larose’ and the New Beacon Bookshop, and we were there on Sunday night and a phone call came, I think it was via Sibyl Phoenix, to tell us that this terrible thing had happened on the Saturday. And the first thing we did was to stop the meeting, adjourned it, and went. And we met Mrs Ruddock and Sibyl Phoenix and they invited all of us down on the Monday to the Moonshot Club, youth club.” (Darcus Howe)

The Pagnell St/Moonshot Youth Club in Pagnell Street, New Cross, was a local community centre established for and by black youth: survivors had gathered here in the early hours of Sunday morning. Sybil Phoenix, who ran the Moonshot, had arrived at the scene of the fire while bodies were still being carried from the building. Phoenix had been asked by the police to try to find people who had been at the party to help identify the badly burned bodies. She was to play a crucial role supporting the bereaved through the devastation of the days and weeks that followed.

On the Sunday after the fire (20th January 1981), a mass meeting was held at the Pagnell Street Community Centre in New Cross, attended by over 1000 people.

“And we thought, or I certainly thought, Well, we’re going to meet a committee of about ten people. When we got there there were three hundred people. John and I were, by and large, two of the major figures in that alliance, so I said, “John, this is trouble. This is it.” But, you see, I wasn’t surprised that much, because the black people were starting to gather.” (Howe)

At the beginning of the meeting, Lewisham Police Commander John Smith arrived uninvited to address those present: his words were drowned out by angry shouts of ‘ Go away murderer! ’. Smith, visibly shaken, by the experience, later called his reception ‘ rather sad ’. Flanked by Scotland Yard Press Officer, Bob Cox, he left the building without speaking. So much anger against the Met was hardly surprising – police had failed to investigate a string of suspected racist attacks in the area properly. The Met’s failures, particularly when dealing with suspected arson, were legion. The Moonshot club itself had burnt down in December 1977 a few weeks after reports of it being identified as a target for attack during a local meeting of the National Front. Nonetheless, the police excluded arson as a possible cause. Similarly, the police’s decision to rule out foul play when The Albany Theatre in Creek Road, Deptford, burnt down in August 1978 caused rage locally.

“And then we decided to have a public meeting. This is Monday, for Saturday, and when we went down there were about three thousand people.”

The second meeting ended with a demonstration to 439 New Cross Road, which blocked the main road (the A2) for several hours.

A series of public meetings were held across London to encourage support.  There were also regional committees set up across the country, in Leicester, Manchester and Rugby, as well as committees in North, West, and South East London.

“And we started to meet every Tuesday. It was a kind of black assembly – hundreds of people came every Tuesday. John Larose was chair. We had a committee which I was on, the officers were officers of Race Today in Brixton, by which time we could organise. We took a political decision to do that, for one simple reason: every single week you would hear clashes between the police and blacks all over London and it was becoming something of importance. There were other issues at large, and I said, “Well, if they’re going to kill so many kids in a fire, we have to mobilise and show them we got some power in this place, and only way to do that is to call a general strike of blacks.” That was at the back of my mind. I discussed it with Race Today people. I said, “Let’s see how it goes ‘cos I think we can pull this one off.” (Darcus Howe)

It was the Black People’s Assembly which decided on holding a Black People’s Day of Action, on a working day, set for Monday 2nd March 1981. The committee planned a campaign of support for a demonstration on that day.

“So we decided to call a day of action, the meeting, and they decided it should be on a weekday, a working day, and I thought, “Well, let’s see how it goes.”

John La Rose, the chair of the NCMAC, recalled in an interview:

‘People would be saying, “Man we have got to do something about this thing. The police cannot get away with this thing!” That kind of talk went on. And they said, “Yes we’ll go on a march.” “Where are the guns?” That kind of talk…And I said, “Have you heard of a man called Brigadier Frank Kitson, Low Intensity Operations? If you haven’t read his book then you should read it. Because if you are talking about going to Parliament with guns then you have to take on Kitson.” He had been the Commander in Northern Ireland, he was GOC in Britain. I said, “Let’s talk seriously, you are starting at the end, let’s start at the beginning.”

‘We had that sort of interchange all the time at the meetings, very open, free meetings. So they said, “OK we’ll go on a march.” We said, “Well, what day are we going to march?” Because the normal marches took place on a Sunday, when nobody’s working, everyone’s home, the people said that they wanted it to be on a day when the British are bound to take notice. So what day? We had to disrupt British society; that was absolutely clear. That is what we were saying in that movement. We wanted to snarl up traffic all over London.

‘So we decided it must be a Monday; that came from within the audience. We wanted to make this place realise that we’re serious and we’re going to disrupt the whole of British society. We aren’t going to work that day…

‘What demonstrations in the past usually did was to march on Hyde Park into Whitehall. We said we were going to go where the people are going to know that this is happening, we’re going to march in all those areas – like Peckham – before we come to Blackfriars Bridge. That way you are going to hit that area of London with all those people who are really concerned about what’s happening in the whole New Cross area, and then march through the financial centre, the City, and shake up the place, terrify them.x

The Black People’s Day of Action saw the biggest political mobilisation of black people seen in Britain up to that point. 20,000 black people and their supporters marched over a period of eight hours from Fordham Park in New Cross, through Peckham, Elephant and Castle, across Blackfriars Bridge, into Fleet Street, Regent Street, then Cavendish Street and finally into Hyde Park, with banners and placards with slogans including: ‘Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said’, ‘No Police Cover‑Up’, ‘Blood Ah Go Run If Justice No Come’, ‘New Cross Massacre Cover Up’; ‘Forward to Freedom’, ‘Babylon will fall’; ‘No stopping us now we are on the move’; ‘No Rights, No Obligations’.

Attempts by the police to control and restrict the scope of the march had failed. As the Day of Action drew closer, Darcus Howe entered into tense negotiations with the authorities over the route and date of the march. Howe and John La Rose headed a small delegation which met with Inspector Pollinghorne, who had been placed in charge of policing the march, at Brixton Police Station in late February. The NCMAC proposed route of the march went from New Cross over Blackfriars Bridge, through the City and Fleet Street, past Scotland Yard and the Houses of Parliament before finishing in Hyde Park some 17 miles later.

The route was symbolic. It had been picked so the protestors could express their disapproval at the distorted press coverage of the fi re, protest at the police’s handling of the investigation and so that the parents of the dead and members of NCMAC could hand in a statement to Parliament voicing concern at the lack of a government response.

Inspector Pollinghorne objected to the length and route of the march and said it should go through the Old Kent Road, a route which the campaign had already rejected. Howe defended the NCMAC’s preferred route, which had been designed to maximise the support and participation of the black community by going via Camberwell and Peckham. Pollinghorne demanded to know how long it would take the protestors to walk the 17 miles. Howe replied: ‘ you’re a military man, Inspector, we plan to advance a mile a day ’. At this, Pollinghorne walked out. The meeting lasted barely 5 minutes.

The police, in particular, felt large demos of angry black people to be a challenge to their control of the streets. London’s Black population felt they could be burned to death, without much comment, but god forbid they take to the streets in anger.

Darcus Howe recalled that the weather on the morning of Monday 2 March was beautiful; not cold but temperate and bright. He arrived at Fordham Park next to the Moonshot in good time and watched the marchers assemble in awe as wave upon wave came down the hill into the valley to join him in the park. Buses, organised by the NCMAC, kept arriving carrying black people from across the country. Hundreds of school children walked out of their schools to join the demonstration.

“The start of the demonstration was in a valley. You came down a hill in this little valley. And I was there, commander in chief, really, on the day, dealing with the stuff. I was in charge of the big truck, and I was in charge of the mike. So I was settled in. I was there on time, and beautiful weather, not cold, just temperate, bright sun, and waves and waves and waves and waves and waves of black people coming down that hill. It was a Charge of the Light Brigade… And off we went: “Thirteen dead and nothing said.” That was the slogan. “Thirteen dead and nothing said.” So the whole organisation of the march was around the fact that we can’t get an explanation from anybody.” (Darcus Howe)

“In the wake of the New Cross Fire we took a decision very early in the first meeting that it was a massacre politically. We decided that the protest would be Black~led and we decided that we would mobilise the whole country from a central co~ordinating group. I can remember very vividly being part of the debate. It was clear that we didn’t want it to be part of a commission or whatever because those bodies are not political bodies. If we were to wage any struggle, it had to be a political struggle, purely based on the resources of the community. You don’t apply for grants to take political action!” (Trevor Sinclair)

The march had been planned carefully. The stewards, who wore identification berets, were briefed by Howe to show discipline and restraint in the face of police provocation, ‘otherwise the march would collapse into a mass violence and the point would not be made’. With the Collective acting as chief stewards, he knew that if anything went wrong ‘ we would be held responsible ’.

The police had said they wanted the march to start at 11.30 a.m. At 11 a.m., Howe called over to one of the officers and said ‘ Let ’ s go ’ in the hope it would upset any plans they might have to disrupt the march along the route. It was tactical flourishes like this which led Linton Kwesi Johnson to christen Howe with the nickname ‘ General ’. Tactics aside, Howe opines that the police were unprepared in a second sense. From studying James, from his experiences in the Caribbean and America, from travelling the country during the Lindo Campaign, from the Basement Sessions, and his run-ins with the police, Howe was prepared for the Day of Action. The event was unprecedented, but Howe’s years of experience organising campaigns and his theoretical understanding of the dynamics involved in mass protest meant that he was as prepared as anyone for the march. The police, by contrast, had no idea what they were dealing with. “They underestimated us. . . . They thought we were a load of little, stupid, black people.” The police were caught off guard by the scale of the march and the sophistication of the organisation. “There had never seen that size demonstration of black people before. So the police didn’t know culturally what to do”. (Howe).

As the march set off along New Cross Road, Howe could see that many thousands had missed school or work to protest. By the time that the front of the march arrived at the remains of 439 New Cross Road half a mile away and stopped to pay its respects to the 13 young lives lost in the inferno, the tail end of the march had not yet left the Fordham Park.

“… undoubtedly, [it was] black people, in the leadership of the march. In the main, if you look at street demonstrations, even street demonstrations around issues that affect black people, you get a sense that white people were somehow in command of events. They’d organised it. This was black organised, black led and you felt that. So it was very much a black community event. And then the numbers who joined it, that was significant, as you went along. But also in some parts of the march the hostility, directed by people who were undoubtedly racist…” (Darcus Howe)

As the mass of people passed through Southwark towards Blackfriars Bridge, the organisers reckoned that somewhere in the region of 25,000 people may have been on the march. When the chief stewards tallied their numbers together at the end, the final figure they arrived at was a little over 20,000. There was a sense that the police were frightened, that they had never seen anger from the black community on this scale before and that the movement which had mobilised that day ‘shook them to their roots’ .

When the march got to Blackfriars Bridge, it started to rain. A small delegation consisting of John la Rose and the victims ’ families left the head of march to take their protest to Parliament. A group of about 50 young people at the front of the march pressed ahead and overtook the lorry only to find they were confronted by rows of police blocking the entrance to Blackfriars Bridge. The police were determined to stop the demonstration from crossing the bridge. The bridge was symbolic. This was the first protest march since the Chartist Procession of 10 April 1848 to attempt to cross Blackfriars Bridge and the police were determined to block it. As a result, fighting broke out as the youth struggled to break through the police lines and fought to free comrades arrested by the police. “. . . Runners amongst the stewards were despatched to bring forward the truck trapped way back from the pitched battle. Chaos was increased as contradictory directives were issued by the police commanders. As Lewisham police tried to ease a way for the truck to move forward, the City police continued with blocking manoeuvres. The impasse was broken as the truck nosed its way through the seething mass, Rasta flag flying aloft. Strengthened now by the presence of the lorry, the crowd with one last heave laid siege to the police line, and with a resounding cheer, broke through the cordon.”

Among those arrested during the melee by police officers who called him a ‘ cunt ’ and ‘ bastard ’ was the Policy Studies Institute undercover researcher who was writing a police-funded study of young black attitudes towards the police….!

“We come across Blackfriars Bridge. No demonstration had crossed that bridge since the Chartists and, suddenly, the police threw a cordon across the road and say, “You are not going anywhere.” And the driver of that huge wagon, I said, “Drive!” Just leant towards him. “Drive that.” Brrrrm! And the police . . . “What? Are you going to stand before a truck?” I don’t know any police officer that brave. And we crossed the bridge into Fleet Street, running…” (Howe)

Once they had crossed the Thames, the protestors regrouped and continued their demonstration through the City and into Fleet Street. Marching in tight formation past the Red Tops and broadsheets, the protestors offered up the cries of ‘ Thirteen Dead and Nothing Said ’ and ‘ Fleet Street Liars ’. All the participant accounts concur in reporting abuse that the marchers received from the offices in Fleet Street.

“And then as we came up Fleet Street there, the taunting and the abuse that rained down upon us from the Express building in particular, I will never forget that.” (Paul Boateng)

As they passed by The Sun‘s offices ‘ there was a torrent of racial abuse from people working in the building . . . “ Go Back Home you Black Bastards ” , the usual banal kind of things that these people say ’… people leaning out of windows making ‘ monkey noises ’ and throwing banana skins at the crowd.

Against the chants of ‘ Justice, Justice ’ and the jeers of journalists, Fleet Street also saw renewed confrontation between the protestors and the police.

“In Fleet Street the whole mood of policing changed. The police imposed themselves on marchers, pushing, shoving, and kicking people off pavements. Scuffles broke out up and down Fleet Street, and, unlike Peckham, it was the police and not the stewards who stood guard in front of shops.”

In an isolated incident, which the vast majority of protesters were oblivious to, one small group broke off from the demonstration to smash and loot a jeweller’s shop. As police tried to stop them, an officer was injured. Obviously this was the incident that dominated the newspapers the next day. Despite the aggressive police tactics, of the thousands who marched that day, only 25 were nicked and charged with minor offences by the police.


There continued to be clashes and altercations with the police for the remainder of the march. Police rode horses into families with young children at Cumberland Gate in an apparent attempt to break up the march and stop it reaching Hyde Park.

Notwithstanding the provocative methods used to police the march, it did finally reach its destination at Hyde Park 7 hours aft er it had set out from Fordham Park. Thousands of protestors gathered around the lorry to listen to speeches by Howe and others.

From New Cross to Hyde Park, traffic in central London was brought to a standstill. Youth fought to break through police lines at Blackfriars Bridge and the march surged into the heart of the City… ‘city gents cowered in their offices terrified at the sight of the oppressed demanding justice’. The symbols of wealth – a bank and a jeweller’s shop – ‘fell victim to a hail of bricks and stones: journalists who quite rightly are seen as siding with the racist British state got rough justice…when a youth was arrested the march came to an immediate halt shouting “Let him go!” which police were forced to do as the marchers refused to move without their captured comrade.’

The racist response of the millionaire press to the 2 March was predictable. The Sun raved of ‘a frenzied mob’. Headlines screamed ‘The Day the Blacks Ran Riot in London’.

For many on the black communities, the Day of Action felt like the birth, or rebirth, of a large-scale black people’s movement in the UK; the sense of strength it gave people in the midst of the horror and tragedy of the fire help cement community and political unity of a kind…

If many first generation West Indians who moved to the UK responded to the racism, police attacks, discrimination, they faced by trying to keep their heads down, not making a fuss, putting up with, (if not completely accepting as fair) shit jobs, overcrowded housing and constant abuse, hoping it would gradually disappear over time. (This is not true of all, witness the self defence organised in 1958 against racist rioters in Notting Hill.) As their children grew up, however, a new angrier attitude evolved.

“Those of us who came here in the late 50s and early 60s were constrained by the myth that we were going home sooner or later, that we would earn some money and go, and therefore tended to put up with things that we knew were wrong – but there are young blacks who were born here, who have grown up here, who eat bangers and mash, egg and chips” (Darcus Howe)

This generation reacted to police oppression with a completely different attitude: this was their home, they had little intention of “returning” to islands they barely knew if at all, and were determined to make space for themselves in Britain; to force institutions and society to respect black people and their rights.

“British rulers had maintained that young blacks, who were born here or grew up here, would follow the social pattern laid down for their parents. Young blacks, they hoped, would meekly accept those jobs that refused to do; they would bow, bend before and make accommodations with their employers; they would be hesitant and cautious in their opposition to police malpractice. Undoubtedly some did, but the major tendency among the youth was a rejection, a total and militant rejection to these established ways of immigrant life.” (Race Today, 1982)

The feeling of a growing widespread resistance to racism, both organised and unofficial, murderous and repressive or simply daily harassment, was amplified five weeks later when Brixton erupted into uprising in response to years of racist policing and in particular Operation Swamp ’81.

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Postscript: Inquests into the Fire

The New Cross Massacre Action Committee closely monitored the Inquest proceedings, which began at County Hall in London on 21 Apr 1981.  Four theories were advanced from the police: 1) a firebomb attack from outside the building; 2) an opportunist arson attack from outside the building; 3) a deliberate fire from inside the building; 4) an accidental fire from inside the building.  However, it was soon clear that racial motives were being ruled out as theories 1 and 2 were abandoned, despite the revelation from forensics that a possible incendiary device had been found at the scene.  The speed and force of the fire had also caused a police officer at the scene to conclude that a petrol bomb had been thrown into the house, but this theory was dismissed.  The Coroner, Dr. Arthur Gordon Davies, refused to take any notes of evidence during the hearing, preferring to read from police statements.  The jury returned an open verdict.

Families with the support of the NCMAC appealed for the inquest verdict to be quashed and demanded a new inquest, considering the hearing to have been biased.  The fact that the Coroner refused to take notes during the hearing was ruled illegal under Section 6 of the Coroner’s Act 1887, and the Attorney General authorised the Appeal lodged by the relatives of the dead.  The integrity of the initial investigation was also called into question.  On 10 May 1982, the relatives won leave to Appeal, and an Appeal date was set for 5 July 1982.  However, the inquest jury refused to quash the open verdict. Despite attempts by the courts to avoid a second inquest, the NCMAC and relatives of the victims demanded that a new inquest should take place.

An International Commission of Inquiry was also planned by the NCMAC, although it never took place.  In an unfortunate decision, the Courts decided to hear the Appeal during the same period planned for the International Commission of Inquiry.  The latter had already been postponed from Jan 1982 due to the unavailability of some of the Commissioners chosen.  In Jun 1983, the NCMAC was at last planning to hold its own independent inquiry, but decided to postpone it again after detectives suggested that they might be on the verge of a breakthrough. This subsequently turned out to be misleading.

The Committee also established a Fire Fund to support the families involved, to raise money to help families to bury their dead, and to care for the injured.  The fund was chaired by Alex Pascall, member of NCMAC, and broadcaster of the daily Black Londoners BBC Radio London programme.  Access to broadcasting proved invaluable for interviewing relatives and members of the NCMAC, reporting on the New Cross Massacre Campaign, encouraging public support, and analysing social and political tensions.  A total of £27,000 was raised.

Annual vigils and memorial services continued to be held on the anniversary of the fire. The New Cross Memorial Trust was also set up in 1981 by the families of the victims.  Following a request from black community leader Sybil Phoenix, Lewisham council erected a memorial to the victims of the New Cross fire in 1997.

Despite repeated requests, the opportunity for a second inquest did not come until 1997, when the police re-opened the investigation.  Calls for a new inquest were twice rejected, until the High Court finally agreed in 2002.  A second Inquest began in Feb 2004, 23 years after the New Cross fire occurred.  An open verdict was again returned.

 

Today in London history, 1987: Michael Delaney killed by scab TNT truck, Wapping.

The 1986-7 Wapping Dispute claimed many jobs – and Michael Delaney’s life.

Traditionally newspaper printers on Fleet Street newspapers were well-organised, with a long history of militancy and support for other workers (dating back to the 1926 General Strike and beyond). Not a history calculated to endear them to their bosses…

In 1986 Rupert Murdoch’s News International, producers of the Sun, Times, News of the World etc, in a well-prepared move, provoked a printers strike by demanding drastic changes in working conditions and promptly moved production from Fleet Street to a fortified plant in Wapping, sacking 500 printers & introducing new technology – all with the carefully laid plan to break the printers’ power over the presses.

Cue a year-long battle, fought out on the streets of Wapping, with daily mass pickets, blockades and attempts to stop the lorries leaving with papers, and battles with police round Wapping & the Highway, as well as mass sabotage, solidarity actions and occasional arson against News International, their papers (and the scab TNT lorries carrying them) all round the country…

A high-tech plant was built in Wapping, the union-busting plan disguised with false claims that a new title, The London Post, would be printed there. Secret deals were then drawn up to bus in electricians from outside London to run the machinery; members of the EEPTU (electricians) union were quite happy to shit on the printers and line their own pockets doing this work.

News International blue collar staff were issued with an ultimatum – work to new inferior contracts or face the sack. Then journalists were offered £2,000 to cross picket lines and work behind the razor wire and security cameras that surrounded the new East London headquarters.

When this provoked strike action and mass sackings among printers, Murdoch hired the transport company TNT to deliver his titles direct to retailers, breaking up the nationwide distribution system shared by other publications and doing away with many more jobs.

Picketing repeatedly erupted into riots, barricades were built several times (on occasions holding up paper delivery for hours). Spoof versions of the Sun and an independent satirical Wapping Times paper were brought out by strikers and their supporters.  The printers were well supported, especially locally, with police tactics  – such as towing locals’ cars away to allow lorries movement, raiding local pubs and blocking people off from their homes – alienating residents. Many of who were never big fans of the Met; alot had trade union backgrounds, and general anger at LDDC/Council-sponsored yuppification in the area was held to be linked to the dispute. TNT vans and distribution points became targets for strikers and their supporters.

The leaderships of the then-existing two printers unions, Sogat and the NGA, constantly tried to control and limit the struggle, especially when it (necessarily) turned violent – union officials went to the lengths of identifying and grassing up rioters.

Have a read of issues of Picket, the unofficial bulletin of the Wapping strikers.

Eventually despite widespread support and mass action, the print unions gave up the fight, leaving sacked workers high & dry and encouraging similar moves by other newspapers. The printers were the latest in a long line of workers with strong traditions of solidarity & standing up for themselves to be battered by the capitalist class in the ‘80s.

The dispute would also claim the life of one local teenager.

On the evening of 10 January 1987, 19-year old Michael Delaney was on his way home after drinking with friends to celebrate his birthday of the previous week.

At the junction of Butcher Row and Commercial Road in Stepney, one of the preferred routes for Murdoch’s delivery boys, the lads spotted a TNT lorry used by News International to distribute papers during the bitter Wapping dispute that had been going on for a year.

There was a red light at the junction and Michael Delaney tried to remonstrate with the lorry driver, Delaney got close enough to slap the door but, as the lorry moved off, he was dragged underneath and crushed by the wheels.

The lorry did not stop again until it reached the Heston Services on the M4. Michael’s body was left lying in the road, until an ambulance took him to the London Hospital, where he died in the early hours of 11 January. Meanwhile his companions had been taken off to Leman Street Police station.

At Delaney’s inquest in Snaresbrook, Essex, in April 1987, the driver, Robert Higgins, was not called to give evidence, but was seen by Michael’s distraught family during the lunch break, laughing and drinking in a nearby pub – in the company of one Inspector Pickard of Leman Street Police Station. Was there collusion with police to prevent any evidence coming out that would lead to a prosecution of the driver – embarrassing for News International?

The inquest coroner advised the jury to return a verdict of accidental death. Instead, they decided it was a case of unlawful killing. Afterwards, the director of public prosecutions ruled against launching a prosecution on the grounds of insufficient evidence. A year later the inquest verdict itself was quashed in the high court. (The first the family heard about this was on the TV news).

As then Wapping resident Mike Jempson (who knew Michael from his youth), later pointed out, (in the run up to the Leveson Inquiry into tabloid phone hacking):

“Given what is now known about the unhealthily close relationships between News International and the Metropolitan Police over the years, the whole sad saga deserves a full investigation.

