The Town Hall Demonstrations
The Anti-Poll Tax Unions were built up gradually between early 1989 and February 1990. During this period, most of the movement's public profile was in the neighbourhoods. But, as the date for implementation in England and Wales approached, activity picked up. Demonstrations were called in every region. In early 1990, anger exploded across South-West England. In Plymouth, a demonstration of over 10,000 people was organised by Hilda Biles, a former Tory voter; twelve local women organised a demonstration of 5,000 people in Paignton, Devon; 5,000 demonstrated in Exeter; 1,500 in Bath; 3,000 in Barnstable; 5,000 in Taunton; 1,500 in Stroud; Midsommer Norton and Radstock, with a total population of only 20,000, held a demonstration of 2,000 people.
In the months running up to implementation of the Poll Tax, over 50,000 people from the South-West attended major local demonstrations. On 6th March 1990, the day the council set the level of the Poll Tax, a demonstration was called in Bristol. 5,000 people gathered on the large green outside the Council House. A rally was in progress when the police decided to move into the back of the crowd, using a snatch squad to arrest one of the demonstrators. The crowd responded in unison:
The whole crowd turned the other way, and started running towards the police. People grabbed those who had been arrested and pulled them away. The police brought in reinforcements and charged the crowd with horses.
Danny Burns, extract from diary, 7/3/90.
This situation was inflamed by police tactics outside the Council House itself:
The entrance was blocked by four mounted police officers with rows of other officers on foot behind them. The presence of these horses in a crowded area was dangerous and provocative. The officers directed the frightened animals into the crowd, deliberately creating a crush which was aggravated by policemen pushing from the rear.
Eleanor Porter, letter to the Bristol Evening Post.
26 people were arrested. Both police and demonstrators were seriously injured. One police officer was kicked unconscious when he tried to make an arrest. Six more were dragged out of their van. PC David Wallis, who had served in Northern Ireland, described the situation as 'worse than Ulster'. From here, activity spread to the rest of England and Wales.
The next day 5,000 protesters massed outside Hackney Town Hall in London. As the police baton-charged the crowd, in an attempt to stop them from entering the council meeting, they were resisted by a hail of bricks, bottles and stones. The demonstration spread up the high street, and a general riot ensued. 50 shop windows were smashed. By the end of the evening, 56 people had been arrested.
Wherever councils met to set the Poll Tax, hundreds of demonstrators were outside. Large demonstrations were held in Newcastle, Lambeth, Southampton, Norwich, Southwark and outside most city Town Halls. Some were peaceful, others were attacked by the police and turned into riots. In many areas demonstrators forced their way into the council chambers and the meetings had to be abandoned. Kinnock responded as he did in the miners' strike. He said that people didn't deserve to be:
exploited by Toy Town revolutionaries who pretend that the tax can be stopped and the government toppled simply by non-payment.
The Guardian, 10/3/90.
Thatcher and the Tory press blamed the demonstrations on 'rent a mob' extremists but they never revealed where the thousands of demonstrators were rented from. The Town Hall riots didn't change councils' decisions to implement the tax, but they strengthened the movement by creating an atmosphere of defiance - a spirit of resistance which made its mark in Trafalgar Square less than a month later.
Riots In Trafalgar Square
We finally arrived in Kennington Park around 11.30. All thoughts of aches and pains went as we saw the people gathering, pensioners, young people, children in push-chairs, several wheelchairs, lots of family groups all in summer clothes enjoying the sun. Some had brought musical instruments and were giving impromptu concerts, the atmosphere was wonderful, no tension, no undercurrents... This was the day the people's voice would be heard.
Mrs. Sylvia Chaffey, St. Annes, Bristol, 31/3/90.
On March 31st 1990, a national demonstration was called by the non-payment campaign. 200,000 people turned up to the march in London and over 50,000 people joined the march in Glasgow. The sun shone for the whole day. The mood of the demonstrators was jubilant. We had been fighting for months on our own, and now everyone was marching together. People started to gather around midday.
As ever, they were greeted by the paper-sellers of the revolutionary Left. The park was lined with stalls. Local groups sold pamphlets, stickers and badges. Newsletters describing local campaigns were handed out to the crowd. There were thousands of colourful banners, some intricately woven with images of resistance, others spray-painted with crude slogans: ‘Fuck Off Maggie'. Anti-Poll Tax Unions were there from every conceivable locality. Tens of thousands had come from London, thousands more were bussed in from all over England and Wales.
In Bristol for example some local groups filled over two coaches on their own and in total Bristol sent over 60 coaches. The mixture of people at the demonstration was extraordinary: ex-striking miners; Greater London Pensioners Against The Poll Tax; bedraggled punks mingled amongst the well-dressed middle class. As the park began to fill, the noise level got louder. Musicians were playing Anti-Poll Tax songs. Slogans were being chanted to the rhythmic beat of drums 'Poll Tax, No Way! Don't Collect, Don't Pay!' — 'Break The Law! Not The Poor!'.
