Some reflections on local anti-fascist struggles in South London in 1991

Some reflections on local anti-fascist struggles in South London in 1991…

In July 1991 the far right British National Party stood Steve Tyler as a candidate for a council by-election in Brunswick Ward. Much of this ward consisted of the large and run down Elmington Council estate, in Camberwell. The BNP campaign was vigorously opposed by an alliance of local anti-fascists, left groups, Anti-Fascist Action, supported by local residents including a number of squatters; however, the BNP did manage to march in force around the estate.

At the time the Elmington was in a somewhat dilapidated state; Southwark was (and still is) one of the poorest boroughs in London. The estate had large numbers of empty flats, and a large population of squatters, as did many of Southwark’s estates (it was thought to be the most heavily squatted borough then, at a time when London’s squatting population was variously estimated at 20-30,000). Much of the estate was in disrepair. The Estate housing officer, Rachel Webb, was a well-known leftwing activist, who was also a Labour councillor in neighbouring Lambeth at the time [She was, if I recall right, one of the remaining councillors from ‘Red” Ted Knight’s administration of the early 1980s, the majority of who had been disbarred and banned from standing to be councillors again, over the Rate Capping battle against the Thatcher government… a group alleged to be an entrist faction of trotskyites originating in the Socialist Organiser group].

The BNP campaign was partly aimed at attacking Rachel Webb, as a known leftwing activist, and also Southwark’s Labour council, and at targeting squatters living on the estate. A BNP election leaflet ran: “ [Rachel Webb] is more interested in evicting white residents for being ‘rascist’ than in evicting the drunken and drugged up squatters that infest our estates.”

A candidate for council elections needed ten sponsors from the council electoral ward in question. Anti-fascists later obtained the list of Tyler’s sponsors; not all lived on the estate. But there was a group of white residents with BNP sympathies and more, who lived on the Elmington. This group was linked to racist attacks on the estate: dogs had been set on local black kids; black families had their windows bricked; passers by had been hassled by a group of 20 white kids in combat gear.

“Squatter scum off our estate” graffiti was painted up around the estate at the time.

It’s possible that Charlie Sargent, later supremo of BNP splinter hooligan firm Combat 18, lived on the Elmington at the time – he was officially living there a couple of years later. Tyler, himself was a long-standing BNP activist and perennial candidate, who stood in general elections in nearby Bermondsey several times in the 1990s.

At the time BNP were doing regular paper sales in East Street in Walworth, and the ‘Blue’ market in Bermondsey, and saw this area of South London as having potential for recruitment; disillusioned working class residents living in poverty were seen as a good recruitment pool; ‘lefty’ Labour councils were easy meat, and migrants, especially black people, loudly blamed for the myriad social problems.

The BNP campaign was opposed by a number of groups, including the South London branch of Anti-Fascist Action [which your author was then active in]. We took the position you have to oppose any fascist presence as it was clearly shown to directly or indirectly lead to racial attacks increasing (as in Welling and Thamesmead at the time) – even if electorally they were not really likely to win, or even come close. We did a lot of leafleting of the ward, and talking to local people. Crucially, some of the South London AFA group lived on the estate or in the wider area, though the majority lived across South London (many in nearby Brixton).

Leafletting and talking to residents received a mixed, though largely positive, response. If some people hated squatters and others were racist, many were also ex-squatters or hated Nazis. On one memorable occasion someone put an anti-fascist leaflet through a door and a large west indian man came running out of the flat with a hammer, then did a double take and looked closer at leaflet in his hand and went ”oh, ANTI fascist action…” !

BNP leafletters weren’t as open as us, preferred to do publicity at 2 o’clock in the morning. They also didn’t attack our rally or public meeting, a favourite tactic of theirs elsewhere in those times.

The anti-fascists held one rally on the estate. Anti-Fascist Action also organised a public meeting in the Walmer Castle Pub on Peckham Road (now defunct), which turned into a disastrous squabble between lefty factions, all turning up to spout their own political line on fascism, slag each other iff, slag us off, and generally offer nothing practical. Any non-aligned locals turning up were generally bemused by the maze of initials, groupuscules and counter-claims, and the bitter shouty row that the meeting descended into.

Some other left groups, plus some Southwark councillors (eg Ian Driver) were involved in the opposition to the BNP; other groups, like the Socialist Workers Party, informed us that small fascist groups were a distraction from the real issues facing the working class, and that Anti-Fascist Action were fighting an irrelevant enemy, the real danger in terms of racism being the state structures, police, etc. This was a line the SWP had been taking pretty much since the party hierarchy closed down the Anti-Nazi League in the early 1980s; while it is true that institutional racism is more powerful and pervasive than small fascist parties, the threat that black people, migrants and other groups faced from racist attacks is very real, and demands resistance. Not long after this the SWP would totally reverse their position, and set about reforming of the Anti Nazi League, which, while making a lot of noise and seeking and gaining widespread publicity, was generally about as much of a threat to the Nazis as a slightly deceased rabbit.

The coalition of anti-fascists organised one local march against the BNP; the BNP in fact themselves staged a march, of about 70 skins and assorted swivel-eyes (mostly imported from outside the area) round the estate, on July 20th, a few days before election day. This demo became a bit of a sore point later. It was not publicised in advance – unsurprisingly, as the BNP were afraid that opposition could be rallied and the march could be blocked, attacked or possibly even banned by the cops. Anti Fascist Action had had word that the march was going to take place, but most of the South London AFA group on the ground were not informed very much in advance until it was realistically too late to organise much opposition. We could do very little to oppose them marching (although their transit did get its windows bricked on the day). The day of the march consisted mostly of running around chasing shadows and rumours, not an untypical day out where anti-fascist activity was concerned… Anti-fascists went into the nearby Orange Tree pub on Havil Road, which was a bit of a mistake, as the reception was not too friendly, seemingly because there were some black people in the anti-fascist group. Ho hum.

A Picket was held outside Southwark Town Hall during the election count on July 25th. Police heavily protected the nazis at the count, and Steve Tyler barely put in an appearance, so we didn’t get near them, but the day did end in a fight – farcically, this barney was between two of the anti-fascist picketers, as some were local squatters, while another was one Steve Willis, the housing officer from Peckham’s Friary Estate, whose favourite hobby at the time was going round kicking in squatters’ doors and evicting them illegally.

Meanwhile the BNP’s Tyler got 132 votes, which was quite a high vote for a lunatic fringe candidate in a council by-election. This turnout, on top of their largely unopposed march and foray into an area not generally thought of as BNP material, reflected something of a minor coup for the fash.

Shortly afterwards, some dodgy white residents on the Elmington estate, who were strongly suspected of being among those who backed the BNP, burgled a couple of squatters who were heavily involved in the AFA activity: the squatters decided the wisest course to move on…

After all this estate housing officer Rachel Webb did try to evict some of the people who’d signed the BNP list; which was something that divided the anti-fascists, an Official state-backed anti-fascism seemed to us to be playing into the hands of the BNP’s ‘oppressed white people’ narrative’. It seemed to us that local dissatisfaction with the Labour Council’s neglect of the estate had partly helped open the door to the BNP; some of us felt anti-fascism was not enough really, it had to be linked to opposing the council’s running down of the area.

The BNP presence was not however massively sustained and built on, as they never stood for election again.

What we should have done?

There was some talk afterwards about setting up an anti-fascist group local to the area, one that specifically also would take on the problems that were making some people susceptible to supporting the BNP, including crap housing, poverty etc, but one that would also challenge racist and scapegoat solutions aimed at dividing people on the basis of colour, or splitting tenants from squatters. Our thought was that the deprivation and disrepair that the Elmington was experiencing were in part causing some to fall into the Nazis arms, and especially to blame squatters, and in some cases black residents, for the poverty and misery of life there…

Allying with Labour and especially Labour councillors, in the struggle against the BNP during the election, we thought, may have been something of a mistake, given the Labour council’s image as being at least partly to blame for the state of the housing… We became identified with the people residents directly dealt with, complained to, and in the end blamed. Not a good tactic.

However, these discussions came to nothing, as discussions often do, partly because the individuals active in our group, who lived on the estate, mostly squatting, were burgled shortly after, by neighbours who we think had links to the BNP, and didn’t feel safe staying there any longer, partly because there were other political struggles going on (eg the anti-poll tax movement was kind of winding down but non-payers and rioters were still being targetted and sent to prison…)… also other anti-fascist things were kicking off, with a surge in racist attacks and resistance in South East London, notably Thamesmead, but also in Bermondsey (see below). Most if us became active in this also.

In retrospect, our analysis may have been partly correct, in that a voice that linked support opposition to organised racists with opposition to the council could have been useful; however, us being largely transient outsiders, it would very likely have not got off the ground – it also underestimates the simple racism of the core of the BNP support, and – to be brutally frank – the distrust of squatters by some long-time residents, who saw us at best as fly-by-nights who would piss of elsewhere soon, and at worst as anti-social junkies. Both of these judgments were not in any way wholly true or wholly false – squatters, like tenants, were mixed bag and some were twats who gave not a fuck for their neighbours, just as some tried to put down roots, or were even local themselves.

There was an abortive attempt to put our tentative plan into effect on a wider scale, which we were involved in, later that year, as a group called Southwark Community Action was founded, to try and gather something of the anti-poll tax spirit as well as address racism and other issues… But it opened itself up to too many diverse views too quickly, became a talking shop, and foundered in irrelevance within months.

Problems within AFA

Some of us also had problems with some Anti Fascist Action practices, with how it was organised. All of us, I think, had no problem with the AFA core programme – that you had to oppose fascism physically on the streets, as well as ideologically in working class communities. That seemed to us to make sense. The problem was that in practice anti-fascism kind of became all consuming ; to be involved in AFA couldn’t be part time; to the exclusion of other struggles. At that point you could easily go to four office AFA Meetings a fortnight – all London AFA meetings, South London AFA meetings, AFA stewards group meetings, South London and southeast London AFA liaison meetings regarding the particular fascist problem in Bermondsey at that time…

There was quite a lot of pressure, I would say to be part of all those things, and people who were also involved in a variety of other struggles and saw anti fascism as only a part of their activities, did tend to be shut out of decision making, or be considered lightweights.

AFA was obviously dominated by a culture, a kind of left hooligan culture if you like, which was useful when you’re actually trying to fight fascists physically…! In practice though it also meant AFA was overwhelmingly a club for men, largely white. Not to say there weren’t women involved, or black people, and AFA did make a point of working with some black groups against fascism. But voices of women and any black members were often isolated within AFA.

AFA’s structure was increasingly authoritarian and centralised. from the beginnings of AFA in 1985 It had shrunk down from being an alliance of a wider range of political strands, with some groups and individuals who had been involved early on, falling away or being kicked out. By the early 90s it was dominated in practice mainly by members of three groups, which is red action, the anarcho-sydicalist Direct Action movement, and  Trotskyist group workers power. Many of those who turned out for AFA mobilisations or did anti-fascist work along AFA lines were not aligned with these organisations however; and a number of non-aligned AFA activists came to feel too much power was held by them – the groups had political delegates to the AFA London Organising Committee for instance, beside delegates from devolved local groups – the LOC basically made or passed down decisions for local groups to implement. A Stewards Committee was also set up, which had final word on aspects of AFA work, notably security and physical confrontations, again giving power to the 3 dominant groups.

Red Action in particular opposed attempts to overturn the power imbalances and tight control by a small group. Independent AFA activists who complained about the domination of the 3 groups were effectively told to join one or another of them, shouted down and smeared.

These were political, organisational problems, Which played out in the communication problems that we found with regards to the Elmington experience – not hearing about information on the ground, information being kept tight to some people’s chests. Obviously, some of that information came from confidential sources; possibly even infiltrators in fascist ranks. So closedmouthness sometimes make some kind of sense. But some of the some of the way information was disseminated to people , on a hierarchical basis, did leave some of us feeling out of the loop, and when we were in our area feeling like info had been kept from us it left us confused and pissed off.

Another factor at work was that in London, AFA had a concentration on the East End, Brick Lane and certain parts of Bethnal Green in particular, which they saw as the frontline of anti-fascism. And I think they considered Camberwell to be not a crucial battleground, or somewhere where the fash weren’t as much of a threat. I don’t know if that played into some leading AFA people’s calculations as to how much effort to put into the struggle on the Elmington. Some of us not in the centre of AFA felt that a decision had been taken not to spend too much in terms of time and resources on the Elmington campaign. For us, while anti-fascism was something we had been involved in already, this was close to home and represented an invasion of sorts… and linked in to other activities we were also involved in – squatting, housing struggles against local councils…

Although it did not play out at all in the brief Elmington tussle, there were many problems between Red Action and anarchists, non-aligned anti-fascists, in London and elsewhere. For those involved in AFA on a daily level, there was lots of friction. Red Action did tend to swagger around try to intimidate people who were supposed to be comrades; their view was effectively that they did all the work – untrue – and that anyone who opposed the centralised and authoritarian structures and suggested a more democratic or decentralised structure was out to wreck AFA, were liberals and splitters etc. Although in AFA their closest allies were anarchists (mainly DAM members) the Reds were also constantly denigrating anarchism, particularly in their paper…

These issues caused tensions and splits in North London AFA a couple of years later, with most of the non Red Action members leaving AFA completely to form an independent group.

Despite the AFA programme of opposition to fascism being both physical and ideological, the physical activity was almost inevitably given higher priority. Anyone who talked about doing more ideological work, more campaigning work, was likely to be accused by Red Action of basically just wanting to be in the SWP. And despite there being no justification for those smears, and when and it was supposed to be the programme of the organisation, that the ideological opposition was supposed to be another – vital – arm of defeating fascism, especially within the white working class communities, which are susceptible to fascist influence, the physical approach was generally in effect dominant. The critics from within were in almost all cases NOT arguing for abandoning the physical confrontation plank – instead that force alone in the streets was not enough.

Ironically Red Action later came to the same conclusion themselves, later on setting up the independent working class Association. They had come to the same conclusion we had in Camberwell – that to oppose fascism not physically and ideologically you had to be there addressing the economic and social issues that fascists tried to exploit and helping to turn that discontent into collective action instead of racism and division. The IWCA made a more effective job of this than we Camberwell anti-fascists ever did, though there were lots of problems with their process too.

The IWCA had its own success in some areas on London and beyond for a while, though it fell victim to RA’s basically Leninist tendencies admitting all sorts of Stalinist losers; the IWCA also had some similar problems to AFA with RA bullying, leading to at least one London branch leaving to form an independent group.

Part of the problem arose from AFA’s origins and founding basis – the idea that the white working class, in some areas susceptible to fascist influence due to disillusionment with social conditions, alienation from Labour & the left, could be won away from fash ideas by showing that the fash were bearable on the street and not as hard as they claimed. This was meant to go in hand with an ideological thrust – arguing the anti-working class nature of fascism in those communities. All well and good, but it laid itself open in reality to downplaying the extent of racism that permeates many working class people’s thinking, and to an emphasis on being harder than the nazis. In AFA’s earlier days (1985-89) there had even been a kind of anti-fascist patriotism of sorts, attempting to portray the fash as essentially anti-British, trying to lay a wreath at the cenotaph for Remembrance Day (a fave event for National Front organising)… AFA was always much wider than this, and arguments were always going on around this.

My parachute didn’t open

The other problem AFA had was the sense of ‘parachuting’ – that they cane in as a mob from outside and sorted the fash out then left. Although only half true, there was enough truth in this to make it worth discussing. Security dictated a certain approach; but realistically this kind of intervention is no substitute for community organisation on the ground. Sometimes you can’t wait for that to develop organically, true. The flipside was that when you’d left the area there was often retribution, and this was usually targeting of black people, racial violence, the usual schtick. This was another hotly debated tactical question among anti-fascists, and within AFA there was a consciousness of the problem.

The Elmington election was in some ways an opening salvo in what was to prove a few years of wider anti fascist struggle, as the BNP  rose while the old National Front declined, and proved itself more adept at both physical violence and electioneering. Two years after the Elmington the BNP won its first elected councillor, in the Isle of Dogs – a feat the NF had never achieved even in the 1970s. Racist attacks were beginning to spike, especially in Southeast London, notably around Welling, Thamesmead and Eltham. The presence of the BNP’s bookshop/HQ in Welling was seen as at the very least cashing in on the wide racist atmosphere in parts of this area, and quite possibly whipping it up. A long drawn out struggle against fascist presence, racism and the bookshop’s existence ensued.

Bermondsey Blues

Another event in the summer of 1991 that South London AFA we’re involved in reinforced a sense that parachute anti-racism was not in any way the answer – in fact could be actively counter-productive.

Both the National Front and BNP we’re heavily active in Bermondsey at this time. The Front had been active there for several years. Both sold their newspapers in the local market at the ‘Blue’ in Southwark Park Road.

As in Thamesmead & Welling, the fascists swam in a sea of wider racism and encouraged it by their activity; racist attacks were on the increase, especially around the Silwood estate…To some extent Southwark Council’s longstanding ‘sons and daughters’ policy, originally designed to house council tenants near other members of their families, had helped increase racial division in the borough, as white council tenants had been housed in Bermondsey and black people further south, generally in Peckham or Camberwell. A sense of ghettoisation had developed; not entirely helped by a real insularity and clannishness many Bermondsey locals tended to evolve anyway. Like on the Isle of Dogs, the hereditary dock work, added to a feeling of long-rootedness and spiced with a (usually genuine) grievance against official neglect of the area, helped forge a certain inward looking  culture, with a suspicion of outsiders which was not always racist but tended to fall that way often enough.