Sir Paul Stephenson, who resigned as head of the Met under a cloud last summer, told the Home Affairs Select Committee that almost 25% of the Met’s public affairs unit had previously worked for Murdoch papers. Former Assistant Commissioner Andy Hayman, who resigned after allegations of impropriety, became a columnist for The Times, and a former News of the World editor Neil Wallis was hired by the Met as a communications consultant, at a time when questions were being asked about the full extent of phone hacking by his old paper.

Another of Stephenson’s colleagues, Assistant Commissioner John Yates, also resigned over the phone hacking scandal in July 2011. All three senior officers are still under investigation, along with about three dozen Murdoch employees, police officers and civil servants arrested as part of police investigations into aspects of the hacking scandal.

These sensational facts may never merit attention in Murdoch’s Sun but they deserve to be recalled at the Leveson Inquiry. Will Michael Delaney’s fate get a mention? Perhaps those scandalised by the cover-up over his death will ensure that Murdoch never forgets the young man who died so The Sun could hit the streets.

The big question still to be answered is whether law officers and Murdoch’s News International conspired to avoid a prosecution that might have revealed how and why Michael Delaney died.”

Heartbreakingly for Michael’s family – we will probably never know.

Policing of the Wapping dispute became a day to day issue – with 100s of police drafted in to bash pickets and defend Fortress Wapping. But policing was also going on behind the scenes – Special Branch were keeping a keen eye on those organising picketing, and their Special Demonstration Squad department – consisting of undercover officers infiltrating protest can campaign groups – were there on the picket line, pretending to support the dispute. At least one SDS spycop – Bob Lambert – regularly attended Wapping demos. Now well known as having acted as an agent provocateur in animal rights groups and initiated the plot to fire bomb Debenhams stores in July 1987. Wonder if he also acted an agent provocateur down Wapping too?

Check out the Special Branch files revelations on their surveillance of the Wapping strike

In memory of Michael Delaney

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An entry in the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar – buy a paper copy here

Check out the 2020 London Rebel History Calendar online

 

 

 

 

Today in London riotous history, 1982: Evictions & demolitions of squats spark rioting in Brixton

A year and a half after the April 1981 Brixton uprising, (which was followed by uprisings throughout England in July), a smaller riot took place, in November 1982, as Lambeth Council attempted to use a large force of police to evict and demolish many of the squats and blues clubs that dominated Brixton’s ‘Frontline’ around Railton Road.

Since the 81 riot, the surface appearance in the area had changed a lot. On the High Street the gentrifiers had been busy at work, welcoming visitors to Brixton ‘and its famous market’ in hope of some tourist trade. On the Frontline, the corrugated iron stretched even further, (then covered with graffiti about Poland – the (Labour Party-controlled) Lambeth Council policy was to erase immediately any slogans about working class revolt at home but not those about such revolt elsewhere!)

What else had changed since the previous year’s uprisings? At least since February 1982, a police helicopter had often been seen hovering over Brixton. It had given instructions to police cars on the Loughborough Estate, where stop-and-search (SUS) operations were frequent (SUS had been a major element in the anti-police hatred that had sparked the 1981 riot). The copter had also been conducting night operations, shining its searchlight all over the area-previously a familiar sight only to nationalist areas of Northern Ireland.

Also the Council had constructed flower boxes in all the open spaces in the shopping area on Brixton Road. Perhaps the boxes were intended merely to prettify the area but they also, conveniently, made it difficult for crowds to gather in those strategic spaces.

Meanwhile the most important aspects of daily life remained little changed. The police had gradually resumed their stop-and-search harassment of working class (and especially black) youth on the streets. Long-term squats on the Frontline were receiving eviction notices. Inhabitants still got up and trudged off to useless and boring jobs, or sign on at the dole office for fortnightly Giro cheques from the DHSS. Even though the uprisings didn’t transform those fundamental conditions of work, wages and policing, for many they had marked at least a temporary shift in social relations – the breakdown of the authority normally imposed by the market economy upon people’s lives, as the experience of ‘shopping without money’ gave a new, unintended meaning to Brixton’s ‘famous market and freed some from the compulsion to buy and sell.

In 1982 a Tory controlled Council (with the support of the Social Democratic Party, which for you young ‘uns was a rightwing split from the then Trendy Lefty Labour Party. They’re all in the Lib Dem shower now) briefly replaced the Labour administration. In charge of the Housing Committee was the repulsive Mary Leigh, whose business interests running a firm specialising in selling off council housing, while she ran the Housing Dept, fit right in with National Govt policy of the time. They stepped up the policy of attacking squatting, by legal and illegal methods. 300 eviction notices were issued in their first few months. Leigh also refused to deal with shortlife housing co-ops, blocking any renovation money for council properties run by co-ops, vetoing licenses on sites where demolition was planned, but not due for years, while at the same time she pushed privatisation of council property, right-to-buy and joint Lease/purchase schemes. The regime also permanently excluded single people from any possibility of rehousing. £9 million of the housing budget was deliberately left unspent and houses allowed to decay. As a result there were soon more empties than ever.

In response to attacks on squatters, some SDP/Tory councillors homes and cars were vandalised: some naughty people kept phoning them up, and all 64 councillors were sent spoof eviction notices on genuine council notepaper, signed, so it would seem, by acting Chief Executive John George. Inquiries failed to find the culprit – some in the council accused other insiders of siding with squatters.  Cue paranoid fallout.

Special Patrol Group attacks on squatters around Brixton were widespread: in Arlingford road, in June 82, they attacked no 51, evicting the squatters, despite the Brixton Squatters Aid network getting 40 people out. Later this house was resquatted and evicted violently again some 6 months later. There had been a small squatters community in Arlingford and Brailsford roads since 1973; by late 84 there were 16 squats, including  ‘The Bunker’, a community caff, which was holding women’s nights and had other events over weekends… When 121 was faced with possible eviction in that year, it was proposed to move Brixton Squatters Aid to the Bunker.  Brailfsford/Arlingford squatters set up their own alarm list… 50 squatters chased off bailiffs there earlier in ’84.  Although many tenants there were supportive, there was a minority who persecuted the squatters; there were also some problems with junkies.

But it was the Frontline the Council hated the most. In early October ‘82, some opening shots were fired… several squats in Dexter Road, then the heart of the black Frontline, were evicted and demolished. The Council also demolished the neighbouring adventure playground. Any sign of resistance brought a swarm of cops rushing in. “…they’re closing in on the frontline, with an army of cops, council and social workers. Today they cut off the electric. Incidents are daily. Next week I bet they’ll wreck them…” They did.

THERE’S A NEWMAN IN TOWN…

On Monday November 1 1982 there was a riot on Brixton’s front-line. It was just three days after Sir Kenneth Newman took over his new job as Police Commissioner of London’s Metropolitan Police. He brought with him his own street credibility learned from the back of squad cars and helicopters patrolling the streets and sky of Ulster. Everyone in the know knew he would one day make Commissioner. He was groomed for the part. In Ulster he was known as ‘Mighty Mouse’ on account of his small stature but ultra-tough reputation. There he pursued a policy of criminalising all forms of resistance, while at the same time polarising the support within the communities given to those at the front line of attack from the paramilitaries.

He succeeded in developing a force expert in all the latest techniques of intensive policing, riot-control, intelligence gathering, counter-subversion and torture. It was the latter that got Newman into hot water when the Castlereagh Detention Centre was condemned for using ‘inhuman and degrading’ treatment. Clearly Newman, having completed his ‘experiment’ now needed to learn a bit more about what was happening in the rest of the UK. So off he went to Bramshill – the specialist police establishment for serving officers – to lecture on his experiences in Ulster and on how he saw the future of policing in Britain and to learn from his future troops just how far they are capable of being pushed. He became “a bit of a celebrity” and gave lecture tours abroad and it was on one of these tours that he made his much publicised controversial remark about ‘West Indians being indigenously anti-authoritarian’ (sic).

BLUES CLUBS

Meanwhile, as Newman was courting power, there was the continuing saga of Brixton’s ‘Frontline’, which consisted of a number of squatted houses and shops in Railton Road, used mainly as ‘Blues’ houses by local black hustlers. These houses provided all-night entertainment and a place to score dope, gamble, and get boozed up. Such unlicensed pleasure was out of the majority of cops’ grasp, while to the local Council the premises in question were but an eyesore, contrary to their new clean-up Brixton sanitisation programmed. Since the ’81 riots on the Front-line, the Council had, in fact, systematically employed a policy of ‘rearranging’ the landscape, involving the destruction of liveable homes (and even the local children’s playground), the squeezing out of shop-owners, and the removal of squatters. With the latter they were none too successful.

BRIXTON SQUATTER’S AID

Since early 1981, some of the squatters in the area spreading out from the Frontline, had got together to form Brixton Squatter’s Aid, an autonomous association primarily concerned with maintaining basic survival. Over the 8 months or so from its inception BSA successfully opened up scores of squats all over the Brixton area, helped to elicit the support of squatters not previously organised around any particular set-up, started a squatter’s aid alarm list for those squatters who came under attack, successfully defended several squats that were raided, and published a regular fortnightly bulletin  (the ‘Crowbar’) reporting on local and international squatting news.

CULTURE CLASH

The two scenes – the Squatter’s Aid Network and the ‘Blues’ Houses’ – rarely came into contact with each other. They had different interests and different viewpoints. Many of those involved with the ‘Blues’ clubs were racist/separatist and authoritarian, especially in their general attitude and treatment to women; they were into their own culture and had hard and fixed attitudes about other cultures. On top of all this, the clubs tended to attract petty hustlers to the area to ‘scare and make out’. For a while there were almost daily reports of locals – black and white – being mugged and harassed and at one point an anti-mugging campaign was begun, producing posters that equated the violence on the streets to the violence received at the hands of cops and the violence of fascist attacks. The muggings and the response all led to a degree of bad feeling.

While all this was going on Lambeth Council periodically made noises about how they were just about to close down the Frontline houses and how local street-crime had to be squashed once and for all.

Threats of eviction were a weekly occurrence and added to the increasing tension. As these threats increased so many of the hustlers began to look for new premises for their clubs. Reports of new sitings came thick and fast and rumours abounded. Some petty pimps even made attempts to muscle in on the nearby homes of existing squatters and if they had succeeded this would have forced an unwanted confrontation. In the end, after many threats and resistance, the tension diminished.

SKIRMISHES & DIRECT ACTION

Such confrontations, though, were minor compared to those that everyone – black and white – faced from the local cops and the Council bureaucrats. After the ’81 riots the police developed a deliberate policy of avoiding Swamp ’81 type tactics. An alternative had to be sought. They made one or two mistakes. Early in ’82, on two separate occasions, skirmishes occurred over the way the cops handled some minor incidents in the Railton Road area. On each occasion the cops were chased out of the Frontline area but restrained themselves from launching a counter attack: they were beginning to learn. For a while Railton Road managed to give the impression of being a ‘no-go’ area although when the cops did show up they did so suddenly and with force. For example, it was not uncommon during the summer to witness police helicopters circling overhead – sometimes hours on end – providing support to an operation down at street level. At night the helicopters would use searchlights (and probably infra-red surveillance devices).

Since the ’81 riots the local Council had gone Conservative (only just, with the help of SDP/Liberal Alliance Councillors and the mayor’s vote) and immediately implemented a policy to get rid of the squatters on a large scale. Very few of their attempts succeeded and the ensuing campaign to resist these attempts reached a crescendo with attacks by local activists on the homes and property of appropriate councillors. Certain Councillors were even sent fake eviction notices on Official Council Note paper – leading to recriminations, accusations and counter-accusations within the municipal offices. The Council had to ‘do something’ to ‘restore public confidence.’ At the same time the cops were itching to sort out the ‘no-go’ areas once and for all…and then came along Newman. The Stage was set.

Newman started the ball rolling with his flying visit to Brixton cop station and to Notting Hill, where he advised his troops that they were to take no more insults from now on and that they were to remain firmly in control of their respective localities. His message: that there was to be a new era of policing: sophisticated and more precise in its methods. Two days later at 4am the Frontline houses came under siege.

BESEIGED

Newman’s troops moved in quietly. None of the nearby residents heard them arrive. It was a smooth operation, well timed and successful. The cops stood guard while demolition workers began their task. By mid-morning a crowd had gathered, but by then the police presence was considerable. Coming into Brixton from Central London was like walking into an act for a film by Costa-Gravas. The only thing missing were the armoured vehicles … everything else was there. The cops, of course, only admitted to a small presence and this mis-information was regurgitated in the Press and on TV. But the reality was that almost every Instant Response Unit, and every other back up unit across Greater London had been drafted in to lend support. Every street leading to the Front-line, together with secondary routes, had been blocked off; and stop and search was being used in a blanket manner. Brixton had been closed down, sealed off and placed under siege.

While the operation was being effected, so some of the squatters in the area, together with some of these directly affected by the demolition of the clubs, decided to march to the Town Hall (in fact a picket had been pre-planned before the cop attack, due to increased evictions). There were about 80 on the march. They achieved their objective and made their protest (all the Political Parties had agreed to and signed the Council Eviction Notice). But the main confrontation was yet to come and it was clear that it wasn’t just one side that desired it.

ATTACK AND COUNTER-ATTACK

The Battlelines were drawn. But then the cops suddenly withdrew all their personnel out of immediate sight and the frontline was left empty like a ghost town. They knew this would have one effect and one effect only: to encourage the illusion that the police had made a strategic withdrawal. The trick worked and people poured in from all over Lambeth and beyond (they would have come anyway after school, work, it got dark, they saw the news) The Front-line drew them like a magnet. The Pincers opened up to let them in and then closed again. Meanwhile on the Frontline itself: jubilation. It was April ’81 again. Barricades suddenly began to be erected and someone in a mask turned back traffic, firmly redirecting them out of the immediate area. The crowd was young and almost all male. There was an eerie silence. Then a fire broke out. It was the work-huts on the demolition site. A nearby house opposite the Blues clubs was set alight. The crowd grew and suddenly windows were smashed, Molotovs thrown. The crowd – around 150 – turned down Railton Rd towards Herne Hill. They came to the Anarchist Bookshop, smashing windows on the way, and as with the ’81 riots, the shop was passed by, untouched. Suddenly the cops appeared: it was the IRUs dressed in black fire-proof overalls and wearing protective helmets and visors. They carried long thick staves and as they charged down the road they let out war whoops, banging their batons on the shield. Zulu fashion. The crowd held out until the cops got within spitting distance, and then dispersed. They regrouped and threw whatever they could at their attackers. They were dispersed once more. It was stalemate.

MOPPING UP

Then came the mopping-up. Frustrated by their failure to catch any of those directly involved in the riot in Railton Road, the cops turned their attentions on anyone foolish enough to be wandering the streets aimlessly and who could become the object of their revenge. We know of one incident where a group of punks had just left their home in Talma Road and were set upon by these thugs. They were ordered to stop, and, out of fear, one of them ran off but was caught at the next turning. The cops viciously set upon him, dragged him to their van and beat him up. He sustained serious injuries to his arms and legs and was charged with assault. He was 17 years old. No one was safe on the streets and the cops continued to hunt down potential victims.

Back at the town hall, meanwhile, a Council meeting was in session to discuss the eviction of some squatters in North Lambeth, and some people from Brixton Squatters Aid arrived to cause trouble. They managed to disrupt the proceedings for a while and then left to provide whatever back-up they could to comrades being attacked on the streets. Elsewhere incidents were increasing; word had got around and looting took place in several main streets, and a police coach was set on fire. In Notting Hill the locals made trouble in solidarity and in Tottenham an IRU was called in (from Brixton!) to disperse a crowd. Cops were also stoned from the balconies of Stockwell Park Estate.

By 8pm more crowds had gathered in central Brixton, but realising the sheer force of the numbers against them, wisely decided to play it cool, ‘take notes’ and learn about the enemy. Later in the evening another building near Coldharbour Lane was firebombed but by then the confrontation was coming to a close. The Brixton community was left to spend a long sleepless night, with the cops well & truly in control of the streets.

The next day, and for successive days, the cops continued to maintain their grip of fear. Coach loads of police were stationed on street corners day and night, while foot patrols wore ridiculously frequent. At first little use was made of Stop and Search, although a group of people entering the anarchist bookshop were asked if they wore carrying ‘bombs’ and their box of vegetables was examined. This policy of total saturation continued for a further 2 weeks. The squatters remained but the hustlers were nowhere to be seen. They had, in fact, merely moved around the corner to another street where they opened up new clubs.

‘INCITEMENT’

The day after the riot the press was full of the usual accusations. The most ridiculous being that the local ‘anarchist’ group – specifically 3 whites, a woman and two men – had roused the ‘mob’ and incited them to riot. Councillor Robin Pitt claimed to know their names but told the papers that the police were unable to make arrests due to lock of concrete evidence. The farce continued when the next day a woman from the Workers Against Racism South London group (a Revolutionary Communist Party – Trot – Front) admitted she was one of those that the Councillor was accusing and that she had been in the thick of it and proud of it, taking a ‘leading role’. This self-appointed saviour and publicity seeker got her come-uppance when she was told, in no uncertain way, to fuck off by local black activists at a post mortem held that week. (She went on to run as a Parliamentary Candidate in the much publicised Bermondsey Bye-election starring Peter Tatchell and others.) The Press, however still looked for scapegoats and for a while raids were expected: incitement, something usually associated with books on 19th Century history, was the main accusation and the very impreciseness of the law associated with this charge only helped to increase the general feeling of vulnerability.

SURVEILLANCE

About 2 weeks afterwards, and a couple of days prior to the Press Release giving details of the new Police Powers Bill, the local Police Commander for Brixton, Inspector Fairburn, announced that Officers from CII (Intelligence) and the A.T.S. were being seconded, on a permanent basis, to help monitor future developments on the Frontline. Further more, he admitted that the cops on the Frontline had been using and will continue to use sophisticated listening devices to “keep track on the activities of potential ‘muggers’.” Coincidentally, Brixton was also the first area in Britain to incorporate the new System X switching system devised at Martlesham, Ipswich, by British Telecom. Apart from making it more difficult to sabotage the telephone network, system X provided the capacity to monitor all telephone calls automatically as well as automatic re-routing/blocking in State states of emergency, or whenever the authorities desired it.

Brixton (and Toxteth) had now become to the rest of Britain, in terms of policing, what the North of Ireland had been to the UK, in terms of militarisation…

After the November 1982 riot, the police/press/council tried to revive the old charge of incitement against the local anarchist suspects at 121, which, as the anarchist paper Black Flag pointed out “ridiculous and totally groundless. It is also elitist (and in this particular case racist) as it implies that those who participated in the action were incapable of deciding things for themselves: they need others to encourage or ‘lead’ them. Given the somewhat uneasy relationship between black and white residents of the frontline area, the charge was even more laughable.

It’s not at all surprising that hierarchical gangs run on orders from tiny cliques should attempt to present resistance as only being possible if run by secret leaders. The whole idea of people organising and fighting back together on their own behalf and under no-one’s orders clearly threatens the entire basis of social control. The whole idea of it has to be suppressed and rebellion has to be presented as a secret conspiracy of fanatics pulling the strings of mindless dupes. The llluminati anyone?

Raids on the Frontline continued, as houses were evicted and demolished; 28 officers were assigned to full time work there. In early December ’82, dozens of black and white people were dragged out of houses, in Railton Road, and Talma Rd, round the corner, where the evicted blues clubs had set up anew after November. The raids as usual produced a couple of charges for possession of small amounts of dope, theft of electric fuses, etc. In Talma Road, they besieged a squat, padlocking it on the outside. The squatters, trapped inside, fled, leaving the house to be smashed up. The following week 70 people were lifted in street arrests and more raids.

On top of announcing they’d be using long-range mikes to listen to inhabitants of the Frontline, cops had seemingly prevailed on the council to make some alterations to the local geography: walkways in some estates (eg Angell Town) were demolished, after the youth had pelted cops from above in November. Overhead walkways made moving around estates easier, especially for rioters holding off invading police. (As cops in North Peckham would find to their cost in 1985, when concrete rain fell on them). Traffic priorities were changed in Stockwell Park Estate to make police control easier.

Stockwell Park, from the dreams of the Brixton planners, had become a grim dumping ground, rife with crime and depression. Getting burgled during the day while you were in was not a rare occurrence; the walkways and cubbyholes may have been a tactical gift during riots but could make daily life paranoid and threatening. As a result there was some racial trouble on the estate: a sizable white population feeling under attack from ‘the blacks’. This led to splits within the Tenants Association, and a breakaway “White Defence Association” was set up, demanding more high profile policing. Because of their agenda, this development received some substantial publicity in the South London Press and Daily Mail, always keen to play up and make points about ‘racial’ aggravation. As with the “rightwing white residents’ of the frontline (see above) who supported the demolition of the blues and squats, some of the opposition to Brixton’s rebel culture/support for hardline policing came from both genuine daily experience of crime as well as an undeniable old-style prejudice and respect for authority. The fact that many especially older local whites were racist has made it sometimes harder to get a genuine discussion of very real problems they went through; as with the anarchists’ anti-mugging campaigns, many people were unwilling to talk about racial elements in muggings etc.

POSTSCRIPT:

Commander Fairburn was replaced not long after the riot as Police Commander in Lambeth by Alex Marnock who had in the past been a commander in the SPG.

No helicopter was seen during the riot because the one generally used by the Met for Lambeth had to turn back: on its way it suddenly collided with an exploding flare which was let off. The flash probably affected the ultra-sensitive night vision cameras. Just showing what could be done with a simple firework!

This prompted the following poem (which appeared in Hooligan Press’ From Beneath the Keyboard’ collection a couple of years later:

CAN PIGS FLY?

Helicopter, Helicopter where have you been?
We all miss the sound of rotor-blade scream!
And Infra-red cameras, recording the signs,
of extortionate rents, food, dope and fines.

Helicopter, Supersnoop! Is it true what they said?
That youre mothballed away in the maintainence shed,
lenses of scanners all scarred by a Bash
from yacht flare or rocket, nearly causing a CRASH????

Chocolate chopper! is there nothing to do?
-even if we pay for a nimrod or two,
to watch o’er you as you watched o’er us
plus satellites and marksmen atop every ‘bus!

MACHINE SUPREME! Don’t leave us this way
your almighty din gave such fun every day
comforted mothers and children Abed
just can’t hear crimes with you overhead!

Where oh, where can you now be seen?
Dispatched to the Falklands or Camberwell Green.
In Kensington, if it is allowed ……..
directing lost tourists up Pem-br-oke Road!

There’s another job we need air support for,
tracking infringers of safety-belt law,
no point in letting criminals run to ground,
call ’em David Martin, claim your five Rounds.

PLEASE TELL US DEAR READERS, HELP US TO TRACK THE MILLION P0UND PIG WITH EGG ON IT’S FACE!

Rev. ARMITAGE. Can’t Pray-GOTTA RIOT!

The Tory reign in Lambeth lasted barely a few months. Labour, then in the hands of Red Ted Knight and his Trotskyist entrists, were back in power by late November 82, due to the defection of SDP councillor Gordon Ley, a prime victim of squatters’ hate campaigns (he had had his lorry attacked, his shop smashed up, his car nicked and burned out), although he claimed it wasn’t fear of continuing moonlight visits that made him swap sides. Pull the other one Gordy.

The new Labour Regime DID give licences to some squatted houses in June 1983, as long as they joined co-ops: most of these were in Clapham, although some houses in Millbrook Road and Loughborough Park were recognised. None were in the Frontline. And a year and a half after the November clearances, a remaining frontline outpost of squatting, Effra Parade, was also to face eviction…

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Account of the November 1982 riot from Black Flag, 2 Feb 1983)
With notes from Crowbar no 6, 8 October 1983, and no 7, 22 October.

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

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Today in London’s dole history, 1985: Islington Unwaged Centre occupied to prevent its closure

On October 18th 1985, users of the Islington Unwaged Centre, on Holloway Road, North London, went into 24-hour occupation of their building, in response to threats by the centre’s funders to evict them after their funding was cut off. The centre had been founded in August 1982, after a year’s campaigning by the Islington Action group of the Unwaged.

