Yesterday I discussed the evolution of the policing of political protests, particularly in Brighton, noting that much improvement had been made but that there was still a considerable distance to go before the police performed their job properly in this regard. Today’s post is concerned with the tactics of those who would turn various public political events into a physical fighting ground for Their Revolution. Sometimes the established media calls these people Anarchists but that’s a slur on some of our greatest philosophers and some of my best friends. The people I’m discussing are just thugs really and, frankly, there isn’t a great deal of difference between them and the various fascist and racist groupings which they love to hate the most.
Not everyone who acts violently is a thug. Sometimes it is necessary, in self-defence or the defence of others. This is not only recognised in law but also our culture generally and rightly so. Therefore any discussion of violence by the public, as opposed to the police, at political events is fraught with complication. Clearly, there are more numerous occasions than would be appropriate to mention in a short blog post like this when the police have either started the violence or deliberately created situations where it would become inevitable and people have reacted accordingly. The most infamous example in recent times was the Poll Tax Riot of 1991 in London. This video is contains a record of how the day’s events unfolded and is narrated by some the demonstration’s organisers:
I wasn’t in London that day but I knew plenty people who were. The chronology of events described in that video and others like it (better ones, which I couldn’t locate this morning) prove beyond doubt the culpability of the police that day and the complete lack of investigative journalism by the mainstream media at the time. Regardless of the inflammatory policing before the events narrated from 22m onwards, anyone caught in or near the path of the police vans driving at speed directly into the crowd was, in my clear opinion, legally fully entitled to attack the vans, their drivers and supporting police in self-defence and the defence of others. Of course, at the time, the press coverage was such that the courts took a different view.
With the benefit of hindsight, the view that the police started the riot that day is generally accepted. This scenario has been so common and its consequences so serious that any discussion along the lines of today’s post can too easily be taken as a criticism of all unruly and/or riotous crowds. There are so many examples of the mainstream media failing to report events properly close to the time, that people on the ground often feel extremely defensive towards any critical point of view. With that context properly acknowledged, we can turn back to those who attend public demonstrations with the intention of physically attacking the police.
These people turn up at almost every demonstration which has a left-wing point to make. That’s hardly surprising. Traditionally, right-wing political views were not demonstrated on the streets, largely because they are already manifested in the rules by which our society is governed. That changed with the emergence of the Countryside Alliance. The joke that they were the armed wing of the Tory Party was funny because was obviously untrue. Since then other right-wing groups have exercised their democratic right to assemble and protest their views. Campaigners against the right to choose abortion have followed in the footsteps of their political cousins across the pond and taken to harassing women entering termination clinics, by holding static demonstrations outside. People bent on violence against the police do not join those groups. In the last few years an ultra right-wing group called the English Defence League (EDL) has begun to hold provocative marches. Although undoubtedly responsible for much covert violence, they themselves do not attract into their own ranks the sort of people being discussed here. However, they always attract large crowds of all sorts of people opposed to their racist views. The people looking for a fight with the police routinely join the resistance to the EDL and use the occasion to attack the police without prior provocation.
In the various political events I have attended, my worst experience of these people was in Plumstead, in October 1993. Earlier that year a racist gang had murdered Stephen Lawrence. There had been a rising number of racially motivated attacks in South-East London. It seemed clear that the British National Party (BNP) was behind these crimes, either directly or indirectly. Consequently, various community groups, trades unions, sections of the Labour Party and various other left-wing parties, came together and organised a demonstration against the BNP. The BNP had it’s headquarters in a bookshop in Plumstead. The march was billed under the title, “Close Down The BNP”. At least, that was the official title. There were plenty of leaflets circulating (we didn’t have a workable internet in those days) with the title, “Burn Down The BNP HQ”.
I cannot imagine any civil society which would permit a march with those intentions to get anywhere near its target. Any community which wants its police force to turn a blind eye to that sort of behaviour hasn’t got a police force as we understand the term. Nevertheless, I went along to the protest. I was young and, like many other people at the time, I was very angry about the lack of a clear crackdown on these racist thugs by the authorities. The police banned the march but the coaches were hired anyway and we all descended on London.