In recent years a gradual move towards housing more black people in Bermondsey had been met with hostility and a growing racist backlash from some white residents.

There were people on the ground attempting to counter this from the grassroots.

AFA (the South London and SE London branches) did make some attempts to liaise with people locally. But the situation was becoming seriously aggravated.

In the meanwhile a largely opportunistic march was called for Saturday 24th August 1991, by the ‘National Black Caucus’ was organised in protest at the racist attacks. This group had few links on the ground, and made little attempt to do any local liaison or co-ordinate with those who had a first-hand grasp of the lie of the land and had been trying to organise solid anti-racist work.

The march from the start was announced as a march on ‘racist Bermondsey’; from outside, with little consultation of what people living there were doing, and in practice was staged as a march into and out of an area, disconnected, with no thought of what effect it might have… It played nicely into the hands of the organised racists in Bermondsey, who were able to go round and play on the idea of outsiders coming in to tell them how racist they were… [we accept that part of the problem was that many were racist]…

As an organisation AFA we’re suspicious of the politics of the match organisers; we were suspicious of the tactic of marching in like a hostile force generally; but given that we were involved in fighting fascism and racism in South London we decided to attend.

This was a mistake…

The march was a disaster. The organisers has promised 150 professional stewards to ensure the safety of demonstrators – this didn’t materialise. Given the level of racist abuse in Bermondsey this was totally irresponsible, and in fact relied either on police protection (a laugh, considering both the racist sympathies of many cops then – and now – and the blustery anti-police rhetoric of the organisers). The fascists had leafletted the area and struck a note popular with locals , that do-gooding leftie poshos we’re coming to tell them how to live. Local anti-racists we knew said they were avoiding the demo – partly from disgust at the bad planning of the Black Caucus and partly as they had to live there… As a result the demo walked down Rotherhithe New Road through the Silwood Estate, which was festooned with union jacks and George crosses, 100s of locals residents mobilised against us by racists. Some folk decided to burn a Union Jack on the March at this point, not something we have out against as a rule, but definitely a red rag to the huge crowd hanging off every balcony. Then we turned left into Southwark Park, where, thanks to a myopic miscalculation by the organisers, we got faced with an additional fun complication – 300-500 or so Millwall fans, as Millwall were playing at home that day, and also having a large dodgy hooligan firm and friends who had a decidedly racist element… Again the fash had only to spread the word, where the march organisers had not enough local nouse to think to check the fixture list… (which AFA at least with its left hooligan base would have done first of all!) The Park was also a terrible point to end the demo, a trap basically.

We shat ourselves. Really. The numbers against us were large and hard and the majority on the march were not seasoned street-fighters. It looked very much like we were going to get a kicking. I remember a few of us searching under the trees for hefty fallen branches to use as weapons… An SWP member and a local black woman walking in the park were viciously attacked.

Anyway, it didn’t come to a mass beating. The police escorted us out of the park and the area. A humiliating retreat, in some ways worse than a battering. We marched back to Peckham to the jeers of the odd fash on the sidelines, with a long running battle behind us as nazis and friends tried to get at us and chucked bottles… When we got back to the Peckham park we had marched off from, and a mini rally, the organisers were trumpeting ‘We marched on racist Bermondsey’ like it was a victory, rather than ending in a huge encouragement of racist politics.

The BNP were in their element. They held their own rally in Southwark Park, with Steve Tyler (the BNP candidate in Camberwell) haranguing the crowd: “All blacks are muggers, all blacks have got AIDS, we want them out of our country, we want white power…” The crowds went off to smash up some shops and attack black drivers.

We heard that the level of racist attacks around the area that night and in subsequent days went up sharply – no shit, sherlock. The march had actually encouraged that: parachuting in and then running out, leaving the people living there to face the consequences.

AFA folk seemed to be among the few thinking this was a defeat and a disaster, a PR victory for the Nazis in Bermondsey, we regretted feeling like we had to go on the march. In the pub afterwards we had our heads in our hands – given AFA’s policy of beating fascists off the streets, but also winning working class white people away from fascism and racism, we knew this was a major reverse, on both counts.

We knew it and the fash knew it. A few weeks later we were blockading a large BNP papersale/mobilisation in Brick Lane and a chant of ours – ‘Cable St, Cable Street!’ was met with a riposte of ‘Bermondsey, Bermondsey’. They rightly saw that day as a feather in their cap… It galvanised them to pour a lot of effort into the Bermondsey area. Silwood Estate already had a high rate of racist attacks; this spiralled upwards in the early-mid 1990s following the march; the stood a candidate here in May 1994 local elections. The fash still see this area as having potential, there were NF marches once a year or so into the 2000s.

The sense of confidence that this undeniable propaganda coup gave the nazis was only really reversed at the Battle of Waterloo in September 1992, where anti-fascists gave boneheads gathering for a Blood & Honour gig a total pasting…

Since 1991 the Elmington estate, and Bermondsey too, have changed beyond what we then would have said was possible. Development, the destruction of many social housing blocks and their replacement by private housing has changed the Elmington immensely; the rebuilding of dockland derelict industrial sites as gentrified swathes of blandness, have transformed both areas… Gentrification is a more direct threat to many people on the ground in London than fascist boots.

The breaking up of older more established working class communities in areas like Bermondsey has reduced the cohesiveness of the white racist narrative in some ways – so hurray for gentrification?! Er… no. But while some white Bermondseyites whinged ‘foreigners are getting all the council houses’ they failed to notice that the middle class and corporate land grabbers had nicked the houses.

There’s no telling how many of the more affluent ‘incomers’ occupying some of the riverside nicenesses along Bermondsey’s riverfront are attracted to the new shiny alt-right currents, as in contrast to the skinheaded street fights of old much racist and rightwing agitation now goes on online.

Every day I learn lesson… less?

As we write, racism and support for far right groups are rising again. So are there any lessons to be drawn from the glimpses of fascism and anti-fascist response we have briefly detailed here?

It’s not easy to translate lessons across time and space. The UK’s organised fascism has changed and evolved; organising resistance has changed correspondingly over the decades. the rise of a more ‘respectable’ far right and alt-right presence and the populist harnessing of racism into Brexit etc poses questions about tactics and strategy. Still, we think there are some ideas and thoughts that come out of our struggle on the Elmington, South London more widely, and of the experience of seeing AFA and other anti-fascist movements in action, in the early 90s, which may be useful in considering how to oppose the current rise of the far right. These are thoughts, incoherent if anything, not intended to be a lecture or a program, but a stumbling towards something.

Firstly anti-fascism works best when it takes the form of an organic, community-based resistance; when it emerges from communities, rather than being a separate ‘movement’. Both AFA (at its least effective) and the National Black Caucus march on Bermondsey laid themselves open to being seen as outsiders, imposing themselves on a situation from outside. (NB: AFA at its best was much more useful and successful than this).

Successful anti-fascism is at its best when it is based in a wide, diverse spread of people – look at all the wildly different contingents, local, national, from the left, counter-culture and feminist movements and beyond, who turned up to oppose the National Front march through Lewisham in 1977. But at its best, resistance to fascism comes most effectively from communities targeted themselves by fascism – Jewish communities of the East End of London in the 1930s, Asian communities who built the Asian Youth Movement and many other self-defence groups in the 1970s, from Bradford to Birmingham and many other parts of the country, to defend their communities against racist attacks. It’s not to say that people can’t stand in solidarity with one another – but these initiatives created militant anti racism, which to some extent stands in contrast to other strands of anti-fascism, coming from left scenes, sometimes isolated and self-defining as a separate movement. AFA emerged from committed activists and no-one doubts the organisation’s record. But even AFA tended to think of itself as ‘THE militant anti-fascism’ in a way that often blinkered people to other ways of organising. Other anti-racist groups who coalesced around opposition to fascism, meanwhile, laid themselves open to the charge of bottling the fight and diverting attention and support from grassroots self-organisation: at times, you would have to say, this was deliberate, or at least an inevitable result of their hierarchical and centralised ways of thinking, of considering people not involved in their brand of politicking as not capable of collective action on their own behalf.

At its most problematic, AFA did have an element of separation, of going into an area to ‘do the business’ and then coming out again. It’s not it’s not to say that AFA’s efforts in themselves didn’t have many positive aspects, inspiring others, denting fashion efforts and preventing events from taking place: AFA did have impact.

Secondly, anti-fascism has to be linked and intrinsically linked to at the very least a sense that fascism is based in the material oppressions of daily life; the material social and economic conditions that allow fascism to flourish. Beyond that even, anti-fascism, I would say, has to have a specifically anti-capitalist ethos. Deprivation, alienation, despair, the feelings of total abandonment that attracts some working class people to fascism, the listening to loud voices offering what seems like a solution, people to blame like foreigners, Trade Unions, migrants, refugees, women, etc, have tobe understood and argued against. The real issues that make people susceptible to fascist influence have to be addressed.

It’s not enough to challenge fascism in isolation; it has to be an explicitly grassroots socially conscious anti fascism. The kind of liberal, ‘fascism is bad, defend democracy, vote anyone but BNP’ toss commentators from the Guardian to the Daily Mail come out with masks the reality – fascism and democracy are forms that capitalism takes, cloaks worn over the expropriating skeleton. Capital will happily wear the democratic form when it can, but will turn to the fascist costume, as needed; depending on how necessary it sees authoritarian social organisation to be. Usually, historically, in response, usually, in response to an upsurge of working class struggles and pressure for social change from below. The main reason why fascism flourishes and becomes powerful and ‘captures’ state power has, in the past, been because it achieves backing by the capitalist class, or certain elements of the capitalist class, who see it as a bulwark against the threat of revolution.

In order to resist fascism, you have to that you have to be aware of that. Patriotic liberal anti-fascism will always denounce militant class based anti-fascism, the violence necessary to keep fascism from growing, because at heart it recognises a dynamic it won’t even admit to itself – that anti-capitalist anti-fascism is also the enemy of patriotism and liberalism.

If liberals want to fight fascism let them do it in the ranks of the bourgeoisie, where fascism originates and has many of its leaders, where the profit of fascism is reaped.

Points three and four are connected, and on the face of it, not exactly contradictory, but two connected poles  which an effective and truly anti-racist movement has to both steer between and draw on…

The third factor to bear in mind is that anti-fascism and anti-racism and any movements it emerges from has to be aware of, have a consciousness of, this country’s history, the history of the British Empire, of the history of colonialism and genocide, why this country became so wealthy, the exploitation of developing countries, the plundering of resources across the world, institutionalised racism… the complex reasons why communities migrated here. Anti-fascism has to have that as a central part of its perception. It’s no good saying white working class communities are where we need to address fascism, but trying to pretend that racism doesn’t exist, or without honestly examining and critiquing the reasons why white working class people identify with an imperial past, develop or transmit racism and xenophobia, feel that they are racially or nationally superior to other people from across the planet… All those ideas and social relations have to be tackled. Material conditions alone don’t lead people into sympathy and support for fascism – racism, white supremacism, nostalgia for lost white pasts (whether they existed or not) – all that does exist in many communities, has been fostered for decades – in the interests of preventing clear thinking working class internationalism. Lexity British jobs for British Workers bollocks is just lefty-Trade Union slang for racism.

Anti-fascism is both anti capitalist and internationalist. And to be internationalist, you have to have a conception of why migration happens. Why people have come here. What are people coming from, running from, running towards, from other parts of the world?

Point four goes hand in hand with point three, its bi-polar other half: you have to also have an open mind, and approach people, work with people on many levels. It’s that the addressing the material conditions, in that sense means often working with people that you wouldn’t necessarily agree with everything politically. Crucial to countering the attraction of fascism is being part of those struggles, on an organic level, on a day to day level, against the grinding reality of poverty and despair. And vital to that is not simply denouncing people immediately for holding some ideas you might consider reactionary and breaking off with them, but being able to address them, debating and discussing, where you do share some common interests or ideas with them.

Reactionary ideas, prejudices, bigotry exist: racism, misogyny, homophobia and all the other shit. But to overcome that cannot only be a matter of bashing people. Organised fascism has to be fought – yes, and sometimes physically. Decisions have to be made about who you consider on your side and who is on the other. And who do you ‘No Platform’ and who do you debate… But alongside that necessity, there also has to be the ability to enter into discussions with people whose ideas you on some level disagree with. Folding your arms and going, I’m not having anything to do with them because you’re this and you’re that blah, blah, blah, phobic – in the end, you can end up walling yourself off from a lot of people, potential allies. This kind of happens too much, in many ways, not only where anti-fascism is concerned – the ability to build a sense of solidarity with people who don’t think exactly like yourself is limited, and it can lead people into retreating into a kind of woke gated communities. I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of recognising the power structures that exist in the world, and addressing them. But shutting yourself off from those discussions and debates, to set yourself apart working with people who you agree with on many things but disagree with on some levels is, I think, generally counterproductive. And in the context of rising racist and right wing movements could be dividing our forces in the face of dangerous enemies.

Finally, and bearing the previous point in mind, I think anti-fascism does to be specifically anti hierarchical, organised at a grassroots level, decentralised. There has to be a healthy suspicion of leftist political organisations; you have to dissect the practice of groups like Red Action, to critique the way that the SWP uses political fronts like the Anti-Nazi League or Stand Up to Racism in order to funnel people and resources into their own orbit; uses people’s struggles and for its for their own interests.
Anti-fascism has to be free from the from the manipulations of the left, and also the assumptions of the left that from some politically advanced position they know better and can waltz in and save the day… In the fight against the BNP on the Elmington the multiplying swarm of left factions all offering a slightly different position and arguing that in place of putting aside differences was confusing, depressing – and is repeated in almost every arena constantly. There has to be a recognition that wafer thin theoretical point-scoring cannot come at the expense of actually getting anything achieved.

Some of these points may seem slightly contradictory, and its true they are thoughts that clash and sit together awkwardly, maybe. Some times and places and actions demand a different balance of tactics, influences and approaches. Maybe we in AFA, acting on the Elmington, and the organisers of he disastrous march to Bermondsey, were doing the only thing we could have done at that time; its certainly taken me nearly 30 years to set the thoughts above in any kind of order and make time to write it down (although it represents the sum of many conversations between various people). Sometimes its only years later you realise what the right thing to do is. But you have to keep thinking, as well as acting.

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In a Postscript to the thoughts on anti-fascism today: There are factions of ‘antifa’ willing to identify as fascists, or at least rightists deserving physical opposition, anyone who does not sign up to specific positions on other issues. This has emerged notably in the current ‘debate’ on transphobia and the fierce argument between gender-critical feminists (labelled ‘TERFs by some) and an element of the trans rights movement and some allies. No platforming – physically preventing known fascists from speaking, debating, as well as gathering or meeting, a central plank of anti-fascism, is being extended to women who attempt to meet to discuss how the push to recognise ‘self-identification’ as the only necessary or acceptable definition of whether someone is the ‘gender’ they say they are. ‘TERFS’ are derided as nazis, bigots for whom the same treatment is needed. This process involves mainly targeting of feminists, often women who have been in the social movements we have built for many years, and has included blockading meetings, threats both online and in person, ostracism, exclusion. Anyone who suggests that there may be a discussion to be had as to how women’s rights and trans rights intersect and may in some cases collide, gets attacked – but its women who get the runt of the abuse. Some anti-fascist groups, taking a lead from the USA, where this process is several years further along, are openly lumping ‘terfs’ – ie feminists who disagree with some aspects of some transgender ideas – in with fascists. I think this is a mistake.

Many of us draw lines, if only in our heads – these people are on my side, these people are on the other side. The line changes over time for many of us. And depending on where you come from and where you place your politics, your sense of self, that line is going to be drawn in a different place. But if you want to come together to form social movements, either to oppose processes taking place or to fight for a positive change, those lines have to be re-thought. If I’m honest there are elements of the ideas of some gender critical feminists and of pro-trans rights activists that I fully agree with and some in both camps I find repulsive and nasty… but overwhelmingly I would view these movements as BOTH being part of a wider culture I would support. Where rights and interests meet and clash and mix within what I see as social movements with wider common goals is, I suggest, a point for discussion and debate, questioning and dialectic – not ostracism and no platforming.

In some ways this is a symptom of a wider syndrome, paralysingly epidemic at the moment – a closing down, a bunkering, into ideological fiefdoms, from which we can all take potshots at each other for not being in our corner on everything. Meanwhile the environment goes to shit, the exploiting classes gleefully suck more of our blood and rightwing movements are on the rise. People drawing lines in the sand might want to consider where the line between ‘them’ and ‘us’ really lies.

 

 

 

 

Today in London anarchist history, 1999: the 121 Centre evicted, Brixton

It was twenty years ago today…

… the legendary 121 Centre was evicted in Brixton…

Squat centre, bookshop, black radical space, anarchist space… Over the 26 years of its life, the three-storey Edwardian building on the corner of Railton Road and Chaucer Road went through many incarnations…

After so many years the rollercoaster came to an end on 12th August 1999,when 121 was evicted by Lambeth Council, with the aid of 150 cops, some armed, after a six-month stand-off and 24-hour occupation.

One day we will write the full story of 121… there’s just so much else to do… For now, here’s a short and very incomplete history, written off the cuff last night, with some cut and paste from other things we have published… which we fully admit it inadequate and definitely biased. We worked there, see, played there, learned and got off our heads, discussed heavy shit, mates died there, other mates who shared all that with us are also gone now too. With all its many faults and downsides (how long have you got?), it is a part of us and we’re a part of it.

The first squatters to take over part of 121 Railton Road were Olive Morris and Liz Obi.