What follows is a history of the unwaged workers’ group and the Unwaged Centre, documenting their efforts to establish and run a centre for the unemployed and their relationship to the Miners’ Strike and other struggles of the times.

This is a reprint of a pamphlet produced in 1987, by the Campaign for Real Life. We’ve re-typeset the text, otherwise it’s unchanged, except for some explanatory notes at the end, added by past tense.

The original author’s views have changed some since writing it; past tense don’t entirely agree with everything here either, but feel there’s some really good history here and its really worth putting it out there again.

Setting Up

In October 1980, workers from Islington’s welfare rights organisations, and one local unemployed man got together to try to set up an unemployed group. Unemployment was rising rapidly and the welfare workers felt that just telling the unemployed their rights was not enough – that something had to be done to extend these pathetic rights, and they recognised that this could best be done by the unemployed themselves.

Unemployed groups were forming in various parts of London, and someone from the Greenwich group, which was already active, was invited to speak at the inaugural meeting. The meeting was organised at the Co-op Hall and the dole office nearby was leafleted for two weeks before, with new people gradually joining in the leafleting.

About five new people turned up to the meeting, plus a guy from the NF [Note 1] who was quickly thrown out. It was decided to start meeting weekly, to try to get more people involved, and to try to get up a centre for, and run by the unemployed.

But despite the belief that unemployed people had to organise for themselves, it wasn’t until some months later that the group was angered into taking themselves seriously, and taking control of their dealings with the authorities. Up till then they’d sat back and watched the welfare workers deal with the council, trades council etc. -they seemed to know what they were doing, while the group had no experience and were intimidated, less by authority than by all the forms, codes, behind-the-scenes deals etc. Instead the group was just trying to keep going, believing that when they got the centre they could take control. They were leafleting, flyposting and meeting, new people were joining, and a few dropping out.

Then in April there was a meeting in the area organised by the South East Region TUC (SERTUC) to talk about unemployment and setting up a centre. Most of the group were there, sitting at the back, listening to how the bureaucrats were going to set up a centre, how they’d been doing lots of things for the unemployed, but the unemployed weren’t interested, and so on, until finally the group started shouting that they were organising for themselves. The union hacks weren’t interested and didn’t like their meeting being disrupted by plebs. The welfare workers said nothing.

The next meeting with SERTUC was on better terms – one of them among a conference of the London & South East Federation of Unemployed Groups. He was there to sell the TUC/government line on unemployed centres  – he failed [2]. Nearly every group there totally rejected the guidelines, the imposition of paid, workers, and political control. The SERTUC guy felt so rejected he was desperate for friends, and after a few kind words on the way out, he agreed to write some nice letters for IAGOU. This was June ’81. The conference had been set up by the Greenwich and Southwark groups and was attended by 16 militant groups. There was a feeling that things were just starting, that the movement was going to grow, and be a vehicle for real change. Brixton and St Pauls had exploded [3] – in many areas the cops were careful not to provoke more trouble, and people on the streets were becoming confident. Mass unemployment was something new, at least for white males, and included many who were looking for a lot more than a job. Unemployment and the riots seemed to be the crack in the system that people had been waiting for.

A week later there was a national conference in Leicester, with over 80 people from 25 unemployed groups, plus individuals and some union reps. Everyone was excited at going national, but the question of how to organise caused major arguments. Leicester and most of the other Midland groups were controlled by Socialist Organiser (a trot group in the Labour Party) [4] who had met a couple of weeks before to organise their position. The constitution they came up with was centralised – the conference would elect individuals onto a committee which would run the ‘union’. Their proposals were sent out a week before the conference, and IAGOU immediately prepared an alternative. They argued that electing individuals was absurd because they might get jobs or drop out, or their group might disband or conflict with them, leaving them outside the real movement. They wanted local groups to be the basis for organisation, and the structure to be kept as informal as possible to allow each group and individual as much input as they wanted. Instead of creating a committee to decide what should be done, IAGOU wanted a structure where each group could come up with ideas for struggle, and develop them with the others. And there was deep suspicion of giving an individual a position from which to speak ‘on behalf of’ the unemployed or to impose a political line, as S.O. seemed to want.

IAGOU took their proposed constitution to the conference and handed round. Most of the groups not controlled by S.O. called for the decision on the constitution to be postponed as they had not had time to discus the new proposals and had no mandate on them. IAGOU agreed, but when a compromise was put to them at lunch, they copped-out and withdrew their proposals. So a committee was elected, and before long the organisation was in the hands of a few people – or at least the name was, the organisation ceased to exist when everyone went home. Still, IAGOU came back inspired by the fact that the movement was national, whatever a particular organisation might do, or fail to do.

Meanwhile, conditions in the dole offices were getting intolerable. The rising number of unemployed was not matched by an increase in staff or facilities, meaning long queues, crowded dirty offices and stress on both sides of the counter. Added to this, the staff were taking action over a pay dispute, which closed down various dole and DHSS [5] offices. IAGOU supported the staff, practically organising the strike at one dole office, giving out union leaflets to explain the dispute to other claimants, but they also put forward their own demands for improving conditions, particularly at the Medina Road dole office.

On July 7th, IAGOU held a public meeting near the dole office, and the next day held a demo. They wrote their demands on a chalkboard outside the office, and painted slogans on the pavement where the queues ended – some of them quite a long way down the road. Then they went in, about 50 of them, but the office was already packed and it looked like everyone was demonstrating. A couple of them got up on the counter (this was before shatter-proof screens) and started shouting out their demands and calling for the manager. Both claimants and staff showed support, so eventually the manager agreed to meet a delegation. She was totally patronising and obstructive (not knowing that one of the delegation was an unemployed councillor) but gave in to some of the demands;

Some notices were put up in Urdu, Gujerati, Greek and Turkish. but this only lasted a few weeks.

– A toilet was made available to claimants, but only in emergencies (as defined by management)

– A slip was sent out with giros saying when to sign on next.

– An extra bench was put in, for two weeks.

– some replacement giros were handed out over the counter instead of being posted.

– a few more staff were taken on, but nothing like the 22 lacking according to their own calculations.

Another public meeting was held shortly after, followed by another demo about the continued delay in receiving giros. About 70 claimants took part. When somebody shouted out ‘What are we supposed to ‘do pawn our gold jewellery?’ the manager replied ‘well, you can pawn your furniture’ which did nothing to calm the situation. IAGOU demanded another meeting. At first this was refused, but then a date was set for July 24th. To avoid any ‘trouble’ Regional Management made the manager close the office for the whole day creating even more chaos and aggravation.

At the same time, IAGOU had been contacting unions and the council to try to ensure that claimants were not cut-off or evicted due to delays in payment caused by the strike, and were successful. They also went over Hackney [6], to demand emergency payments from the council, and the council agreed immediately, rather than have hundreds of angry claimants while the riots were in full swing. If you were willing to queue up twice you could get two payments, or more. While there, IAGOU helped a Hackney unemployed group get going.

With the end of the strike much of the chaos continued, and some improvements were taken away again by management, so IAGOU held another demo on August 24th, again at Medina Road. But eventually the chaos was reduced by the opening of another office nearby. and the introduction of monthly signing instead of two-weekly.

In this period of chaos, IAGOU brought out their first newsletter called U B Press [7]. It included articles explaining the situation and struggle at the dole offices (with ½ page by one of the workers), proposals for setting up a centre, a section from a book by Wal Hannington (unemployed leader of the ’20s) [8] on the occupation of an Islington library as an unemployed centre in 1920 [9], reports from the two conferences, and more. And all for only 2p!

There was also a benefit at which everyone had a good time and IAGOU made 70 quid. It was called Bop Against YOP, but unfortunately those affected by the Youth Opportunity Programme, 16-18 year olds, couldn’t get in as it was held in a pub that the cops kept their eye on.

On October 22nd Norman Tebbit, Secretary of State for Employment (as they say in Newspeak) visited Barnsbury dole office in South Islington. Informed of the visit by a mole, IAGOU organised a demo to welcome him, and sent out a press-release. When it arrived, Tebbit was jostled by a crowd of about 30, hit by an egg and chased into the building. “ … the egg was thrown from two feet away, hitting him on the crown of the head. It burst and the yoke (sic) dribbled down his neck onto his clothing.”(the Times) “A spokesman for the Department of Employment said, ‘he was not hurt.” (Morning Star) Because of the press release, it was attributed to IAGOU, which upset the SWP [10] because the egg was actually one of their members.

Relations with the SWP were not particularly good anyway. During the civil servants’ strike, IAGOU and the local SWP branch organised a joint meeting, except that the SWP had organised it as their branch meeting, at which they told IAGOU to disband and join the Right to Work Campaign – one of their front organisations, which they disbanded about a year later. Then IAGOU tried to discourage a bunch of local SWP students and lecturers from trying to occupy a Job Centre ‘as a stunt’. They went ahead, gave out a few leaflets, were ignored, and went to the café.

2) THE FIGHT FOR A CENTRE

One of the main aims of IAGOU from the start was the setting up of a centre for the unemployed. The most obvious way to do this seemed to be through Islington Council and the Greater London Council [11]. They were both willing to fund ‘community groups’, especially when they expected political support and good publicity in return. Also they had property to spare. But of course it wasn’t as easy as going along to the council and saying ‘we’re unemployed and we want a centre’. There were forms to fill in, bureaucracies to deal with, support to be lobbied for, internal politics to deal with and constant pressure to apply, to force action instead of just words.

Getting them to accept that the centre would be run and controlled by the users was at that time comparatively easy. To start with it was a lot cheaper for them not to have to pay for workers. Also at that time the only existing model for unemployed centres was the MSC [12]/TUC guidelines which were not particularly acceptable to any of the parties involved; the council were not keen on the lack of campaigning imposed, because they expected that any campaigning would be effectively pro-Labour, the unions were against the MSC rates of pay, and IAGOU were against these, and the control being in the hands of the various authorities. Both Islington Council and the GLC liked to appear radical, and anyway they would have control in the long term, through controlling the purse strings.

In May ‘81 the council agreed in principle to funding a centre, and IAGOU had to go away again and produce detailed plans and a budget, which was a bit hard without having a building to base their plans on. The council were not particularly helpful over this, but eventually IAGOU found an empty council-leased shop and decided it would be the centre. It was at 355 Holloway Road on one of Islington’s busiest roads for shopping and traffic, almost in the centre of the borough and close to Medina Road. It had been empty for some time since being used as a housing advice centre. The lay-out and conditions weren’t particularly good, but they were told money would be available for alterations and improvements.

In June the council’s Employment Committee agreed to give the group £4,000 to equip the centre, and by September Finance and Planning had approved the handing over of funding and the building ‘as soon as possible’. The Valuers, Architects and IAGOU drew up plans for the alterations and in November the Solicitors approved the group’s constitution, after long arguments and delays. In December the money for equipment was handed over, and it looked like the keys to the building would follow shortly. They didn’t.

In the new year, the majority of councillors either suddenly ‘saw the light’ at the same time, or else found a way to do what they had always really wanted, but without joining the Tories – they went over to the newly-formed SDP [13]. Overnight the Labour stronghold became the SDP’s first taste of power, without an election. Those who had been spouting the Labour line could now do openly what they had only done secretly or negatively before. Grants were axed, staff vacancies frozen, plans made to increase rents and sell off 750 homes. A worker in the housing department was victimised, and nearly all the council workers came out on strike. On February 9th the Employment Committee met for the first time under SDP rule. They agreed to fund the local Chamber of Commerce to the tune of £16,500, and refused the £7,000 previously promised for the centre, and so the centre itself. According to the council leader, ‘A centre for the unemployed in Islington would only encourage people to stay on the dole’. Most of IAGOU were at the meeting, and some had to be physically removed. That night the town was painted red, with demands and threats. The next full council meeting had striking workers, threatened tenants, IAGOU and others demonstrating outside at the start while inside the meeting had to be stopped at least once, due to screaming, chants of ‘Unwaged Fightback’ and rolls of bog paper flying from the public gallery.

As a (not very successful) publicity stunt a few of them went down to the first SDP national conference at Kensington Town Hall. Two of them got in with borrowed press cards and borrowed clothes, and were meant to let the others in through a side door. They couldn’t find a side door, but anyway they hung out a massive banner, which had been cleverly disguised as journalistic fat and shouted a few slogans and insults before being led out very politely. All the press were there, but only one of the local radio stations bothered to mention it.

Before the SDP had come along, IAGOU were already getting sick of waiting, and were making plans to occupy the centre instead. They told the Employment and Valuers Departments that they needed to look over the centre again to prepare the next year’s budget and other things. Both departments said it would be alright, but due to illness and holidays neither could send anyone along, so IAGOU would have to pick up the keys and go on their own.

So on a Friday there was a special planning meeting to sort out all details, the weekend was spent at the local resource centre printing leaflets and posters to publicise the occupation and Monday the shopping was done, bog paper, tea etc, and everything was set for Tuesday. But late on Monday the head of the Employment Department rang, saying ‘what happened at your meeting on Friday? We know you planned something for tomorrow, what is it? I need to inform the councillors’. Of course he was told it was none of his business and as they didn’t know how much he knew, the plans went ahead.

The key was picked up with no problem, and everyone was in place across the road in Sainsburys, a few cycling up and down the road and the rest in a cafe up the road, plus 12 from the Student Union were waiting at their college round the corner. But the building had been boarded up and a cop was standing outside. The worst thing was not knowing who had grassed – everyone was under suspicion so it was impossible to try again. One of the people at the planning meeting was involved in setting up another unemployed project mainly for basic training which was also after funding. He never came to another meeting.

Council elections were due at the start of May, and the Labour Party promised the keys to the centre ‘within 24 hours of getting re-elected’. This didn’t make IAGOU rush round campaigning for a Labour victory, but the campaigning they were already doing, along with all the other struggles going on, must at least have given the impression that things had been, and would be slightly better under Labour.

Anyway. Labour got back into power with only a few of the defectors keeping their seats. The next day the Labour leader said that IAGOU could the keys the day after they officially took office, a week later. Nothing happened. One problem was that shortly before the election the council sold off the lease on the property, but the new lessees were just speculators and gave the council a sublease. It was the freeholders, who the council had supposedly dealt with months before who kept being a pain. Meanwhile the council kept raising questions that had been dealt with before the SDP took over but after a lot of pressure the centre was finally handed over in August ‘82, over 3 months after the election, and over 11 months from the first promised date.

3) A CENTRE FINALLY

The idea that once the group had a centre as a base, they would be able to consolidate and really start moving was soon shown to be an illusion.

The centre was there, but it didn’t run itself. Whereas before they were running around without a base, now they found they couldn’t run around so much because they were stuck holding the base. The centre had to be open every weekday (the fact that for a while it wasn’t was later used as an excuse to close it) so people had to be there even when nothing was going on. Idiots who wandered in had to be treated sympathetically. Receipts had to be kept for every pen bought. And possibly most destructive, the building alterations had to be arranged.

The building was made up of two rooms, plus the toilet. The front room was long and thin, with a lot of space taken up by the entrance, which was a sort of glass passageway leading up to the door. This was intimidating and stopped a lot of light. The back room was square and housed the crèche, TV and cooking facilities. The back wall was damp and collapsing, and each time it rained the damp spread another inch across the floor.

The plan was to make the front straight, re-divide the rooms more evenly, close off the cooking area with a serving hatch, add a disabled toilet and a couple of room dividers, and generally do the place up. The effect would have been to make the place attractive, safe, and spacious enough for various things to go on at the same time.

First they had to work out what they wanted, then the architects and builders were brought in to draw up proper plans and estimates. The GLC then had to agree to fund the work and the council had to give planning permission. And once all that had been arranged, and it took a long time, the head landlords decided they didn’t like it, and wouldn’t allow it. It was discovered that they could be taken to court for being unreasonable, but this had to be done by the council as sub-lessees. The council thought about it for a couple of months, and then said they would do it if the GLC would cover any legal costs. The GLC thought about for a few months, and then said no. So after many months of hard work, the group were left with a damp, dingy intimidating building.

Still, it was there, and people dropped in, for advice, to watch films, to join the campaigns, the occasional workshop, the meetings or just for a chat or for-curiosity.

IAGOU had its meetings on Thursdays, and Wednesdays were Wageless Women day. Islington Wageless Women had been meeting for over a year, organising women’s events, campaigning against the cohabitation laws, for nurseries etc. a London & South East Wageless Women conference, exhibitions etc. and intervening in IAGOU and the rest of the movement, to struggle against sexism and illusions. In terms of theory Wageless Women were far more together than IAGOU, but when it came to practice they had greater problems. They didn’t want to be an ‘unemployed’ women’s group, but based their analysis and struggles on the role of women in the reproduction of capital – on the unwaged work that women are trained for from birth, and perform every day whether they also do waged work or not. Their basic demand was for a guaranteed minimum income for all, to allow women (and men) more choice over what work they do, and giving women independence without them having to take on waged work as well. They criticised IAGOU for basing their campaigns around the dole office, which excluded many unwaged people not signing on as unemployed. This was correct, but the problem then was where else to organise. IAGOU’s best struggles were waged at the dole office, because there were already large numbers of people there – something would have happened there anyway, without IAGOU. To have used the centre for organising all unwaged sectors of the proletariat would have required far greater organisation, publicity, imagination and resources than they had. Of course they could have tried harder, but while accepting the criticism, and making the Centre open to all the unwaged, IAGOU remained essentially an unemployed group.

The change of name from Islington Action Group on Unemployment to Islington Action Group of the Unwaged, which happened around the time the Centre opened, caused disagreements with various authorities. The change meant not only a change in who could be involved, extending outside the terms and analysis of the ‘Labour Movement’, but signified also a change in self-definition; instead of defining themselves in terms of jobs (ie not having one) they defined themselves in terms of resources (ie not having any). Of course the two are directly related, but the point was to try to change this – to end the poverty – while pointing out the historical (and so changeable) reasons for it. The poverty of the dole is a tool to enforce work – we work because ‘we have nothing to sell but our labour’, but to some extent we choose what conditions we will work under. Mass unemployment and benefit cuts restrict our choices – they restrict our ability to struggle over conditions through the need to keep, or get a job. So instead of joining the campaigns for jobs, where the unwaged were treated as the ‘reserve army’ of the labour movement, IAGOU struggled to improve their conditions as unwaged people, and so improve their (and others’) choices, alongside the struggles of the waged. But the struggle was meant to go beyond merely improving conditions, a constant struggle with more or less success according to conditions;- it was meant to strike at the basic poverty of our class, on which our exploitation is based. The resources of this world that we have created have been stolen from us, and we can only get the means to a decent survival by selling our labour power, to be used by the bosses and state to produce more riches and means to exploit us. This exploitation can not be dealt with by demanding more of it, but by attacking its roots and its myths. We now live in a world where the bosses can only continue to impose their role, to impose labour and poverty on us, through creating artificial shortages, through destroying part of the abundance we produce and leaving the means of production to rot. The abolition of labour is the task before us, the appropriation, by all, of our products and means of production, which no longer require our sacrifice.

4) CAMPAIGNING

The first major campaign run from the Centre was against the Specialist Claims Control Unit (SCCUM), one of the specialist fraud squads sent round different DHSS offices to intimidate claimants into signing off. They tend to pick on single parents (who they accuse of cohabiting), people with skills that ‘could be used off the cards’ or whoever’s name comes out of the hat. Like the SPG [14], their name gets changed regularly to put off resistance.

In October ‘82 the SCCUM were sent into Archway Tower, home of Highgate and Finsbury Park DHSS offices, and a large demonstration was there to meet them. As they arrived they were photographed, and their pictures and car numbers flyposted around the area, with advice on how to deal with them. This was also put on the front page of the local alternative paper. They have met similar resistance in most other places, and the ordinary DHSS staff will often walk out for the day when they come, and refuse to co-operate with them. Bethnal Green Claimants Union were so successful at disrupting their visit to the area, that one of the claimants was taken to court for ‘intimidation’, but was quickly found not guilty. Outside the court the SCCUM were further ‘intimidated’ by having a camera pointed at them, so they ran off down the road with the lens-cap! It’s interesting how such anti-social elements project their own obnoxious habits onto those at the receiving end – a primary symptom of paranoid schizophrenia. A claimant was once being harassed for ‘suspected cohabitation’ and asked IAGOU for support when the fraud officer came to visit. When he came in and saw a group of people with a tape recorder, he asked her ‘don’t you regard it as a private matter?’ as though IAGOU were the ones interested in her personal relations.

Then came the struggle against race-checks at the dole office. Staff were to be ordered to fill in a computer form for each claimant, marking them down as;
1) African/West Indian
2) Asian
3) Other
4) Refusal (claimants had the right to refuse to be assessed, but the staff were not allowed to tell them that they were being assessed, making this ‘right’ pretty useless. The reason for this was that in test runs, they found that more people refused to be assessed when they’d been told about it than when they hadn’t!)

Only 1, 2 & 4 would have been marked on the computer, in other words only if you were black or bolshie enough to refuse would you have a mark on your file – a mark identifying you for the fraud squads when looking for someone to harass or for anyone else with access to the computer.

The Department of Employment claimed they only wanted statistics, and for this they were supported by parts of the race relations industry who wanted to show that black people are discriminated against in employment. But anyone who didn’t already recognise this fact would be among those, journalists, government ministers etc, who would no doubt use these same statistics to ‘prove’ the opposite – portraying black people as ‘scroungers’, as the problem. Employers are the problem so they’re the ones who should be hassled and assessed. Race statistics have always been used to promote racism, never to fight it.

In March ’83 IAGOU produced leaflets on the checks, including a tear-off slip to hand in when signing on. saying ‘please note that I refuse to be monitored for my ethnic origin’. At this stage the government postponed their plans, but by the end of the year it seemed they were ready to try again. So after a lot of leafleting, flyposting and visiting other groups, the inaugural meeting of the Islington Campaign Against Racist Checks was held at the Centre in December, with guest speakers from the Black Healthworkers and Patients Group and others. The turn-out was appalling – most of the black groups contacted had said-good luck, but had their own agendas of struggle and many people leafleted outside the dole offices expressed anger but felt nothing could be done until the checks started – and the campaign remained the work of IAGOU. The publicity continued, including a live interview on Radio London, and soon the campaign spread, so that in February ‘84 the London Campaign Against Racist Checks was set up, made up of unwaged groups, dole staff and others. Much of that summer was spent leafleting at various festivals, and the meetings, when held in Islington, would often go on till the early hours of the morning (but business was always finished in time to pop over to the pub) and generally campaigning was combined with having a bloody good time.

In August the government decided to have a test run of the checks at various dole offices – they had already done test-runs so it was obvious that what was, being tested was the amount of resistance. Demos were held at Holloway, Peckham and Brixton dole offices when the tests were supposed to be carried out there. About a year later they tried again – again there were demos-and a one-day strike by the staff. Another year on they tried it in the Job Centres, where for many reasons people felt less threatened by it so there was little resistance, but now that the Job Centres and dole offices are to be re-merged, the struggle is being taken up again. [15]

At various times there were attempts to campaign against the Youth Training Scheme etc, against benefit cuts, and for concessions at council sports facilities – (successful) and at cinemas, Arsenal, public transport etc (unsuccessful). Some fun was had at a show put on by the government as part of their ‘review’ of benefits. They held a public (though practically un-publicised) series of discussions between representatives of the government, business and a few liberal organisations. The result of this farce was a foregone conclusion, so IAGOU and some of the Claimants Unions booed the show off stage, drowning it out with whistles and loud conversation. Unfortunately the performers were allowed to leave the stage unharmed despite being outnumbered.