An old man wandered through the crowd holding a home-made placard which read: 'I exist on £47 a week. How can I pay the Poll Tax?' A campaign bus and a flatbed truck were parked up, one in each field of the park, surrounded by loudspeakers. Speeches were made by activists. Some of the crowd focused intently on what was said, others, disinterested in boring speeches, heckled or wandered to the back of the crowd waiting for the action to start. By 12.30 p.m. there were so many people, it was no longer possible to see the grass. The mood was confident but not aggressive. In each field a vote was taken — a statement of intent that the demonstrators wanted a peaceful march. It looked as if every hand in the park was raised. The march left the park at around 1.30 p.m. Initially the police took a low profile, but at 3.00 p.m. twenty people staged a peaceful sit down opposite Downing Street. The police carried out two brutal arrests:
A man in a wheelchair was attacked and arrested by the police, separated from his wheelchair and thrown into a police van. A woman was arrested and, in front of the crowd stripped of her clothes. Both arrests angered and incensed the crowd. It was an obvious police provocation of a peaceful demonstration.
TSDC, defendants' legal meeting minutes, 27th May.
300 people sat down, and then the police brought in the horses. Mounted riot police baton-charged the crowd. The crowd, angered by this violent provocation retaliated throwing sticks, banner poles, bottles — anything they could find. Young people, armed only with placards fought hand to hand with police. Some demonstrators were batoned down with truncheons, others had riot shields thrust into their faces. As the missiles began to rain down the police retreated:
The violence seemed to be following us around. Pedestrian isles were being torn up and real serious lumps of concrete being thrown at the romper-suited police. I found myself with rock in hand. The first I threw was aimed at a group of police. I watched it bounce off a shield. My second rock was more specifically aimed at their frontline. Again, it was well-deflected. I saw a rock strike a policeman's visor and he didn't even blink. The police were shielding themselves from the missiles raining down, but they were vulnerable to rocks aimed at their legs and midriffs. The police were taking a battering. Every now and then a policeman would crumple to his knees and the crowd would roar.
Rioter, New Statesman, 6/4/90.
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.
Poll Tax Riot pamphlet, 1990.
From 4.00 p.m. for over an hour, the police tried to force people out of Whitehall into Trafalgar Square with violent baton charges. At 5.00 p.m. the sky turned from blue to grey. Flames started to pour out of the Higgs and Hill Building on Trafalgar Square. Someone had climbed into the portacabins on the front of the building and set them alight. For a while, the whole sky seemed to be on fire. The crowd watched, mesmerised:
Flames from the burning portacabins leapt into the sky and smoke billowed towards Nelson's Column. Flames were also seen coming from the ground floor of South Africa House... firemen using jets and two turn-table ladders fought the blaze for three hours.
The Observer, 1/4/90.
The heat began to rise again when the police started to drive vans into the crowd:
We saw a white police van, which seemed to come from nowhere, drive down the road so fast we only had time to turn our eyes... to see it hit several people... I screamed and we ran behind the barriers as another van careered down the road, hitting a man down before our very eyes. I was absolutely shocked. I am normally a quiet person but this incensed me. I began shouting at them. Angeline had to hold my T-shirt pulling me back.
Bristol woman, letter to Dawn Primarolo MP, April 1990.
At the time I was standing on a black lion at the foot of Nelson's column. I surveyed the whole scene. Three to four police vehicles emerged from the Strand, travelling at speed — about 30-40 miles an hour. They literally cut through the crowd and there was nowhere for those in the way to go:
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... a body flew through the air 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 driver's side, screaming blue murder as the terrified officer inside wrenched the door closed. I spat, I banged on the windows... 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... a woman gently rocked her baby, rhythmically, protectively, as she made her way across the road away from the violence.
Poll Tax Riot pamphlet, April 1990.
Some demonstrators bravely ran up to the vans and covered the windscreens with their hands in an attempt to stop them. One was mown down and dragged along the ground by the police riot van. Another van reversed without warning into the densely-packed crowd. Missiles were thrown at them and about 70 people, enraged by these attacks, surrounded one of the vans and attempted to wedge barriers underneath it to prevent more people from being injured. They failed, and the police attack continued.
A demonstrator picked up a metal scaffolding pole and hurled it through the window. It glanced the head of the driver and went out through the other side. As the violent confrontations spread across Trafalgar Square, wave upon wave of mounted police charged the crowd:
I saw horses charge up the steps of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, where young children had been taken, supposedly out of harm's way. They made no attempt to disperse the crowd peacefully. They just came charging in.
Eleanor Mills, The Independent, 2/4/90.
The police were out of control, some thriving on the tension, others terrified:
It got worse, and I was frightened. The adrenalin took over. I tried to hurt them, to stop them hurting me. I felt like crying, but couldn't. I wanted to go home to leave them to it, but I couldn't.