Olive Morris, who had been a member of the Black Panthers as a teenager. Like many of the Panther generation, Olive arrived in the UK from the West Indies as a child, and went trough school and teenage years in Brixton experiencing the xenophobia and inequality that characterised the migrant experience. From it she emerged a fierce and uncompromising fighter against the powers that be.

“Olive and I went to the same school. Even then she had that streak in her – in school, they would have called it rebelliousness or disruptiveness, but it was really a fearlessness about challenging injustice at whatever level… She would take anybody on…”

In 1969, aged 17, Olive went to the aid of a black man the police were harassing, was nicked herself and strip-searched at the police station. She never looked back from then on, becoming a Black Panther, and gaining a reputation locally for her willingness to get stuck in and help people in battles with the authorities; whether over housing, social security, police, or the courts…

“I saw her once confronting a policeman – it might have been when she was evicted. She went for him like a whirlwind and cussed him to heaven. And this policeman looked really taken aback, he didn’t know how to deal with someone who had no fear of him. He was meant to represent the big arm of the law. But because she was angry and she knew he was in the wrong, she didn’t hesitate.”

Olive was an early squatter, and helped to develop the black squatting scene in Brixton.

Liz Obi relates: “We were introduced to squatting by some white women who were squatting a shop with a flat above it at the top end of Railton Road and who had opened it up as a Women’s Centre. We had visited the Centre on a couple of occasions and learnt from them about squatting and the law and we decided we would look for somewhere to squat ourselves. 121 was the derelict Sunlight laundry on Railton Road consisting of a shop downstairs and a flat upstairs – we managed to get into the building one night and we had a look around and the following week some squatters from the squatters group came along and showed us ho to change the locks, turn on the water and the electricity supply, and we moved in.

We faced three illegal eviction attempts where our stuff was thrown out onto the street by the landlord and the police but we always managed to get back in and we stayed there for about a year before a possession order was granted to the landlord and we had to move out.”

Olive breaking into the back of 121 makes the cover of the Squatters handbook…

The Women’s Centre at 207 Railton Road was a focus for a whole array of radical causes at this time. They helped well over 300 people to squat in the mid-70s.

“At that time a squatters’ movement was developing and one of our sisters who is dead now, a woman called Olive Morris, was involved in that and in setting up the study group. This was important, that we saw ourselves as an organic part of local community based political struggle. She was also involved in trying to set up Sabarr which was the Black book shop, because that was a time when we, as Black people, were particularly vocal, both in Britain and in the US, in expressing the need for the learning and writing of our own history, literature being central, particularly resistance literature.
This also related to the whole question about imperialism politics, where literature was seen as a part of the resistance struggle; you know, the decolonisation of the mind and all that. Olive in fact got the Sabarr bookshop, the original one we had at the end of Railton Road, by going out as a part of the collective and claiming the building. In fact, when the council was going to evict them she went up onto the roof and said “I won’t come down until you let us have the building”. So what I’m saying is that the history of the group started as a study group, out of two locally based Black organisations, but saw itself very much as part of a community based organisation, campaigning on a number of issues.” (Gail Lewis, in interview, included in Talking Personal, Talking Political, originally published in radical feminist magazine Trouble & Strife, no 19, 1990. With a text on the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent, it’s now available as a Past Tense pamphlet, Black Women Organising).

Olive Morris died in 1979, aged only 26, from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma. Check out a website dedicated to her memory

Railton Road then was a hub of life, known as ‘the frontline’ – home to the street culture that had migrated with the West Indian communities that had gradually come to represent the area’s majority population, and a squatting culture – or rather two. White and black squatting were not separate but had distinct qualities, mingling but quite different at their outer fringes, and sometimes hostile or frosty. The area was often filled with (mostly) young lack folk, out in all weathers… But many of the buildings, left empty after a Lambeth program of compulsory purchasing for a redevelopment that had never happened, were squatted, providing homes for thousands of people, black and white, local and from far afield, usually poor and/or working class, but not always. Other buildings became ‘blues’ clubs, shebeens in effect, self-organised clubs based around heavy reggae, toasting, cannabis… Others again became activist spaces, hosting feminism, lesbian and gay groups and communities, anarchists, leftist or every hue… From the late 60s to this century, this mixed ocean of cultures defined Brixton – along with police and authority’s response to it.

Because the cops hated the frontline, hated the West Indians – especially the young ones who didn’t look down and tug their forelock – and to a lesser extent, they also hated the radicals and white squatters, subversives all, uppity women, queers… Police activity on Railton Road and in wider Brixton tended to take the form of an occupying army, and not without reason: that’s how the cop brass saw it, how the plod on the ground also saw it, and how the locals saw it. Raids, repression and racism were endemic in the police, many of who were members of the rightwing National Front, especially the paramilitary Special patrol Group. Their invasion tactics and willingness to steam in would spark the Brixton riots in April 1981 and then a couple of re-runs that July, again in 1985… 1995… It helped the evolution of the British Black Panther Party and other black power groups, and a general sense of us and dem – cops against community. This has never entirely gone away, as the same dynamics keep cropping up. In the week we write this new Stop and Search powers are being drawn up – carbon copies of the ‘SUS’ laws that led to the 1981 uprising. There have periods of more softly softly approaches, but there’s a basic hostility and racism, that keeps bursting the PR bubbles.

Liz and Olive squatted 121 in 1973. Initially the leadership of the Black Panther Party in London was divided on the subject of squatting: “it caused a bit if a stir within the central core, with Darcus, Farrukh and Mala supporting us and seeing squatting as a political act while some of the other leadership saw it as a hippy type thing. However not long afterwards the movement itself would squat a property on Railton Road and open the Unity Bookshop…” (However, this ended badly with the building burned out in what was most likely a fascist arson attack)

After the Panthers fragmented and evolved into other projects, Olive was later involved in setting up the first black bookshop at 121 Railton Road, Sabarr Books, and then became a founder of Brixton Black Women’s Group (based at 65 Railton Road, though it later moved to 121 in the late 1970s, and then a mile or so away to Stockwell Green).

Sabaar Books, a black bookshop run by a black radical collective, occupied the building for several years, then, in late 1980, moved to new premises down on nearby Coldharbour Lane, more central to Brixton (a move controversial to some other black radicals in itself, who denounced them for taking state funding and letting themselves be bought off.

So the building was empty again, but not for long.

Local anarchists had been using Sabaar, the Black radical bookshop that occupied the space from 1977, as a postal address to get their mail. When Sabaar moved out, quick off the mark the place was squatted for an anarchist centre.

Many of the crew that squatted the building had been involved in local squatting and political activity before the birth of 121, notably the occupation of Kilner house, in Pegasus Place (off Kennington Oval), in October 1980, where 50 squatters occupied empty flats in a mass action. As the Greater London Council planned to do up the flats & sell them off, the squatters had a lot of local support on the estate – soon there were 200 people living there. The squatters were kicked out in a mass eviction, on 9th January 1981.

During the April 1981 riot, the Anarchist Bookshop escaped trashing by rioters – as happened to most of the other businesses in the area – only to have its window staved in by the cops when they re-took the frontline. (The fact that there was a poster in 121’s window celebrating the riot in St Pauls, Bristol, the year before, is credited with its remaining intact).

Daft as ever, press, cops and council combined to accuse anarchist of fomenting the riots and being secretly behind the trouble. Given the tensions between blacks and whites, the actual size of Brixton’s anarchist community, and most anarchists’ basic attitude to secretly controlling social movements – this was laughable. But in the hysterical atmosphere after April ’81, white authority couldn’t believe black people could get together and organise an uprising. Hilarious and racist. Anarchists had been involved in the riots, like many other white radicals, but as participants side by side with their black neighbours.

As well as local tensions, other eyes were on Brixton. In June, the anarchists at 121 received a hilarious visit. 3 black-raincoated gentlemen claiming to be from the Municipality of Rotterdam came in for a “tete-a-tete”, sincerely desiring first hand information with the aim of preventing similar uprisings in Rotterdam!! It was explained to them that anarchists don’t collaborate with governments, local caring ones or otherwise. They bought 1 Libertarian Workers Group Bulletin and one said he’d come back later as a ‘human being’ as he’s ‘very interested.’”” (From the 121 Daybook, June 9th,1981).

Anarchists around 121, together with local gays, lesbians, feminists and mostly white squatters, formed People Against Police Oppression in the wake of the April 81 riot, as white defendants from the riots had been excluded from support by the larger Brixton Defence Campaign. PAPO was the most ad hoc of all the groups, as it existed only for as long as did the heavy police presence. It consisted mainly of friends and acquaintances who were excluded from the BDC and averse to the additional plethora of left-party-based defence groups. They sought to represent no one but themselves and felt no pressure to ‘represent’ anyone else, being a small group. They sought to direct the struggle against the police but, being so small, could do little more than organise a picket of the police station which succeeded in drawing 150 people. But divisions around class and colour caused huge dissension in the wake of the uprising, which are detailed to some extent in ‘We Want to Riot, Not to Work’, and anarchist account of April 81.

Successive waves of police and council evictions and clearance programs would begin the development of central Brixton, to dismantle the culture that created the riots and the physical spaces that helped rioters defend and move around their manor. 121 survived this, while many other squats did get cleared and bulldozed, including many blues clubs. Locals squats where anarchist lived including the 121 collective, were targeted – for instance the squatted terrace of Effra Parade, just around the corner. There was a clever policy of divide and rule; street by street, the frontline was gradually reduced, buildings demolished or re-taken. Although often evicted squats would be left empty by the council, from a mix of lack of money, incompetence and uninhabitability, and then re-squatted, the program was in the long term successful – for a number of reasons which it would take too long to detail here (another time, because they are very instructive).

Over the next 18 years the erosion of the autonomous cultures that 121 had formed a part of, left the centre more and more out on its own, halfway out along the road to Herne Hill, with the movements that create it changing, settling down, into housing co-ops, ageing, moving out…

But the place was pretty much always a hive of subversive activity. To list the groups that used 121 as a meeting space or office would take up a book. Just some of the most significant being

  • Black Flag, the long-running anarchist paper – for several years in the mid 1980s the paper was bi-weekly, printed elsewhere but folded upstairs at 121. Years later you could find piles of one page from issues from a decade earlier;
  • the Anarchist Black Cross (linked to Black Flag for much of its existence), a support group for anarchist/other class struggle prisoners;
  • the Kate Sharpley Library, an archive of international anarchist material (which was moved out in 1984, as the building was threatened with eviction and by fascist attack: KSL moved over the road to St George Mansions and later out of London, then to the US),
  • South London branches of the anarcho-syndicalist Direct Action Movement (which later evolved into the Solidarity Federation);
  • the London end of the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp;
  • South Wales Miners Support Group, during the 1984-’85 Miners’ Strike;
  • Brixton Squatters Aid – which gave practical advice to would-be squatters, kept a regularly updated list of empty properties (we also kept a list of council-owned property in the borough, nicked during an occupation of a housing office… and BSA’s newspaper Crowbar, initially a freesheet duplicated onwaste paper, which became a rowdy class war type magazine that loved to wind up the police, council, lefties and pretty much everyone except the collective (having inherited this from another 121-linked project, the provocative South London Stress mag, which started as an underground bulletin among council workers…
  • anarcha-Feminist paper Feminaxe

Later in its life, 121 hosted Community Resistance Against the Poll Tax, an anarchist based anti-poll tax group; ‘young women’s magazine’, the uproarious Shocking Pink (in its third collective by then), and radical women’s mag Bad Attitude; the Fare Dodgers Liberation Front; anarcho freesheets Autognome and Contraflow; Lesbian and Gay free sheet Pink Brick, the list goes on.

And hundreds more groups met there, debated, sold their propaganda in the bookshop, held benefits there, cooked communally… Thousands of people turned up there from all around the world looking for somewhere to live – South Americans on the run from rightwing death squads, Spaniards and Italians avoiding military service, eastern Europeans with firsthand experience of ‘state socialism’… Africans, Caribbeans, too… Though without any intention it was always mainly a place for whitey, odd and often fractious relationships arising (dudes and fucked up people often targeted the place hoping for an easy robbing of someone who they knew wouldn’t go to the cops).

And fascists also tried to burn the 121 down, at least twice…

As well as this the cheap evening meals, late night club in the basement, later the seminal Dead By Dawn rave nights and endless punk gigs… The first Queeruption was held here…

The anarchist bookshop on the ground floor was famously unpredictable in its opening hours, often falling prey to such varied excuses for its closed doors as sudden arrests for shoplifting, workers being off rioting here or abroad, and in especially hard winters, the place being too cold to sit in (of course there were also the odd folk supposed to be doing the shift who just went to sleep on the bench by the front window without opening the shutters!). The doorway became a graffiti board of complaint (I came from Sweden and you were closedetc), calls to revolt and general abuse.

Collective Meetings were sometimes held in the Hamilton Arms up Railton Road, in winter, when the gas ran out and the money was low.

In the mid-1980s the 121 was at its most active, part of a growing network of anarchists in London involved in squatting, the anti-capitalist Stop the City actions, solidarity with the striking miners, and numerous other movements and campaigns… This activity had not gone unnoticed by the boys in blue (another target of the 121ers, strongly involved in resistance to the violent policing of brixton, especially the frontline on Railton Road, which generally carried out in a viciously racist style, with a side-helping of anti-squatter violence… Special Branch carried out regular surveillance of the centre’s post throughout the 80s (a pretty boring job I would say…) – our postman told us the Branch were holding our mail, opening it at the depot, then forwarding it on to us. Hope you got Dullness Money Sgt…

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

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

Even Ted Knight, Lambeth Council Leader and an old enemy of 121, had to admit “There has never been any suggestion that those people who run the bookshop have been involved in terrorism in any way … It is outrageous that their personal lives should have been interfered with in this way.”

Surprisingly, no guns or bombs were found at 121, despite the unrestrained joy of the cop who, lifting the carpet on the ground floor, found a trap door. Aha, this must be the place where the weapons are stored… Down they go with a sniffer dog… Shit, no guns down here either…

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

The 121 myth goes that the uncovering of the basement by the police during the raid was an ironic gift to the squatters, as the basement was rapidly explored and put into use as the dancefloor of the 121 Club, dark, dingy and dangerously low ceilinged as it was, and only accessible via a steep and lethal wooden stair… nevertheless thousands partied there, from the Club, to Dead By Dawn speedcore nights, through punk gigs, to Queeruption and much more ( the memory of the Anarcho-dales male strip crew will never leave those who were there..!)

The raid had little impact otherwise. 121 would continue for another 15 years, to be evicted almost exactly 15 years later in August 1999…

We know the police took an overt interest in 121. What we don’t yet know is – were any of the undercover police of the Special Demonstration Squad more heavily involved in spying on us? Several certainly visited the place now and then – John Dines, Jim Boyling, Andy Coles all dropped in, as did some names people are suspicious of but have not yet been confirmed as definite police spies. We’re still wondering if any other old mates were narks in disguise… Watch this space…

There had been some desultory attempts to evict 121 in the early 1980s. The left-Labour clique controlling Lambeth Council may have hated the tory Thatcher government and entered into a battle over ratecapping – but they also hated anarchists, who kept on not doing what they were told by the central committee. Squatting had been tacitly tolerated at times in the 1970s, when the squatters were sometimes linked to young new Left Labour types, and some careful PR had helped squatters get licences, form housing co-ops… By the early 1980s this attitude had hardened, money was tight and council waiting lists were long, and the Brixton counter-culture had little interest in making deals in most cases. The riots added an impetus – squatting, both black and white, had provided the ‘footsoldiers’ of the uprising, and was clearly an obstacle to any kind of regeneration – at least as the council saw it. Even Ted Knight’s Socialist Organiser diktatoriat was basically interested in doing up the area and attracting money to the place (money they, their mates and those with an ear managed to often snaffle or divert – corruption was rife).

121 was an obvious target for eviction – they were literally advertising that the squatters network was run from there, they were sticking two fingers up to the Council (often in the pages of Crowbar) and laughing at the Leninier than thou pretensions of the leading councillors. But two court appearances foundered, partly due to good legal footwork from the 121 side, head-scratching fuckuppery from the council, and sheer apathy – at one point the council lawyer accepted an ‘undertaking’ that Crowbar would ‘leave the building’ (it changed its postal address but carried on as before) and the case was adjourned. However, in the 1981-85 period, the squatters claimed they had a verbal licence, or asked to pay rent (with a certain amount of crossed fingers…!), just to try to prolong the life of the place. Noone really thought it would last as long as it did. But these tentative negotiations over a possible licence or tenancy would do for us in the end…

In later years 121 had been often quite isolated from much of its surroundings, more so as the squatting scene that produced it declined into the 90s…

Since the 80s 121’s position had become in many ways more and more anomalous. When Brixton had been full of squatters, overflowing with alternative projects, 121 had been an important cog in this scene. By 1998 it was out on a limb; not that there weren’t still squatters in the area, but the strength of the eighties had been dissipated. The building had passed through several collectives, different groups with different agendas had introduced contrasting atmospheres. Although lots went on in the space, it was left behind from the social changes around it, and had little continuous involvement in community or social struggles since the Poll Tax, apart from resistance of anarcho-squatters around the 121 to their own evictions… some of us saw it declining, becoming an inward-looking social club for anarcho-punks. Not a bad thing in itself (if you like that sort of place), but irrelevant to the lives of most of the people living around it. It’s also worth pointing out that the streets around the old Frontline were increasingly dominated by the middle class that was taking over the area. You could sit there and watch people passing by, glancing at the shop, not even knowing what it was. The building was also in physical decline, the back wall was falling down, many repairs were too expensive to even contemplate. At times the physical decay and social isolation seemed like parallel metaphors for each other.