The question of how to effectively campaign over the level of benefits, our standard of living, was always a major problem. Obviously the unemployed (as opposed to other sectors of the unwaged – ie ‘housewives’) are not in a position to strike, but can still be very disruptive to the system. Our current level of income is due in part to past disruptions, and the state’s attempts to avoid them in future. What would most encourage the state to increase benefits would be a situation where large numbers of the unwaged (and waged) were already directly taking more, through mass looting, mass fare dodging, rent strikes etc. in which case demanding increased benefits would be irrelevant – the important thing would be to extend this real power instead of legitimising the state by making demands of it. On the other hand there is the possibility of waged workers taking up the demand, especially when fighting redundancies, but IAGOU do not seem to have directly suggested this to any workers. Instead the idea of an increase, or of a Guaranteed Minimum Income were used in effect as a way of explaining other campaigns and struggles (we should get more/a GMI because… so we’re demanding/doing X) or as an alternative/opposition to the demand for jobs. Meanwhile they encouraged shoplifting, benefit fraud, squatting, careful tampering with meters, eating the rich etc.

5) CHANGE OF MEMBERS

By the first anniversary of the Centre’s opening there was only one person left running it, it was opening very irregularly and there was no money as the GLC grant was late as usual. Some people had actually found jobs while others had just got sick of putting in a lot of work for little return, and waiting for funding to come through, or had their time taken up with other struggles. Fortunately two new active members turned up within a couple of months and helped get things going again, while some of the less active members returned once the Centre was opening regularly again. But when the last of the original activists left, in early ‘84, all continuity had been broken. The new members had to gradually discover the group’s history, contacts in other groups etc, and deal with the bad relations inherited from past disputes. Having not taken part in the long struggle to get the Centre and funding, the new members tended to take them for granted, and took the threats from the council and GLC less seriously than they should, while they also lacked the experience of fighting these authorities. And as they had not been part of the original collective process of deciding what the Centre was for, and because of the need to get more people involved, they often felt unable to impose their views on those who wandered in, meaning that at various times the place was a centre for local kids to wreck, or for the propagation of ultra-leftist ideology, or whatever. The film-shows, which were originally chosen for their political and social content, to encourage discussion and activities, degenerated into showing whatever it was felt would attract the most people, although the best attended showings were actually on Nicaragua and the Amsterdam squatters riots. Also there were the ever-present problems – that the activists became a group of friends who tended to mould the centre and its activities around themselves, making it more accessible and attractive to their friends than to the majority of the unwaged; that the smallness of the group always limited its actions, so putting off more people from joining in; and of course the many people who came along expecting someone to fight for them or organise them. But through the Centre being constantly kept open, and through constant campaigning and events, new people were attracted and the problems gradually confronted (to return in other forms).

By the summer of ’84 the Centre had again become a real centre of activity, with the campaign against racist checks leading to meetings and actions all around London, the miners strike, with miners using the Centre as a base, and the group doing collections and visiting some mining areas, and the start of threats from the GLC leading to trips to County Hall to graffiti counter-threats and leaflet their festivals, and many other things.

But as the racist checks were postponed and the GLC threats went slowly through the bureaucracy, so losing their immediate importance, what was left was the political line and posture the group had taken on the miners’ strike. This, along with the political affiliations of the two main activists had attracted a few ultra-left politicos from outside Islington, and for a while all that came out of the Centre was propaganda that had little direct relevance to the unwaged of Islington.

Meanwhile, another centre had been open for some time in Islington. Molly’s Cafe was a squatted centre in Upper Street, about a mile away from the Unwaged Centre, with a vegetarian cafe and various activities. It had been started mainly by punks who had been involved in previous squatted centres, the ‘Peace Centre’ in Rosebery Avenue [16], the anarchist bookshop in Albany Street [17] etc. and in ‘Stop the City’ [18]. For some time the two centres ignored each other, IAGOU sinking into isolation in its centre and opposed to the anarchism of Molly’s, while the Molly’s crew were put off by their expectation of another council-run community centre. But eventually they got to know each other and started working together – the Tavistock Square Claimants Union was set up at Molly’s with publicity printed by IAGOU, together they set up the Islington Housing Action Group, and a day of videos, speeches and discussion on Ireland was jointly organised at the Unwaged Centre.

It was the day on Ireland that finally brought to a head the dispute between the ultra-leftists and the other users, including the activists from Molly’s. In political terms the dispute was over self-organisation: in principle both sides were for it, but for the ultra-leftists this meant producing propaganda attacking manipulators, forms of organisation that restrain struggle, recuperation of struggle etc, so that the Centre and its resources were there for them to use as they saw fit, as representatives of this ‘correct’ ideology. But for the others the resources were for the direct self-organisation of the unwaged (and others) irrespective of political position, for developing our struggles according to our experience. Two of the ultra-leftists in particular were making the atmosphere unbearable – one was constantly critical of everything without any positive suggestions and easily wound up to a tantrum, while the other took pleasure in winding him up, hid the best paper for his own pamphlets, ignored most of the people coming in, and finally wrote stupid graffiti across a poster in the window for the day on Ireland, having made no attempt to take part and so express his views constructively.

At that time the weekly meetings had again stopped, as IAGOU as such was not doing a lot, except with the people from Molly’s who, although they were using the Centre more and more, had not got directly involved in running it. To break out of this rut, a package was put together and put to everyone involved – expulsion of the two disrupters, and new activities for the Centre with meetings again. A special meeting was held for the expulsion and the result was a forgone conclusion, the expellers having organised the invitations to the meeting. One of the expellees recognised this and didn’t turn up, having paint-bombed the front of the Centre the night before in protest, but the other tried unsuccessfully to justify himself. A new issue of Unwaged Fightback magazine was started and various activities organised to defend the Centre and restart campaigning, which gave new life to IAGOU, but with a new, informal power structure based around a few of the activists who were moving into a squat together.

6) MINERS & OTHERS

1984 was the year of the miners’ strike, and IAGOU, like many other groups, joined in by collecting money etc, joining pickets and demonstrations, and encouraging solidarity among the unwaged (and waged) of the area. Two groups of miners used the Centre at different times, as a base for organising collections, meetings and trips to speak to other workers – first from a pit in Staffordshire, and when they found a less chaotic (and more officially approved of) base a branch from Sunderland moved in. The money collected by IAGOU went, at various times, to these two groups, to strikers at a Nottingham pit, a Women’s Action Group (mainly miners’ wives) in Derbyshire and to the families of miners imprisoned for their part in the struggle. This was always organised directly, rather than through official union channels – when the Staffordshire lads were met on a demo in the early days of the strike, their regional union treasurer was supporting the scabs and refusing to pass on money to strikers, while towards the end there was the fear of the money being sequestered, but the main reason was that the group wanted direct links, so that ideas and experiences could be shared, and so that the miners would know who the solidarity was coming from and why, rather than it appearing to be the work of the union bureaucrats. Collections were held at least once a week outside Sainsburys, two jumble-sales were held, and a large window display (made famous by the Islington Gazette) encouraged passers-by to come in and donate. One guy who came in said that he had just been interviewing Margaret Hodge, the council leader, and the only way he felt he could make himself clean again was by donating a fiver to the miners. An attempt to collect toys for miners’ children for Xmas failed, but food and money were donated instead, and a couple of Islington shops donated toys without knowing it.

From early on in the strike it became obvious that the miners were not going to win on their own, and that the government was trying very hard to avoid any other important section of the working class entering into major activity at the same time. So IAGOU, like others, stepped up their encouragement of workers’ activity, they joined a picket for a one-day dock strike, distributed a leaflet by Central London post workers at the Islington sorting office, supported the local nursery workers’ strike against understaffing, made a poster calling for real action on the TUC-called ‘Day of Action’ … There was a lot of talk around of the need to open up-a ‘2nd Front’ against the state, yet IAGOU managed to avoid the obvious conclusion of what they themselves were saying – that they should have been stepping up their struggle as part of the unwaged movement. IAGOU were fairly weak at this time, which to some extent explains why they looked elsewhere for the ‘2nd Front’, but they were weak because they were constantly looking elsewhere. Once the racist checks were postponed they had little contact with the dole and DHSS offices, but instead waited for the masses to be attracted to the Centre by their extremist political proclamations. The reason for IAGOU’s existence, that the unwaged must organise and fight their own battles as part of the wider working-class movement was effectively forgotten, and they relegated themselves to the position that the left had tried hard to impose on them and that they had always resisted, the position of individual supporters of the struggles of the waged and of a particular political line. Of course the unwaged movement must support the struggles of other sectors of the working class, and the miners’ strike was a very important struggle, but the development of unity depends on each struggle becoming a catalyst for the others. The threat by the DHSS to reduce strikers’ miserable benefits by the amount of any donations should have been fought at the Islington DHSS offices, along with more general threats against benefits. The state’s attempts to make energy production more profitable should have been fought from the other end, through struggle for concessionary rates for (or free) fuel. Discussion should have been started among the unwaged on what the strike could mean for them. Despite having miners using the Centre, they were never asked to speak at a meeting there. The one aspect of the strike that IAGOU did take up and try to encourage to other sectors, was the necessity of using all possible means and force to fight our struggles.

Generally IAGOU made great efforts to support, and encourage support for other struggles, such as the Newham 8 (8 Asian youths arrested and charged for defending their community against racist attacks) the nursery workers’ strike, the struggles at Kingston and Southwark unemployed centres against their managements. But IAGOU seemed to have great difficulty in keeping permanent contact with other groups, partly through the turnover in active members, partly through the constant rise and fall of other groups and partly through quarrelling.

In the beginning relations with Islington Trades Council were fairly good especially with the labour left. The Trades Council was dominated by the Communist Party, not because they were in a majority, but because they were the ones willing to take responsible positions and do the work, and because they had contacts (and party links) with the regional TUC and other Trades Councils. On the question of the Unwaged Centre (as on all other questions) they followed the TUC line – that centres should be run by paid workers and controlled by a management committee dominated by the council and unions. But the labour left were more supportive of IAGOU and used this, and other issues to depose the CP and take the leading positions. This was the time of the council’s defection to the SDP, and when Labour won the new elections, these new Trades Council leaders had become councillors, leaving the CP back in control. Despite the differences, the chair of the Trades Council did a lot of work to get the centre and became a trustee of the building, but in April ’83 he resigned this position and tried to stop the council funding because of his (and other ‘responsible authorities’) lack of control over day-to-day running. He claimed that as the money was controlled only by the users themselves, they would ‘take the money and run’. This left relations rather bad. The Trades Council still had two delegates on the Centre’s admin committee (with 4 from IAGOU) but for a long time meetings were very irregular, and a formality when they did happen. And IAGOU had two fraternal delegates (meaning they could only speak when spoken to) on the Trades Council, but they only attended to make sure they weren’t being attacked, and to enjoy the outbursts of the secretary, who would explode at the mere mention of IAGOU. This situation suited the newcomers to IAGOU, not only because it left them free from any interference, but also because of their view of unions as bureaucratic organisations, controlling workers’ struggles and dividing them. Of course at local level most union delegates and officials are still workers, often radical workers critical of the leadership and bureaucracy, but as long as they see the union as the organ for struggle, and seek merely to reform it, they strengthen it, and so those manipulators and parasites most fit to run it, and sabotage the power of the working class, to spread its struggles across all imposed boundaries and fragmentation, and to directly seize power and the wealth we produce. Unions exist to mediate between us and our enemy (assuming and imposing their right to exist) and between us and other groups of workers. Those who run unions can never share the direct interests of their members, and do not even have to pretend to have common interests with those not in the union, who must therefore be kept separate.

IAGOU always saw themselves as an active minority, not as representatives of anyone, but to some extent this is also the true position of local union delegates. They are often elected to positions of ‘representation’ because they are active and willing to do the work – because they are an active minority. But as they take up positions in the hierarchy (on the grounds that it is better for them to be there than someone worse – the excuse of all reformists) they get caught up in the machinery of representing ‘their’ members (so requiring majority support before doing anything, no matter how important they consider it) representing the union’s decisions and-actions to the members, mediating with the boss, more and more meetings…… To break with the union structure means not only to lose the restrictions imposed by it, but also the support for (some) struggles that comes from official recognition. The fact that support is dependant on going through the ‘correct channels’ shows how different this is from solidarity – in fact through ‘replacing’ solidarity, it represses it – although rank and file activists are constantly battling to create something meaningful out of the empty form of words and gestures behind which each union continues to carve out its own kingdom of separate interests.

Anyway, when IAGOU were forced to turn to the Trades Council for support against the threats of the council and the GLC, they found they actually had quite a lot in common with some of the delegates. Relations with activists from the DHSS staff were particularly good – IAGOU often joined their pickets and took up their campaigns, while they kept IAGOU informed of goings-on at their offices and were the most active in the struggle to keep the Centre open. There were also good relations with delegates from the ‘voluntary sector’ (council funded groups, advice workers etc) who were often involved in similar struggles with the council. While the Centre was finally being evicted, a housing advice agency was being victimised and then closed down because of its campaigning, and publicising of racism in the council’s housing allocation. IAGOU also started getting involved in some of the Trades Council run campaigns, such as the campaign against the privatisation of the health service, which was effectively sabotaged by the health workers’ union rep (a member of management!) who complained about the campaign being run by non-health workers, while ensuring that ‘his’ members could not get involved. Again IAGOU became one of the main issues dividing the CP leadership from the left majority, and eventually the chair and treasurer resigned and the secretary was voted out.

7) THE END OF THE CENTRE

It was in May ’84 that the first suggestion was made by the GLC that the funding would be cut off. At this point the only reason given was that IAGOU was not considered a priority, but when other groups started writing letters of support, a list of reasons came back – ‘the irregular hours that the Unwaged Centre opened’ which had been sorted out 8 months earlier, ‘the smallness and relative unrepresentativeness of the group running the Centre, whereas they now wanted centres run by a couple of paid workers, and control over spending (in particular money given to Wageless Women so that they could control their own struggles). IAGOU answered these points and started trying to improve the Centre, by redecorating (now that the building works weren’t going to happen) more publicity and trying to get input from other local groups. Groups were invited to meetings to discuss the direction and running of the Centre, but none turned up (not even the Latin American groups which used the Centre for film shows and meetings) – when they were invited to regularly use the Centre (so freeing IAGOU from having to be there all the time) only the Claimants Union showed any interest, and eventually set up a new branch there, which only created confusion in the Centre. The local GLC councillor was invited round so that IAGOU could put their case to him, but instead he was only interested in putting the GLC case to them, showing who he really represented.

Then in September the Centre became front-page news in the local rightwing rag (and even got a mention in the London Evening Standard) when they noticed one word in the window display, and blew it up out of all proportion. Apart from the many inaccuracies (the most obvious being that about £40,000 was received, not £60,000, the group’s accounts were already in the hands of the council, although a bit behind, and the “poster saying Suspend the Bosses”‘ were actually stickers saying ‘Support the Bosses’) most of the group were pleased at the publicity, and thought unwaged people would be attracted by this image. But apart from a few people popping in to say ‘if the Gazette is against you, you must be OK’, this didn’t seem to work. The identity of the man ‘who visited the centre regularly’ but claimed that ‘people like me can not go in there’ was never proved, but he was believed to be a member of the Socialist Party of Great Britain who was upset at being refused access to the duplicators for his party propaganda, and who was later seen at the Gazette office. There were some fears for the safety of the Centre, as a Gazette front-page attack on the Community Press a couple of years earlier had been closely followed by a fascist fire-bomb attack, but for some reason the Centre was left alone.

After this the council and GLC made it clear that they were really objecting to the group’s campaigning;

‘You have a radical libertarian approach to the problems of society… the activities you wish to carry on are sometimes incompatible with receiving public money’ (GLC)

‘I am concerned that the philosophy of IAGOU is that of a political campaigning organisation rather than a provider of services’ (Islington)

Of course IAGOU were not against services for the unwaged. They gave advice and support, cheap tea and coffee and-sometimes meals, somewhere to meet, films etc, but all this was seen as part of organising, not as servicing. The council wanted to be able to say ‘look what we’re doing for the unwaged’, IAGOU said ‘come and see what we can do for ourselves’. Between April and August ’84 a record was kept of visitors to the Centre – it varied from 3 to 20 a day (more for some films) which compared reasonably with other centres, and it would have been hard to fit many more people in, but the council were not impressed, or even interested. They decided to organise trips to other centres to see how they worked, first to the Reading Unemployed Centre. Any comparison with Islington was impossible; it had 24 paid workers, a lot of room and money and no facilities for campaigning – the delegate from the Chamber of Commerce was most impressed. Then to Southwark, where the centre was at that time being occupied by the users. There had been a long-running battle by most of the users and workers against the bureaucracy, manipulation, racism and sexism of the management committee, and when, in October ‘84, a black woman worker was harassed and assaulted by members of the management committee, they took over the building. But as far as Islington Council were concerned Southwark was a good example of how an unwaged centre should be run, and their report did not mention the occupation. The final visit was to Greenwich, which had a good centre but at that time no active unwaged group, partly because some of the leading activists had become workers there.

IAGOU had to admit that the other centres supplied a better service, but because they were given the money to do so. For example they were probably the only centre around without their own minibus, making them dependant either on Southwark for lifts (to mining areas, to support the Camel Laird occupation, to lobby the TUC, to demos etc) or on the council social services, who would not allow their minibuses for ‘political’ use(their office was only two doors away, so when a minibus was requested ‘for a trip to Kew Gardens’, they could see an advert in the window for a trip to a demo in Newham) and they were only allowed to specially qualified drivers, which IAGOU didn’t have after March ’84.

The council then started talking about setting up a new centre, which IAGOU certainly didn’t mind – apart from the original problems with the building, the heating system had exploded with a torrent of boiling water, the damp was eating away the floor and wall at the back and the head landlords, having refused permission for alterations, were now demanding restoration work that had been included in the plans – but the important point was how the new centre was to be run.

In May ’85 IAGOU drew up a new proposed constitution, including paid workers, greater concentration on services and wider representation on the admin committee. The council ignored it and told IAGOU to disband, and in July gave them 3 months notice to move out. Then in October they invited IAGOU, the chair of the Trades Council and Starting Point (an unwaged youth project in south Islington) to a meeting to discuss the new centre. At this meeting they brought out their proposed constitution (which most people had not seen before), shrugged off all criticism with ‘it can be changed later’, and effectively told those present that they were the management committee for the new centre. All the non-council members resigned these positions as soon as they returned to their groups to discuss it. The meeting also organised a trip to see possible sites for the centre, except that the council didn’t organise their part, so that out of three proposed sites, only one was found, and even with this one nobody knew which part of the building was available, but it was totally inappropriate anyway. The council put their proposals, not agreed by anyone else, to the GLC and got £30,000 from them for the 5 months to the end of the financial year. £30,000 for a non-existent centre, and IAGOU were accused of wanting to ‘take the money and run’. The Trades Council tried to get the constitution reopened for discussion, and the Centre kept open until the new one actually existed, but they only managed to get a statement that IAGOU might be allowed to stay until 31st December. The new centre of course never came about.

But IAGOU weren’t going to disappear without a fight. On October 15th they held a demo outside the council meeting at the Town Hall. Only about 30 people turned up, plus 20 council workers who were demonstrating about something else but had forgotten their leaflets. Only one person from the other London unwaged groups turned up, and none from the Trades Council.

The best bit was that some housing association had supplied free food for the council as a bribe, and demonstrators wandered in to partake, as did some local kids attracted by the chant of ‘Islington cares, food upstairs’. There was some heckling during the meeting, but a group of the activists managed to get locked out while trying to get permission to speak.

On the evening of October 18th IAGOU started their illegal occupation of the Centre with an all-night party, and from then on the place was occupied 24 hours a day, with a rota for nights. Posters from the original attempt to occupy the place were rediscovered and stuck up everywhere. A benefit gig was held at a squatted centre in Wood Green, which made some money, mainly on the drinks. The occupation raised people’s enthusiasm for a while as publicity was organised and new campaigns planned. An ‘unwaged Xmas Presence’ was planned to attack the misery of the festivities, but as the time got nearer people lost interest. It became obvious that it would not be practical to try anything more than a symbolic defence of the centre and by the end of the year the important issues became where the equipment and meetings could be moved to, and selling off the equipment that couldn’t be taken with. The idea of occupying the Town Hall or some other Council building when the eviction took place was discussed, but people were getting bored with occupying. The phones were cut off (with about £2,000 owed), the equipment packed up, and the occupation fizzled out. The Centre was finally evicted in February ‘86. After 20 months the building is still empty [19].

Meetings continued at an office in Essex Road, but most of the members had lost interest, including some of those who still came. Great efforts were made to attract new people and remain public – the GLC farewell festival was leafleted, a public meeting organised on the chaos at the DHSS (which nobody came to) and a demonstration was called on the night of the council election against whoever won, but the turnout was pathetic and everyone went straight to the pub.

They moved again, to a new squatted centre in Upper Street, but despite a lot of publicity nobody new came, and by the summer of ’86 IAGOU had gone to sleep.

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Notes

These notes were not part of the original text – we at past tense have added  them to help people who may not remember the 80s, (shurely shome mishtake? ed.), or who may not have followed the intricacies of the politics of that fabled era… However, they are brief points, not detailed analyses of the group/policy/benefit to which they refer; apologies to anyone who knows all this and finds our explanations simplistic.

[1] – NF: The National Front, a rightwing nationalist group, pretty similar to the BNP or EDL of more recent times (the BNP in fact began as a splinter-group from the NF); basically blaming immigrants for all the problems in society and campaigning to “send them all home”, as well as encouraging and carrying out racist attacks. In the 1970s the NF for a while grew very strong as the economic recession deepened, but they collapsed effectively after Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government came to power in ’79, and adopted many of their policies, and much of their support deserted them for the tories. The rump NF fell back to the hardline neo-Nazi core at its heart; but in the 80s they also had a policy of attempting to weasel their way into social struggles and community groups and spread their shite. For instance they sent money to striking miners (who sent it back) and as late as 1989 tried unsuccessfully to set up anti-poll tax groups.

[2] – At the time the TUC and trade unions generally were attempting to set up Unemployed Centres, under the control of union bureaucracies, and often funded by them and local (usually Labour) councils. Many survived into the 1990s, even till today, though most closed gradually in the ‘90s as funding grew tighter and Labour’s rightward lurch made them embarrassing and expensive anachronisms.

[3] – This refers to the 1980 Bristol riot in St Pauls and the April 1981 Brixton riot. Just after this conference, in July ‘81, massive riots broke out all over the country, terrifying the middle classes and the bosses alike. There seems to be a debate about whether the 2011 riots were bigger in scale; the reaction was very similar – massive repression, arrests and increases in police powers. The 81 riots did lead to funding for lots of measures in inner cities to try and to ‘address the problems’ (ie pacify) of rebellious youth.

[4] – Socialist Organiser were a left group who broadly speaking followed the ideas of Russian ‘revolutionary’ Leon Trotsky. SO had a policy of organising inside the Labour Party at that time (as did many other ‘trotskyist’ groups); they succeeded in taking control in some local Labour party branches and thus came to run local councils like Lambeth in South London. The group were gradually expelled from Labour as it became New Labour and ditching the ‘extreme’ left seemed necessary so as to become electable/respectable to middle England. Socialist Organiser have now mutated into the Alliance for Workers Liberty.

[5] – 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.

[6] – Hackney: the London Borough next door to Islington.

[7] – UB Press: refers to Unemployment Benefit, now replaced by Jobseekers Allowance (via numberless changes in identity).

[8] – Wal Hannington was a leader of the National Unemployed Workers Movement, a national organisation of the unemployed (which existed 1921-46). After the first world war, Britain saw mass unemployment; the NUWM was formed from the upsurge in unemployed groups that sprang up to campaign for improved benefits and facilities, better treatment from the authorities, etc… Grounded very much in the socialist and working class movement of that had grown up before the war, it came to be dominated by the Communist Party of Great Britain. Hannington and other CP members, while clearly dedicated working class activists, undeniably steered the NUWM away from its early powerful locally based strengths towards a concentration on stunts like the hunger marches, and centralised the Movement to the point of sterility. Nevertheless, particularly in the early years, the NUWM achieved many gains for the unemployed. Wal Hannington’s book, Unemployed Struggles 1919-36, is well worth a read; though for an objective account, read We Refuse to Starve in Silence by Richard Croucher; and for some unpleasant truths about NUWM and Hannington’s tendency to manipulate and control working class people in the Communist Party’s interest, check out Sylvia Pankhurst, by Barbara Winslow.