Paddy Collins, Police Tactical Support Group, Metline — magazine of the Metropolitan Police Federation, September 1990.
As the evening wore on, the crowds were separated, and moved in smaller groups throughout the West End. Cars were overturned and shop windows smashed. Discriminating attacks were made on BMWs and Volvos, rich fur shops and jewellers. Other places were damaged too but, as I walked up Regent Street that evening, it was clear that most of the damage was against symbols of wealth.
Hundreds of people ran down the middle of roads, diving between the static cars. The task for the police got harder as it began to get dark. It was almost impossible to tell the tourists from the demonstrators. The police didn't take much care to distinguish. A woman sat on the curb with blood streaming from her head. She had been truncheoned down by the police because she had tried to pass through their lines to get out of the area. She had only come to the West End to do some shopping.
Tourists wandered around bewildered. A Japanese man emerged from the Underground station at Piccadilly Circus and asked me, 'Does this happen often?' By the end of the day, 341 people had been arrested and thousands were injured. According to the police debriefing (March 1991) 542 police officers were wounded:
More than 100 police officers were treated in mobile hospital wagons behind Whitehall at the height of the riot.
The Observer, 1/4/90.
The number of civilian injuries was never recorded. The arrests didn't stop on March 31st. Over the following days, the police, under the control of Commander Roy Ramm set up Operation Carnaby. Its aim was to track down everyone who had 'committed offences' who were not arrested on the day.
The police had 90 hours of video footage and 30,000 still photos. They drafted in 137 detectives and 12 solicitors to work on them full-time with a brief to investigate 18,307 offences. Operation Carnaby used the gutter press to do its work. Papers paraded 'mugshots' of demonstrators, with headlines such as 'Hunt the Rioters', 'If You Know 'em , SHOP 'EM'. The People newspaper of May 13th displayed the faces of eight men 'on the most wanted list of police':
Man 1: Wearing T-shirt inscribed 'Freedom, Justice, Peace.' Pictured in St. Martin's Lane demonstrating his love for peace by smashing cars with an iron bar and hurling bricks at the police.
Man 2: Dark brown hair and moustache. Wanted for serious assaults on police.
Man 8: Swarthy Latin or Mediterranean type with high forehead, unkempt brown hair. He is wanted in connection with the attempted murder of a policeman when a 20Ib scaffold pole was hurled through the front window of a police car like a spear.
Do you know any of these rioters? If so, give us a call now...
The pictures of all those described were spread across the front cover and inside front pages. This was 'trial by media' presenting a completely biased and distorted image of what happened. The example of 'Man 8' is a case in point. As I have described earlier, he was trying to stop a police van which was travelling at over 30 miles an hour through a densely-packed crowd which had nowhere to move to.
Scores of innocent bystanders had been seriously injured, some lying on the ground bleeding. In attempting to stop the van before it killed someone, this man was committing an act of great courage, yet he was accused by the press of attempted murder before he had even come to trial. Three of these men were later found not guilty by the courts. 17 photographs were published which led to 13 arrests.
Detective Chief Superintendent Roy Ramm said that 'we have so far identified close to 300 people caught on film clearly committing serious offences. We intend to carry on until we have traced all of them'. Operation Carnaby didn't intend to 'trace' them all however, they only needed to find people who roughly fitted the bill. This is demonstrated by the way the police carried out their 'dawn raids'.
On Thursday 21st June at 6.00 a.m. they violently broke into six flats in Stoke Newington, London. All the occupants were members of the Holmleigh Road Estate Anti-Poll Tax Union. Eleven were arrested. That day the local group put out a statement of what had happened:
In one flat, Anne Marie who's just come out of hospital with her ten day old baby was awoken as her door was sledgehammered in... eight cops rushed down the hall, assaulted her and pushed her into the bedroom still undressed, as they attacked and arrested her partner, Sam. He was taken away with his head bleeding. No cautioning, no warrants, no warning. The phone was kicked to 'stop you ringing for support'. The cops ripped out pages of her address book, took away her photos and said, in explanation, 'Poll Tax Riot'.
Alan, another local activist, lives on his own. Cops broke down his door, handcuffed him, smashed up his flat, floor, carpet, heating ducts, phone, kitchen-ware and stereo. He was arrested. The local police attempted to justify the raid saying that 'the whole area is an anarchist hotbed'.
Operation Carnaby provided an excuse for the police to intimidate known local activists. This aggressive response was also reflected in the police media campaign. The police officer responsible for the march, Deputy Assistant Commissioner David Meynell said:
I have never seen such sustained and savage violence used directly against the police. There was no pretence, it was a simple and brutal assault upon my officers.
The Guardian, 2/4/90.