“The cafe nights could be great or dodgy depending who was in the kitchen. I remember one night when some crusty was serving. His hands were black! I think I gave it a swerve that night!”

The café had begun as a cheap communal meal, but evolved into a money-raising venture, cash for the bills, benefit meals for good causes… Hilariously, over the years, anarchist inflation took regular price of meals down from £3 in 1981 to 50p/pay whatever you want by 1999… We understand economics, see?

Its also true that in the early days the more class struggle/migrant oriented collective cooked meat regularly, though later it went veggie and then exclusively vegan. The food was variable, at best – some times excellent (is there truth in the rumour that Franco, later supremo of pizza chain Franco Manca, spun pizza in 121 in the early days?); other meals were inedible mush. For a long time veg was liberated from New Covent Garden market (in Nine Elms), from the skips for unsellable food – mostly it was fine, just a bit over ripe. Some people had little quality control however.

One incident relating to the skipping of veg at New Covent Garden – the security guards were always out to catch you, since taking food that has been thrown away still counts as stealing, breaking the capitalist ethos… Occasionally you’d get chased off; once or twice they’d call the police and you’d get nicked. one time out whole skipping crew was nicked on a Friday morning and held all day. In the spirit of the show must go on, some of us went down Brixton market, begged borrowed and skipped enough food for a passable meal, and put the cafe on anyway that evening. When the arrestees were let out, late in the afternoon – without charges – they were welcomed back not only with food and drink but a song written in their honour, a pisstake of an Irish rebel song about their brave attempt to liberate mouldy veg. A lovely evening in the end and tears of laughter. There were many such nights.

As well as days and nights where noone came. Or nights dealing with the nutters who were always attracted to free spaces, hard to deal with, damaged, or abusive.

All the debates and arguments – not just political differences but rows about the building’s upkeep. One problem with social or squatted centres is that you open them to be organising hubs for your actions, your movements, but alot of the time you end up working hard just to keep the space together, physically, pay for stuff, do building work. We learned how to plaster, do wiring, glazing, plumbing, rebuilt the kitchen, re-slated the roof; we could do little about the structural issues that were slowly causing the back wall to move away from the building… One image that stays with me is Irish Mike up to his knees in water in the basement, pumping out water that had flooded in from a burst pipe next door, two days before the ten-year party.

There was death and tragedy too. Mick Riddle died after falling down the stairs into the basement in February 1991, during a party to celebrate ten years of 121 as an anarchist space. The stairs were rickety and dangerous, but the coroner ruled that he had in fact collapsed due to alcohol poisoning and been in the wrong place. He died on the pavement as we waited for an ambulance.
Black Flag’s Leo Rosser killed himself… Veteran anarchist Albert Meltzer died… Irish Billy, who used to live upstairs at 121 for a while – whatever happened to him…? Others moved away, succumbed to drugs, cancer, suicide.

The building’s energy dipped and rose, and the atmosphere changed tack several times. Always volunteer-run, with a high turnover, unpaid, with people turning up then moving on… Periods of stability and strategic approach would give way to occasional chaotic change. From a serious class struggle collective in the early days, through more agit-prop arty folk, to anarcho-punk… Sometimes these influences co-existed uneasily, sometimes one group would dominate. This process accelerated as Brixton changed socially.

The centre hosted regular film showings, from the political to the purely entertaining (including a pirate showing of Terminator 2 before it was out in the UK); a food co-op where members could by cheap wholefoods, a Reiki massage parlour for a while (?!?). We helped to put on national events like Stop the City, international events, from Queeruption to the 1994 International Infoshops Meeting, through to the Anarchy on the UK ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’ festival in 1994. This last brought a whole new scene of local squatters to the area, who took 121 in a punkier direction again. Anarcho-punk gigs began to dominate that building, spilling out into what was by now almost quiet residential area, which didn’t endear us to the neighbours. For some of us who had built up 121 to try to move out to other communities and become a base for local class struggle again, this led to arguments and tensions. Now it seems daft, as 121 was never going to evolve back into something it had been fifteen years earlier – the area just wasn’t like that any more. Those of us who were involved in what we saw as local community activity sometimes got pissed off with 121 and stormed out to do things elsewhere… Other squatted spaces like Cooltan arose and formed a much more broader link to local scenes, but that is a story for a another time…

1997-99 saw the revival of the long-abandoned attempt to evict the 121. The Council may have felt when it failed to turn up in Court in ’85 that moves on 121 were still too risky, with it being on Railton Road; or maybe they just forgot to set their alarms that day. It was the legal position then that twelve years occupation of a squat in continuity, unevicted, meant that the owners lost their title and you got it – or that was the basic case – in reality this ‘adverse occupation’ law was much more complex, and nuanced, and not as clearcut as we thought.

For years we had not really believed they would ever bother, or had forgotten they owned the building (not unheard of in other cases), or had lost their own papers… Frustratingly some of our legal papers were lost due to stupidity (you know who you are! But it’s all water under the bridge now…)

In January 1999, after some 18 months of legal to and fro, 121 went to court; we claimed 12 years adverse occupation. We lost. In 1983-5 the 121ers had claimed they had a licence from the Council – the right thing to do at the time, to stave off immediate threat – but it turned out to be a no-no if you go for adverse occupation to show any recognition of the owner’s right to the place. The Council had restarted proceedings just 2 weeks before the 12 years after our last communication with them in which we recognised their title to the building, just by asking for a deal. But hey ho. What could we do? Squats don’t last forever.

Funnily enough, the threat to evict 121 galvanised the energy around the place, and we made a spirited last stand, barricading the building, entering into a 24-7 occupation, and producing rainforest-fulls of lively propaganda, including a weekly newssheet size revival of the old South London Stress. When bailiffs were rumouredly on their way in early February, 100 people blocked the street and launched a mini-street party (some of us being involved in Reclaim the Streets paying off); till the cops turned up, and persuaded us they’d called them off. We promptly dismantled the barricades – but went on the offensive, invaded the Town Hall and were dragged out of Council Leader ‘Slippery’ Jim Dickson’s office. We held a couple of small street parties, with bands, sound systems, campfires…

We made some productive links with several other campaigns against council cuts, notably disabled users of the Centre for Independent Living, who had occupied the centre when the Council announced planes to close it. The Centre provided support for disabled people living independently; Lambeth Social services Committee decided to cut the service, (an alleged consultation meeting was rigged, then moved to a room without wheelchair access!) and so on February 1st 99 the users took over the space. They were supported by activists from the Disabled People’s Direct Action Network; the occupation continued for several weeks… There were also campaigns against plans to close 5 libraries, and campaigners against the closing of several primary schools, playcentres, special schools…. The long-running Tenants Corner Advice Centre in Oval Mansions (Kennington Oval) was evicted (along with the rest of the building, squatted or licensed; after many years and several court cases everyone was forced out. The block lay empty for several years, it has now been renovated.)

In contrast with many weary and cold days spent in 121 in recent years things were actually fun. We were out causing trouble almost daily again… invading the Firkin pub (bugged by he chain with the connivance of the local police), holding a street Drink-In in defiance of the anti-Drinking bylaw, harassing the council, and the Queen too when she turned up for some daft school ceremony.

A 121 street party in Chaucer Road down the side of the building, 1999

A lot of energy got spent, maybe too much too soon. In the end the Council waited 6 months, till many of those involved were exhausted, and then at 6.30 in the morning on the 12th of August, 150 cops, some armed, with a helicopter fluttering overhead, broke in and evicted the few people staying there at that time… The end of 121. Bit of a damp squib. So many people had been forced to leave Brixton, our response was subdued. Maybe we just accepted the inevitable.

Some of the ex-121 crowd were later involved in squatting a disused Button factory in Hardess Street in Loughborough Junction, mainly for punk gigs… though some actions were also organised there around June 18th I think.

Much more could e written… and will be. Send us your memories! And your gripes… But remember that an end-of-terrace ex-laundry can turn into something amazing for a while…

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Dedicated to

Olive Morris,
Leo Rosser,
Gerald ‘Fiddler’ Farthing,
Jill Allott,
Nikki Campbell,
Asti Albrecht,
Maggie Marmot,
Mick Riddle
Albert Meltzer
Katy Watson. true Brixtonites and 121ers all

no longer with us, and we miss them all.

Today in London traffic history, 1995: Reclaim the Streets block Camden High Street to party against car culture

“A street part is in full swing. 1000s of people have reclaimed a major road and declared it a ‘street now open’. Music laughter and song have replaced the roar of engines. Road rage becomes road rave, as tarmac grey is smothered by the living colour of a festival…
Single issue? Just against the car? For all of the mainstream media’s attempt to define it as such, for those involved it expresses much more… A festival of resistance!’ (Reclaim The Streets leaflet 1998)

The current Extinction Rebellion protests around the planetary climate change crisis have galvanised huge numbers, as well as sparking vital discussions about tactics, participation and decision-making.

How it reminds some of us of our own youth… specifically the previous great wave of eco-action from the 1990s. Of course the ‘historical’ anti-roads movements, Reclaim the Streets etc are not separate from today’s movement – there are continuous threads through Earth First!, Climate Camp, Rising Tide and so on that have carried on through the intervening years. But in many ways Reclaim the Streets represented the last high profile mass environmental movement before XR. Some examination of RTS, its development, actions and significance, could be interesting when compared to XR, and discussion of its successes and failures could contribute to today’s debate and decisions…

This is as much a personal account as a history, and may well miss out much others would have covered. I’ve nicked/quoted other people’s work where it made sense… If it’s a bit rambly its because I have rushed to write it, but maybe we’ll update and tidy it and hope to include it in a longer piece about J18 and other things…

From the start it should be said that it is written from the perspective of someone who did have some involvement (for a while only) in Reclaim the Streets but (partly for reasons of time, work, family and other pressures) is not significantly involved in Extinction Rebellion, though I have been on some of their actions. Critiques of them here may well be influenced by lack of full knowledge; just as critiques of RTS may be coloured by way too much hindsight…

NB: This post has been slightly edited after some discussions and critiques from from ex-RTS folk who read the first published version… But its very much a personal take.

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It was 25 years ago today…

On 14 May 1995, two old cars deliberately crashed into each other, in the five-way intersection  in Camden High Street, the heart of one of north London’s busiest trendy shopping areas. Both drivers, in a seeming paroxysm of road rage, jumped out and started to abuse each other. This was much to the annoyance and disbelief of onlooking drivers, now in a traffic jam because of the altercation. The two drivers got so irate they proceeded to smash up each other’s cars with sledge hammers. The street was blocked: usually rammed with cars, the high street was suddenly-traffic free. A crowd poured into the street, sound systems powered by electricity generated by the constant pedalling of bicycles began to pound out dance music, and the road becomes a party venue. There were about 300 people present (though some onlookers joined in)…

“Every car entering the intersection was gridlocked. Shoppers and market goers joined the party, which lasted five hours. The smashed cars became the focus for all to vent car-anger on; they were attacked throughout the party. The police merely directed traffic. What else could they do?”

The cars were second-hand bangers bought to be trashed and used as barricades; the brainchild of Reclaim the Streets. The Camden street party launched RTS’s classic period of huge street parties, taking over larger and higher profile spaces, and inspiring similar groups which sprang up all around the world.

As someone wrote at the time:

“Thus arises the modus operandi of occupying urban zones with spontaneous and illegal celebrations that appropriate the public space for a number of hours. Food is given away, toys are brought along for children and banners are arranged which proclaim the changes that have been brought about in the space: ‘BREATHE’, ‘CAR FREE’, ‘RECLAIM THE STREETS!’ Camden Town, an area of London largely dedicated to the commercialization of ‘alternative’ culture, is turned into a place of free leisure. This piece of the urban landscape temporarily changes its function in a carnivalesque inversion of social order. The absence of authority, the system where everything is free: the street becomes a place to play, eat, drink and dance – without money and without permission. If the car has become a symbol and celebration is a medium, this ‘form’ is more utopian than the conventional rally because it refers to other possible forms of organization. The interruption of motorized traffic represents an act of collective civil disobedience against the city’s traffic norms. On top of the aim of anti-road movement to prevent the construction of new motorways, RTS proposes a temporary blockade of those that already exist, trying to sketch out the vision of a city without cars.”

Origins

Reclaim the Streets (RTS) had originally been founded in 1991, and as a small collective carried out small-scale ecologist actions: painting cycle lanes on the roads during the night and picketing an automobile industry fair. It declared itself: ‘FOR walking, cycling and cheap, or free, public transport, and AGAINST cars, roads and the system that pushes them.’ On a spring day in 1992 the group brang traffic in part of London to a halt with a small illegal party in the street. The police evicted them, but warned: ‘Protest is gonna get bigger: the car culture is growing constantly! This is just the first stage.’ A few months after this event, the group disbanded.

RTS was then reborn, three years later, in the heat of a large anti-roads movement which had been evolving and increasing in profile and activity across the UK in the early 1990s; but RTS also absorbed huge wodges of ideas and spirit from the diverse movement that came together to oppose the 1994 Criminal Justice Bill; behind that, lay a mass of rave culture, squatting, traveller scenes, party crews, sound systems and various eco-protest groups.

Two huge protests in particular had raised the profile of the anti-roads movement  – the Twyford Down camp and direct action against the construction of the M3 motorway link, the “No M11 Link” campaign occurred in North East London’s suburbs of Leytonstone and Wanstead. Twyford focussed on protecting rural beauty spots and saw alliances between travellers and self-styled ‘tribes’ like the Dongas. The M11 in contrast was urban, in defence both pf thousands of trees being torn down for the M11 link road, as well as the loss of hundreds of homes. Resistance to the M11 involved constant direct-action resistance for 18 months, culminating in the eviction in December 1994 of the squatted street at Claremont Road.

ALARM U.K. (Alliance Against Road Building) recounted in its newsletter, “The government was taken aback that a protest against the M11, a motorway being built in an unfashionable part of East London, resulted in the longest campaign of direct action against a road in British history. Pictures were flashed around the world of masses of people old and young, conventional and alternative, taking on bulldozers in an awe-inspiring defense of homes, urban spaces and communities.”

Here a working-class community, in alliance with an influx of activists, many young but already seasoned in the anti-roads/anti-CJB scenes, not defending green spaces, homes and community.

The campaign against the M11 kicked off when the Old Chestnut Tree of George Green, Wanstead, to the community’s surprise, was to be removed. The residents, angered by being misled by the government, found themselves pushing down fences built to keep them from defending the tree. During the next year, houses were squatted and work constantly disrupted. But it became obvious in the summer of 1994 that Claremont Road, a strip of houses in the path of the motorway, was to be the main focus of the campaign. A community formed around these houses that included local residents, squatters and activists from around the country. The campaign strategy was to “dig in” and make it as difficult as possible for the authorities to remove protesters. It took four days in November, 1994, to evict everyone.

The street was painted and filled with psychedelic sculptures, and barricades. Above them the nets, tree houses, aerial walkways and towers went up; inside the houses bunkers and lock-ons and tunnels were hidden in tons of rubble.

After Claremont Road was lost, much of its energy and cheeky spirit went into Reclaim the Streets (RTS), which had already existed, but was revived to step up the campaigning from specific roads to opposition to roads in general and “car culture’. RTS aimed to move the debate beyond anti-road protest, to highlight the social and environmental costs of the car and the political and economic forces behind it and to demonstrate the possibilities of what can be done when people re-occupy their streets and turn them to alternative uses.

RTS’ advocated  “direct action, but not just as a tactic. [We advocate] a society in which people take responsibility for their own actions, and don’t just leave it to the politicians.” This wasn’t just about pressuring an existing establishment into action – it was about everyone taking action in our own collective interests.

Reclaim the Streets’ events were organised very much along the lines of how raves had been planned and attracted participants over the past 6 or 7 years: people were invited to gather at an underground station and, once there, a small group lead them to the final destination, which had been kept secret. The RTS parties explicitly politicised the rave, although the oppositional culture of raves had been bothering the authorities for a while. Parties were based around sound systems, rhythms of techno and acid house, although the older free festival scene that had evolved from the 1970s also had something of an influence. But the RTS parties also wanted to “create situations that are fitting for a better world”.

How street parties were seen by RTS was later summed up thus
“A street part is in full swing. 1000s of people have reclaimed a major road and declared it a ‘street now open’. Music laughter and song have replaced the roar of engines. Road rage becomes road rave, as tarmac grey is smothered by the living colour of a festival…
Single issue? Just against the car? For all of the mainstream media’s attempt to define it as such, for those involved it expresses much more.
The Street party, itself reclaimed from the inanities of royal jubilees and state ‘celebrations’, is just one recent initiative in a vibrant history of struggle, both to defend and to take back collective space. From the Peasants’ Revolt to the resistance to the enclosures, from the land occupations of the Diggers to the post-war squatters, on to the recent free festivals, peace camps, land squats and anti-roads movement. Everywhere, extra-ordinary people have continually asserted not only the need to liberate the commons but the ability to think and organise for themselves.
For the city, the streets are the commons, but in the hands of industry and power brokers the streets have become mere conduits for commerce and consumption – the economic hero of which is, of course, the car. A symbol and a symptom of the social and ecological nightmare that state and capitalism create, the car which promises individual freedom ends up guaranteeing noise, destruction and pollution for all. For Reclaim the Streets, the car is a focus – the insanity of its system clearly visible – that leads to questioning both the myth of ‘the market’ and its corporate and institutional enforcers.
With a metal river on one side and endless windows of consumerism on the other, the streets’ true purpose: social interaction, becomes an uneconomic diversion. In its place the corporate-controlled one way media of newspapers, radio and television become ‘the community’. Their interpretation out reality. In this sense the streets are the alternative and subversive form of the mass media. Where authentic communication, immediate and reciprocal, takes place.
To ‘reclaim the streets’ is to act in defence of and for common ground. To tear down the fence of enclosure that profit-making demands. And the Street Party – far from being juts anti-car – is an explosion of our suppressed potential, a celebration of our diversity and a chorus of voices in solidarity.