[9] – Occupation of a disused Islington Library: this was Essex Road Library, used as a meeting point by the local unemployed group, post World War 1 (see previous note). After being granted the use of this empty building, they were told to leave, but barricaded themselves in. The Council cut off power and water but food, candles and water were brought in. After holding it by force for a few weeks, in December 1920, E. H. King, Islington’s first Labour mayor, ordered the police to eject them; cops stormed the library early one morning. King described the group as ‘unemployables’. The growing radical disillusionment with the Labour Party was reinforced in September 1921 when the majority of the Labour Guardians voted to withdraw an increase in outdoor relief (the main benefit of the time) to which they had earlier agreed.

[10] – SWP: the Socialist Workers Party, a left group who are still around, (and unlike Socialist Organiser, see prior note, have not changed their name). Not orthodox trotskyists like S.O., much larger in numbers and more opportunist: they have had more front organisations than Michael Jackson had prescription pharmaceuticals. These days the SWP pretty much consists of students, though in the early ‘80s they had more working class members. What has not changed is the SWP hierarchy’s basic policy of exploiting all struggles to recruit members above all other considerations, obstructing anyone else trying to get anything achieved who doesn’t want to join the party, having the attention span of a distracted toddler, and attempting to centrally control everything. As well as trying to cover up rape and sexual assault of women members by leading cadres…

[11] – Greater London Council: the old administrative body for the whole London area (replacing the old London County Council). In its day it had responsibilities broadly similar to the modern Mayor of London and GLA, but it also ran much of London’s social housing and alot more besides. In 1981 the GLC changed hands from Conservative to Labour, and came to be controlled by the Labour Left, headed up by Ken Livingstone; they adopted a left program and increased funding for community groups and voluntary sector, especially organisations that fitted their broad socialist agenda. The press stereotyped the GLC as funding ‘loony left’ minority projects – “taxpayers money is supporting one legged black lesbian mothers against the bomb!” etc. These policies brought the GLC into conflict with the tory national government, not only because the GLC opposed the tories politically, but also because a central plank of tory policy was cutting back state expenditure, especially by cutting the amount local or regional authorities could both raise (in rates etc) and spend. Despite a high profile campaign and alot of public support, the GLC was abolished with other (all Labour-controlled) Metropolitan Authorities in 1986. This really isn’t the place for a debate about the merits of the GLC; its funding definitely allowed many projects to exist or continue that enriched life in London and improved conditions for millions of people, and its abolition was part of a process of restricting alternatives and closing down opportunities that have life harder in London for many. Much of this was down to social and economic changes, as well as political policies. On the flipside, some of its actual policies involved more posturing than effective change, and the 1980s GLC leadership had a record of backing down on them when it came to the crunch. The Council was not only bound by the restrictions of modern capitalism, but at the time those rules were being changed dramatically: Livingstone and co were on the losing side of the argument as to how modern capitalism should be managed.

[12] – MSC: Manpower Services Commission. An agency set up by the British government to co-ordinate training and employment in the UK, working with employers, trade unions, local authorities and educational institutions… The MSC promoted the idea that all these bodies had a role in improving training and education for people looking for work or while in work. In the ‘80s it was heavily involved in government employment programs like the Youth Training Scheme. It was replaced by 72 regional Training and Enterprise Councils.

[13] – SDP: The Social Democratic Party. In 1981 sections of the right wing of the Labour Party split off, deciding that the party had become dominated by the ‘extreme left’ and by too close association with the trade unions. This, they thought, was why they had lost the 1979 General Election and would be unelectable. In Islington council, Labour councillors defected en masse, so ‘seizing power’ for the SDP. The Social Democratic Party briefly became achieved popularity as a ‘centre party’ (as well as being promoted by the media as a stick to beat Labour with). Later they formed an electoral pact with the Liberal Party (then at a low ebb of support), with whom they eventually merged to form today’s Liberal Democrats. Ironically the Labour Party did in the late 80s and 90s move very much in the glossy rightward direction the SDP had previously taken.

[14] – SPG: The Special Patrol Group, the Metropolitan Police’s riot squads, basically, dealing with serious disorder and crowd control. Now called the Territorial Support Group; the name change became necessary Public Relations as the SPG became synonymous with violent police assaults killings of demonstrators, institutionalised racism, and invasions of ‘trouble spots’, eg Brixton, and systematic harassment of residents, especially black youth.

[15] – We’re not sure, but we think DHSS race checks were never revived. If anyone remembers different please let us know!

[16] – The Peace Centre in Rosebery Avenue (in Finsbury, South Islington): one of, if not the, earliest anarcho-punk squat centres in London. Occupied 6 September 1983 as the Peace Centre/Alternative Centre, an organising space for the September ‘83 Stop the City (see below), it lasted a few months.

[17] – The anarchist bookshop at no 36 Albany Street, in Euston, was a successor to the Peace Centre in 1983, based in an area of mass squatting for both housing and alternative projects, around Tolmers Square and Drummond Street. The anarchist paper Class War was briefly based at the bookshop.

[18] – ‘Stop the City’ was a series of actions in the City of London and spreading elsewhere, roughly 1983-84, coming mainly (though not entirely) from anarchist punks involved in the peace movement, aimed at City institutions and corporations funding nuclear and other weaponry and war, but widening out to an attack on capitalism generally. Thousands would gather on one day for demos, occupations, graffiti, aiming to try and disrupt daily corporate life, at least for a day. While early on large numbers and new tactics caused chaos in the City, by the later actions the police just swamped STC and arrested or dispersed everyone they could. Stop the City as an idea continued to inspire others towards similar tactics for a couple of decades though, and many of those involved formed the backbone of many activist groups and projects over the 80s and 90s and till the present.

[19] – The building remained empty for some years, but is now (2011) a Dentist’s Surgery; ironically, it’s one of the few in the area that accepts NHS patients, among whom is one of our own past tense crew!

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At the time of writing a massive ‘re-organisation’ of the benefits system is underway, with the creation of Universal  Credit. This follows on 8 years of vicious ‘austerity’, a relentless onslaught on the living standards for working class in this country as possible, and force people to work for less, live on less and work harder. Gains fought for long and hard over decades are being clawed back…

The only real alternative is to make the rich pay, permanently. Our motive for reprinting the above text, as with all past tense projects, as struggles around the dole may again become vitally important, is to take lessons, inspiration, ideas from struggles and movements of the past. By this we don’t mean slavishly following old models, but taking what’s useful and adding to it with our own experiences.

Islington Action Group of the Unwaged’s attempts to organise themselves for themselves, were unacceptable to trade union structures and politicos of right and left alike. When workers refuse to be pawns, but think and act for themselves, they turn their potential threat into real threat, and all the forces of manipulation and control unite to bring them back to heel. Union bureaucracies, Labour hacks, and ‘left’ parties are, have, as always, spent the last 8 years jostling to head the movement against cuts and keep it under control, on their terms; diverting anger and potential for change into pointless ‘days of action’, ‘one day strikes’ and other nonsense. In Islington itself, Labour councillors implemented savage cuts to services one day and led the ‘anti-cuts’ marches the next.

During the 1980s rate-capping struggles many people invested much support and hope in their elected representatives; disillusion was probably bound to follow, partly because brave lefty leaders get cold feet, or end up sacking workers and making cuts in the end (‘with a heavy heart’), usually on the grounds that it’s better for them to be in charge than someone worse, they have no choice. In reality they do have little choice, because their real room to manoeuvre IS limited, by central government funding, legal obligations, and so on, even more now than in the ’80s. It would be great to have an independent workers movement, that answered both austerity and attempts to co-opt rebellion by Labour councillors, union full-timers, and professional lefties with the proper politeness: occupy the lot, strike, not for a day but for good, and lets run the world ourselves. Time will tell as to if that develops, and how.

Now times have changed mightily since the days of the Greater London Council, and ‘leftwing’ Labour boroughs funding alternative groups and centres, as was commonplace in the 1970s and ’80s. Thousands of advice centres, childcare groups, adventure playgrounds, women’s groups, organisations campaigning for rights, equality etc for various minorities, and numerous other causes, which often started out organising voluntarily, gradually accepted funding from local, regional or national government. This allowed them better facilities, wider reach and stability, enabled many groups to run from better premises, open longer hours, and produce better printed materials, help people directly. There’s no doubt that official funding for broadly progressive projects improved the lives of large numbers of people.

However it was a double-edged sword: it also brought them under official control and tended often to hamper their independence. Their reliance on this funding could lead to toning down any challenging of state structures, campaigning against council or government policies and so on. hen the money was withdrawn, people could no longer operate on without it, and projects collapsed. More radical projects could also be bought off and neutralised in this way. Of course, if like Islington Unwaged Centre, you attempted to combine union or council funding with a revolutionary critique of how those groups basically are part of the problem you’re fighting, then eventually they’ll stop giving you the dosh – that was only a matter of time.

Local councils funding such projects as Islington Unwaged Centre are largely a thing of the past. The experiences of the Islington Unwaged do provide a warning against trusting union bureaucracies, Labour politicians and other left managers of misery. But it’s also true that the ultra-radical activist model adopted by Islington Action Group of the Unwaged present its own problems. The balance between day to day activities to keep people afloat, grab a slightly bigger piece of the economic pie, and calling for an all-out overthrow of existing social relations, is a hard one to maintain. But even if we believe the current economic system has to go, and be replaced by something more co-operative, egalitarian and based on need and love, not profit, we still have to face and fight the daily battle to survive, collectively as well as individually. Experience of numerous activist collectives (including ones based around the dole/benefits) suggests that sometimes you have to tread a fine line to avoid a kind of theoretically correct isolation on the one hand, and unpaid advice or social work, on others behalf, on the other. We don’t really have a trite solution, and some of us at past tense have tended to swing from one end of that spectrum to another: too much ultra-left posturing and you feel like a bit more practical work, sometimes, and vice versa.

As we said we’re not offering answers, just contributions to debate.

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The Past Is Before Us . . .

We can accept cuts, cut our own throats, or fight back… Some contacts for unwaged action today.

We aren’t endorsing all of the politics of these groups, and there are certainly useful organisations not listed here because we don’t know about them… These groups can also put you in touch with others in your area.

London Coalition Against Poverty

A coalition of groups based on the idea that through solidarity and direct action, ordinary people have the power to change our own lives. Email: lcap@lcap.org.uk

Edinburgh Coalition Against Poverty

Formerly Edinburgh Claimants – organising around hassles with the Benefits authorities, bad conditions and insecurity at work, harrassment by sheriff officers and debt collectors, soaring electricity and gas bills, and rip-off landlords and housing problems. email: ecap@lists.riseup.net

Disabled People Against Cuts

DPAC is about disabled people and their allies. We welcome all to join us in fighting for justice and human rights for all disabled people. Info, support, solidarity, campaigns…

Boycott Workfare

Workfare – compulsory work for benefits… BW call on public sector bodies, voluntary organisations and businesses being offered these placements as well as union branches to boycott the scheme. Email: info@boycottworkfare.org

After ATOS

Atos Healthcare administer the medical test for claimants on disability benefits that examine their ability to work, ie are aimed at forcing people off incapacity benefits.

And in Islington… the struggle continues:

Islington Poverty Action Group

Advice & campaigning on problems with the benefits system and poverty.
Email: islingtonpovertyactiongroup@gmail.com

Today in London riotous history: police shooting of Cherry Groce sparks a riot, Brixton, 1985.

28/9/85: Five years after the 1981 Brixton Uprising a large-scale riot broke out in Brixton, after cops shot & crippled Cherry Groce, mother of 6, in a dawn raid while searching for her son.

Here’s an account from a local Brixton anarchist who participated in the riot… 

A team of armed officers had gone to Cherry Groce’s home, in Normandy Road, to find her son, Michael, who had done a runner on a charge of armed robbery. In fact he hadn’t lived there for a year… The cops smashed their way in, with a sledgehammer, and then Inspector Lovelock rushed in… allegedly shouting “armed police”. Mrs Groce said he ran at her pointing a gun, she moved backwards and he shot her. She was paralysed and confined to a wheelchair by her injuries.

SATURDAY AFTERNOON IN BRIXTON, and we hear of the brutal police shooting in the back of a woman in Normandy Road. This time the racist pigs have gone too far! We take a carload and drive down there, in the hope of having a go at the bastards. As we arrive we see a small crowd heading off towards the police station and we follow. We hear that some journalist reptiles have already been beaten up… Good one! At the pig sty there is a rush round the side and furious arguments begin with the cops blocking the gate. The Crescent was filling up as a dozen more cops filed in to protect the gate. A top cop started to make a speech… then the first bottle sailed over and smashed over his head, showering the gang of state thugs (police) with glass. A wild cheer broke out as the cops ran inside. Cops on the roof dived for cover as a hail of stones and bottles began. We all rushed to the front, fearing a trap. More stones were thrown and police windows shattered. A group of black women urged us on, running right up to the front door, flinging stones and bottles.

Saturday morning, crawled out of bed at-midday, and went out to do my shopping. The town centre was very tense. If you stopped still anywhere for a minute, all you could hear was people talking about Cherry Groce. People were saying that she had been shot twice in the back, while running away. I went into a department store and bought myself a scarf, just to be on the safe side. There was almost no cops about. I saw four, walking together in the market, but they quickly went back to the station. Everyone was staring at them, and a few people were shouting “Murderers” at them. A car backfired nearby, and they nearly jumped out of their skins!

The cowardly police were nowhere to be seen. We could hardly believe our eyes. lt was just after 6.00pm, the rapidly growing crowd was spilling back among the packed traffic and pedestrians. We had just started the Brixton Anti Police Riot, 1985! We saw 2 riot vans in Gresham Road, found stones and flung them. One van unloaded and the filth had to run like rabbits around to the side door, the other fled in a shower of bricks from the black youth. There was a big huddle on the corner, as the black women urged the men on, then a big group rushed right across Brixton Road, through the traffic, and stormed the petrol station in Stockwell Avenue. BURN THE BASTARDS OUT!… while a second posse kept stoning the Station, we could see the police cowering from the windows. In the same moments a gang of youths charged into a supermarket right opposite and emerged with the till, spilling money about… The looting had begun! In the next five hours the people of Brixton ripped off almost a million pounds worth of consumer goods! A minute later the first flames, a car had been set alight in Brixton Road, the first attempt to stop police reinforcements getting through. At that point I left, rushing home to get hats and masks for our group. The word was spreading through Brixton like wildfire… RIOT NOW… THE COPS ARE ON THE RUN!

I went back home and turned on the Po-Lice radio. Every channel was alive with orders for Units and, Serials (Riot Vans) to assemble at ‘Lambeth Traffic’. Dogs, Horses, were being ordered, and all the vans were being kitted out with shields, helmets, mesh on the windows, etc. On hearing of this, I rushed down to the Po-Lice station. There was a fair sized crowd outside, about five to six hundred, and getting bigger. There were a lot of people masked up, and black women were shouting abuse at the station. I met a friend, and we started to pull up paving stones, throwing them down again to get small, manageable lumps. I filled my pockets, masked up, and had a brick in each hand. Swallowing my fear, I joined a posse, and about ten of us ran over the road and started to brick the station. I stopped to see my rocks strike home and then from out of nowhere came a volley of mollies. They hit the station in a burst of yellow flame, and I saw a couple go through the broken windows and set alight the offices. The crowd burst out with cheering, and almost everyone started to mask up.

Cops in the station shout out “Fuck off home, niggers!

When I got back I saw people laughing with joy. The cops had tried to stop it, bringing out a line of riot police, a sellout ‘Community Leader’ and a priest in front of the Station. A top cop introduced the priest… “Listen to him, he is your leader” he said, passing the megaphone. At that moment some genius threw the first petrol bomb, almost setting them on fire. As the police and sellout shits ran for cover Brixton Police Station was petrol bombed, one even got inside but was extinguished. The police were unable to enter the area, as all hell broke loose, in the High Street, down Brixton Road, up Gresham Road, to Coldharbour, up Tulse Hill and Acre Lane, through the Market and up Railton Road.

AS we donned our scarves I saw a huge fire blazing down Brixton Road near Normandy, literally dozens of cars were burning, beyond lines of Riot pigs defending their Station. We met up with more anarchists, the High Street was still a Police free zone, traffic was still coming in as, laughing and yelling, the late shoppers began a looting spree. Burtons, Marks and Sparks, Dunn’s, then there was a great rush for the jewellers and the arcades. It was wonderful to see it, we lent a hand in smashing Barclays Bank, symbol of racism and black oppression, before the police charges and serious fighting began.

At this stage, cops in full riot gear started to pour out of the station, like ants when you kick their nest. They lined up with shields and we started bricking. Vans poured in. There was still four lanes of traffic going by, all the drivers crouched at the wheels, as a rainbow of bricks and bottles showered over the top of them … very surreal.

The tactics of the rioters were brilliant and inventive: older black men in track suits advising the younger posses, often chasing back reinforcements and lines of riot cops, rescuing people trapped by murdering racists, leaving lightly defended barricades to string them out thin. Blacks and whites fought side by side from the beginning, but there was plenty of suspicion – looking out for the plainclothes police, some white bystanders and even some activists were mugged (though the majority were against this action of a few kids). Less than one fifth of the actual fighters were white. The few bigger white gangs were accepted in when it was clear we were intent on attacking the police murderers. Reporters, photographers and TV crews were just treated as police… hundreds have done prison because of their activities in previous riots!

VOLLEYS OF MOLLIES

No sirens, no flashing lights. Plumes of smoke hang over the Angel Park area of Brixton. On the corner of Stockwell Road riot police huddle two deep behind their plastic defences. Spontaneous Combustion? No! This is Brixton through a Riot shield. Here on this corner of Brixton and Stockwell Roads volleys of mollies rain down on this PATHETIC rabble of government Wallies from behind a bush in Angel Park. Black youth is raging! More mollies in combined assault!…

At the Old White Horse Pub a car borrowed by an anonymous rioter is driven at breakneck speed down Loughborough Road… No stopping for lights in this urban war… It finds its target: plunged deep inside a corner shop, and is matched. Fifty yards from besieged Brixton Police Station a road block of Fords, Renaults and Mercedes starts to explode, The riot Police RETREAT under volleys of bricks, abuse and molotov cocktails. While in the centre pigs huddle helplessly under the ‘WE’RE BACKING BRIXTON’- sign.

Two steps forward, Three steps back. At this time – WE ARE WINNING!!

We cut round into Stockwell Road, which was a No Go Area, and helped some young blacks turning over cars and setting them alite. A few cars were still driving innocently in from Landor Road. Those who refused to stop or turn were bricked to bits. I saw white people abandoning their cars, some with their hands in the air. Then a line of riot vans appeared, one got through, swerving through the burning cars amid a hail of bricks. The others held back, as we worked up courage to charge, though we were few our fury was great. “South Africa, South Africa” a kid screamed, as we charged screaming against the pride of the British State, chasing the bastards right back towards Stockwell Tube Station

STOCKWELL RIOT

After about half an hour, we were charged, and we fell back to the rollerskate park on Stockwell Road. We overturned a couple of cars to block the riot vans, and we torched them. Traffic was still trying to get through…

We were very careful about which cars we should use, so we only picked a couple of wrecks. At one stage, black and white united, we had a half hour discussion on the ethics of car burning. We kept picking ones to block the last of the lanes, but neighbours would come out and argue with us, and we’d start again. The argument was ended when I stepped out into a lane of traffic, stuck out my hand, and stopped a Green Line coach. I went round the side, opened the emergency door, got in, grabbed the driver by the shoulders, and assisted him out. We parked it across two lanes, amidst much laughter. Was this for real? Here I was commandeering a fucking coach! Later it got burnt out, but at that point we were charged, and we went further up Stockwell Road, to do some selective looting… black shops were left alone, although later on in the day, the distinction was forgotten. I chased around the back streets for a while, lobbing a few bricks here and there. At one point about seven cops were lined up behind their shields, blocking off one road. Along with a group of black guys, we got a rhythm going, “All go, All come back.” We’d grab a couple of bricks, run, throw, retreat. This soon got pretty tiring, and as the pigs weren’t chasing, we went within ten yards of them and just kept throwing, reloading from a skip. After five minutes of constant barrage at close range, the cops got well pissed off and charged us. I turned and fled… everything went into slow motion, and behind me I saw a flash of blue, hurtling after me with a truncheon. I managed to reach the safety of a crowd, but that was the closest I came to being nicked all day.

LATER… We have visited several friends’ houses to rest, smoke and drink looted beer. We have heard the stories of sadistic violence, savage beatings, and arrests in hand to hand fighting with the pigs.  One man has a broken jaw and six broken teeth, another has his head sliced open. What we really need is guns! Detouring towards the Railton area we come to Acre Lane, and walk into a running riot as a huge crowd retreats from Central Brixton. Acre Lane is smashed up, including a DHSS office and a Lambeth Council building (Who Cares?), a Church reading room, a bank, the petrol station, off licence, etc, etc. Half way to Clapham police attack from both sides as we try to barricade, everyone escapes. into side streets, but we are cut off from the main crowd which goes towards Brixton Hill. We stop at another party (there are parties starting everywhere) for further refreshments and tales of glory.

The unofficial cops – reporters – were also savagely dealt with, with one of these defenders of the status quo – a freelance journalist – being beaten up and eventually dying because he’d stupidly taken photos of youths looting a jewellery store. Unfortunately, proletarians with no stake in the shit-heap were also sometimes attacked. Insurgents, rightly searching individuals for so me form of ID (to see if they’re from the media or plain clothes cops), sometimes turned to indiscriminate mugging (although, in at least one instance, a guy who’d been mugged argued with the people who mugged him and. after 5 minutes, they returned the money, saying “You’re o.k. “). (BM Combustion)

Interestingly black journo Sebastian Godwin aka Cuba Assegai, got abused by both cops and rioters as tried to tape record participants secretly by hiding his tape recorder under his long flowing robe. Rioters told him to hop it or face some nasty consequences. He hopped it. He then tried to speak to some cops… and got nicked.

HIGH STREET RIOT

I decided to cool down a bit and went and had a pint. Then I went down to the High Street. Burtons was being looted, and Dunns was well on fire. I lent a hand at trying to loot Sanders Jewellers, but just as we got the shutters open the cops chased us back to Ferndale Road, where we started on Samuels Jewellers. We got two shutters open, and cleaned them out, after which we started round the front. We tried our best, but the cops kept charging us, and we kept bricking them away. Eventually, I decided to piss off home, and return through a twisting route of quiet back streets. Whole families are sitting on the steps, drinking looted wine and smoking 16 skinners. There’s a real nice atmosphere, like a street party. Old black guys are sitting on the pavement next to a Ford transit calmly siphoning out the petrol into a row of bottles and chatting away pleasantly.

I make my way up to the Frontline, past the tory club. Its windows have been bricked, and the cars in the forecourt have been burnt out. Tulse Hill Post Office is on fire.

Back on the frontline all seems calm as I arrive. Suddenly three riot cops come round the corner of Effra Parade. I lob a couple of bricks at them, and to my horror fifty riot cops wheel round after them. I leg it into the rezzies, [St George’s Residences – ed.] just getting away as they charge. A running battle ensues, with mollies being thrown. The cops finally retreat. I listen to the Po-Lice radio and hear that a crowd is congregating outside the town hall. I rush down. About four hundred people are there, most of them on the Oval in front of the Ritzy. We start pulling up lumps of cut stone from the cobbles. They are so heavy you have to carry them in both hands. About ten vans are running in circles round and round the Oval, like injuns. Every ten secs we heave our massive lumps of rock at them. The vans are looking in a real sorry state, covered in dents, with lights and mudguards hanging off. Windscreens are all spidered across. After half an hour of this, they line up by Barclays (all the windows done), and charge us, chasing us all the way up to the George Canning. I make good my escape (as they say) and wander back to the frontline. Buddies is still open for business, of course, so I grab myself a Red Stripe. Listening to the radio, I can hear units complaining:” Ere, control, we’ve been on duty for 14 hours and we still haven’t had any refreshments!”