The police declared that there were only 40,000 demonstrators on the march. Yet Trafalgar Square, which has a capacity of 60,000, was full to overflowing before the end of the march had left Kennington Park. It was in their interest to underestimate the size of the march. If it seemed smaller, then it could be written off as a demonstration of political activists, not part of a mass movement, and the aggressive tactics of the police would appear more legitimate. In addition to Operation Carnaby, an internal riot debriefing team was set up by Deputy Commissioner John Metcalfe. It:
consisted of 13 full-time officers. They interviewed 1,445 people over a period of several months, analysing information obtained on the Home Office Large Major Enquiry System to determine the sequence of events and catalogue suggestions made. Questions were asked about planning, briefing and initial deployment, incidents and police operations before, during and after disorder broke out, injuries, equipment, communications, transport welfare and support.
Metropolitan Police debriefing, March 1991.
A year later they produced a twenty page report. But despite all the time and resources available to the debriefing team, it didn't contain a single mention of casualties sustained by the public (three pages were devoted to police casualties). Yet, in Bristol, one demonstrator was in hospital for six months after the riot and is expected to be paralysed for life. Many suffered serious head wounds (some who I know personally).
Television footage showed demonstrators mown down by police vans and trampled by police horses and overall, there was a higher number of casualties sustained by the demonstrators than the police. In the introduction to his report, John Metcalfe states:
There are few places in the world where rioting on this scale would have been brought under control without loss of life or the use of draconian measures by the police.
The fact that no-one lost their life was a miracle. It was not a result of sensitive policing. It was a testament to the responsibility of the crowd, who shepherded older people and children out of harm's way, and who actively defended themselves against police brutality. If the demonstrators hadn't fought back in such a determined way, there is little doubt that someone would have been killed. If driving riot vans through thick crowds at 30-miles an hour is not draconian then what is? The police acknowledged in their report that these police vehicles:
raised the temperature of the crowd and coincided with an increase in the level of violence directed towards the police...
Police vehicles should avoid travelling through large crowds in congested areas to reduce the possibility of escalating violence.
But they refused to take any responsibility for the events which took place. Despite the numbers of injuries to demonstrators and the police atrocities captured on film, not a single police officer was prosecuted for their role on that day. Furthermore, senior officers took no responsibility for their failure to take action before the march.
When it became obvious that the demonstration was going to be much larger than the All-Britain Federation had anticipated, they requested that the destination of the march be changed to Hyde Park. This was declined by the Department of the Environment and the police, on the technical grounds that they had received less than a weeks’ notice. The fact that they knew they were sending 200,000 people into a space which had a capacity of only 60,000 suggests that the police attack was premeditated. If they hadn't wanted a riot they would have diverted the march to Hyde Park. This is another reason why it was in their interest to suggest that there were only 40,000 people on the march. This strategy didn't even satisfy the police who were at the front line:
I'll tell you what really got up my nose — the senior officers who let us take the 'treatment', and then publicly praised our restraint and fortitude in the face of abuse and violence, and then quoted the numbers of injured officers as a measure of their courage.
Paddy Collins, Metline — magazine of the Metropolitan Police Federation, September 1990.
The government tried to establish that the violence was pre-planned by extremists. Copies of the anarchist paper Class War were displayed to prove that there were elements in the crowd who were out to incite violence. They didn't mention that Class War and other groups have produced similar literature at every demonstration for the last ten years.
The Tower Hamlets Arts Project produced some interesting evidence to the contrary. They showed that it was ordinary people who were involved, and almost all had been provoked. Instead of focusing their cameras on 'the action' as the media did, they focused on sections of the crowd. They captured ordinary people listening to the rally in Trafalgar Square unaware that anything was going on in Whitehall. They recorded a change of atmosphere as the noise of the riot filtered through to the Square. At this point people turned their attention away from the rally and watched the riot.
When the riot got closer and they could see the police atrocities, they started to shout and, as the police advanced and threatened them personally, they began to pick up sticks and bottles and throw them. This was not premeditated violence, it was a progressive response to the actions of the police. But it was necessary for the government to make out that the riot was caused by extremists.
Their political strategy was similar to that which they employed during the miners’ strike. The miners too, were forced to respond to violence with violence and were then labelled as extremists. The government aided by Kinnock used this to drive a wedge down the middle of the labour movement which diminished support from other national unions, and gradually broke the miners' unity. Thatcher hoped to do the same with the Anti-Poll Tax campaign. By getting the Labour Party to denounce the violence, she hoped to split the Anti-Poll Tax movement down the middle. There was a clear attempt to link the violence with non-payment:
If you tell people to break the law by not paying the tax, you're not far off telling them to break other laws as well.
Norman Tebbit, Conservative Party Chair, 2/6/90.
The Tories tried to give the impression that ordinary people on the demonstration had been manipulated by non-payers. They declared that the non-payers had now been exposed for what they were, and called on those who rejected violence to reject non-payment. Kinnock quickly fell into line, saying that those responsible for violence should be treated as criminals:
I regard them and treat them as enemies of freedom.
The Guardian, 2/4/90.