A festival of resistance!’ {RTS leaflet 1998.}

Upper Street

After Camden had hit the news with a bang, the second Reclaim the Streets party was held on Sunday, July 23, at the Angel intersection in Islington, North London. It was a huge success, with over 2,000-3000 demonstrators participating. Crowds met a mile or so away, and were then led to the party location, while other activists blocked the road with tripods constructed from scaffolding, placed in the middle of the road: tripods that could be dismantled only if the person who is at the top of them comes down. Two tons of sand were piled in the road to make a children’s play area, (reversing the famous slogan of May 1968, ‘underneath the paving stones, the beach’. On this occasion, the beach spreads out on top of the asphalt)… banners went up to stop more traffic, stalls were erected and a huge tank rolled in with a sound system pumping. The party had begun before the police arrived. The Highbury Islington street party coincided with a week of hot weather and a smog alert. In only two months, the number of people who took part in the first street event increased tenfold.

John Jordan, one of the co-founders of RTS, talked of how the street celebration seeks to prefigure an ‘imagined world… a vision in which the streets of the city could be a system that prioritised people above profit and ecology above the economy’the ‘perfect propaganda for the possible’. (In Upper Street Louis Armstrong’s song What a Wonderful World sounded out through the loudspeakers.)

The experience of being during the party is different from life away from it: ordinary norms disappear and people express themselves by dancing, playing music or making artistic interventions on any available surface. The economic system of the celebration is abundance and generosity. It is about thinking of the emergence of a world where things are free and where there is a celebrating community, a world of shared goods and freed space. Earth First magazine Do or Die suggested that ‘inherent within its praxis – its mix of desire, spontaneity and organisation – lie some of the foundations on which to build a participatory politics for a liberated, ecological society.’

A week later, RTS saw a prime opportunity for another action, visiting Greenwich, SE London, where parents and children with asthma are going to the High Court to force the Greenwich Council to close its main through road at times of high pollution. (At this time if I recall right, central Greenwich was calculated to be suffering the worst traffic pollution in London, possibly the UK). On Friday, August 4, RTS closed Greenwich down, blocking the major arterial in morning peak-hour traffic for two hours with scaffolding tripods. Pedestrians joined in and the local coffee shop delivered free coffee, tea and biscuits to the demonstrators. Even many of the drivers held up in the traffic jam that day came out in favour of the action.

The M41

The following year RTS returned with a bang. 1996 was proclaimed (by the car industry) “Year of the Car”. RTS made that into the Year We Squatted a Motorway

July that year saw RTS mount what was probably their most ambitious and gloriously subversive action – squatting a stretch of motorway. The short M41 link in Shepherds Bush  – the shortest motorway in England – was turned into a party zone for an afternoon and evening. The sight of thousands of people running onto an empty motorway shut off by large tripods is an image that stays with you… Thirty foot ‘pantomime dames’ glided through the party throwing confetti. Food stalls gave away free stew and sandwiches; graffiti artists added colour to the tarmac; poets ranted from the railings; acoustic bands played and strolling players performed. Some 7,000 turned up… At the height of the festivities, beneath the tall panto dame figures dressed in huge farthingale Marie Antoinette skirts, people were at work with jackhammers, hacking in time to the techno, to mask the sound to the officers standing inches away, digging up the surface of the road until large craters littered the fast lane… to plant seedlings from the gardens smashed by the bulldozers at Claremont Road.


Liverpool Dockers 96-97

After dockers in Liverpool were locked out after refusing to work for a lower rate than they were prepared to accept, a long-running dispute evolved, involving 500 dockers. This became a major cause celebre in Liverpool and across the UK, with mass solidarity, international support…
Reclaim the Streets in London were approached by London supporters of the dockers, and launched a 3-day protest/party/occupation in September 1996 to mark the first anniversary of the dispute. Hundreds of activists attended and joined dockers on the picket line, and occupied a dock office block, as well s cutting the fence around Seaforth Dock and invading the facility…

heres’ an RTS leaflet on the dockers’s struggle

And an interview with Chris Knight, who linked up the two groups

As one ex-RTS activist put it: “Linking the ecological direst action movement to workers in struggle was simply a necessary step towards transition, as it still is…”  

April 12th 1997

Following the Liverpool actions, RTS and the Dockers collaborated on a demo/action/party in April 1997 to coincide with the run-up to the general election – variously known at the March for Social Justice, Reclaim the Future, the ‘Festival of Resistance’ and Never Mind The Ballots…

On 12th April 1997, some 20,000 people took part in the March for Social Justice, called by the 500 sacked Liverpool Dockers and their families, jointly with the Hillingdon Hospital and Magnet strikers. The gathering at Trafalgar Square was big but most of the Dockers, other strikers and their families left soon after the rally (mainly because of their long journeys home). The numbers were beginning to drop when a van containing the sound system managed to enter the square – the music and the huge street party then began. The dancing went on for hours,  but by late afternoon, the cordon had successfully reduced the numbers in the square and riot police – some on horseback – stormed in to clear the area battering us out of the Square and over the bridges, with lots of extreme prejudice.

IN November 1997 RTS squatted an empty petrol station in Islington

By 1998 RTS had evolved into something not just about cars and roads, but about taking back everything:

“We are basically about taking back public space from the enclosed private arena. At its simplest it is an attack on cars as a principle agent of enclosure. It’s about reclaiming the streets as pubic inclusive space from the private exclusive use of the car. But we believe in this as a broader principle, taking back those things which have been enclosed within capitalist circulation and returning them to collective use as a commons.” (RTS leaflet 1998)

In May 1998 RTS held a party in Birmingham, then hosting a G8 summit. Here’s a report

And some Video footage

Think global, act local

After Birmingham, 1998, RTS decided to put on simultaneous ‘local’ street parties in different areas of London; after much of the usual debate, this came down to two, one in the north. One down south, on June 6th – to coincide with hundreds of RTS parties going on around the world… The North London party met at Kings Cross and then went on a long march to Tottenham, where the party took place. In South London, we settled on Brixton, where a majority of south London RTS folk lived anyway. Unlike at other actions, there was no plan B and instead of meeting in one place and moving to another, we double-bluffed the cops, amassing in front of the Ritzy cinema and taking over the street in front of us when our four old bangers of cars smashed into each other. This remains one of my favourite RTS parties, because it took over the street I actually lived in, in my manor; a great feeling.
See Neil Transpontine’s account of the Brixton party

A report on the June 1998 North London party

here’s some film of this North London street party

There were some problems with these parties:  notably differences between Brixton and the North London party – the former was rooted in people who lived here, the North London less so – not even opening discussions with local activist groups in that area. Also it seemed less happy in its conclusions somehow, some people involved with it got upset by accusations of anti-social behaviour from some locals and had to go back, hand out an apology leaflet and tidy up…

London RTS had several discussion over the summer of 1998 about where to go next. There were two main strands of thought. 1, that the ever larger RTS group in the capital could break up somewhat into more local groups but employ similar ideas, tactics, spirit in local actions around more local and daily targets. There was a suggestion that not only had the police begin to get the measure of large parties but that it was old news, becoming less effective, and making a ‘spectacle’ of itself, in the situationist sense – rather than addressing where capital and eco-change could really be fought over – in people’s daily lives where they lived, worked, played. Others countered this with the idea that large parties/actions had been successful so far and what was needed was a harder bigger target, linked much more to international capitalism and finance, rather than concentrating on car use, general eco-protest…
It was the second group that won the argument, in the short term at least, which was to usher in June 18th, probably the highest profile of all the RTS events; it also launched in many ways the UK arm of the ‘anti-capitalist movement’, a distinct development from both the RTS/90s eco-scene and the anarchists who had enthusiastically embraced it (not all did by any means).

J18 1999

A product of the 98 discussions, the J18 day of action in June 1999 came out of the growing merger of anarchists and RTS ideas, but also linked more and more to ‘anti-capitalism’ and the antiglobal summit movement. Plans for a spectacular day of action in the City of London had been under discussion since mid-98, and more and more older anarchos who remembered events like Stop the City were putting their oar in. [we hope to post some of the history of Stop the City soon on this blog]

On June 18, 1999, thousands of demonstrators converged at the Liverpool Street train station. Organisers distributed masks in four different colours and the participants broke up into four different marches in order to divide and confuse police; a spontaneous fifth march emerged, as well as a Critical Mass composed of hundreds of bicyclists. The marches converged on the London International Financial Futures Exchange (LIFFE), where they hung banners, set off a fire hydrant to symbolise the liberation of the river beneath London’s streets, adorned the walls with graffiti, disabled surveillance cameras, and set up sound systems for DJs and punk bands to perform. A raucous afternoon of dancing, exuberance, and street fighting followed, during which participants bricked up the front of the LIFFE building, broke in and trashed its ground floor, and nearly succeeded in destroying the London Stock Exchange itself. In response, police attacked the general public with tear gas and horse charges and ran over one demonstrator with a riot van,
breaking her leg.

There’s some reflections of June 18th, published after the event.

The events of June 18, 1999 set the stage for the historic demonstrations against the summit of the World Trade Organization in Seattle later that year.

(RTS and others put an event, ‘N30’ to coincide with Seattle)

After J18, RTS did partially fragment; many older/founder activists splintered off into other activities, other burned out for a bit. But larger numbers went into other eco-related direct action groups like UK Earth First!, into a growing network carrying out anti-genetically modified crop actions… In London, some parts of RTS remained involved in large spectacular anti-capitalist events, most notably the annual Mayday protests which ran from 2000 on, and were best attended in the early 2000s. Other faces got involved in RTS itself in London…

Links to reports on early 2000s Mayday actions in London

From RTS, Maydays, the anti-capitalist scene evolved other projects – social centres eg the London Action Resource Centre & others around the UK… the WOMBLES, Dissent  and the Disobedience network against the Iraq war

Mad hippies… middle class wankers…

When RTS burst onto the scene there it led to a mix of opinion on the older ‘class struggle’ anarchist scenes (the milieu past tense emerged from and was then immersed in) and the left… Many had had some involvement in the anti-CJA campaigns, many had been squatters, ravers since the late 90s, and embraced the mad frolics with a will… Others were very po-faced and dismissed it all as hippy nonsense. Not serious and working class enough. Within much of the CJA, anti-roads scenes, there had been an extremely diverse mix of views, politically ranging from class struggle anarchism, through pacifist, Green Party, to hippy ‘lifestylism’ (and on the fringe, frankly to some dodgy conspiracy theory types).  Lots of the class struggle anarcho wing had spent years in their youths ‘growing out’ of pacifism, learning that the police were prepared to kick in heads and trusting neither in the state or in politicians of any stripe. We’d seen and felt the truncheons and experienced the left in power, as well as getting tired of what we saw as drongo drop out laziness and anti-social selfishness which infected many squats and projects, and the kind or moralising politics that had pervaded pacifism, CND etc. The naivety of some of the 90s scenes (some of it down to youth but not all by any means) was frustrating, and there were some among us who said it was all middle class hippy wankers. It wasn’t, though there were a number of middle class hippy wankers, and a lot of ‘what are you doing to save the Earth’ moralising which gets right up yer nostrils. But some of us were really up ourselves in many ways, convinced of our politically advanced ideas, dismissive… RTS though had such energy that it pulled us in, especially as many of the ‘community-activist’ projects we had built in the wake of anti-poll tax movement were in reality struggling to survive. The M41 and RTS alliance with the dockers convinced many suspicious minds that there was some real potential here (arrogant as that sounds now). There was also a sense of a kind of (funny) desperation to be where the action was… As well as a gradual disintegration of anarcho-snobbery into a respect and appreciation. (Of course lots of anarchos had also been involved early on too) But in the end, an influx of anarchists and other types into RTS synthesised something new – for a while. This helped spark new directions – for instance discussions and memories about the story of Stop the City from some of those who had taken part helped create J18 in 1999.

Others remained critical, including some on what you could call the post-situ or left communist scenes, which had a close relation in practice to anarchists while always holding up lots of issues. Some of this was acid and niggly, other points were interesting and useful. An interesting critique of RTS and anti-summit movement/anti-capitalism: You Make Plans we make History

RTS’s critics from the post-situ or ‘ultraleft’ scenes did have some interesting points about activism, and what they saw as the difference between ‘protest’ and ‘struggle’. The latter comes out of people’s needs, own experience and desires, they reckoned; the former they saw as something disconnected, artificially set up and directed at something outside of ourselves. If struggle was suggested as effective in addressing social & economic conditions that hold us down directly, protest is shown almost as diversion, complaint, remote from ourselves, addressing ‘issues’ and demanding someone else do something about them. Now there’s a kernel of truth here – this tension does exist, and there are a growing number of professional and academic activists institutionalising campaigning, creating niches and leadership roles for themselves. ‘Activism’ as a construct IS a separation of sorts, splitting off those who protest about issues from those who don’t, creating a spectacular conception of yourself as a fighter, whether or not it’s about what you yourself need or desire… there was a tendency to see yourself as a hero if the planet. There was also a dynamic of organisers and attendees, to some extent, a kind of vanguard that us older more anarchic types thought too elitist, leadershippy. Some of it was necessary – if 7000 people know all the details of the secret party location it’s gonna get blown – but also, when RTS became a big weekly meeting with interminable wrangling and debating, breaking into small groups and reporting back,  a certain amount of behind the scenes ‘get it done’ undemocratic sorting does become vital… else nowt happens. However; there was a tyranny of the capable, and a kind of showing up to the party by others who wanted to consume RTS – sometimes. RTS did fight against that, and had some conceptions of his to get around it, which didn’t entirely get realised… None of these problems are anything like unique to that group: but there were a lot of arguments around it, at the time (I do remember a lot of us who turn up being bemused in Liverpool in September 1996 by how we were expected to turn up somewhere without knowing what was going to happen, a bit like soldiers being given sealed orders… sparking a long and rancourous debate the night before the big action. In retrospect some of what we said was a bit naïve, but the point that it felt not self-organised…)

But it’s more complex than all that, and I’m not completely convinced of the absolute difference between ‘protest’ and ‘struggle’. The possibilities of breaking down separation are myriad…

Another common objection to RTS, and the wider eco-movements, was to do with their class composition. This was in fact linked to the previous point about protest – ‘struggle’ was what the working class did, and it was implied (though not strictly said) that ‘protest’ was a middle class construct… Again this discussion is in fact very interesting and I cannot do it justice here (hopefully we’ll return to it). The implication is that RTS’s ways of organising was intimately derived from the class background of those who created and ran it. Well yes, as with almost everything, and yes, this did produce contradictions and shortcomings, but analysing them at all is not simple or as one dimensional as all that…
Alot of people involved in RTS through its various incarnations were middle class, yes – though as one ex-RTSer pointed out “At least 3 of us were dissident ruling class, and we thought we put our resources to good use”. Not all though by any means: “Some of us were actual proles, or really, refugee proles from nasty racist working class Lancashire or Belfast”…and it did evolve and change. Alot. Unlike a fair number on the class struggle anarchist scene most people in RTS didn’t pretend to be “eh up mate” types, more working class than they were…

More importantly though, RTS’s conception of capitalism was not fundamentally based on a class analysis, or, I would hazard, any kind of deep analysis at all. This did leave itself open sometimes to a certain wishy-washyness as to what the group actually saw capital AS. Analysis wasn’t the strong point of RTS, and the wider scene it arose from/helped create, which had a multi-farious mishmash of definitions of capitalism, a lot of which was contradictory and sketchy. This led not only to a lot of endless arguments in meetings, especially in the periods where large numbers were coming along to the weekly meeting, but also to a reluctance or inability to agree on what, in fact, unified us. The lack of analysis was not in itself fatal to RTS’s existence; but the lack of a conception of class and how capital is based on class interests carried over into some of the scenes RTS influenced and evolved into.

An ex-RTSer wrote in response to the first version of this post, that ‘Your portrayal of RTS as middle class is both wrong and irrelevant… the class composition of RTS members is irrelevant given that our actions were clearly directed towards transition grounded in replicable autonomy and solidarity.’

But Class is there. it exists, it underpins everything about capitalism and how it was born and sustains itself. It may not now look like 1880s class or 1930s class or even 1970s class, but class divisions are fundamental and can’t be ignored, and you can’t take on a world social and economic system without understand what it is based on. Class is not the ONLY dynamic that is crucial to understand – but to ignore it has consequences. Yes we want to abolish class divisions – in the day to day now as well as ideally in some utopic future – but they just can’t be wished out of existence, least of all in the movements we create in opposition… Both RTS and Extinction Rebellion, in my view, have suffered from this lack of understanding… and it impacts on their actions as much as their ideas.

Class – and money – did carry some weight in how decision-making was made in London RTS and the scenes that it evolved into. Because the parties and actions cost money (partly because gear kept getting seized by cops), cash was also needed, and the presence of people from moneyed backgrounds meant that it was available – in a way that was slightly disconcerting for some of us who were not used to money just appearing for stuff (more accustomed of raising cash through benefits, painfully…) But the power dynamics of having people with money central to the actions and funding them does lead to unequal power relations in those active groups. ot the only cause of power imbalance – but it was there.