I go out into the streets and luxuriously sip my cold beer in, front of two riot vans. The pigs are staring at me with hate and envy… what a laugh! Still I must be home now, got to be ready for tomorrow!!!

There is widespread looting… with everything from cakes & nappies to double beds and jewelery being nicked. Although there is some occasional fighting over the spoils, with some blacks getting territorial and exclusive and possessive about the shops being looted – even to the point of telling whites to keep out of ‘their’ battle, there is also the usual joyful potlatch of laughter, fire-raising and pillage, an intense desire for life expressed with a spontaneous generosity. 7-year olds were seen helping their grandmothers carry away boxes of alcohol. One old woman, terrified by the atmosphere of the riot, was calmed down when some black guy gave her a couple of bottles of stolen brandy. Someone nicked a whole load of electric kettles, piled them up into a vaguely pyramid shape and set fire to them: the kind of thing which modern forms of art turn into museum-pieces become subversive when practiced without authorisation. (BM Combustion)

MUCH LATER… We reach Tulse Hill and meet up with local squatters… The Post Office has been burned down! The Tory club has been attacked with 40 tories inside, 3 of their cars have been burned as barricades and the building nearly set alight, and smashed up! The hated Housing office has been attacked and looted!

TULSE HILL RIOT

As the Brixton Riot spread out in all directions, one zone was up Effra Road to Tulse Hill where we live. About 8.30pm the barricades were going up by St Matthews Church, but as soon as they were half completed the police would charge. This happened 3 times. We were being forced back into the estates. After the 3rd charge our line was up Effra Road near Brixton Water Lane and right outside the (HO HO HO) Effra Conservative Club (which we’ve attacked many times before). As an extra bonus the Tory’s next door neighbour happened to be the heavily grilled Lambeth Housing Office. The God of Violence smiled on us that night, Long live evil! Two Tory cars were then dragged out of the car park and set alight in the middle of the road. A third was set alight in their car park (setting a tree in flames and starting rumours that the whole place had gone up with 40 Tories inside!) All the other cars were systematically trashed and the windows bricked as the terrified tories cowered behind the curtains The 150-200 spectators didn’t seem to mind. Even when the empty beer barrels went through the Housing Office windows. 50 yds up the road people had broken into the garage and relieved it of crowbars and heavy metal bars. Somebody declared they had run out of fags, someone else said they had tobacco but no papers… The newsagent was then broken into, so everybody had a months supply of fags and papers and sweets etc etc, courtesy of the insurance company!

After that the Post Office was looted of all its small change (£20 bags in 2p and lp pieces). It was then burnt to the ground. By then the police had moved the barricade so everyone fucked off to the next spot. That was the Tulse Hill Riot and it was great!

But the pigs have arrived in force and seized control of the area. On to Effra Parade and Railton Road, where the rioters fought bravely against overwhelming odds. Through Muggers Alley to the Barrier. Block, but the filth have taken over Coldharbour Lane. It’s after midnight but still small groups are lighting cars, stoning the Police and retreating into the maze of flats. Only in Brixton Road/Normandy is the riot still in full swing, but it’s impossible to get down there. We climb the Barrier block and amuse ourselves flinging stones at passing police vans. Below us at Barkers Corner is total destruction, where a looted furniture shop was torched to try and stop the pigs getting through, and the whole corner has burned to the ground. One floor above it was squatted and our friends have lost everything (which was fuck all anyway). Another flat was occupied legally by the loathsome Smeggy Kurt (of shockabilly band King Kurt, who did a benefit for the scab miners). Coldharbour Lane has gone quiet, though there was fierce fighting there again on Sunday. Off we go to the next squat for more refreshments!

STILL LATER: We pass through Central Brixton on route to another party. The place is like a smouldering war zone, with 1000’s of filth standing around. We’re all still high with our marvellous victory. But we hear tales of random police revenge prolonged screaming from pig vans rocking with the blows dogs set on people in the vans, bystanders beaten to shit and left for dead. It’s too dangerous to be out – the racist murderers are back in control. Very few if any of the rioters were arrested, but over the 2 days the pigs took nearly 250 people hostages and charged them with whatever came to mind

The only solution is to get rid of the police altogether and protect our own communities. But to do that we will need a revolution

Nevertheless, some incidents were rubbish. One or two old people were stoned after cussing the fact their flats had been inevitably torched because they were above a burning store. And in one miserable incident, a couple of Hooray Henries tried to show off their prowess by winding up some of the rioters who’d interfered with their load of high-class polished tin – a posh car. They were chased off, but a couple of rioters set about raping the girl-friend of one of them (a daughter of a Tory M.P.) and another woman, who, depending on which story you believe, either had nothing to do with the rich kids or was the girlfriend of one of the Hooray Henries. Either way such rapes, attacks on easy targets, are crap – a degraded expression of ‘sexuality’ Obviously the media, trying to ferment an even more oppressive law & order backlash than present, had a field-day with these incidents. And it’s not much use saying that rapes & mugging occur as much outside riots as during them: though true, this doesn’t get to grips with confronting the problem – how to start making the streets safe for all but the defenders of this society. Obviously, anyone who thinks the State can solve rapes is just plain stupid – and resigned to not trying to change things so as to stop such humiliating reduction of people to objects in all its’ forms – not just rape.

Nevertheless, in criticising these rapes and muggings, we should also remember something of the various changes since the riots of ’81. London, unlike the northern or midland cities, has, since ’81, become incomparably more gentrified than ever before – particularly in Brixton, where the older generation of blacks have sold up and moved back to the West Indies, leaving the ‘radical’ yuppies, anxious for a bit of street cred, to take over the houses: the rich young (and not so young) things have moved in & sent property prices soaring. What’s more, as the proletariat has become more au fait with chic, a greater levelling in terms of fashion has meant that it is becoming difficult visually to tell the difference between the rich young things and those who are more thoroughly alienated than before. Behind the tendency towards style levelling, though, there’s a major counter-tendency: the chasm of social apartheid is getting wider & wider, and, in the riots, there’s been a direct response to gentrification with physical attacks on owner occupied housing, especially those with ‘Neighbourhood Watch’ stickers in the window.

These increasing displays of wealth in ones’ immediate neighbourhood go some way towards explaining some of the craziness of the riots in London. The anonymity of London, despite the fact that, along with the greater amount of money here, it enables those on the dole to survive in the black economy or doing various fiddles more easily than those on the dole elsewhere and despite the fact that those in official work generally get better wages here – though, unless you’re squatting, 40% of that can go on rent) – despite all this, the blatant contradictions and the isolation and separations make for a more explosive, desperately ferocious, situation. Beneath the bleakness up North, there’s a constant spontaneous class solidarity, which despite a lot of bullshit about ‘community’, really does develop into a community of struggle sometimes. Sure, it happens in London in short spurts, but with the anonymity and blase cynicism, indifference and mistrust towards each other is far harder to break. (BM Combustion)

MURDERERS

The community was out on the streets on Saturday night because the Inspector ‘Windy Shitpants’ Lovelock shot a black mother of six and put her in a wheelchair for life. If it hadn’t been her it could have been her 22 year-old son – only he’d be dead. The result of this was a spontaneous explosion of class rage – of community hatred against the cowardly, incompetent, callous action of Inspector ‘Cowardly Shitlegs’ Lovelock – a so-called fucking ‘Firearm Expert’ – and his vicious racist friends – the Community Police. All this is conveniently forgotten by his idiot boss the Chief Constable of Lambeth Commander Alec Marnoch who drivels on with mindfucking stupidity about “visiting agitators from Handsworth” – what a load of fucking bullshit! No, as EVERYONE knows the riots were started, organised and led by Communist Alien Stormtroops from the red planet Bolleaux, who landed on the roof of the fucking Ritzy!!!

When are the stupid pig shits going to wise up to the fact that we riot in response to the particularly vile acts of oppression by the class enemy: the cops. We fight these bastards with all our force and all our strength with bricks and petrol bombs, we confront them and maim them and kill them BECAUSE WE HATE THEM. The Police are Class Traitors. They have always been, are now and will always be our Sworn Enemy.

29/9/85. More rioting in Brixton but nothing on the scale of the night before due to the whole area being saturated by riot cops.

CHIMPANZEES CHATTERING COMMITTEE

On Tues 2nd Oct the Police Consultative Committee had its regular meeting at Lambeth Town Hall. Its an open meeting in which the Fuzz can say openly to the public whatever lies they can think up and confidently forget it the next day. The Committee has been a sellout rubber stamp for the pigs for ages and everyone knows it.

It proved to be the last meeting of the Police Consultative Committee.

They started it in a small hall… so that many people were locked out. Almost as the meeting started 2 blokes and a woman stood up calmly, took the mikes from the table and threw them on the floor. Water was thrown at the Chairman and everyone was cheerfully screaming “Put him behind bars”. The unanimous feeling was that the Copper who shot the lady (Mrs Groce) should be charged with attempted murder, some suggested those with him on the stupid raid should be done for aiding and abetting.

All the head cop (Ch. lnsp. ‘Shit for Brains’ Marnoch) could say was that there will be an inquiry and he couldn’t say more till the inquiry is complete.

There was a crashing and banging, louder and louder. Then the door broke open and those locked out came in. We decided to move to a bigger hall. By then we were 250 to 300 people. The chairman was given a vote of no confidence, and we the people took over. When Marpox (the head pig) came to speak people suggested he stood up. He said he didn’t mind, jokingly adding that he’d make a better target. With that someone threw something at him, (unfortunately missing) and everyone cracked up laughing.

One of the many highlights came when one of Shit For Brains’ assistant pigs practically stripped off, and declared himself again a member of the public and pleaded for one more chance … The laughter could be heard in Clapham!

One woman made a motion to kick the 3 idiots out of the hall so we could have a real meeting, adding that to have a meeting with the Police present was dangerous. Sadly there wasn’t enough support for this. Half an hour later, after 3 hours of letting the Filth know

what we thought of their ‘Community Policing’ the same lady got up and said “There’s nothing more to say, lets all leave together”, which we all did. Leaving the Police Consultative Group sitting there lucky to be alive. .

The Revolution makes its own leaders.

A few days later it was announced that the Police Consultative Committee had decided to disband! (Actually it didn’t; Lambeth Council withdrew from the Committee, but it went back in 1994.)

The 1985 Brixton riot also brought another little reform in the cops’ image: a cop spokesman went on TV and virtually conceded that the anger and violence directed at the cops outside the police station (where molotovs were thrown) were, considering the sad situation, virtually “excusable” – but that the looting and arson afterwards was gratuitous and opportunistic. Sadly, Cherry Groce’s family also gave interviews to the media condemning the burning and looting, collaborating with the forces that make such “unlawful wounding” inevitable. Of course, the burning and looting was one of the reasons behind the State’s decision to prosecute Inspector Lovelock for crippling Cherry Groce. Another reason, though, is to give the State the appearance of being able to correct its’ excesses, to punish those who abuse their power, thus narrowing people’s focus on the misery of their lives down to just specific individuals and isolated incidents. (BM Combustion)

Accounts from Brixton squatters paper Crowbar, no 45. Plus interspersed comments from BM Combustion’s ‘Rebel Violence vs. Hierarchical Violence’ A Chronology of Anti-State Violence July 1985 – May 1986.

Postscript:

In January 1987 Inspector Lovelock was acquitted on the charge of ‘maliciously wounding’ Mrs Groce. “The police and the media made sure he got off….by vetting the jury, by calling queues of star witnesses to say how UPSET the POOR man was, how fearful, nervous and unlucky etc…”About 100 people picketed the Murder HQ in response, followed by a march through Brixton.

PPS: (2014)

Cherry Groce suffered paralysis as a result of the shooting, remaining in a wheelchair for the rest of her life. The cops paid her £500,000 in compensation “with no admission of liability.” She died in 2011, from kidney failure, linked directly to effects of the shooting. Her inquest found that the police had bollocksed up the whole operation; failing to check who lived in the house, and failing to communicate the fact that Michael Groce was not even wanted any more (?!), among numerous mistakes; that the police were responsible for her death. The Met publicly apologised to her family for her death in April 2014.

A few years too late.

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

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Today in London healthcare history, 1981: work-in launched at St Mary’s Hospital, against closure

In our continuing series documenting hospital occupations in the UK, of which a number took place between the late 1970s and early 1990s… As ever, any more info on this occupation anyone out there has would be great…

In 1981, 400 staff at the Harrow Road site of St Mary’s Hospital, in West London (which served the Paddington and Kilburn area) decided to organise an occupation and work-in to try to prevent the closure of several departments.

St. Mary’s had been under threat for the preceding four years; only the vigorous opposition of the staff had prevented its total closure. Rheumatology and Rehabilitation wards only opened in 1977 (the first in the District) had been shut in 1979, when the first serious financial cuts affected the NHS.

In 1981 the Hospital had 431 beds, but the Area Health Authority decided that there were too many acute beds in the District, and that the service would be concentrated at the Praed Street site and at St Charles’ Hospital.

Threatened with the immediate loss of the Casualty Department and 100 beds, and eventual closure, (with surviving services to be moved to the prestigious St. Mary’s Teaching Hospital in Paddington), staff declared a work-in on June 26 1981. In the course of this workers twice occupied areas of the hospital—the first time the administration offices were occupied for 13 days, and the second time a ward was occupied for five days, to prevent its closure. On both occasions court orders were used to evict the occupiers.

At a press conference in December 1981, Terry Pettifor, NW Convenor of the London Ambulance Service Shop Stewards, described the effects of the run down of the Casualty at Harrow Road (the major accident unit in the

District) and pointed out that the remaining casualty facilities in the District would be inadequate to cope with the number of casualties which could easily arise in an accident at the nearby Paddington Station or in a major fire. Three wards had already been closed by then.

Police and security guards were brought into the hospital at least four times to support management’s plans. A TGWU shop steward was sacked, and a nurse was suspended for a week, for attempting to prevent the forcible removal of patients from a ward.

At least one report claimed that “Throughout this struggle no more than token support has been gained from the unions involved – TGWU, NUPE, COHSE and the failure of the labour movement to evolve its own strategy on health care has been partially responsible for this state of affairs… The leadership of the TGWU – which has been most centrally involved in the struggle – has effectively washed its hands of any responsibility.
Despite policy won at the 1981 BDC it has consistently refused to mobilise its great industrial strength behind this key battle.”

Several trades unionists active in resisting the closure of St Mary’s were targetted, victimised and sacked by management… Rita Maxim, a TGWU shop steward who stood up to management all the way, was threatened with the sack for refusing to do two jobs; a telephonist was also sacked for leaving work at the end of his shift without waiting for a relief.

This occupation succeeded, at least temporarily, in preventing immediate ward closures, but by 1985 St Mary’s had just 166 beds. The Hospital was due to be closed once Phase 1 of the rebuilding of its mother hospital in Praed Street was completed but, due to financial pressures, it closed prematurely. The wards finally closed on 22nd November.

Services were transferred to the St Mary’s Praed Street building.

Part of the Harrow Road site was taken over by the Paddington Community Hospital, the rest was bulldozed and converted into flats, its canalside location making it an attractive proposition for the middle classes (though the developer apparently later went bust, so it never quite achieved its yuppie promise).

NB: In 1993, when the Accident & Emergency Department, at St Charles Hospital was due to be closed, campaigners resisting this move occupied the office of Chief Executive Neil Goodwin, based in the old St Mary’s building in Praed Street.

Today in educational history, 1985: 1000s of schoolkids strike across UK

As striking schoolchildren challenge inaction over climate change, we are reminded of a schoolkids action from us own youth…

On Thursday, April 25, 1985 there was a national strike of school-kids, and demos all around the country.

The Youth Training Scheme (YTS) was set up by the government in 1983 claiming to offer workplace training for 16-17-year-olds on a voluntary basis. However many employers took advantage of the scheme to use young people as full-time workers paying less than £30 per week, with no guarantee of a job at the end.

In 1985 the government threatened to make the scheme compulsory, and take unemployment benefits away from any young people refusing to participate: similar to today’s workfare schemes. At that time a majority of children left school at 16.

In protest, school students organised against the proposals. In February, a school in Greenwich, Southeast London, was flooded with police after pupils came out on strike and rallied in the playground. Three kids were arrested. At  Bitterne park School in Southampton, students barricaded themselves in the school buildings while others walked out. Schoolchildren in Scotland walked out in early April.

Around two weeks later on Thursday, April 25, 1985 there was a national strike. Some 250,000 kids were estimated to have been involved.

Across the country

Here are brief summaries of some of the protests for different areas of the UK, some of which is from Libcom, some derived from the 1980s London free radical paper Monochrome.

CARDIFF

Despite police harassment, over 3000 demonstrated. Three pupils were suspended from the Glan Ely High School, and 100 of their fellow pupils walked out in protest the next day.

LIVERPOOL

Perhaps the biggest walkout took place in Liverpool. Liverpool Council, run by the Trotskyist Militant group within the Labour Party, which played a key role in organising the protests, had encouraged the walkout. 30,000 children skipped school, and some 10,000 took to the streets.

LONDON

Thousands of pupils from different schools across the city walked out of classes and took to the streets.
In Pimlico, 500 kids fought mounted police who tried to force them back in the school.
In Greenwich, kids gathering in one school playground, were attacked by the cops, who occupied the school, nicking 3 pupils. Despite this, there was a huge rally in the middle of Greenwich with over 1000 school students in attendance – many more walked out across the borough.
In Holborn 4000 striking schoolkids marched through the streets.

SHEFFIELD

A few thousand kids from school across the city congregated in town, the word having gone round the city in the days before. Your past tense typist was a participant… As far as I can recall there was little mention of YTS in my school, it was mainly ‘let’s wag school, go into town and cause trouble’. It was just after the end of the miners strike, there was a consciousness of general rage and a desire to go mad… We head a running demo through the city centre, chased by a few police, shouting, barging in and out of shops and chucking bins and other street furniture about a lot.

Most of the kids from our school certainly weren’t influenced by Militant or the Labour Party Young Socialists… A small politico group was active in our school, including some young anarcho-wannabes, a couple of generally Labourite youth, not trots. More influential with us, shortly before the strike, had been the clandestine circulation of ‘The School-Stoppers handbook’, an edition produced by Sheffield Anarchists – a manual for sabotaging your school, which was critical of LPYS politics and encouraged pupils to disrupt and destroy the school by whatever means necessary… (Anarchists handing out the Handbook at a school in Bradford got beaten up and arrested by police in February ’85). Our vision was more anti-school than against YTS.

BRADFORD

Parents and kids were organising against racist headmaster Ray Honeyford at Drummond School  at this time, forcing the local authority to suspend him.

NORTHERN IRELAND

Over 2000 kids, Catholic and Protestant, marched through the city centre.

PLYMOUTH

Over 100 children walked out.

READING

Schoolkids held a rowdy demonstration and faced off against police, near Southlands Girls School in Whitely. 41 were arrested.

SCOTLAND

As a walkout had already taken place in Scotland about two weeks before, a demonstration of 2000 people was held on the Saturday.

STAFFORD

Significant numbers from multiple schools walked out, despite being a small town.

BRISTOL

“Castle Park, Broadmead, Bristol – A few Labour Party Young Socialist (LPYS) members stand around wondering if any kids will show up. Its quite warm for April and we’re wondering whether we brought too many placards. 3.35pm, a lone bobby circles nearby. 3.50pm, ‘School should’ve finished by now! Where are they?’ ‘They’ve got to get to the town centre, be patient will you!’ 4.pm kids suddenly spring up from every direction. A rally with speakers (forget who). Someone did take photos and I think the Evening Post came down too. There were not enough placards.”

Personal accounts

A few participants shared their recollections of the walkout in the School Students’ Strike 1985 Facebook group

One pupil from London recalled:

It was 1985 and I was 15. I was in a north London school; the teachers had been on strike I seem to remember a fair bit. We had been on half day school timetable for weeks in previous terms. The heroic miners struggle was still in the mines of many and we were Thatcher’s children set for a life of dole or YTS slave labour scheme. It seemed like everything was under attack. I was also heavily inspired by the black working class youth in South Africa who seemed scared of nobody. I knew I was a socialist as I was from a strong Labour party family but thought the Labour party was shit. I had been flirting with a nutty left group I used to meet on tube on way home. I knew more or less who were the other radical people in my year at school but that was it. I remember posters appearing flyposted on the school wall, certainly I knew of nobody within the school who had put the posters but everybody was alive with the fact that we were going to strike. Some of the more pushy kids were bigging it up how they were going to walk out. I was quieter, less brave I would say. I asked a few teachers, one which I thought was very left wing. They told me and others not to strike. Seemed odd to me as they had been striking why I couldn’t.
On the day of the strike it was mad. At the given hour we walk out. Hundreds marched out of the school. We were met by a few police vans. Some boys who were often in trouble were having a go at them and one got arrested for head butting a policeman.
Then it all seemed a bit all over the place and people headed towards where the demo was in various groups of friends. It was a good size demo and kids from everywhere including neighbouring schools. Nobody signed me up although I kept looking at all the left groups. I came to understand the LPYS [Labour Party Young Socialists] had organised it but was bit confused who was what on the demo.
It took till the following year and a Paul Weller concert to join up with the LPYS. Before I knew two Militants came round invited me to a meeting. Where I found Ruth Willams and other comrades. The next school year I was climbing into a school with a load of flyposters calling for the strike of 86-87. I didn’t do so well as I was chased out by a caretaker and dog, which bit a hole in arse of my trousers, luckerly my diary was in my back pocket, still have it today. I jumped over the fence and ran like hell – Great first solo political activity. Been active ever since….

Another participant recalled:

I can’t believe next year will be the 30th Anniversary of the strike.
It was the perfect storm, I think. Looking at David Sinclair photos of the strike in Liverpool brings back a lot of memories. It’s easy to forget what an incredible movement that was – it’s also easy to forget that we actually made the Tories back down over YTS.
Kinnock et al must have been devastated to see a spontaneous mass movement, such as the School Student Strike, have the success that it did. He was too busy referring to us all as ‘silly Billy’s’ I believe. [it was actually “dafties”]
I think that strike had an impact on the consciousness of young people at that time. It’s a pity that my kids are now so willing to accept low pay and poor working conditions as the norm now without challenging or fighting for something better.

 Other strikers at the time also recounted their memories:

I was 16 and at FE college, and my brother was 14 and at school. We stood outside schools with the rest of the LPYS with the leaflets and megaphones and got about 100 kids out on strike in Plymouth. Good times!

I was 14 years old and I remember a woman coming leafleting our school about the school students strike. 1985 against YTS conscription. My friends were a bit rowdy and disinterested but said ask [name redacted]..she’ll do it. And I did! Got most of my school out and we marched outside the town hall. Well when I say marched we tore up the square with banners and chants and just screaming. I remember the school had called a special assembly telling us not to go, didn’t stop us! Made me more determined to get people out! The wretches that stayed in school got to watch videos all afternoon as a reward..but I think we had much more fun! My first political act.

Aftermath

Following the strike, the government withdrew plans to take away non-participants’ benefits: a rare victory for the working class during the Thatcher years.

Unfortunately it wasn’t to last: three years later the scheme was made compulsory. And despite the role of Labour party activists in organising these protests, the next Labour government which took power in 1997 introduced new workfare programmes for the unemployed, which were built on by the later Conservative-LibDem coalition.