As usual, it is difficult to obtain accurate figures for the numbers on the day. The organisers claimed that there were 60,000. I think the figure was probably closer to between 8-12,000. Numbers do tend to fluctuate at this sort of thing. It’s not a football crowd watching a match. My estimate is based on me counting a section of the crowd when it was densely packed and then multiplying it up by physical space, from a vantage point on a wall in Wickham Lane. Whatever the true figure, the vast majority of people were not intent on violence against the police. To what extent they were intent on violence against the BNP was unclear. However, it’s fair to assume that had the crowd got anywhere near the so-called bookshop, it would have been dismantled, brick by brick. More than likely, anyone inside would have been murdered. We wanted revenge for the violence they had visited on our communities.
Faced with substantial numbers of people attending an unlawful demonstration, the police sensibly chose to route the march along a route which they could control. We marched down this picturesque suburban lane:
If the residents of Wickham Lane didn’t previously know about the proximity of the BNP’s headquarters before that day, they certainly did afterwards. Those that were in that day must have been staggered by the sheer weight of numbers and deafened by the noise.
At the end of Wickham Lane the police made another sensible decision and chose a spot that was easy to defend and provided us with an exit route to our left up Lodge Hill, where they had directed our coaches to take park up ready to take us home. Here’s the cross roads:
Of course, at the time it looked very different. The police blocked the road straight ahead, which took the most direct route to our destination. The road to the right, going up hill was also blocked and the road to the left is Lodge Hill. The police allowed us to walk a little way down the road straight ahead (Okehampton Crescent) and made their stand there. During the stand off between the crowd and the police, dressed in riot gear, I walked up and down the gap between the two sides. It was about two yards wide. I remember wishing I’d brought a camera because it would have made for some excellent photography. For a while, everything was calm.
However, the protestors were determined to make progress. When the pushing began, I found myself pressed up against a riot shield, with the pressure of thousands of people behind me and thousands of police officers in front. It was a frightening crush. I remember realising that the front row of a rugby scrum turned out to be little more than a cuddle compared to it. Somehow I managed to get back from the front line.
Then someone in the crowd made a clever announcement through their megaphone. He said, “There’s a couple of thousand of them and twenty thousand of us. If we coordinate ourselves, they won’t be able to resist our great force. Link arms and a-left!” Without any warning, we all spontaneously cried out, “Left!” As we did so, we put simultaneously put our left foots forward. The megaphone man cried out, “… and a-right!” We all cried out, “Right!” In this manner we walked effortlessly up the road. There was no shoving or violence in the normal sense of the word. The police could not resist the physics of the situation. We advanced ten or twelve steps like this. Suddenly it was going to be easy. The megaphone man called out again: “Now, untangle your legs!” That was a good idea, below waist height in the crush we were all caught up with one another. After 30 seconds, he started coordinating us again and again we were on the move.
This was obviously a tactic which the police had not foreseen. They reacted to it by charging the crowd with horses and arresting the man with the megaphone. Without him it was harder to manage the process but the idea had taken root and we took it in turns to call out the coordinating commands. It worked because we all took each step in unison. Although force was being used, it didn’t feel like a violent situation. However, it was getting increasingly dangerous. The pressure was immense. I felt an arm slip through the nook of my elbow and heard a short woman next to me asking if I could hold help her stay upright. This sort of situation is how people get trampled underfoot. Without warning the police horses broke though their side of the front line and charged us. We ran back to the junction and regrouped. The police regrouped and there was another stand off, this time with a wider gap between the two sides.
Whilst charging mounted officers into the crowd was dangerous, I could see why the police had done it. They couldn’t allow us to break through their ranks and burn down the BNP headquarters. They had allowed us space to the left at the junction to escape through. We weren’t taking that option. Instead we were clearly capable of overwhelming them, without resorting to an actual attack.
I was about two or three lines from the front of the protestors, when suddenly a brick dropped out of the air right beside me. It landed on someone’s head, gashed it and took them down. The crush had collapsed the wall of the old cemetery on Wickham Lane. Masked men, dressed in black had started to break the remnants of the wall up and were throwing them.