Luckily there were/are a legion of serious thinkers on hand to tell RTS where it all fell down! …Joke. (Partly.) In fact the eventual partial merger of parts of RTS with class struggly anarchists, autonomists and other ‘proper’ political tendencies created more analysis, but not that much more, and did water down the fun bits…
It was pointed out that ‘middle class people mostly organised the parties but mostly working class people got arrested.’ (when the police attacked them usually, near the end). True (see below), though not particularly intentionally, more in naivety and lack of forethought, or for lack of how to adequately deal with police attack and how to end the events.
People within RTS milieu did rise to become career professionals, trading on their activism to achieve entry into cultural fashionability; there was some criticism of this from some of who were very suspicious of such things as filming demos (due to being burned by police taking control of footage after events like the anti-poll tax riot and others, and journalists/film crews happily collaborating with this). This did lead to uneasy times in RTS as people didn’t all get it.

Some have said that RTS was actually ineffective, in that it did not achieve its stated aims. Apart from taking over a few streets for a few days it didn’t break ‘car culture’… The effect of RTS wax compared unfavourably to the 2000 fuel protests – as was pointed out, that movement had an infinitely huger effect, paralysing road traffic, if only for a short while. It also had lots of contradictions, class alliances and political dubiousnesses, but did produce a crisis and cleared the streets of cars… Again, though, it didn’t last, and things returned to normal (though I haven’t seen any discussions on longer term developments among those that carried the blockades out…)

… and more recently, there’s the French Yellow Vests – a sustained movement much more combative, taking on the state in a way RTS never managed and dwarfing XR’s impact … (Again, the politics are very mixed, but when are they not?)

No RTS did not fundamentally alter capitalism, car use, help turn the world green… Some struggles on very limited territory can win outright, others achieve partial victories; others seem to fail of splutter out. Few know what effect they have in the end, as influences mutate, ideas mingle and merge, individuals and groups wend their ways and diverge… RTS had many limits.

RTS left a long legacy in the UK and wider activist scenes, with the group in London carrying on for several years, taking part in the mayday organising, as well as lots of those who passed through it setting off into many other campaigns, projects, etc, the anti-Afghan/Iraq war movements, Occupy, social centres and anti-G8 etc summit protests… you name it.

I don’t know if anyone has really discussed it anywhere, but it would be interesting to talk about the development of RTS into the anti-capitalist movement and wider points about these movements, and of protest movements generally. While J18 was fun and high profile, and thousands of activists turning up to surround and attempt to disrupt summits of the G8 and other meetings of the rich and famous felt for many and looked very confrontational and challenging – it represents a specific interpretation of how capital is organised and where it exists, is controlled, can be challenged etc. Concentrating on central points, the obvious target of world leaders and economic movers. But capital is a world system  – that pervades down to the very marrow of every aspect of our lives; to some extent challenging it is not about the world leaders, but in the everyday. RTS in its origins recognised this and at its best was moving towards the idea of taking over our lives from within where we live them. To me J18 and the anti-summit movements diverted away from that; this was at the heart of our discussions in Summer 1998, and without wanting to say ‘we went the wrong way’, I do think now (and said then) that this may have been broadly a narrowing of RTS’ vision. To radically alter the world you have to organically build from the edges where you are, till the centres collapse because you have already taken over everything. J18 itself kind of did work this way, though the anti-capitalist movement obsession with summits seemed to me to want to build everyday rebellion outward from the middle by attacking what they saw as the centres of power. Does capital even have a centre?
There’s a partial critique of the anti-capitalist movement’s focus on attacking summits in Where is the Festival: Notes on summits and counter-summits

Extinction and evolution

Extinction Rebellion have in some ways reproduced elements of RTS’ approach, but differ in other ways. The main similarities are obvious – taking over streets and public space, the initial concentration on climate change, the emphasis on people taking action. However, there are major points of departure, some positive, some worth examining critically.

RTS took space as a one-off, usually, where XR at least in the last actions in April 2019 tried to keep up the pressure by remaining in the streets of central London for as long as they feasibly could. This is more resonant of the Occupy movements of post-2008 radical protest, and has both its strengths and its weakness implicit in it, in that it does seem to pile on more sustained involvement by extending the action, but also begins inevitably to become separated out from those not involved, an end in itself. This is a problem with almost everything you can do where protest is concerned, and is difficult to avoid. RTS did celebrate the very fact of taking over space ourselves as very much the point, the action being the destination, as well as the road, a moment of liberation by the very nature of occupying space. XR actions, like Occupy, achieve this by default, as taking over space in defiance of the usual day to day creates its own dynamic. What comes out of such actions on the future may be radically different from what they set out to do, more subversive and challenging even. Both RTS and XR actions at their best, like all moments of struggle, produce consequences primarily in the people involved in them, whether or not the ‘campaign’ itself wins what it fights for. The difference – so far – is that RTS was/became conscious of this. Whether XR will remains to be seen.

Their Morals and Ours

XR’s call for people was primarily to occupy the streets in order to get themselves arrested to put pressure on government to act, although this has now come under fierce discussion. RTS neither saw putting pressure on politicians to act on our behalf or mass arrests as the aim. Although there were often arrests at RTS parties, often in the earlier days near the end of the event as the organisers made an attempt to wrap events up (this was a point that was initially criticised by those of us experienced in legal defence work from poll tax days and the Legal Defence & Monitoring Group, that RTS at first took little account of this side of the day. This did evolve positively over the group’s lifetime). Arrests in themselves though as an aim is a debatable tactic, which has been used for many years, most notably in the peace movement – a kind of shaming and publicity-seeking tactic, where the sheer numbers arrested and speeches in court etc become the point of the action. (eg early Committee of 100 actions)

Clearly people carefully considering things with experience of arrest, police, and courts have made something of this approach – the Ploughshares anti-missile saboteurs who break into bases, do millions of quid’s worth of damage to planes and weaponry then give themselves up, for instance. Personally I would say its better for people to remain out of prisons and be able to carry on their activities, and concealing your identity and escaping to fight another day is better than handing yourself in – but their choice, However, Extinction Rebellion are leaning on people to get themselves arrested, and concentrating lots of their propaganda on young folk, kids, teens, some of whom are not yet ready for what arrest and conviction can mean. The kind of moral pressure to ‘get nicked for the planet’, does depend on XR’s insistence that the police are basically OK and will be nice, and can be won over to the side of the ‘people’ by being nice to them. It does reflect the wilful ignorance of the social role of the police and their function in relation to protest – to control and if necessary repress, with violence when required. Dancing to a sound system in Marble Arch by some officers does not negate the institutional violence of the boys and girls in blue, as many of us have learned painfully from an early age.

RTS may in its beginnings have been naïve about legal defence and arrests – XR are being much more irresponsible. In many ways some of the main organisers have inherited the worst aspects of the wider green/eco movements – moral blackmail, class blindness to the realities of the social order, a concentration on one issue without managing to observe how it is vitally and necessarily linked to the whole social and economic structure, and naivety towards the enforcers and controllers of those structures. They have now thankfully withdrawn their terrible advice to people being arrested as to how to survive prison, after a massive outcry from those who have experienced pokey that it was dangerously downplaying the pressure of going down and encouraging illusions in the friendliness of screws. But liberal illusions in the police, prison, the authorities and the social system remain.

Morals, individual blame are no basis for any movement. There’s too much of this in pro-environmental politics, and a hierarchy of greenier-than-thou-ness and finger-pointing at people for not doing enough. When this emphasis on the responsibility of the individual goes along with calls for the state to take action, it’s just bizarre. The closeness of ‘it’s your fault’ to ‘let’s all take it on ourselves to change it’ involves leaving moralising behind to move towards something else – a sense of common interests. Now not all people in social movements have the same interests, when it comes down to class, background, race, and any number of levels of power relations. Lots of people are saying that XR are all middle class white privileged folk and the movement’s attitude to colour, migration etc has been shoddy at best. Some anarchists and others also said very much the same about RTS in the early days, and like many protest movements (those that don’t initially come from BME origins) it remained pretty white, though class was much more nuanced. Another interesting point a woman involved in RTS from the start made at a discussion recently was how in the early days RTS London had a near equal make-female balance, but noted his this changed over the years as actions became more confrontational and overtly ‘anti-capitalist’, becoming more boysy and macho…

Neither morality or hyper-activist ego rankings or dominance by the white moderately well-to-do is anything like unique to either XR or RTS, though. Anarchist scenes, the left, for instance, remain ultimately run on visible or invisible hierarchies and overwhelmingly white. It was funny in hindsight that so many anarchists dissing RTS for not being class struggly enough were being slightly truth-economical about how proley their background was. Either way, there was also a snideness about how working class is seen, and how struggle is hard and serious. In the midst of parties you could also hear people complaining that some people were just partying and not either fighting the police on the edges or seriously talking politics. I know, I was sometimes one of them. The arrogance of youth.

All of these issues within XR are of course being furiously debated and is evolving, and only a daft haporth would expect the movement to be either homogenous in its ideas or to stick to some of these shibboleths: XR and the people involved will change and adapt in response to reality and experience.

Illusions in the bourgeois state’s potential to reverse climate change without the dismantling of capitalism as a world-exploiting system are, of course, nothing new, and XR are far from unique in that. But it remains true, that the wider ecological movement is divided by those who think you can have some nice democratic non-ecocidal market economy, and those who recognise the reality: reversal of the climate cataclysm can only mean overthrowing the classes that profit from it and organising our lives worldwide for the needs of all – people and planet – not for the profit of a smaller and smaller minority and the consumer comfort of a slightly larger group. It’s the exploitation of the earth, its resources, its animals and if the vast majority of US that is destroying the climate, and that has to be fundamentally altered. Green capitalism and green politicians are just pot plants on the deck of the titanic.

XR’s potential is obvious but whether it will fizzle out, outgrow the liberal illusions of some its leading voices, is yet to be seen – and fought for from within, I guess. Some people will learn re the police, as people tend to do when faced with the blunt end of a truncheon: this discussion is already being had. (Some won’t learn, class background, white privilege and the blindness of ideology being what they are.) Although it’s also hard to know where such movements GO when they don’t quickly achieve their aim, many involved go off and take their spirit and experience into a myriad of other activities – as the thousands who passed through RTS groups and parties did.

One point relevant to both RTS and XR – in common with activists the world over – is the separation of the high points of parties, actions, occupations, from a daily life that is other, or rather the actions are the other. Some of us within RTS at one point argued for a dissolving of the group as such, but trying to employ the tactics, sense of fun and occupation, to our daily lives, to break down how ‘activism’ and ‘activists’ become separate from ‘our daily lives’, work, raising kids, etc, and from ‘ordinary people’ (ie non-activists). This in itself was naïve, like a lot of activists who develop a critique of activism, we really meant moving on to another kind of activism, an artificial change, if well-intentioned. Looking back (as someone who used to be a full-time activist but now isn’t an activist, really) this was groping towards what I still think is a useful path – breaking down walls between different parts of your own self and between people involve in politics and those who aren’t, in order to radically alter the whole separation and alienation of people from their own desires and needs. It’s questionable I suppose whether that can be done in isolation or as an ideological shift. And perhaps you can’t ‘abolish activism to create communism’ in that way anyway, or not as a small group. It’s the kind of shift that might happen in the context of massive upheavals and struggles. Ironically, climate-chaos inspired social breakdown might provide an opportunity for that, though to make an ideology of that possibility as some eco-activists do is repulsive and anti-human.

There’s a partial archive of links and pix on RTS parties (not by any means complete)

Watch Reclaim the Streets the movie: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2snn3XDbLg

 

 

 

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

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

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

In 1989 (Scotland) and 1990 (England & Wales,) the Conservative Government introduced a new tax to replace local rates as a way of funding local councils. The Tories called it the Community Charge. Everyone else called it the Poll Tax, after the famous levy that triggered the 1381 Peasants Revolt. The poll tax was radically different from the rates in that it was a flat rate, so everyone in a Borough would pay the same regardless of how rich they were or how much their property was worth, rather than paying more if they owned more. Obviously this re-drew the burden of paying for the Council – reducing costs for the wealthy and much of the middle class, and increasing the cost for the working class and

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

However, they had miscalculated somewhat.

Huge campaigns sprang up against registering to pay, filling in forms, giving the local council any info etc., and then against payment. Thousands of local anti-poll tax groups or unions were set up. Opposition ranged from marches, occupations, defending people’s homes against bailiffs, blockading and occupying council chambers, bailiffs offices, to riots and clogging up the courts with legal challenges, spurious and otherwise. Hundreds of people were jailed for refusing or not being able to pay, and for taking part in protests against the Tax.

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

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

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

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

But the cops have long memories, and hate to be beaten. And the Government was willing to back them to the hilt in taking back the initiative. They must have seen potential in the divisions between the Militant-sponsored Anti-Poll Tax Federation and the anti-poll tax groups these trot hacks couldn’t control. Militant apparatchiks had condemned both local and Trafalgar Square rioting, and (whatever they afterwards claimed) did threaten to grass up those who had taken part in fighting with the police (in Bristol and Nottingham Militant members DID rat out rioters.) The next big anti-poll tax demo was to be October 20th: group of anti-poll tax campaigners had marched all the way from Scotland in time to arrive for that date; the London Anti-Poll tax Federation organised a demo to greet them. The route was set to be from Kennington Park (where the March 31st had begun, and a symbolic gathering point for protest for over 150 years) to Brockwell Park in Brixton, to be followed with a march to Brixton Prison, in support of several prisoners from Trafalgar Square who were locked up there. The Militant-dominated All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation had refused to organise the main march, so the equally Militant-run London Federation of anti-poll tax groups had taken it on; the Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign, around which many dissident elements had grouped, had planned the prison demo, which the London Federation leadership had initially refused to support but had reluctantly backed after parts of their own affiliated membership protested. The Police bigwigs must have seen an opportunity to get their own back (and maybe drive a further wedge into the movement?)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After that, alot of the vans drove off.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s some news coverage of the day here:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

THE POLL TAX RIOT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1956 London – mass demonstration against the Suez War.

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

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

1977 Notting Hill – anti—police riot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

defend the demonstrators;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. MR. SWEENEY AND ME

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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THE TRAFALGAR SQUARE DEFENDANTS CAMPAIGN

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

WE GOT THE POWER?

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

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

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

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

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

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Today in queer outstory, 1994: Gay male age of consent vote cop-out sparks mini-riot at Parliament.

On February 21st 1994, the House of Commons voted to reduce the gay male age of consent from 21 to 18. The crowds gathered outside were bitterly disappointed that it had not been reduced to 16, and a riot ensued in the precincts of Parliament for the first time for 150 years.

This came just a few years after the tory government had introduced Section 28, severely restricting local authorities’ right to ‘promote’ homosexuality (ie to keep anything pro-LGBT in libraries, schools, publish or teach anything positive about alternative sexualities or suggest that the straight missionary position wasn’t all there is to sex). The huge resistance to the imposition of Section 28, coming on the heels of the AIDS crisis and the massive community solidarity dealing HIV had created, had helped create a large and multi-faceted lesbian and gay movement (all the other initials BT etc were pretty much yet to be added…). But the horrors of AIDS, links of lesbian and gay activists to other movements in the 1980s, had also contributed to a groundswell of mass support for at the very least basic equality under the law.

The campaign for the age of consent to be reduced had been building for several years. However, the challenge it faced was a large bloc of MPs, mostly tories but not entirely, who either blatantly would have liked to bring back imprisonment for gay sex entirely, or expressed their prejudice more subtly as ‘concern for the safety of young people’. In the parliamentary debate, many evocative arguments were brought up, such as ‘Putting your penis into another man’s arsehole is a perverse…’ (Nicholas Fairbairn MP, who was, er, cut off, by the Speaker before he could finish his sentence)

There was general consensus on the ground in gay communities that the male age of consent for sex should be equalised with everyone else, at 16. But 18 was seen in some quarters as a fall back position, a compromise that could be agreed with more cautious or reactionary MPs. The campaign was based largely on Parliamentary lobbying, and there was a noticeably lower level of mass mobilisation / direct action than had been the case in anti-Section 28 movement, around AIDS provision with ACT-UP, or even in the recent OutRage actions…

18 was proposed in legislation – but tory MP Edwina Currie in fact introduced an amendment to change this to 16.

Many Tories who backed 18 were content to follow the lead of John Major and Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, but some Labour MPs were staggered that frontbench Labour spokespeople on the key areas of health and education – David Blunkett and Ann Taylor – did likewise, instead of going for 16.

It would have taken just 14 more Labour MPs supporting Edwina Currie’s amendment to have won the day. Instead, the provision, which 42 Tories supported, was defeated by 27 votes.

If the opposition parties, not the Tories, were the age 16 lobby’s natural supporters, the Labour Party refused to whip MPs despite a conference policy commitment – 35 voted against 16, including David Blunkett, a heavily moralistic MP (and formerly ‘leftwing’ council leader) for Sheffield Brightside.

The compromise did little to appease thousands of angry gay rights campaigners who had rallied outside of Parliament. The gates into Parliament had to be closed to shut out angry protestors. Many chanted the names of the two rightwing cabinet ministers widely reputed to be closeted gay men and having an affair with each other  – Michael Portillo and Peter Lilley. (Not a pretty picture: Gollum and Brideshead Revisited in love tryst…)

At one point, several hundred protesters stormed an entrance, prompting the police to lock the gates. Three protesters were arrested and one police officer was slightly injured in the demonstration. Crowds rampaged to the nearby G.A.Y. disco and owner Jeremy Joseph gave them free entry.