As in many cases where people take direct action, the protest had a transformative effect. As one participant recalled:

we held off the end of dole for 16 yr old by a couple of years, as it was introduced in the Fowler Review anyway in 1988, but that 1/2 day strike affected the rest of my life!

A few months after the April demos, there were pupils protests in London’s East End, at Daneford School in Bethnal Green in October, and a strike at nearby Morpeth School in January 1986. Both were sparked by racist attacks against pupils both inside and outside the schools. At Daneford protests led to a 200-strong picket of anti-racist teachers which was attacked by police. Bangladeshi students at Morpeth issued a leaflet demanding the expulsion of racists, launching a picket of the school on January 10th. On the following Monday, they met the head, but some 10 stayed out on strike…a Rebel School was set up at local community centre Oxford House. Some teachers reached an agreement over prevention of racist attacks and the strike ended on the 15th. Racist attacks did continue however

And schoolkids in the UK were to strike again…not least in 2003 against the Iraq war and in 2010 against education cuts.

There’s a Facebook page for the 1985 strike, with more pictures and reminiscences

In 2016 there was a commemoration/exhibition of the Liverpool strike; a booklet was produced from this.

Here’s a Guardian article on this a commemoration:

…and a BBC news report from back in the day

 

 

Today in London healthcare herstory, 1985: occupation of South London hospital for Women violently evicted.

The South London Women’s Hospital Occupation 1984-1985

Rosanne Rabinowitz
[Originally written around 2003]

What does it take to occupy a hospital, to engage in direct action in a workplace that deals with peoples’ lives rather than products? In the first hospital work-ins, people were understandably afraid of putting patients at risk, and aware that someone might not want to have a baby or an operation in the middle of an industrial dispute. It was an unprecedented step, but staff and service users had come to a point where they felt they had to take drastic action or say goodbye to their jobs and healthcare.

A background of cuts and closures provoked this first wave of occupations in the 1970s, often undertaken by people who were not activists. In the early 1970s both the private and private sector were restructured in response to IMF directives. The restructuring was also a move to curtail the improved wages and defences (‘restrictive’ work practices) that workers built up through the years. This took the form of further centralisation, deskilling, redundancies, productivity deals, speed-ups, casualisation and tougher discipline.

Since this restructuring often involved closures, people began occupying workplaces instead of simply going on strike. Some of these actions developed beyond sit-ins to work-ins, which involved continuing production. Briants Colour Printing and Upper Clyde Shipbuilders were among the first work-ins. UCS became a rallying point due to the size and its location in area of militancy and close ties between the workplace and the community. Shop stewards seized control of the yards and controlled the gates on a rota. Those sacked were kept in jobs by rest of workforce who now controlled production. The fact they were already sitting on top of a lot of capital and unfinished work made this possible.

Over 1000 occupations & work-ins took place in 1972. However, in some situations self-management can turn into self-abuse. A cartoon of the time said it all: “Brothers and sisters! If the bosses won’t exploit us, we’ll have to do it ourselves!”

However, work-ins also included community outreach and political organising. For example, at Plessey’s River Don steelworks redundant workers devoted themselves to campaign work rather than completing orders for the plant’s liquidator.

From private to public…

A twist in the tail came when hospital work-ins and occupations extended this tactic to the public sector. In the face of such closures, a strike presents problems unless it takes the form of sympathetic action in other hospitals or workplaces. However, by providing a service that management was trying to cut, workers strived to create a rallying point.

Usually, hospital workers contemplating a work-in discussed it with present or prospective patients. This is more of a possibility in smaller, long-stay hospitals.

As long as patients are in a hospital, the Secretary of State is legally bound under the Health Services Act to ensure that they receive treatment and to pay all the hospital workers; nurses, doctors, technicians, cleaners… So by keeping patients in the facility, hospital occupiers were able to keep the hospital open and functioning.

However, there is the problem of insurance. Insurance rules stipulate that management must be present on the premises and be legally liable and responsible. This could include area health authority representatives or on-site administrators. During the Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital work-in, the on-site management consisted of the hospital secretary.

The employees in a hospital work-in usually acquire more power, but this occurs alongside a functioning administration. Some hospitals did refuse entry to most of management and allowed only a token management force that would not be able to obstruct the work-in.

In order to keep a hospital occupied, you need physicians willing to admit patients and treat them. Some physicians did remain in service in accordance with their concept of professional ethics – if there are patients, they will care for them. But they generally stayed away from political aspects of a campaign.

Two hospital earlier work-ins have particular relevance to what took place at the South London Women’s Hospital: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (EGA) and Hounslow Hospital.

The first: Elizabeth Garrett Anderson Hospital (EGA)

Founded by the UK’s first officially practising woman doctor, the EGA aimed to train women doctors and provide treatment for women by women. Closure of the hospital, located on London’s Euston Road, had been contemplated since 1959 on grounds that a woman-only hospital was an anachronism of the Victorian era. The authorities  considered demand limited to small groups of orthodox Muslim & Jewish women who objected to treatment by male doctors for religious reasons. There was also a drive within the NHS to ‘rationalise’ and to close down small hospitals.

However, they hadn’t reckoned with a growing women’s movement that made medical care for women by women a central issue. Debate had also grown about the very nature of women’s healthcare, as seen in publications like Our Bodies Ourselves.

Throughout the 1960s Health Authority ‘ran down’ the EGA by not doing repairs, replacing equipment or hiring new staff. Bed space had declined from 300 to 150. A malfunctioning lift in 1976 brought patients down to 46 and closed off the operating theatre. The hospital faced a succession of closure threats. Demonstrations and a petition signed by 23,000 women forced the nursing council to back down from closure in 1974. However, the EGA maternity hospital had been closed down, and this had angered staff members. They formed an action committee that represented different sections, but it was dominated by the consultants.

EGA was a good place for trying the occupation tactic in a hospital setting – its unique historical legacy as a women’s hospital created ground for support and unity. The women doctors at EGA also tended to be progressive – for example, one had received her medical training as an anti-fascist volunteer in the Spanish Civil War. This committee’s main tactics involved lobbying, petitioning and writing letters.

The rest of the staff got involved after actual closure was announced in 1976. This included the big health unions: the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), COHSE (representing nursing staff), and ASTMS (paramedical staff). In July 1976 health workers protested against health service cuts and the EGA closure in particular: 700 workers staged a ‘day of action’ and marched to the House of Commons. Others took action in their hospitals, forcing four London hospitals to restrict admissions to emergencies. Some occupied health authority offices. Rank-and-file groups took on a major role organising these actions. Future New Labour health minister Frank Dobson was then leader of Camden council and voiced support. Wonder what he’d say to an occupation on his patch now?

However, health secretary David Ennals claimed that the EGA was ‘small, ageing… can never be developed to fulfill functions of a modern, acute hospital and suggested the EGA become a unit at the Whittington Hospital in Highgate.

The Action Committee replied that the EGA’s present location allowed it to function as a specialised national facility and a centre fulfilling local needs. As a small hospital maintained “a friendly, unthreatening atmosphere, necessary for a hospital interested in educational, preventative and outreach work relevant to the specific health needs of women.” The committee also pointed out that residents in the nearby Somerstown estate were pressing for their own health centre; facilities for women at the EGA could take pressure off the Somerstown health centre. Increasingly Somerstown residents and EGA campaigners worked together.

When Ennals asked the Area Health Authority to close in-patient services at the EGA, staff held an emergency meeting vowing to sit-in or work-in if necessary. The work-in had been urged by community activists (not staff members) on the EGA campaign committee, but was rejected as impractical in a hospital setting. But as closure loomed, the staff and community seized on a work-in as their last chance. It began a few days before the actual closing date with official support from the unions.

In November 100 nurses and 78 ancillary staff began the occupation. Pictures taken outside the EGA on that day show pickets in front of the hospital with a banner declaring: “This hospital is under workers’ control.”

Meetings of all the staff made major decisions, with committees set up by general meetings to do the actual organising. These included the Joint Shop Stewards Committee, the Medical Committee and the Action Committee; the latter made up of elected representatives of all sections of staff, and linked union members and consultants.

The Save the EGA campaign committee consisted of supporters outside the hospital. Though set up by Camden Trades Council, it became autonomous and drew in people from other hospitals, local residents, people involved in childcare and housing campaigns – such as the nearby Huntley St squat – and activists from the women’s movement. One shop steward participated in campaign meetings, and the campaign sent a representative to other groups. This committee main support for working in came from the campaign committee.

Ambulance drivers and workers in referral agencies such as the Emergency Bed Service were vital in opposing management attempts to stop the flow of patients into the hospital – workers notified drivers that the hospital remained open and asked them to bring patients.

More than defence

Work-ins are essentially defensive. They aim to keep the premises in repair, maintain morale and keep equipment and patients in the hospital. They are not set up to implement ‘workers’ control’ or transform social relationships within the hospital. But staff usually do gain more influence as a group, and ancillary workers and nurses develop stronger organisation.

In order to involve more people in the campaign, activists usually need to progress beyond defense to demand extensions or improvements in the public resource. Direct action to preserve a service or facility inspires debate on the role the facility plays in a community, the needs it fulfills and the needs it must be developed to meet.

In the case of the EGA, this expansion took place in the context of the women’s movement, defining the EGA as a women’s hospital and a national and local health facility. This resulted in pushing for a well-woman’s clinic that takes a community-oriented approach to health and act as an information centre as well as medical facility. According to Rachael Langdon of the EGA Well-woman’s Support Group:

“The dissatisfaction experienced by women in health care will not be overcome alone by seeing a doctor of one’s own sex or only by the existence of a women’s hospital. The issues are wider and preventative health is not merely a matter of individual effort. This is where the importance of alternative and women’s movement health groups lies… A well-woman clinic and a women’s hospital which could develop an exchange of ideas and knowledge with alternative and women’s health groups would be a step forward for women’s health.”

Campaigners demanded that the EGA be upgraded to a ‘centre for innovation and research’ in women’s health matters and a resource in the community. Campaigners and workers sponsored well-attended discussions relating to women’s health issues such as menopause and contraception, which often drew over 200 people. Sometimes the discussion between doctors and radical feminists set on challenging the medical establishment got lively.

More closure threats arrived in 1978; in May, a large demonstration in front of the hospital stopped traffic on Euston Road. In 1979 campaigners won the battle to keep the EGA open as a gynaecological hospital. However, the old building closed in 2008 and EGA now operates as a specialised maternity wing within the UCH hospital.[NB: This unit remained open as a separate building in Huntley Street until 2008, when it was moved into the new University College Hospital building just down the road. Your past tense typist’s daughter was among the last people born in the second EGA.]

Both the EGA and later the South London Women’s Hospital campaigners had ongoing debates over whether they should plead as a special case, or defend their hospital as part of an across-the-board opposition to health service cuts.

For example, people in the EGA campaign group believed that campaign should ‘feel free’ to split from the staff action committee if it didn’t not take a direct line against the cuts; they felt the campaign should take the initiative, which hospital workers could follow or not follow. They believed the campaign was responsible to those who used services, which expressed itself in total opposition to the cuts and transcended the interests of workers in saving their particular hospital.

Hounslow Hospital

In contrast to the EGA, West London’s Hounslow Hospital did not have the advantages of national reputation, special support from the women’s movement or supportive consultants. It was a small facility for geriatric and long-stay patients, considered a home as well as a place for treatment. Situated in an industrial area, girdled by two motorways and Heathrow Airport, Hounslow faced more repression and practical disadvantages.

The authorities had backed down from closure threats to EGA at least three times and did not attempt to break the work-in, outside of morale erosion and running down facilities. Hounslow workers faced constant threats and intimidation, a forcible smashing of the work-in.

With less support from doctors, Hounslow staff including nurses, porters and cleaners and took the main initiative and challenged the traditional hospital hierarchy. The work-in only lasted six months, but the community occupation of the hospital that followed lasted two years. Lines were drawn clearly, and there was no special pleading.

The response to proposals for possible closure in 1975 started with admin staff and friends, plus local volunteer and charity organizations, who wrote letters and circulated petitions – usually hand-written sheets passed around the neighbours. Senior nursing staff took an interest, opening communication with ancillaries and porters, and these involved workers from ‘outside’ in the campaign. Activists from the West Middlesex District General Hospital looked into plans and discovered a whole series of cuts planned for the region.

Hounslow’s closure was announced in January 1977, set for August; the work-in started in March. Management tried to transfer staff, and threatened those who refused with sanctions & sacking. They met with GPs, warned them against admitting patients to Hounslow and threatened them with sanctions.

When the August closure date arrived, staff organised a march through Hounslow and a party for the patients. As they pushed past the closure date there was a lot of fear. Workers had no idea if they would get paid; the authorities tried to claim that the AHA did not have to maintain staff and facilities though the law said otherwise.

Comparison and clampdown

The EGA had on-site consultants who could admit patients; Hounslow had none and depended on GPs. They had to tout for more admissions, though August is traditionally a slow time. The authorities tried to turn patients away and cut off the phones. The EGA had been treated as a freak case, but Hounslow indicated a trend of resistance to health service rationalisation. If a small weakly-organised hospital became such a focus for community resistance, they saw obstacles to imposing any cuts and rationalisation. The Hounslow work-in had also gone further to challenge the hierarchical relationships of the hospital. Consultants weren’t around much, and the process of campaigning had broken down traditional boundaries. The campaign and the staff had effectively taken over control of admissions. As one Hounslow Hospital worker put it: “With consultants no longer in control of admissions, the hierarchical system of privilege in the NHS was smashed.”

When threats didn’t succeed, a district team of officers took forcible action on October 26, 1977. If the authorities had to continue funding as long as patients were present, they got around that by forcibly removing the patients. Aided by the private ambulance service (public ambulance staff refused to take part), police administrators, top nursing officers and consultants moved on the hospital. They cut the phonelines, thwarting the emergency phone tree. The raiders pulled 21 patients out of their beds and took them to the private ambulances. Pictures show the scale of destruction – wrecked beds and furniture, the floor strewn with food, torn mattresses, sheets, personal articles. According to a nurse: “Old ladies had to queue up for an hour, crying all the time, as we remonstrated with the AHA people to cover them against the cold.”

The raid provoked a public outcry and led indirectly to the downfall of Hounslow’s Labour leader. A week later 2000 striking hospital workers picketed the Ealing, Hammersmith and Hounslow AHA to protest the raid and demand reopening. The AHA had to censure their own officials and called for a public enquiry, which was turned down by David Ennals. The district administrator later admitted that losing the 66 beds had badly affected geriatric care in the area.

Complete control

Once the hospital was shut, campaigners moved in and took complete control of the building. They had little idea what to do with it now that the patients gone and wards wrecked. Eventually they cleaned it up and used it as a local centre. Some of the original staff continued to be involved with the occupation. With the end of the occupation two years later, five were left.

However, the occupation itself drew in new people and took on a life of its own. Following the raid Hounslow had become a national issue. Nurses, porters and food service workers traveled to hospitals and meetings throughout the UK, discussing their experiences and asking for support. They initiated a national campaign against NHS cuts, called Fightback, based at Hounslow and involving people from the EGA, St Nicholas, Plaistow and Bethnal Green work-ins.

The Fightback production team occupied the matron’s office, the West London Fire Brigades Union used the assistant matron’s office as their headquarters, Maple Ward became a ‘conference hall’ used by local groups. The National Union of Journalists used hospital facilities during a strike.

The occupation became very intense, given the strong emotions provoked by the raid, the length of time the occupation carried on and the variety of groups taking part. Women whose world was defined by husband, family and job found themselves making speeches and going out every night, confronting their husbands to go on tour or to stay overnight at the hospital on night picket. Seven marriages broke up in the course of events, and many new relationships started.

After a year of occupation, AHA backed down on the eviction threats and conceded to negotiations on the occupation committee’s demand that Hounslow Hospital be reopened as an upgraded diversified community hospital, based on plans that had been developed during the occupation. The occupation committee did not negotiate as a special case. The opening of a community hospital meant little if cuts are made elsewhere. These negotiations broke down when management did not give firm dates to provide plans, or guarantee commitment of funds.

However, the committee ended the occupation in November 1978, claiming that ‘no positive political gain’ would come from an eviction. They thought the demands of maintaining a 24-hour picket were draining resources from other kinds of campaigning, and diverting attention from cuts in other areas. They claimed some victories in dislocating the programme of cuts and put forward detailed plans for an expanded community hospital. In its statement, the committee said that work began on redesigning facilities in the new community hospital/health centre after the occupation ended.

In 1976-78 work-ins or occupations took place in at least ten hospitals. About five work-ins were waged over an extended period of time to oppose closure, and the rest were shorter actions to oppose under-staffing and back up other staff demands. There were also sit-ins in administration and health authority offices, including an eight-week occupation at Aberdare Hospital, and in one nursery school and an ambulance station. Occupied hospitals included Plaistow Maternity Hospital, two wards at South Middlesex and one at Bethnal Green, where local people assisted the work-in by occupying the wards that had already been closed.

Some participants pointed out that union officials definitely got in the way during work-ins, hindering rather than helping in open-ended struggles where people need to keep things going and maintain morale. Union officials think in terms of ending it all and negotiating the terms. According to one participant, union officials that came into Hounslow when the work-in was made official “caused more havoc than management.”

South London Women’s Hospital: don’t be so kinky

Many of the occupations of the late ’70s had achieved short-term goals; and some work-ins were defeated due to lack of support from consultants. However, use of the tactics trailed off by the early ’80s. Until…

The Wandsworth Health Authority announced in 1983 that it will close the South London Hospital for Women’s (SLHW). This hospital had some similarities to the EGA and similar issues came up in defending it. However, this time around the authorities couldn’t say that a hospital where women receive treatment by female physicians was a remnant of the Victorian age. Instead, Wandsworth argued in terms of rationalising and budgets.

Staff initiated a work-in late spring 1984, which only lasted a couple of months. Fewer consultants were admitting patients, then the consultants were all offered positions elsewhere and they jumped ship.

But nurses and other staff wanted to fight on. Together with local activists they organised a “lie-in” in July 1984, following the exit of the last patient. The outpatients’ department (housed in an adjoining building) was due to shut later, in spring 1985.

I found out about the campaign to save the hospital when I went to the well-woman clinic and found a stack of leaflets there. This might have been when the work-in was still going on.

A good 200-300 women came to take part in the lie-in. We slept in the wards and maintained a mass picket to stop the authorities from removing equipment. All the large wards were filled. The top wards were kept empty as an example of what the fully-equipped wards could be like.

In the absence of patients, the occupation aimed to keep all the equipment on site in readiness for re-opening. Though a relatively small hospital, SLHW was a large rambling Victorian building with many entrances and exists. We maintained a picket at the main front door, locking the other doors in the main building, and also kept a picket at the gate in the car park.

There was still a lot of coming and going in relation to the outpatients as well as security guards still stationed at the front.

All kinds of women took part in this event – local pensioners, hospital staff, nurses, anarcha-punky girls. It was also racially and culturally mixed. I met a few women who said that they’d been born in that hospital. There was a fun atmosphere, with lots of people sitting outside on picket. It was a warm summer night, so people also relaxed in the garden.

Unfortunately, the next day a few snotty social worker types scolded girls for fooling about on the water-beds when the press was due to arrive. “Don’t be so kinky,” one of them said.

Of course, when no attempt was made to evict us the next day, we had to decide how to continue the occupation and how to organise it. First, what to do about the security guards. During the first few nights of the ‘lie-in’ they were doing rounds throughout the building while we were sleeping, walking around and shining their torches and speaking on their walky-talkies (this was the 80s, remember). We had some tense negotiations about this, but eventually they agreed to stay in their office on the bottom floor.

Numbers were still high for the first couple of weeks, but as you might expect they started to dwindle. It became a strain to maintain the picket. After the third week or so the health authority informed us that they wouldn’t be evicting us while the outpatient facility was still going. Obviously, the authority knew it would be easy for us to get back into the building if part of it remained open to the public. The health authority insisted that the security guards remain downstairs, but as they’d been keeping to their area it wasn’t a problem. Not a bad gig for them really, with the pickets keeping an eye on things they didn’t have much work.

Since the days of the EGA the women’s movement had diversified and grown. Women came from the Greenham Common peace camp to support the occupation. One lot got annoying when they told us we should have non-violence training. It seemed to be imposing their way of organising on us. At the same time, a bunch came from Blue Gate who were more down-to-earth. By this time, each gate at Greenham had their developed its own character and politics.

There had been a lot of Labour lefty influence in the beginning, which might have reflected elements of the campaign before I got involved. We were living in the days of the GLC, after all. We got visited by GLC Women’s Committee chair Valerie Wise, who gave speeches in front of the hospital. She kept saying: ‘My name is Valerie Wise, and I’m here to talk about the GLC.’ Some of the women there were chuffed by this, though her constant self-promotion made me sick. In fact, I was having some doubts about staying on if we’d be hearing a lot of this.

Then I went on holiday for about ten days. Just after I returned, I was in bed recovering from an all-night train and ferry experience. Then I received a phone call that emergency pickets were needed at the hospital. Already? I’d meant to give it a few days before going down again, but my caller said it was very important so I turned up.

A bunch of new people were on picket, and I found out someone was having a baby upstairs with a midwife in attendance. When the baby was born, celebrations ensued and then the TV bods turned up. The baby was a little girl called Scarlet.

A whole new bunch of women infused the campaign. Some had just moved to London, and they made themselves at home in the wards with the private rooms. This inspired a general movement to occupy the wards upstairs, and use the big lower wards as communal and social areas. With the involvement of new and full-time occupiers we entered a new phase.

Taking a tip from the Hounslow experience – among our local supporters was a nurse who had been active in earlier health service struggles – we made the hospital into a campaign centre and a kind of social centre a well. We invited other groups to use the space, and held activities like jumble sales, tea dances and public meetings. We had a big picnic in the garden with performers – among these was Vi Subversa, singer from the anarcho-punk band the Poison Girls. The first jumble sale was massive, with bags & bags of stuff that made us a good £500 and costumed the entire occupation group too.

A radical nurses’ group had been active for some time; an Asian women’s health group also met there and did acupuncture. Some of these activities kicked off quickly, other things took a while to get going.

The occupation went through several reorganisations, but we made decisions at general meetings throughout. When a lot was happening we had general meetings every evening, but this wasn’t always necessary. We set up groups involved with particular tasks _ publicity & propaganda, coordination, outreach & campaigning, looking after the building.

Since we were entering a phase with a definite long-term commitment, everyone eventually moved into the private rooms in the upstairs wards and left the big wards for communal purposes, meetings and events,  And just like the gates at Greenham, each ward took on its own character.

The top floor ward in the main building became known as called Cloud Nine. It was favoured by the spaciest Greenham girls, mostly from Green Gate. Most of these women were great, but some of us got impatient with a few who came to the hospital to chill out (or warm up, during the winter) and didn’t take part in the picket and other activities. From their point of view, they came from the rigours of Greenham to have a rest somewhere warm – with outpatients still open, the central heating and hot water remained still on. Greenham was their main commitment. Yet the long-term occupiers of Clapham felt that maintaining a viable picket was crucial in keeping the building open, and everyone should help with that. It didn’t help when some of our guests seemed to regard the picket as an answering service.

Preston House was a separate annexe reached through a tunnel or a separate front door _ this took the overspill from Cloud Nine. One of the wards – I forget the name – was populated mainly by local campaigners who’d been there at the beginning, including a contingent of nurses.

Chubb Ward, where I stayed, seemed to be popular with young urban-oriented activists.

Coudray was on the ground floor. This turned out to house mainly straight women with babies, though there were lesbian mothers as well in Chubb and other wards. Quite a few of the Coudray women and children were the offspring of a woman called Antonia, who had been involved with squatted street Freston Road or Frestonia.

There were a lot of new relationships going on, amid a high interest in feminist & lesbian politics. With all this going on, sometimes we got inward-looking. However, there were plenty of occasions when we ventured out of the building. We went to most health authority meetings, usually to ask awkward questions and be disruptive. Just after the eviction we went to one meeting and got so enraged at the attempts to ignore the issues brought up by the eviction, we ended up storming the platform and throwing chairs at the authority bods. If there’d been a dominance of polite Labour leftism in the early phases, as time went on the occupation became more militant and radical.