I suppose they meant to throw them at the police. I could understand their anger towards the police. We all knew that the police were racist. Even today, there’s evidence that large sections of the police still are institutionally racist. Back then, we knew that they had deliberately bungled investigations into racist crimes. If they’d have done their job properly, we wouldn’t have had to wait 20 years for Stephen Lawrence’s murderers to be convicted.
However, they weren’t throwing them at the police. They were throwing them at us. Plainly, they couldn’t throw their missiles far enough to reach the police lines. They stood behind those of us at the front and threw large bits of masonry into our own numbers. We called out, with increasing desperation, for them to stop. They shouted back that we should join them. Someone shouted a suggestion that they throw their bricks from the front of the crowd and not at the crowd but they weren’t interested. They just wanted to hurt people.
The person on the ground next to me was helped up Lodge Hill by various people, some of whom were holding their hands in the air to show that they were covered in blood. As soon as they had fled the scene, the police charged again. This time, it wasn’t a controlled maneouvre. It was a violent attack on us. As they charged in, they lashed out with their batons at anyone they could reach. They weren’t trying to get specific individuals, they were after all of us. To be fair, we had all chosen to take them on and push them back.
The stone throwers turned and ran with the rest of us. Then the police retreated to the junction, which again provided us with an escape route to up Lodge Hill. This episode became repetitive for the next few hours. During this time the stone throwers injured many people in our crowd and rarely hit a police officer or contributed to the general effort to push the police back. In my view, they created the riot themselves. Without their antisocial behaviour the police may have attacked us anyway but these people didn’t wait for that. Responsibility for the injuries and fear that day lies firmly with them. I’d estimate their numbers at no more than 30. That a group so tiny could cause so much trouble and not be held back by the vast numbers of ordinary people mystifies me.
Eventually the police must have decided that they had to move us out of the lane and towards where our coaches were. Another contingent pushed us from behind and we were corralled up Lodge Hill. They repeatedly charged us with horses. Although I’d had more than enough fear and loathing for one day, I was keen to stay put. I felt strongly that we had to make our mark, we had to make sure that the issue made the news. That certainly happened but not in a good way:
Incidentally, a word to the wise. I discovered that a crowd’s sudden unity can evaporate equally quickly. During one of the final stand offs, I called out to the crowd on Lodge Hill and asked them to recall that scene in the film Ghandi, where the protestors lay down in front of the British mounted officers. In the film, the horses refuse to trample on the people on the ground. I suggested that this was true and suggested that we all lie down. About a hundred people, maybe more did precisely that. I lay down at the front, looking towards the horses and thought, “this had better work.” Having encouraged this form of peaceful resistance, I didn’t feel able to abandon it when the horses charged again. Unsure of the film’s veracity, at the last moment I turned my head to cover it with my arm. I saw everyone else get up and run. I was lying down on my own directly in front of a dozen charging horses. They ran around me.
Occupy London made many mistakes but it did work out a solution to the problem caused by the thugs bent on getting punch drunk fighting the police. Immediately that we had occupied St Paul’s Churchyard, we received messages of support from various shady groups who declared that if the police came into clear us out, they would turn up and defend us physically. Privately, the activists who took on most responsibility for the various essential features of camp life asked them not to. Right from the start, there was much talk about how to deal with these people. We regarded them as agents provocateurs. The consensus view was that if anyone saw anyone being violent (without reason), we would stand back from them and point at them. Early on myself (and others, it wasn’t just the legal team doing this) spoke to as many officers as we could to inform them that we would facilitate their arrests. We made these communications as official as possible by tweeting the numbers of the police we had spoken to or videoing the conversations. From time to time, I’d hear someone say that if the police came in to clear us out, he’d attack them. Every time I heard that, I’d hear other people immediately tell them that if they did that, they would stand back, point at them and assist the police in arresting them. There was no violence.