The night was made more emotional for many as the provocative iconic gay film maker Derek Jarman had died the night before, from AIDS, news which was still filtering through the crowd on the night of the vote, adding poignancy to the protest. Ian McKellen, a leading figure in gay reform group Stonewall, and now seen as a kind of radical gay elder statesman, came out from Parliament to address the crowd after news of the vote for 16 being defeated had sparked agro, and lambasted them: ‘When it came out that they’d voted to lower the age of consent to 18 and not equality, there was basically a riot. I felt that this was the dignified response. McKellen came out and made this speech scolding the crowd and blaming us for the vote going the wrong way. I thought that was disgraceful and told him at the time.’ (Paul Burston). Thus confirming Derek Jarman’s previous criticisms of McKellen, among other lesbian and gay figures, for being profoundly conservative and working for gay assimilation, not liberation.

It wasn’t until 2001 that the age of consent was finally equalised. It was two MORE years before Section 28 was finally repealed.

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An entry in the
2018 London Rebel History Calendar

Check out the Calendar online

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Today in London festive history: Brixton streets Reclaimed for wicked street party, 1998

TONIGHT WE’RE GONNA PARTY LIKE IT’S NINETEEN NINETY EIGHT…

An account of the Brixton Reclaim the Streets Party, 6th June 1998. Written by one of those that planned and brought the day off successfully…

Brixton has seen many parties, but none quite like the one on Saturday 6th June 1998 when thousands of people brought traffic to a standstill by partying in the high street without the permission of the police or Council.

The occasion was the Reclaim the Streets’ ‘South London Street Party’. RTS had organised similar events of increasing size in the previous few years. A party in Camden High Street (April 1995) had been followed by a bigger one in Upper Street, Islington three months later. The following year RTS shut down a section of the M41 motorway in west London, with sound systems and sofas replacing cars on the tarmac.

The challenge for 1998 was how to keep one step ahead of the police now that the basic tactic was well known. There was also some dissatisfaction amongst RTS activists about simply continuing with parties that erupted suddenly but disappeared just as quickly leaving little behind except memories and a sense of the possibility of a different way of life.

The agreed way forward was to try and organise two simultaneous parties in different parts of London, and to attempt to root the parties more in what was going on in the areas concerned.

The planning meetings for the South London party were held in a squatted social club in Kennington (now a housing office). Sometimes there was no electricity and we talked by candlelight. At other times we met up on the roof of the building in the open air. We broke up into groups, each responsible for a particular aspect of the party. I was in a group focused on organising activities for children. One sub group was responsible for selecting the location, something that was to be kept secret from everybody else until the day of the party to keep the authorities guessing. In this way too the Wednesday night planning meetings could be open to all comers without worrying about the venue becoming widely known.

The publicity called for people to meet at noon outside the Ritzy cinema in Brixton, and several hundred people were there at the appointed time. Most party goers and police only knew that the party was to take place somewhere in South London. The expectation was that there would be some chasing around to get to the location – for the M41 Reclaim the Streets party in 1996, people had assembled at Liverpool Street on the other side of town and been directed by tube towards Shepherds Bush.

This time though a game of double bluff was being played. In the road opposite the Town Hall two old cars crashed into each other in a pre-arranged manouvre to halt the traffic, a flare was let off and a few people immediately stepped into the road. After a moment’s hesitation, the crowd pushed passed the police into the road, with another staged car crash at the other end of the high street blocking traffic in both directions.

Within a short time the party was in full swing. The whole stretch of Brixton Road from the Fridge down to beyond the tube station was full of people instead of cars; Coldharbour Lane was also traffic free down as far as the Atlantic Road junction. Climbers had scaled the lamp posts and hung enormous colourful banners across the street – my favourite read ‘Under the Tarmac Flows the River – Dig Up the Effra’, referring to the lost river now flowing beneath Brixton. Others read ‘Cars my Arse’ and ‘Against Tube Privatisation’ (tube workers were due to strike the following week). There was a huge figure of a woman – the poster and flyer for the event had featured an image from the 50s movie ‘Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman’ showing said woman lifting up cars. Another climber got a big cheer for putting a plastic bag over a CCTV camera. A red, green and black RTS flag flew on top of McDonalds. News came through that in North London a similar party had been successfully established on Tottenham High Road.

People danced to a sound system set up in a van at the junction of Acre Lane. Down by the tube station there were two more sound systems, one playing ragga and the other, a cycle-powered effort, spluttering out techno. A live music PA was set up in the road outside Morley’s store. Over the next few hours it featured an all-women punk covers band (a highlight for me was ‘Teenage Kicks’), Steve Prole, Painful and various others. On the other side of the road there was a big acoustic jam, with drums etc.

A sand pit in the road was the centre of the children’s area. We had loads of gold shiny card which we made into big conical hats. Children were also playing in the fountains outside the library which were overflowing with bubbles. We gave out free pastries donated by staff at Grace and Favour cafe in East Dulwich (workers at the café in Clapham Common gave up the contents of their tips jar for the party).

The flyer had promised to ‘transform our Streets into a place of human interaction, a dance, a playground, a football match, the sharing of food, an exchange of free thoughts’. And that’s pretty much what happened, with up to 5,000 people partying on until about 9 pm.

The police mainly kept themselves at the edge of the party, with only three arrests, one of a fire eater for allegedly breathing flames too near to the police…

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The great strength of the 98 party was that it was organised by people who lived in Brixton, some of us had lived there for years. We transformed the place WE lived in, turned it again into a place of human interaction, not profit and endless traffic. It shared that sense of the possible that we got from the riots, the feeling that we could transform the mundane and weary world around us, by our own actions, into a place of joyous rebellion…

Interestingly, the author mentions the sandpit we created for the kids to play in… One of the planners of the party, who also helped set up the sandpit, pulling the cart the sandbags were loaded on from a squat round the corner, was known to us as Jim Sutton, who had got involved in Reclaim the Streets in 1996, shortly after the seminal M41 party, and was central to many RTS events and actions for 4-5 years – as well as becoming a friend to some of us, or so we thought. In 2011 it became generally known (and is now admitted by the Metropolitan Police) that Jim was actually Jim Boyling, an undercover police operative working for the Special Demonstration Squad, on whose behalf he spied on not only RTS but many other groups and individuals. In fact, I think he is the central figure in the picture at the head of this post, with his back to the photographer, in the blue jacket, urging people into the street. Just one of the many spycops who have been revealed by activists to have infiltrated campaign and political groups over the last 50 years…

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2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.

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Today in London’s anti-racist history: resistance to a fascist march in Thamesmead, 1991

The Southeast London ‘suburb’ of Thamesmead was built on land once forming about 1,000 acres of the old Royal Arsenal site that extended over Plumstead Marshes and Erith Marshes. Thamesmead was born in the 1960s, when the then Greater London Council developed plans for a new town to be built, to relieve London’s housing shortage and create a ‘Town of the 21st Century’. The name Thamesmead was chosen by a Bexley resident in a ‘Name Our New Town’ competition. The first residents moved to Thamesmead in 1968.

Thamesmead was designed around futuristic ideas, and indeed, looked impressive at first from a distance. Efforts were made to solve the social problems that had already started to affect earlier estates. These were believed to be the result of people being uprooted from close-knit working-class communities and sent to estates many miles away, where they knew nobody. The design of the estates meant that people would see their neighbours more rarely than they would have done in the terraced housing that had been typical in working-class areas. The solution proposed was that once the initial residents had moved in, their families would be given priority for new housing when it became available.

Another ‘radical’ idea of the GLC division architect Robert Rigg thought sounded funky was drawn from housing complexes in Sweden, where it was believed that lakes and canals reduced vandalism and other crime, mainly among the young. Rigg designed various water features, including a lake and pre-existing canal to impose a calming influence on the residents. Well done, there, worked out well…?!?

The area had been inundated in the North Sea Flood of 1953, so the original design placed living accommodation at first floor level or above, used overhead walkways and left the ground level of buildings as garage space.

The first flats were occupied in 1968, but problems developed rapidly. Early on flats suffered from rain penetration problems. Walkways stretched between its blocks of housing and later between sections in North Thamesmead. But the walkways quickly became littered and abused, and became considered safe places to walk. Pathways set out for people to walk on were laid with little regard to how people would really move about, so some were ignored in favour of more direct routes over grassed areas.

When the GLC was abolished in 1986, its housing assets and the remaining undeveloped land were vested in a non-profit organisation, Thamesmead Town Limited (TTL). TTL was a private company, though its nine executive directors were local residents; they periodically submitted themselves to re-election.

Split between two boroughs, Bexley and Greenwich, Thamesmead became somewhat frozen, under-resourced and bleak: “The Town Centre, clearly marked on sign-posts, is cynically named. Actually it’s just a few acres of Safeway on the very edge of town, a skerry incapable of supporting human life, torn from the nearest flats by a main road, and more than two miles from Thamesmead’s middle. In the late Eighties a gabled clock tower was added so that, from the river, it looks like an old market town. The clock stopped at twenty past two some time ago.”

The most significant design failure was the almost complete lack of shopping facilities and banks: only a few “corner shops” were initially built at Tavy Bridge. From the start Thamesmead was cut off from Abbey Wood, the nearest town with shopping facilities, by a railway line; however a four lane road bridge was built over the railway in the early 1970s. The area was then cut in two by the A2016, a new four lane dual carriageway by-pass of the Woolwich to Erith section of the A206 (although this road only got as far as the industrial part of lower Belvedere: the extension to Erith was opened in 1999). Still, residential building continued, this time on the other side of the A2016, which cut this part of Thamesmead off from rail travel to central London. The planned underground station never arrived.

Over time more facilities developed, with a Morrisons supermarket and retail park near Gallions Reach. Bus services were improved and residents can now easily reach Abbey Wood railway station.

The conditions on the estate bred many problems… some ongoing.

London like other uk cities had a number of similar areas, sometimes out on the edges, often, as with Thamesmead, older white residents or those living in adjacent areas had been white flighters a few years earlier, leaving inner city neighbourhoods for new towns, partly because there were ‘too many foreigners moving in’.

The estate’s population was always overwhelmingly working class, initially mainly white, drawn from older areas across South London, but increasingly afro-caribbean and later African communities. Many of the industries in surrounding areas which had employed Thamesmead residents closed down, went out of business or moved in the 1970s and 80s, and unemployment rocketed. The estate became to some extent a dumping ground where families were rehoused, without resources or much chance of leaving. “Thamesmead was abandoned, half-finished. The people who live there, imprisoned by the ring-roads and the roundabouts with exits that lead nowhere, can’t easily escape. They say they live on Thamesmead, not in it, as if it’s an island, a penal colony.”

The area was riven in the 1990s by racial tension – mainly harassment of black residents by a number of their white neighbours, but complicated by a youth gang culture which to a limited extent crossed ‘race’ lines but also mingled with racists at the other end. Racism among some white Thamesmead inhabitants was supported and aggravated by the influence of organised fascists, centred on, but not limited to, the British National Party, then a small neo-nazi grouping, who then ran an infamous bookshop in nearby Welling, set up in 1987. This shop was linked to the spread of violent nazi ideas, and an upsurge in racist attacks, in large areas of South East London and North Kent, and wider afield; but the organised right was also able to meet and operate from a number of other places, such as the Abbey Mead Social Club, a haunt of BNP and the British National Socialist Movement. BNP ‘faces’ drank in the Horse and Groom Pub in Charlton, attempting to whip up racism among Charlton Athletic fans. In Thamesmead itself, racism centred on the Wildfowler pub, where a number of local racist residents and friends hung out. Black people were effectively barred from the pub. Harassment of black residents, beatings knife attacks, were a regular occurrence around the area.

But the influence of the BNP and other overt fascists was a matter of debate at the time – not only because racism among many white residents was more ingrained, but also because the climate of national policy, media and government approaches had played a significant part in creating both a climate of hostility to minorities, and a sense of abandonment and despair which turned into anger, resentment, and fuelled gang violence as well as the blaming of ‘foreigners’ for taking our jobs and houses blah blah. Failures of state and left responses to these developments generally only compounded the situation.

In early 1991 things came to a head in Thamesmead. On February 21st 15-year old Rolan Adams and his younger brother were walking home to Abbey Wood across the estate from a local youth club, when they were attacked by a gang of young white racists, from a Thamesmead gang calling themselves the NTOs – standing according to them for Nutty Turnouts, though others claimed it really meant ‘Nazi Turn Outs’, (they were also known as the Goldfish Gang, or later just the Firm). Rolan was stabbed in the neck and died.

A few weeks later, on May 11th, Orville Blair was stabbed to death outside his home in Thamesmead; some claimed this was a gang murder, not racist at all, as Orville Blair may have been at some point associated with the NTO. Some of the NTO were interviewed at this time, claiming they were racist and had black members, and were at war with rival gangs, notably the ‘Woolwich Mafia’, a predominantly black but multi-racial gang from neighbouring Woolwich, which had allegedly not only been trespassing on their turf, but also winning allegiance from Thamesmead black kids (very likely out of fear?)

But the second murder ratcheted up an already fierce tension on the estate. Around100 racist attacks were reported in the area in the first few months of 1991. Several black families, including some who had vocally opposed racism or confronted the NTOs, asked to be rehoused off the estate and were moved. The Hawksmore Youth Club, which had attempted to organise anti-racist events, was firebombed – and then helpfully closed down by the council, giving the arsonists a pat on the back.

A campaign had arisen in the area, following the murder of Rolan Adams. A packed public meeting was held (police representatives were angrily ejected from this meeting, as people had little confidence in the figleaf of police protection). A militant and angry demonstration was held on 27th April, which saw some 1000-1500 people march round the estate, and then marched on to the BNP bookshop: “When we reached Welling, the anger erupted, and hundreds brought the march to a halt… The Nazis kept wisely out of sight, and it looked for a moment that we we’d all go home with a brick out of their wall as a memento, but the police and others came to the rescue…”

It was among local black youth that the initial angry response had developed, but increasingly a plethora of organisations got involved, with the stated aim of supporting anti-racism in Thamesmead and opposing both BNP influence and the wider culture of racism. Anti-racism and anti-fascism were growing in support generally, but these diverse movements were riven by many factions and splits; some organisations wanting to rely on police and state solutions (flying in the face of the these institutions ‘ involvement in creating the problems and encouraging racial violence), others fronts for left groups, opportunistic at the very least and inconsistent cynical much of the time; there were others who labelled all white people as the problem, and ignored the anti-racist feelings or actions of any white working class people in Thamesmead and elsewhere, which did tend to add to the widespread alienation and increasing division. Meetings tended to end up as dogmatic rows between different factions, and campaigns quickly could become paralysed by this. Actions proposed by some would always be denounced by others, sometimes on sectarian grounds, sometimes simply to be seen to be saying something; though there were genuine political differences and some useful critiques, but amidst all this, much energy that should have been directed at defeating fascists and opposing racism was spent in backbiting. Anyone who spent time involved in opposing fascists around this era is likely to recognise these dynamics.

In Thamesmead specifically at this point the angry campaign meetings organised initially by local black youth had become a debating ground for various groups, including The Greenwich Action Committee Against Racist Attacks (Gacara for short  – a local group monitoring and campaigning around racist attacks borough-wide), trotskyite left group the Socialist Workers Party, Anti Fascist Action, (an alliance of socialists and anarchists who advocated physical  resistance to fascism – beating them off the streets – well as politically winning white working people away from racist ideas), as well as the National Black Caucus, a black political grouping. Arguments had begun to prevent action. Anti Fascist Action noted: “One local pub in particular, the Wildfowler, was identified as a meeting place for the racists and the fascists who inspire them. Immediately after [the first campaign meeting on the estate] a posse went down to the pub to let the landlord know the score and to challenge what was described in the meeting as an unofficial colour bar. It was a successful first step in a campaign aimed to either get the fascists out of the pub or to close it down… the pub should be a facility for everyone in Thamesmead, or it should be a facility for no-one…
However, before any of this could happen, some of the people from the meeting, including some of the people from the Socialist Workers Party who had made rousing speeches about fighting racism ‘by any means necessary’ set themselves the task of talking everyone out of the idea of going to the pub at all… They lost the argument… It showed that they could be very good in meetings but not so handy when it comes to putting words into action… some of these characters will even go to the lengths of actively dissuading others from taking action…”

The pub drink also illustrated which side the police were keen to take: “despite the fact that there was no question of violence or disruption – it was a peaceful drink, the first time in a long while that blacks could have a peaceful drink in the pub – the police very soon appeared and emptied the pub of anti-racists. Then, out on the street, they set out to provoke incidents with the local youth – they were itching to wade in and make arrests.” All too often the cops were happy to let racists carry on as you were but batter and nick anyone who attempted to resist this, whether ‘violently’ defending themselves against racist attack or peacefully occupying a pub.