But the Tories didn't realise how big the Anti-Poll Tax movement was. They assumed that its base was in the labour movement and they were wrong. As a result Kinnock's words didn't make any difference. Nor did the defensive statements made by Tommy Sheridan, the Chair of the All-Britain Federation, who said in a hastily called press conference, immediately after the march:
The majority of those who became embroiled in the running battles had nothing to do with our protest.
Sheridan feared the response of the public. Yet the first opinion poll to be carried out after the riot, showed that well over a third of people openly condoned the demonstrators fight-back against the police. The riot exposed the role of the police and was hailed by the foreign press as the end of Thatcherism. It clearly indicated how strongly people felt about the tax, and in its wake the Labour Party (ironically) gained its strongest lead in the opinion polls. Perhaps more important than all of this, the number of Anti-Poll Tax Unions trebled within weeks of March 31st.
The Defendants And The Trials
The atmosphere was electric and extremely sober at the first meeting. People realised that this was an immense task which was going to be taken on. You gain respect if you concentrate on your basic activity and do it effectively. We concentrated on our basic work and won the whole of the Anti-Poll Tax movement over to the TSDC. We allied ourselves with the movement, rather than any tendency within it.
Dave Morris, Trafalgar Square Defendants' Campaign, 25/4/91.
Building A Defendants' Campaign
341 people were arrested on March 31st. Another 150 were arrested as a result of Operation Carnaby. Most were charged under the Public Order Act. No legal preparation had been carried out by the All-Britain Federation. As a result, people who had never been arrested before, some facing charges of Riot (Section 1) or Violent Disorder (Section 2) with possible prison sentences of up to ten years, had to face the police with no idea of their rights.
When Steve Nally and Tommy Sheridan denounced those involved in the riot and threatened to hold an internal enquiry and expel from the movement any person or organisation which was responsible, many in the movement felt betrayed:
We are going to hold our own internal inquiry which will go public and if necessary name names.
Steve Nally, ITN, April 1st.
Our federation is going to be conducting an internal inquiry to try and root out the trouble-makers.
Tommy Sheridan, LWT news, April 1st.
Groups and federations from across Britain condemned the statements. Even the Lothian Federation, which had often supported the leadership of the All-Britain Federation, passed a motion of censure against them. After the statements of Steve Nally and Tommy Sheridan, the All-Britain Federation was not in a position to mount a defence campaign which could gain the confidence of the movement (let alone the defendants).
This was a serious situation, because if people didn't feel they would be properly defended, they would be reluctant to come on future demonstrations, and those who had been arrested needed immediate practical support. An organisation needed to be formed to do the job that the All-Britain Federation was unwilling to do.
The initiative to form an independent defendants' campaign developed out of informal discussions between people involved in the 3D communications network, such as Terri Conway (Islington APTU) and Dave Morris (Tottenham APTU) - and two others: Sean Waterman, who had been involved in the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign, and Alistair Mitchell, who was a defendant.
They decided to call a meeting at the Conway Hall in London. The meeting was well-attended by defendants and it quickly became clear that a serious systematic campaign was needed to get good legal advice to defendants, monitor all the court cases and fight the image of the demonstration which had been put about, by exposing the police attack. The meeting drew up a nine-point programme for action:
The campaign will:
1 Unconditionally defend of all those arrested on March 31st.
2 Be controlled by and be accountable to the defendants.
3 Be totally independent of any other organisation.
4 Seek support from the whole Anti-Poll Tax movement and all other sympathetic organisations.
5 Seek to co-ordinate the legal defence of all those arrested.
6 Seek to build a coherent picture of events of 31/3/90 from the point of view of those arrested.
7 Publicise the points of view of defendants.
8 Raise money for a bust fund, controlled by the defendants to cover their legal and welfare costs.
9 Ensure that at all future Anti-Poll Tax events there will be proper legal cover and support for anyone arrested.
This will include an office and workers to visit places of detention and look after prisoners' welfare.
TSDC newsletter, May 1990.
The leadership of the All-Britain Federation was not happy that an initiative had been taken outside of their control and immediately issued a statement to the Anti-Poll Tax movement calling for donations to a defence fund and campaign:
They thought that if they could raise the money then they could call the tune. But it was a destructive move because there was already a defence campaign which had been set up under the control of defendants. Apart from the fact that the All-Britain Federation had no experience of defence campaigns and their lack of enthusiasm, they were also the same people who had condemned the demonstrators for fighting back against the police and causing trouble. It's quite obvious that a large section of the defendants wouldn't have any confidence in something which was run by those people.
Dave Morris, 25/4/91.
But by the time the All-Britain Federation called its first meeting on May 12th, the Trafalgar Square Defendants' Campaign had issued its first newsletter, had held regular meetings of 20-30 defendants and had monitored the courts for three weeks. Only two new defendants turned up to the Federation defendants' meeting and, by the end of it, the All-Britain Federation was forced to support the Trafalgar Square Defendants' Campaign. This was a significant achievement because they disagreed in principle with two of the TSDC's fundamental aims. They didn't like the idea of a campaign which was accountable to the defendants — because they wouldn't be able to control it, and they didn't like the idea of unconditional support for all defendants.