At the recent so-called March for England by the EDL in Brighton on St George’s Day, more than a thousand people from all walks of life turned up to line the streets and boo and harangue the racist protestors. Me included. Amongst our numbers there were about thirty young men dressed in black and masking their faces. Doubtless some of these people were just worried about losing their jobs. Not all the objects thrown at the EDL came from their ranks (I saw one man open an upstairs window and throw a bottle at them). However, it is fair to say that yet again there was a tiny group of people who deliberately used violence against both the EDL and the police. They threw bottles and fireworks. Yet again, they weren’t too fussed about who they hit with their missiles. The EDL have persistently complained that a young girl was hit by a bottle. This claim has embarrassed the anti-racists organising the counter-protests that day. By and large they have been silent about it. Those bottles were gifts to the racists. They were thrown on several occasions. Some of them sailed directly over the thick heads of the EDL supporters and into the large crowd of Brightonians on the other side of the moving police kettle. More than once, I had to duck a flying bottle and a firework landed close to my feet. Whilst walking down North Street, I spotted my local MP, Caroline Lucas, and suggested that she stand back a little to avoid the flying glass. “We need you to be able to work hard for us in Parliament, not go to hospital“, was what I said.
We were rightly proud that both the then Leader of Brighton & Hove City Council (Bill Randall) and our local MP turned up in person to oppose the racists on our streets. What on earth was the point of throwing bottles at them? At anyone? As Plato famously put it, cui bono?
Clearly this tiny minority of thugs benefits. They get to have their excitement, in much the same way as football hooligans fighting have theirs. Previously, those parts of the police and our political classes who want ever stronger powers to control us, also benefit from this behaviour. That begs the question of how many of them are actually undercover police agents? Perhaps we’ll never know. Although the law on self-defence permits someone to strike first, the facts of the situations I witnessed in Plumstead and in Brighton do not give rise to that defence. In neither situation were we being attacked or under immediate risk of attack by the police (or anyone else) until these people became violent.
I’m heartily sick of having our rebel culture hijacked by these troublemakers. I’d like to see the Left discuss the issues involved far more readily. We must adopt solutions to the problems these people cause us. If we don’t, we’ll be permanently stymied in our ability to recruit others to our cause. For all its failings, the good people in Occupy London have provided us with a tactic which works. When we film trouble at demonstrations, we should unequivocally film all of it and make it all available publicly. If the police cannot or will not arrest the thugs and we don’t feel able to do so, we should stand back and point at them, so as to distance their behaviour from our beliefs. If we can do that on every occasion, it won’t take long before they stop trying to railroad our beautiful peace movement. Our inactivity shelters them and encourages them.
No wonder the vast numbers of people angered by the current crisis of capitalism still don’t join the ranks of political activists, socialist, Green, or otherwise. How on earth can we recruit if we can’t root out this systemic problem? Seven years after the Plumstead riot, I was working as a law reporter in London. During a pub lunch myself and the editor were encouraging the rest of the staff to become more politically active. One fellow declared that he would never get involved in any public demonstration because they so often turned violent. He told us a story about such an occasion in the road he grew up in. He told us that the protestors had broken up a graveyard wall to throw the constituent bricks at the police! I asked if he had lived in Plumstead and he said, yes, near there. I blurted out that I had been there that day and tried to explain what happened. He wasn’t interested. After our crowd had gone, the rain had come and the skeletal residents of the graveyard had emerged from the earth which had previously been hidden by the broken retaining wall. We hadn’t just broken the wall that day, we’d broken any chance of recruiting him and his neighbours to an active political life. Whether it is broken windows or dead bodies we leave behind, neither is a good calling card.
Brighton has long been at the forefront of the peace movement. That’s why the EDL want to parade around on our streets. They hate us and want to provoke us. Although this year we humiliated them, we also allowed them to argue that they have good reason to hate us. We need to tackle that issue properly before next year’s confrontation. The confrontation isn’t the problem, it’s the manner in which we handle it. We must raise our game. We need to stop avoiding our own issues about how we handle ourselves and the misguided people amongst us. Next year, the police may want to kettle the anti-racists again, as they did two years ago. We need to be clear that the violent idiots will be treated as the criminals that they are. Practical steps must be taken to ensure that Sussex Police understand there has been a definite change in our strategy. They’ve been making efforts recently to build trust with our activist communities. We’ve got to make some effort too.