Other hospital occupations had also sprung up, including a work-in at a geriatric hospital in Bradford and occupied A & E at St Andrews Hospital at Bromley-by-Bow. We came out to support these actions. We also supported a picket at Barking Hospital, where an anti-casualisation struggle had been going on for over a year.

During the miners strike of 1984-5 we made contact with Women Against Pit Closures and some of them came to visit the hospital, including women from Rhodesia in Nottinghamshire and from Dinnington in South Yorkshire .

On one hand, we were reaching out to other movements and resistance, but we also faced issues in how we worked within the occupation. Because the building was warm and comfortable and any woman could stay there, it drew many who were fairly vulnerable. So while we defended health service provision, we often found ourselves providing the kind of support that should be coming from these very same services. Women had different attitudes towards this. Some didn’t want to take this on and wanted to concentrate on the political campaigning. Others felt they had enough on their plate and couldn’t take on caring for others even if they wanted to. And then some women got very involved in the ‘caring’ of the campaign and those who didn’t participate were evading their responsibilities.

There were also arguments around sharing childcare. And since this was the ’80s, rows over identity politics broke out. So it wasn’t all fun and parties and solidarity. Certainly, morale was very low about a month before the eviction. Let’s face it, there was a lot of bitching… petty arguments over which ward got the TV, that kind of thing.

We were also worried about how vulnerable women would fare if the place gets stormed by the cops. Most left when they realised that things were going to get hot.

In the case of one woman with mental health issues who wouldn’t or couldn’t leave, her sister came to take her and had her sectioned, fearing she’d fare worse if she waited around and let the cops do it. We resolved to keep tabs on the woman’s care and visit her in hospital. Debates raged over whether this was a positive or thoroughly despicable outcome

It didn’t help that others came along and used the occupation as a hotel: for example, one lot of American women’s studies students kept asking ‘How often do they change the sheets here?’

Meanwhile, the date of the outpatients closure drew closer and eviction became a real threat again. After we publicised the situation, once again new women turned up and they were ready to kick bailiff ass! Rallying from a depressing period, the occupation became vital again.

As soon as the outpatients closed, we took control of the whole building. We went down to the lobby as a group and got the security guards to leave. There were some tense moments, but they left without much argument. Then we took over the phones, the switchboard and the communications network – this included some walky-talkies, which excited us immensely in the olden days before everyone had a mobile phones.

There had been many discussions about tactics. Some women did not want to do barricading and engage in any resistance, or were not in a position to do this. Though they withdrew from the building before the barricades went up, they still put themselves on the phone tree and took part in picketing and demonstrations.

One woman called Sharon insisted that she’d lie down in front of the cops and use her body as a barricade, though she opposed any other kind of barricade. We all thought that would be extremely dangerous, and tried to talk her out of it but she insisted even more and got very shrill and even abusive. At that point, we had to ask her to leave and eventually carried her out bodily. I mention this because it’s important to record the disagreements and fuck-ups.

We planned to barricade the entrances, leaving only the big front door with a movable barricade, a great heavy beam. Women would barricade themselves into particular wards, while a mobile group would turn fire hoses on the bailiffs and chuck sawdust and then go up to the roof of the main building. Another task of this group was to make sure women who wanted to leave got out when the bailiffs arrived.

One thing that sticks in my mind now is how we strived to organise so women could do whatever they were prepared to do and set their own limits as much as possible. For example, those who could not risk arrest volunteered for look-out shifts in a van nearby. There was never any sense that certain actions were more important than the others; we all pulled together.

Every afternoon we held rallies in front of the hospital, passing out leaflets, talking to people, speaking out and singing. Some of us hung out on the balcony over entrance, dressed in hospital uniforms and surgeon’s masks and sang songs like “what shall we do with the cops and bailiffs”. It was very fun and theatrical.

We were in a constant state of alert, and many false alarms came through on the walky talkies. I remember code names like “Merrydown” and “Spikeytop”.

Once we had a report that someone was digging up the electricity in the road, and we swarmed out (with our masks on, of course) to confront the folks alleged to be doing it – and it turned out to be ordinary road works. Most local people were very supportive and people from other hospitals turned up to help picket. A miner who we met in at the Bradford hospital occupation also turned up. He seemed embarrassed when he realised it was a woman-only occupation, but we sorted him out with a local miners’ support group.

However, I should mention we had harassment by homophobic schoolboys. This minor annoyance wasn’t enough to dent our enthusiasm.

The all-out barricading effort continued. We gathered loads of wood and hammering rang out throughout the building. While we were barricading the former outpatients building, we poured vegetable oil on the floor and added dried soybeans to make it all slippy-slidey for the bailiffs.

Since we were very security-conscious, we wore surgeon’s gloves and masks while performing these operations. One evening while we were barricading, a group of alternative video-makers were following us around. We were just about to use some cabinets and trolleys for barricades, then the video-makers insisted we wait for them to film the rows of trolleys to portray “all that is lost”.

I would love to get hold of those videos, but I don’t remember the names of the women who were on the team or the name of their group.

For safety, we all moved out of the private rooms upstairs and everyone slept in the big Nightingale ward again. After many desolate nights when only a few people held the fort, pickets involved over 30 women or so. They became very party-like. The mobile group, which I was in, slept in a room downstairs near the door, so we had the partying near us all night. But sleep? Did we need it? Not then, nah…

Meanwhile, the nurses’ station in the communal ward acquired extra curtains and became known as “the bridal chamber”. Lots of relationships started… ended and started in this period.

The eviction date came and went, and we were still there. We put on a party to celebrate (Sleaze Sisters, regulars at the Bell, did the DJing), and started to make plans again. We turned the first floor ward into a place to relax, painted a mural on one wall and gave each other massages; we disrupted another health authority meeting. Some of the groups that had been running events at the hospital returned to put them on again.

But three weeks later, the hospital was evicted on 27th March 1985 by 100 male cops and 50 female cops. By then our numbers had gone down from about100 to 30, but we still made a good stand. After the usual false alarms a phone call came through the switchboard with a tip-off. This one turned out to be true and the bailiffs arrived at 3.15am.

As planned, women barricaded themselves into wards, while the mobile group barricaded the last door and stairs.

Another group of women occupied the roof of Preston House. Meanwhile, a small crowd had gathered in front, summoned by our phone tree. I’ll mention at this point that we did get support outside the building from men. A local activist called Ernest was very prominent in this – later he took part in Wandsworth anti-Poll Tax organising and went to jail for non-payment. I remember him shouting at the cops: “why do you have to be so macho?”

Our group ran up to the top floor, turned on the waterworks at the cops and bailiffs though sadly the water pressure wasn’t up to much. We went to the roof and threw the last barricades in place and sat on the cover to block the ladder leading up to the roof. We heard women shouting and singing from the Preston House roof and the balconies. Smoke bombs and fireworks went off. Then the banging started below as cops and bailiffs hacked their way through the barricades. It took them about two hours to get to us up off the roof.

In the press a lot was made of the use of women coppers – it was called “the gentle touch”. Not that it matters much, but the policewomen played a subordinate role. Male coppers dragged us down from the roof. Whatever their gender, the cops were big on arm twisting and made a big show of starting to nick us: “Prepare to receive prisoners” then pushed us aside near the vans. However, they did cart off two women. There was lots of pushing and shoving and some fighting in an attempt to save the two women.

Later, we picketed Kennington Police station where the two women were held. They were released after two hours, though they’d been roughed up while in custody. We then picketed Cavendish Road police station where the cops were holding a press conference on the eviction.

After the picket, some of us were walking to a café near the hospital. As we went past cops hanging outside the hospital we saw them arrest one woman and we went to rescue her, which resulted in six of us getting arrested. A bunch of schoolgirls saw what happened and they were so angry about it they tried to help and got arrested too. They were taken to the police station, strip-searched and held for six or seven hours, and released with cautions. The active role of the school pupils in this melee makes me think of the 2003 anti-war school walkouts and more recent agitation over the education maintenance allowance.

Afterwards…

A clause in the hospital’s freehold stipulated that the building must be used for the benefit of women, and it was also a listed building. Wandsworth Council had tried a number of plans – one was to turn it into a hotel – but the clause got in the way. It was empty for over twenty years after the eviction.

The last plan was building a Tesco’s on the site, which is on the border of Lambeth and Wandworth, but within Lambeth jurisdiction. There’d been local opposition and an appeal against the permission was lodged, but it was turned down and the Tescos went ahead. The development included flats above the supermarket – I’m not sure if it is private or social housing – which might have something to with how the project got past the conditions.

We did make an attempt to continue a health-oriented action group. We managed to get a very small grant and a meeting place in a disused bunker in front of St Matthews Meeting Place in Brixton. We had a public meeting that was reasonably well-attended. But it is most memorable because it took place on the day a riot broke out in Brixton after Cherry Gross was shot (and permanently paralysed) during a police raid.

But this group fell apart. Perhaps, with the end of the occupation itself, the transforming element of the action was gone. Political and personal differences affected the group more, and it seemed time to move on…

However, I won’t end on a totally downbeat note. The eviction of the hospital led to an influx of women settling and getting active in the Brixton area. Much of this was around squatting and housing, and the growth of a new feminist and lesbian community inspired by that. A host of DIY and feminist projects sprang up. Culturally, this was important to women who’d been alienated from boy-dominated politics and the ‘official’ lesbian and feminist scene.

In retrospect, several things distinguished this occupation. The nine-month time span of the occupation allowed it to grow into an important point of contact between groups who might not have worked together otherwise.

In the EGA campaign there had been disagreement over whether to promote the hospital as a special case – a women’s hospital. Or to take it up in terms of opposing all cuts. Though it took some time to arrive at this point, at SLWH we included both the feminist dimension and a strong anti-cuts class struggle element. Our banners said ‘Stop these murderous cuts’. We stressed the women’s health angle as a central part of this opposition and organised events and workshops relating to this.

Another thing that strikes me is that we were able to arrive at consensus in our most heated discussions and everyone had opportunities to speak and express themselves. Given some of the excruciating, highly extended experiences of consensus decision-making I’ve been involved with since then, this seems incredible now. Or am I looking at this through a rose-coloured telescope?

We were ahead of our time with our planning for ‘diversity of tactics’ – allowing for more confrontational tactics alongside ‘fluffy’ ones. Back in the ’80s this wasn’t really done. So I’m proud that we made a break with the binary of pacifism vs ‘violence’. Within the diversity, we placed equal importance on the different tactics and didn’t elevate one above the other. In the early 2000s anti-capitalists planned actions with different blocks using their choice of tactics; several years later the particular blocs and tactics may have become stuck in a rut and lost their effectiveness. However, the core principle of tactical diversity is still a good one.

More recently, Greek health workers have occupied a hospital in response to austerity and health cuts. And with further cuts and privatisation going ahead here, this is a good time to look into this history and see what lessons can be applied now.

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This text originated in a talk at the South London Radical History Group in 2003. It was later updated and published in a past tense dossier on UK hospital occupations, Occupational Hazards. Which is still available to buy in paper form here, or can be downloaded as a PDF here

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Today in London striking history, 1988: 5500 Lambeth Council workers strike against cuts

On January 18th 1988, 5,500 Lambeth Council workers, members of NALGO, went on a one-day strike against cuts in Lambeth. [NALGO, the National Association of Local Government Officers, the local authority workers’ trade union, merged to form part of Unison in 1993.]

Here we reprint an account by one of them, written some years after the event. An interesting snapshot of life working for ‘loony left’ Lambeth Council in 1987. [Topical note: Spot the cameo by John Bercow, now the speaker of the House of Commons, then a tory Lambeth Councillor…]

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Lambeth Council 1987/1988: Eggs, Chips and Strikes
Neil Transpontine

I moved to Brixton in early 1987, and started working for Lambeth Council in the libraries. The pay wasn’t great but as I was squatting on Tulse Hill Estate (Greenleaf Close) I wasn’t paying any rent so money wasn’t a problem. The Council itself admitted that there were at least 1200 squatters in Council properties in this period (South London Press,15/2/88 – henceforth referred to as the SLP), so I certainly wasn’t alone.

It was a time of crisis in the local state, with the Conservative central government setting strict limits of what Councils could spend. One group of Lambeth Labour Councillors (led by Ted Knight) had already been disqualified from office for attempting to defy this. Their successors, led by Linda Bellos, were in the contradictory position of publicly decrying the cuts while implementing them.

The atmosphere at work was marked by almost total disengagement from the employers, something I was made aware of in my first week. Like most library workers I joined NALGO, the main union for ‘white collar workers’, who were then enforcing a ‘work to rule’. This involved people refusing to cover for vacant posts by working for more than two hours on a service point. So if a library assistant was asked to work a shift on the front desk for longer or without the usual number of colleagues on duty, they would refuse to work it and the library would have to close.  ‘Absenteeism’ was rife, so it was common for the usual number of staff not to be on duty – as a result, closures were quite frequent.

There was also some solidarity action going on in support of the historic strike at Rupert Murdoch’s News International (publishers of the Sun and the Times). This was then in full swing following the management relocating production from Fleet Street to Wapping in order to break the power of printworkers. I had been down to some of the regular mass pickets of the Wapping plant, sometimes featuring violent clashes and police charges. In the library, workers refused to handle News International papers – normally all the papers would be put out for people to read.  I went to my first union branch meeting at Brixton Town Hall in February where there was a speaker from Wapping. It was informally agreed that the boycott would continue though no vote was taken in an attempt to avoid legal action by Murdoch’s lawyers.

In terms of the Council, matters reached a head late in 1987 when the national Government announced the following year’s funding for local authorities. For Lambeth, a spending limit of £152m was set for 1988/89, compared with £210m in the previous year. The Council responded by planning cuts and putting forward controversial plans for a compulsory redeployment scheme. This was to involve cutting jobs by freezing recruitment when posts became vacant and then moving people from other jobs to cover them. Basically people would have been forced to change jobs within the Council and made redundant if they refused.

At a NALGO mass meeting just before Christmas (17/12/87) around 400 people agreed to stage a one day strike to coincide with the Council’s budget setting in the New Year. The union meeting was held at the Brixton Academy, the first time I had been in the place where over the next few years I was to see Public Enemy, Sonic Youth and Fatboy Slim, to name but a few.

On January 18th 1988 the Council’s Policy and Resources Committee met to vote through a package of cuts. The NALGO strike went ahead despite Council Leader Linda Bellos writing to workers telling us the strike was a waste of time since the Council had no choice but to make cuts; the deputy Tory group leader (Cllr.  John Bercow) called for us to be sacked: ‘In the current financial crisis these people should be deemed to have dismissed themselves if they strike’ (‘Sack the strikers’, South London Press 15.1.88).  Yes – that John Bercow, later MP and at the time of writing the Speaker of the House of Commons.

Despite these threats and entreaties, ‘Nearly all 5,500 NALGO members stayed away from work’ (SLP 19.1.88); many Council services were closed. A few of us from the libraries drove to one of the outlying branches that was still open (Herne Hill), walked in and persuaded enough people to walk out to close it down. [Typist’s note: this is the Herne Hill Carnegie Library, later occupied against closure in 2016]

In the evening there was a picket of the Council meeting in the Town Hall. We blocked the entrance and delayed some of the Councillors getting into the meeting (despite being ordered not to by union officers), then we moved into the public gallery where we did our best to disrupt the meeting. The Evening Standard reported our efforts with the memorable headline “Egg and Chips fly in £40m cuts Scramble” (19.1.1988): ‘Town hall chief officers feared that the demonstration could get so noisy and chaotic that they took the unprecedented step of issuing placards to members to enable them to carry on the debate in sign language. The placards carried such phrases as ‘I move the amendment’ and ‘I second it’… there were angry scenes after the policy and resources committee meeting at the town hall in Brixton when protestors scuffled with Labour members who had voted in favour of the cuts… Sheaves of agenda papers, eggs and a bag of chips were thrown from the first floor public gallery which overlooks the chamber. Then the town hall fire alarm was let off an the building had to be abandoned’.

By the end of the week, one group of workers – the 70 Lambeth motor mechanics – were on all out strike in a cuts related dispute. Mechanics at the Shakespeare Road depot refused to cover for a vacant cleaner post and were sent home without pay. An indefinite strike was called there and at the Kennington Lane depot.

The strikers, who were members of the Amalgamated Engineering Union picketed the Town Hall and Housing Office on the 21st January 1988, and many NALGO members refused to cross the picket lines. Union officers persuaded the strikers to call off these pickets in return for a promise of support which never really came to much. Pickets of the depots continued though, and when I went down I saw them successfully turn away Post Office vans, BP tankers and other vehicles. There was a still a widespread sense amongst workers that you didn’t cross a picket line. Lambeth Labour bosses responded by using private garages to repair dustcarts and other vehicles during the strike – a move denounced by strikers as amounting to ‘Rupert Murdoch’ tactics (SLP 16/2/1988).

The strike continued for several weeks until most of its demands had been at least partially met – including filling the cleaners post and paying the mechanics extra ‘flexibility payments’ for doing any work outside of their job descriptions. Pressure on the Council had been increased when 30 people with disabilities staged an occupation of the social services HQ. Their transport had been affected by the strike but rather than attack the strikers they demanded that the Council should settle with the dispute.

Short term occupations of Council buildings were a feature of this period. On January 29th, Brixton squatters occupied the office of the Council leader, Linda Bellos. The police arrived to chuck people out, though unfortunately for Bellos she was standing behind the door and took the full force when police pushed it open. A couple of weeks later, it was the turn of Council gardeners to occupy her office following the announcement of 80 planned redundancies.

There were further disputes through 1988 involving different groups of Lambeth Council workers. 100 housing workers had their pay stopped when they refused to operate the new Housing Computer System because of concerns about its implications for staffing and pay. Then in the summer, Environmental Health workers went on strike for several weeks after they had turned up at work to find that management had reorganised their office without talking to them first. In August 1988 a NALGO branch meeting narrowly agreed (by about 140 to 120 votes) to an all out indefinite strike to demand a guarantee from the Council that there would be no compulsory redundancies or redeployment. By this time I was a shop steward and was part of the strike committee set up to build support for the strike. In the event when it went ahead from 5th September it only lasted for a few days and only a minority of workers took part.

Another one day strike by 2,000 NALGO members in October 1988 was in opposition to the government’s plans to transfer the management of Council estates to Housing Action Trusts. Two Brixton housing estates, Loughborough and Angell Town, were scheduled to be in the first wave of this initiative and there was anger and opposition from tenants who saw only higher rents behind the government’s rhetoric of freedom from local authority control. When civil servants turned up to promote the plans on the Loughborough Estate they were heckled and booed by 200 tenants (SLP 30.9.88). There were also big meetings on other estates, including on Tulse Hill Estate.

Lambeth gardeners occupy Council offices

While all this was going on, there were other significant strikes in South London and across the country – making a mockery of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s triumphalist claim in January that the nation was cured of ‘the British Disease’ of striking.

In the health service the concern was low pay and the threat of cuts.  1988 started with people occupying a disused ward at St James Hospital in Wandsworth, protesting against cuts and threats to close London’s largest general hospital (SLP 3.1.88). On February 3rd there was a national day of action by health workers. A march called by London hospital strike committees was blocked by police in Whitehall with four arrests. Later we blocked the traffic on Westminster Bridge. Two weeks later there was a further day of action in London in which 12,000 hospital workers took part. The day ended up with several hundred marching to the town hall in Brixton for a rally. Another day of action on 14th March saw London bus crews, dockers, miners and others taking unofficial action in support of NHS workers. Some of us from Lambeth marched to join the pickets outside the Maudsley Hospital and Kings. Nurses at the Maudsley went on indefinite strike in September – a very rare move for nurses.

Brixton DHSS staff were also among the most militant in London. There had been a long all out strike there in 1980 after two workers were sacked for union activities. Some of the Brixton militants were involved later in the 1980s with Workhouse, a national rank and file group for civil servants in the Civil and Public Servants Association union (I went to a benefit disco for them at the Asian Community Action Group on Brixton Road).  [They’d also supported/taken part in the 1987-88 civil servants strike]. In August 1988 Brixton dole workers walked out on strike with other London offices against a threat to move jobs out of London. Ultimately the Brixton office was to close, making way for the famous Cool Tan squat on Coldharbour Lane in the 1990s. South London postal workers were also active in the national post strike in September 1988, with workers at the Streatham sorting office staging their own strike later in the month after two workers were suspended (SLP 30.9.88).

Further afield there was a major national ferry strike at the end of January 1988, as seafarers walked out in support of colleagues sacked for striking at the Isle of Man Steam Packet Company. The National Union of Seamen called off the strike in February when the courts ruled it illegal, but workers for P&O Ferries remained on strike in their own dispute over jobs and pay cuts for over a year. A P&O striker came to a NALGO meeting in August 1988 and that summer there were collections for them outside Brixton tube station.

Another front was a kind of culture war around sexual politics, with conservative forces pushing anti-gay and abortion politics. The movement against the anti-gay ‘Clause 27’ (later known as ‘Section 28’) was in full swing -.a clause of the Local Government Bill that banned Councils from ‘promoting’ homosexuality. On 9th January 1988 there was arrests on a big demonstration which saw people blockading the entrance to Downing Street and sitting down in Whitehall (I recall somebody trying to set alight to a union jack on the cenotaph – it was made of some kind of flameproof plastic!) and clashing with mounted police in the park next to the Imperial War Museum. In the same period there were also demonstrations against the Alton Bill, which sought to reduce the time limit for abortions. A Lambeth Against Alton group met regularly at the Town Hall from October 1987.

The movement against the poll tax was also in its early days. While not due to be introduced in England until 1990, planning had started to implement it – and to resist it. At the 1988 Lambeth Country Show in Brockwell Park people queued up to have their photos taken with their head in the ‘poll tax refuser’ stocks.

A few of us put out several editions of a bulletin ‘Lambeth Worker’ , with news about what was going on across the Council, as well as stickers. Publication of the bulletin was eased by the fact that one of us worked in Union Place Community Resource Centre, a Council-funded design and  print shop run by a workers co-operative. All kinds of radical literature came out of there, some of it printed semi-commercially, some of it on the side by the staff. Union Place was on Vassall Road next to the Union Tavern at the junction with Camberwell New Road.  It had survived an attempted fascist arson attack for which a local National Front activist (and Southwark Council dust cart driver) was jailed in 1980, but ultimately succumbed to cuts – the building has been replaced by housing.

In ‘Lambeth Worker’ we argued for unifying the different struggles: ‘Some people say that there’s no point in fighting because the Council hasn’t got any money, but they’re wrong. Nurses are in a similar situation, employed by almost bankrupt health authorities, yet they realise that by taking national action they can force the government to cough up more money. If we link up our struggle with other people acing cuts such as Council workers in other boroughs and health workers, we can all benefit from forcing the state into retreat’ (Lambeth Worker, no. 1, 1988). [Check out Lambeth Worker, no 1, here and a later issue here

The reality within Lambeth was that groups of workers tended to be picked off one by one. The unions divided the workforce, with office workers mainly in NALGO, and manual workers split between NUPE, AEU, GMB and UCATT. But even within NALGO workers in different sections found themselves isolated. Many Union officers were embroiled in the internecine warfare within the Labour Party, making deals with the various factions cooked up in The Social Club, a cheap bar in the Town Hall, and other smoky rooms. The endless calls for one day strikes became increasingly routinised, with little serious effort to mobilise for action. Many workers ignored them and waited for the promised final catastrophe that never arrived. Instead of the big bang of mass redeployment or redundancies, the outcome was the slow lingering death of Council services from a thousand cuts, continuing in Lambeth and many other places for years to come.

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Much more could be written on this period in Lambeth… some of it is vaguely in preparation…

If you liked this post… check out the author’s excellent blog transpontine