The TSDC argued that unconditional support for all defendants was the only basis on which a unified campaign could be built:
You can't say, we support these people and not those people, or we support these people a bit and those people a lot. The consequences of this would have been disastrous. The most important aspect of a defendants' campaign is not setting one group off against another. You can't create an organisation, a struggle, a campaign without a strong feeling of solidarity, unity and mutual respect... You can't say the ones who were 'innocent', i.e. framed, are more important than the ones who were 'guilty' but were actually defending themselves, and that they are both more important than those who hate the police anyway because of their experience.
Dave Morris, 25/4/91.
The TSDC believed that it was not their job to make judgements about who was politically correct. Everyone had different views and perspectives and should have equal access to the decision-making process, to funding where it was available and to legal support. The views of each defendant were respected:
If some people hate the police that much that they want to have a go at them at every opportunity, that's not because they're born that way, or they're sent from Mars, it's because the police have created that feeling in the population by the way they have acted.
Dave Morris, 25/4/91.
The first task for the TSDC was to track down all the defendants. In the beginning they only had hearsay and newspaper evidence to go on. The Sunday Mirror published a list of all those who were arrested — obviously provided by the police. This was useful as a checklist, as it was extremely difficult to make contact with all the defendants:
Initially ten people were heard on one day. If proper legal backup had been done on the demonstration we could have reached every defendant in the first week. But by about the second month when we really got going, people were appearing in twos and threes, it was a race against time because people were getting spread out.
Dave Morris, 25/4/91.
About a dozen people volunteered to carry out the court monitoring process. They attended every hearing, systematically took notes of everything that was said, recorded the numbers of police officers and approached the defendants asking them to attend the now weekly TSDC meetings. These meetings were attended by both supporters and defendants but if controversial issues were discussed the defendants had a veto in the meeting. A series of national defendants' meetings were called which were attended by about 50 defendants.
By the summer, over 250 of the defendants had been contacted. The TSDC ran advice sessions on prison, produced legal briefing notes and mailed out the minutes of the weekly meetings to every defendant every week. A solicitors' group was established with a core of three, but at the peak of early activity they managed to get over fifteen solicitors involved. This proved important because the solicitors' group managed to get hold of over 50 hours of police videos and handed them over to the campaign. The police videos were crucial in getting a lot of people off, and a number of people in the campaign worked extremely hard editing videos and re-jigging them for particular trials.
The solicitors' group also got the Crown Prosecution Service to hand over a full list of all of the defendants and the names and addresses of their lawyers. The lawyers were all contacted and, although many were initially reluctant to co-operate with the campaign, they soon realised that TSDC had a lot of information which their clients needed. In July 1990, the Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers offered their Central London Office to the campaign. Appeals for money were made across the movement but, although most groups or their federations affiliated, they didn't supply the steady stream of money which was needed.
Nevertheless, 25-30 benefit gigs were held within the first couple of months and, by August, the campaign was organised and ready to deal with the more serious crown court cases. Most of the charges which people faced were under section one, two or three of the Public Order Act (Riot, Violent Disorder and Affray). The more serious charges were subject to a jury trial. The authorities who were nervous about subjecting the demonstration to scrutiny by juries attempted to get defendants to 'plea bargain', offering to drop section two charges if defendants' pleaded guilty to a section three charge. Dropping the charges down meant that people could only be heard in a magistrates' court.
In the event, a much higher percentage of the serious charges heard by juries were won by the defendant than those held in the magistrates' courts. It was clear from the start that the police had fabricated much of their evidence. In one case, in November 1990, a jury used a rare legal power to stop the trial of a man accused of beating up a policeman. A witness, who had been taken away in the same van as Mr. Hanney (the defendant) corroborated his testimony, saying that, in fact, it was he who had been beaten up — by the police!:
[PC Egan] hit him repeatedly. At some stages he changed to punching him with his right hand because the man was trying to cover his head. It went on for at least three minutes.
A medical report confirmed that he had bruising to his forehead, eyebrows and back, and a loss of sensation in his arm. The statements which the police produced in court were supposed to be independent accounts of what happened. PC Egan theoretically wrote his statement at Rochester Row, at 6.45 p.m., while PC Ramsay made his at City Road more than three hours later:
PC EGAN: We were deployed on a short shield cordon attempting to push a violent crowd of 500 plus north in Charing Cross Rd., WC1. All the time we were under prolonged attack of missiles consisting of bricks, bottles, pieces of concrete and coins. The order was given to charge into the extremely violent crowd. As we moved forward I saw a man whom I now know to be Roy Hanney. He was wearing an army-type jacket which was zipped up, and he had closely shaven fair hair. As he came to the front of the crowd, I saw him shouting at us which I couldn't hear due to the noise of the crowd. I then saw Hanney pull his right arm back and throw what appeared to be a lump of concrete into the police cordon.