Others involved in the campaign at the time grew aggravated at the diversion of anger into tokenism: “The campaign meeting in the week after the march brought out many of the problems. The Socialist Workers Party’s only contributions were to propose an anti-racist concert in June and a pocket of the Tory-controlled Bexley Council… They tried to rubbish any talk of self-defence as terrorism.” However, Anti- Fascist Action’s stance also took some flak: “AFA talked about defence purely adventurist and elitist (‘we will protect you’ terms – which leaves the local community dependent on their mobilisations…” This critique, from a small, black-led trotsykist splinter called the RIL, does caricature AFA’s position, but had an element of truth, in that AFA tended to concentrate on physical intervention in specific arenas, but this didn’t always help with building a longer term more grounded resistance. Which all would admit is more complex than shouting slogans and running away. However, AFA criticised most of the other groups as posturing without any sense of how to draw white working people, the fodder for BNP propaganda, away from racist ideas. Which was always true and has remained so – catastrophically so in some parts of Britain. Gacara were braod based, but had links to the labour Council in Greenwich, who many though bore some responsibility for the shite conditions on the estate which fuelled much of the violence there. Almost everyone involved in the Thamesmead campaign noted that the people mostly ignored were the local black youth who had started the fightback, who (as elsewhere) found themselves marginalised by the squabbling lefties. In response some set up the Thamesmead Youth Organisation, which gathered some of the most active local youth and tried to combat racism while demanding that the local councils improve facilities…

While some in the NTO Thamesmead gang denied that they were inspired by the BNP, the BNP did want to get involved… The growth of the BNP from nazi fringe loons to the bigger racist populist organisation they would become was only really just beginning then; and they were still less concerned with public relations and concentrated on legitimising racist violence and playing on fear to build up hatred. They saw the two deaths and the wider attacks as evidence for their campaign that ‘multi-culturalism doesn’t work’ – black and white people couldn’t live together. Their nasty rhetoric may or may not have always directly inspired racist attacks, and they were not directly involved in all cases of racial violence (though they were in some), since racism was widespread throughout local white working class populations, and violent expressions of it didn’t necessarily need the BNP’s hand… But the BNP seized joyfully on the situation, beginning to spread their nazi propaganda around, and announcing a ‘Rights for Whites’ march through Thamesmead for May 25th, claiming they had been ‘asked by white residents’ to defend them against ‘black muggers’. The ‘Rights for Whites’ theme was a big BNP push, as their propaganda made a big thing that ‘white British people’ were being oppressed in their own country and had no rights while ‘blacks, gyppos, pakis and other darkies’ were getting special treatment in terms of housing, jobs, human rights etc. This was blatant nonsense, since white racism still allowed discrimination on all levels of society, and official equalities policies masked hatred of minorities in the police, local government, national policy. However it had an appeal to a disgruntled strata of working class whites, wondering where the jobs had gone and left adrift by social change – as well as to the empire-nostalging and eugenically-inclined, of various classes…

The BNP Demo on May 25th was opposed by a strong contingent of anti-racists and anti-fascists. Even top cops in the Met pointed out that allowing the march to go ahead was deliberate provocation; this didn’t prevent them from using a fair bit of trunch on the day to protect 150 or so BNP members (around its realistic away crowd then) from a much larger angry crowd of anti-racists. A number of fascists who turned up late were caught and battered by anti-fascists. But despite a decision taken in the campaign meetings to physically attempt to confront the BNP march, on the day the main campaign organisers (by now backed by the SWP and National Black Caucus) backed off from this and led people in the opposite direction, just as the BNP march was entering the area, and ignored protests that this was against what had been decided.

“This decision was not supported by all present – on addition to AFA and a substantial number of local youth, Searchlight supporters and even some individual members of the SWP refuse to go along with the last minute about face.”

Thamesmead being designed like it was, there are a hundred back ways, alleys, bridges, paths, which could have been used to bypass the police and confront the fash; in the end only part of the crowd attempted to do so. Bar a bit of running after stray Nazis and some provocative kids, the day came to a frustrating end.

Anti Fascist Action’s position was that this was a wasted opportunity and had strengthened the hand of the BNP: “The issue facing anti-fascists in Thamesmead is a clear one: do we want a token campaign which expresses our opposition to the BNP and racism, but does not actually confront the fascists, or do we insist on concrete action against specific targets?” This question had come up before and would come up again. The BNP in South/Southeast London certainly felt stronger, and would try to build on this through the summer of 1991, standing in a council by-election in Camberwell in July, and stepping up a regular presence in Bermondsey.

Their bookshop/HQ in Welling would remain, despite regular demonstrations demanding its removal – the fash were helped by tory Bexley Council, who steadfastly opposed racism by, er, refusing to do anything at all about the shop. Although there were constant arguments among anti-racists and wider about how much racist violence in Southeast London was caused by its presence, or whether the BNP were a symptom of a wider racist culture there, there is little doubt that the flood of fascist propaganda the BNP had put out continued to have an effect, encouraging serious racial attacks. In any case, racist attacks and racist murders increased. 16-year old Asian Rohit Duggal was murdered by a gang of ten white men in July 1992; In July 1992, Rohit Duggal was stabbed to death by a white youth outside a kebab shop. The killer, Peter Thompson, was found guilty of murder. He was said to have links to a racist gang around Neil Acourt, who carried out a number of attacks on black youths in 1992-3. The attack came a year after the stabbing of another man outside the same shops. Police said there was ‘no evidence of a racial motive’, which was bollocks, but then Neil Acourt’s crim dad had several dirty cops in his pocket, so…

Kevin London, a black teenager, claimed he was confronted in November 1992 by a gang of white youths, including Acourt’s mate Gary Dobson, who was armed with a large knife. The claim came to light only after the killing of Stephen Lawrence. No charges were laid.

In one week in March 1993, two men were stabbed in Eltham High Street, with witnesses describing members of the Acourt gang. The following week, a white man, Stacey Benefield, was stabbed in the chest. He identified David Norris as the attacker and Neil Acourt as being with him. Norris was the only man tried. He was acquitted.

Acourt and Dobson would of course become notorious, as in April 1993, they together with several other white men, murdered Stephen Lawrence in Eltham. This killing did focus a national spotlight on southeast London and would lead to the Lawrence Inquiry and far-reaching public relations changes to how the police allow themselves to appear.

The campaign against the BNP bookshop would reach a peak with a massive demonstration to Welling in October 1993 which would end in a police ambush and serious fighting, between police and demonstrators. 31 demonstrators were arrested and several jailed. Eventually overwhelming pressure led to Bexley Council being force to set up a planning inquiry and the shop closed down.

The Socialist Workers party, after years of telling AFA and other anti-fascists that Nazis were a tiny irrelevant fringe, shortly after Thamesmead began to change their position, and re-founded the Anti-Nazi League, which they had also been movers in back in the 1970s. The ANL made a big splash, carried lots of lollipop placards, and ran around a lot.

Anti Fascist Action deserves a more considered epitaph, but this isn’t the place. Another time.

Racism and fascism seems to be alive and well.

A postscript

Only one man was convicted of murder for the attack on Rolan and his younger brother Nathan, who escaped with his life. Mark Thornburrow was jailed for a minimum of 10 years. Four others were given community service for violent disorder. Mr Adams said there was unwillingness by police and prosecutors to go after anyone else for the killing.

In 2014 it was reported that the Metropolitan Police had admitted to Rolan’s father Richard that its now disbanded Special Demonstration Squad had spied on him and other members of the family and campaign, as they did on other black justice campaigns.

It’s unknown if any of the information collected on Rolan Adams’ family was harvested by any of the three spycops described by Peter Francis, an undercover cop working for the SDS who infiltrated Youth Against Racism in Europe (YRE), an anti-racist front for the trotskyite Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party) which, along with the Socialist Workers’ Party-run Anti-Nazi League, had largely organised the Welling demonstration in October 1993, there were police spies operating that day – on both sides.

Seven of the ten police spies then (admitted to be) active from the SDS were “sufficiently embedded in the right political groups to supply intelligence in advance of the demonstration.”

As well as Peter Francis (spying on YRE as Pete Black), another SDS police officer was involved at a high-level with the SWP-controlled Anti-Nazi League. Interviewed for Rob Evans and Paul Lewis’s book, ‘Undercover: The True Story of Britain’s Secret Police’, Francis observed the actions of his colleague as the riot developed: “There was a moment when I am a SDS officer going forward with my group, and there’s another SDS officer in the Anti-Nazi League running backwards, calling on the crowds to go with him away, trying to get people to follow him.”

The book also claims, in the same chapter, that an undercover cop was involved with Combat 18, a so-called ‘neo-nazi’ group, later widely regarded as a Special Branch honey trap for unsuspecting right-wing activists, and claims: “A fourth spy was actually inside the BNP bookshop. For some time, he had been a trusted member of the party. He and others were expected to defend their headquarters in the event the crowd broke through the police lines and started attacking the building. ‘He was bricking it,’ Black says. ‘We had to protect the bookshop that day as Condon (the Met’s commissioner) knew that there was an undercover police officer in there.'”

Nice to know Special Branch were on both sides… how much the four respective SDS operatives manipulated the struggle around racism and anti-racism, remains unclear, but SDS spies rarely limited themselves to collecting intelligence. Certainly there was speculation at the time of the march that the Met had desired a violent confrontation to allow them some extra leeway for breaking heads. The October 1993 Welling ‘riot’ was suspected by some of us suspicious types at the time to be set up to play into police hands – though conspiracy theories are always to be avoided if possible, you can’t help wondering now whether the SDS were serving a wider police agenda in having the demo walk into a police riot. SDS head Bob Lambert certainly helped the Met out with info from the undercovers concerned when the Stephen Lawrence enquiry into police and other institutional racism was threatening to make them look very bad indeed. Perhaps all the details will come out in the Undercover Policing Inquiry – though given the current police obstruction tactics preventing anything on the Inquiry front from moving forward at all, probably not.

There is more interesting background to the racist gangs, links to crime families, and corrupt relations with the police, here

The above was written partly from personal recollections, though some bits of ailing memory were refreshed from Wikipedia, Anti Fascist Action’s magazine Fighting Talk, CARF magazine, Gacara Report 1992-3, and Revolutionary Internationalist. On May 25th 1991 your writer was a spotter on a bike riding round the estate to keep tabs on the movements of fash and police and report back to anti-fascists. Other memories and views would be welcomed.

Rolan Adams’s grandmother, Clara Buckley, was also the mother of Orville Blackwood, killed in Broadmoor High Security Hospital in August 1991. A powerful woman who never gave up fighting for justice. 

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

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Today in London’s history: Richard O’Brien killed by police, Walworth, 1994

Richard O’Brien died on 4 April 1994, after being arrested for being drunk and disorderly and taken to Walworth police station, South London. He had 31 separate areas of injury to his body including cuts and bruising to his face and fractured ribs.

Richard, a market trader, was 37 and weighed 19 stone. He was placed face down on the ground with his hands handcuffed behind his back and his legs folded behind him, while cops pushed and racially abused him, then held him there with his face to the pavement while one of them, Constable Richard Ilett, knelt on his back.

The police said that he was drunk and disorderly outside the English Martyrs Club in Walworth Road. His family said he was waiting for a taxi.

Richard called out, “I can’t breathe, you win, you win”, One officer replied: “We always win.” Richard’s wife Alison was also nicked, as was their 14-year-old son, also called Richard, who was slapped and arrested by another officer after pleading with them to check on his father; and another of their children.

(A Crown Prosecution Service lawyer later argued in court that Richard Junior may have caused some of his fathers injuries. Seriously.)

Richard O’Brien had 31 sites of injury on his body, including cuts and bruising to his face, a dislodged tooth and fractured ribs. He had pinpoint bleeding suggestive of haemorrhaging after blood vessels on his face burst. The cause of death was given as “postural asphyxia following a struggle against restraint.”

After being held on the ground, Mr O’Brien was carried to a police van by six officers. He was then said to have been half-pushed and half-dragged into the vehicle.

His wife, Alison, who was already seated in the van with their son Richard, recalled an officer shouting: “We can’t get the big fat Paddy in,” before another grabbed him by the hair or head.

Police officers claimed they tried in vain to resuscitate Mr O’Brien after he was taken out of the van at Walworth police station.

At an Inquest in November 1995, PC Ilett insisted that Mr O’Brien had been drunk and struggled violently on arrest. He said that he had not seen any of the 31 injuries Mr O’Brien sustained and said he had shown nothing but concern for him. Patrick O’Connor, counsel representing the family, held up a photograph of Mr O’Brien showing his bloodstained and battered face and asked the officer: “Does this show your concern?”

The inquest jury brought in a verdict of unlawful killing. Sir Montague Levine, the Southwark coroner, said the case had shown an “appalling lack of instruction” in the training of police officers in restraint techniques. He went on to recommend the regular retraining of officers and improved education in methods of monitoring individuals involved in restraint.

Alison O’Brien, said after the verdict: “I’m delighted. The truth has finally got out now and after 18 months someone actually believes our story.”

The then Police Complaints Authority announced that two police officers concerned in the death would face disciplinary charges for neglect of duty, which enraged his family.

The Director of Public Prosecutions later admitted that decisions in the cases had been ‘fundamentally flawed’.

Alison later, in conjunction with Olamide Jones, partner of Shiji Lapite, also killed by the police, went to the High Court to appeal to have the DPP’s decision not to prosecute any officers overturned. This was successful, forcing the CPS to prosecute.

Three officers — Richard Ilett, Gary Lockwood, and James Barber — were eventually charged with manslaughter, but they were acquitted in 1999, when the defence argued successfully that O’Brien had had a heart attack when he tried to remove himself from custody.

In 2002, the O’Brien family won a £324,000 payout from Scotland Yard, partly for the arrests of Alison and the 2 children, but they received no apology.

The cops say they always win. They often do. Will that ever end?

Support Inquest, the organisation which has been working to help relatives of those who have died in custody and detention.

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

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Today in London’s murderous policing history: Wayne Douglas dies in Brixton police station, 1995.

Brixton’s long history of police harassment and violence against its black residents has included several deaths in custody, or police murders if you prefer. Amidst the constant litany of beatings, fit-ups, hospitalisations from the 1960s onwards, at any time you can focus on one individual… however it remains systematic.

On December 5th 1995, Wayne Douglas, 25, died in Brixton police station, after being picked up for suspected burglary.

Douglas, a resident of a homeless hostel, was found unconscious in his cell at Brixton police station at about 3:30 a.m. He was dead on arrival at the hospital. The Metropolitan police claimed he died of a heart attack.

But witnesses described a different story. One eyewitness told the Caribbean Times how Douglas threw down a knife he was carrying when confronted by the cops. “As soon as he did it, they all jumped on him,” said the unnamed bystander. “They dragged him to the park and beat the shit out of him. They murdered him. I could hear the guy screaming…. They were jumping on him, kicking him, hitting him with their batons.”

Another said that “you could hear the sound of their batons on his bones.” Two witnesses gave statements to a local lawyer detailing the police assault.

In November 1996, the inquest into the death of Wayne Douglas was told by eye-witnesses that a police officer knelt on his head while he was handcuffed and held face down on the ground by at least four other officers. The jury found that his death was “accidentally” caused by stress, exhaustion and positional asphyxia. (Doesn’t this last mean that he couldn’t breathe due to the position he was in – ie being sat on? Who put him in that position?)

This was only few months after Brian Douglas (no relation) had died after being stopped searched and beaten up in Clapham by Kennington cops; protests had filled the summer months.

In response to Wayne Douglas’ death a demo was called for the following week at Brixton Copshop… This demo became a riot, smaller than many previous one in Brixton’s history, but no less angry. As well as attacking the police, rioters attacked the increasing symbols of gentrification that had begun to transform the area from the working class, mainly black neighbourhood, into the trendy playground for white poshos that large parts of it has become. So the Dogstar, recently opened by white trendies (backed by he police and the council) to replace the much harassed and raided black pub, the Atlantic, was trashed; among other targets.

In July 1997 Wayne’s family sought to quash the verdict of accidental death given after an inquest in December 1996. The jury found that Wayne had died of `left ventricular failure due to stress and exhaustion and positional asphyxia….following a chase and a series of restraints, in prone position, face down, as used in current police methods’.

On four occasions, Wayne had been held face down with his hands cuffed behind his back by officers. Despite the jury accepting his death was caused by police restraint, they found that the heart failure was an accident.

The lawyers acting for the family argued that the coroner made errors in summing up to the jury when instructing what they needed to find before coming to a verdict of unlawful killing reflecting gross negligence or manslaughter.

In July 1998, Wayne’s family were told that another inquest would not be held. The Court of Appeal upheld the initial ruling of accidental death as it was unlikely that the new inquest would reach any other verdict.

Lord Woolf, while accepting that there may have been ‘just enough sufficient evidence’ for unlawful manslaughter to be a possible verdict, he commented that the first inquest that was carried out in an exemplary manner. Woolf also said ‘…little more could be achieved by subjecting all concerned to the considerable expense and stress of a further inquest.’ He however denied the possibility of gross negligence.

The family said they had been ‘denied justice’. In particular Lisa Douglas Williams, Wayne’s Sister, said her family were particularly upset by Woolf’s comments on the expense of holding another inquest. She said, “A proper verdict on my brother’s death is far more important than money.”

No-one ever faced any charges for Wayne’s death. Because that’s the way it generally goes with the police, they can kill you and get away with it. And even if an outcry does force the powers that be to bring someone to court, the cop inevitably gets off, witness the acquittal of the shooter of Cherry Grice in Brixton in 1985. In 2008 Sean Rigg dies in Brixton police station in very similar circumstances to Wayne Douglass – held down in a prone position by several cops for eight minutes. In September this year the Crown Prosecution Service, after years of inaction, ruled there was insufficient evidence to prosecute any officer over his death. There’s always ‘insufficient evidence’. You’d really think they’d think up some new fucking excuses.

Contact: United Families and Friends Campaign (UFFC)

Sean Rigg Campaign

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