PC RAMSAY: We were deployed as a short shield unit forming a cordon attempting to push violent crowd of about 500 plus north in Charing Cross Road. We were under constant fire from numerous missiles including brick, bottles, sticks and metal bars. The order was given to charge into a violent crowd. As we moved forward, I noticed a man I now know to be Roy Hanney. He had a close cropped head and an army combat jacket on. He came to the forefront of the crowd shouting and swearing at us. I couldn't make out what he was saying but he shouted in an aggressive manner. I then noticed him draw back his right arm and throw what appeared to be a brick into the police cordon. Myself and PC Egan ran forward with other officers towards Hanney.
The Observer, 11/11/90.
The police tried to suggest that any similarities were coincidental but, when the defence asked to see PC Ramsay's handwritten original it showed that 'shaven' had been crossed out and substituted with 'close cropped'. Most of the jurors responded with open laughter and in the middle of the trial they sent a note to the judge which said they had discussed the case briefly in the courtroom lift and were '...unanimously convinced of the defendant's innocence.' (The Observer, 11 /11 /90).
The judge stopped the trial. In another case, a police officer claimed to have seen a protester throw a brick through the window of South African Airways. Under interrogation he admitted he was 80 yards away in near darkness and he had identified the wrong building. This case was also thrown out of court (Stand Firm, January 1991).
In a case which was heard in July 1991 a student, Neil Fernandez, was charged with arson attacks on a Porsche 944 and a Jaguar XJ6. The Guardian reported:
The police officer's account of the timing of the three incidents was inaccurate. For the PC to have seen his client near the Porsche in St. Martins Lane, he would have had to have been able to see around a street corner, through railings and over a clump of trees.
The Guardian, 17/7/91.
The judge said that he would be referring evidence to the Director of Public Prosecutions saying 'There is a police officer in my mind who has committed perjury.' He too dismissed the case. While it was clear that many defendants had been framed, others who had fought back against the police bravely stood up for what they had done. Tim Donaghy, who was charged with Violent Disorder, said at the end of his trial:
The prosecuting barrister tried to convince the jury that this is just another criminal proceeding. Hell, no! The question that must be asked is 'Who broke which law and for what reason?' If I stand charged with riot and violent disorder, surely the frenzied baton wielding riot cops should stand alongside me? But no! The law protects a maniac who attacks the innocent indiscriminately with a horse or a van or a baton as long as he wears a blue uniform. I will neither condone nor feel remorse for what happened. The only possible course of action for us on that demonstration was to do as we did. What does upset me is that the last strands of democracy in this country are rotting. What hope is there for any of us if there is no way to peacefully oppose government policy?
Tim was sent to prison for three years but another case (which was heard in July 1991), went very differently. Michael Conway, a student and ex-miner, was cleared of Violent Disorder after claiming that he had acted in self-defence in order to protect the crowd from police baton charges. He admitted in open court that he had thrown missiles at the police and was shown on video doing so:
Mr. Conway admitted throwing four or five rocks. He said of one incident 'I didn't think this any different to self-defence. The whole point is the police caused this.' He admitted digging up part of the road to get more ammunition to throw, but said, 'I didn't walk away because I took a decision to defend the people behind me.'
The Guardian, 18/7/91.
Not only did the jury openly back his stand, but the judge also seemed to be sympathetic. In his summing up statement he said:
Is he the sort of man who would make a decision as to what he was going to do, or is he the sort of man who could have acted impulsively in self-defence bearing in mind the need to save himself from further attack and to save others?
The Guardian, 18/7/91.
This judgement came just a month after 39 miners were given £500,000 compensation for assault following the riot at Orgreave in 1985; the investigation into the West Midlands Serious Crimes Squad; police compensation for violent attacks at the 'Battle of the Beanfield' —Stonehenge; the release of the Birmingham Six and the Guildford Four; and serious doubts about the Broadwater Farm murder conviction. It supported growing historical evidence of police corruption. It was now common knowledge that the police made up evidence in order to secure convictions, and that they were prepared to attack demonstrators in protection of the State.
The lessons of these struggles are clear. If unarmed demonstrators are provoked and attacked by the police with batons, riot shields, horses or vans driving through crowds, they have the right to fight back. If, in some cases, this means digging up the road and throwing concrete blocks, then so be it. Often attack is the only effective form of defence and, as a movement, we should not be ashamed or defensive about these actions, we should be proud of those who did fight back.
The People's March Against The Poll Tax
After the events in Trafalgar Square, many activists pressed the All-Britain Federation to organise a follow up demonstration in Central London to reassert the right to demonstrate. Their response was inadequate. Five months later they called a 'People's March Against The Poll Tax'. The idea was modelled on the Jarrow Hunger March of the 1930s and more recently the 'People's March for Jobs'. People were to march in three legs from Glasgow, Liverpool and South Wales to London. It was suggested that they would symbolise the struggle against the Poll Tax. But, instead of a mass march involving the whole movement (which we had envisaged), it was to be restricted to 25 people from each starting point. Each marcher was to be kitted out with over £200 worth of track suit, shoes and underwear. This meant raising vast sums of money in advance, organising accommodation and transport for the marchers and calling demonstrations to send them off — a huge workload to place on a movement which was having to gear up to the court cases which were beginning.
Of the 75 marchers who finally took to the road, over 70 were supporters of the Militant Tendency. The march went ahead on Sunday September 9th. The marchers stopped off at towns and cities along the way and spoke at meetings which were arranged for their arrival. Jeannette McGuin who was one of only three non-Militant marchers on the Glasgow to London leg, left the march disillusioned, returning home after only three and a half weeks. She was consistently excluded from the decision-making and from speaking on the tour, and was disappointed that most of the people who the march talked to were already supporters of Militant (interview, 9 /5 /91).
She was also surprised that so few of those on the march came from Scotland, even though it was supposed to symbolise a Scottish rebellion. In the end, the Welsh leg of the march became the South-West leg, because the Welsh Federation was inundated with court support work and was forced to pull out. Bristol was asked to send off the march and organise a demonstration at less than two weeks' notice and, as a result this leg was even more shambolic than the Glasgow leg. The People's March was a purely symbolic action. Such actions can only work if they get a lot of publicity and with the exception of a piece in The Independent magazine, this one didn't.
The All-Britain Federation claimed that there was a news blackout, yet news items related to the court cases were printed and broadcast every day. The heart of the problem was that the march didn't enthuse people because the participants were a hand-picked club of 75 people. Ordinary people couldn't engage with it, because they had no role and consequently the press didn't pick up on it as an important event. The Anti-Poll Tax movement was successful precisely because it rejected this elitist form of organisation.
Brixton, October 20th 1990
While the shortcomings of the march could be accommodated, a bigger problem was that it was seen by Militant as an alternative to a major London demonstration. The Trafalgar Square Defendants' Campaign, The South-West Anti-Poll Tax Federation, and many other groups and federations argued that we had to be seen to be back on the streets and that, if nothing else, the arrival of the People's March in London could be used as a focus for a national demonstration. They also argued that the defendants needed a much higher profile.
This argument was rejected by the All-Britain Federation, whose only concession was that if London wanted to organise a demonstration they would not object. After a great deal of heated argument London agreed to organise a rally in Brockwell Park, Brixton for October 20th. But they were not interested in giving a high profile to the defendants. The route they chose didn't go past any of the courts; the publicity didn't mention the defendants or raise the issue of the right to demonstrate. This meant that something else had to be organised. The Trafalgar Square Defendants' Campaign called for three events.
Firstly on October 19th, the day before the Brixton demonstration, they called for an international day of action. Pickets were held in 15 countries. French demonstrators occupied the British Consulate; an Anti-Poll Tax demonstration was held in Switzerland during a visit of Margaret Thatcher; Dutch activists called a week of action against the Poll Tax which included benefit gigs, film shows and a demonstration outside the offices of British Airways. Pickets were called in Austria, Melbourne, Oslo and the USA.
On the day of the demonstration the Trafalgar Square Defendants' Campaign called for a morning picket of Horseferry Rd. magistrates' court which would march to the Brockwell Park rally and then march on to Brixton for a picket outside the jail, where most of the Poll Tax prisoners were being held.
The morning event was successful. Over 1,500 people turned up, demonstrated and marched peaceably to the Park — the largest court picket since the second world war. The rally itself attracted 25,000 people (which considering it hadn't been backed by the National Federation was remarkable) and at 3.45 p.m., 3,500 demonstrators set out on the march to Brixton Prison. As soon as the demonstration left the park the atmosphere changed. The police had earmarked the people participating in the prison picket as the troublemakers. 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.
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. 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:
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 police. 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.
Given the police provocation, and the fact that the only provocative action from any of the demonstrators had been to throw a couple of empty cans, this was a remarkably restrained response from the crowd — particularly as many had first-hand experience of the police brutality in Trafalgar Square. At 4.46, the police cleared the forecourt of the George V 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 Road 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.
Dave Morris, one of the main organisers of the demonstration was truncheoned over the head from behind, despite wearing a highly visible fluorescent pink steward's vest. By now the police were out of control:
16.58. Demonstrator lying on road with split head arrested (WL). Two demonstrators carrying Woman M with head wound toward ambulance in the clear lane of Brixton Hill. Police prevent woman M from entering ambulance. Man objects and is arrested.
17.05. Riot police in cordon across Brixton Hill North of Endymion Road shout 'We're on' (RM) and charge (LW). In this charge, young male arrested and handed to officers by the side. PC took him to van and was heard to say 'I don't know what I'm arresting him for.' Senior officer replied 'Arrest him for assault on a PC' The two officers were TW5 and YF143.
TSDC report on the October 20th demonstration.
[letters in brackets are initials of legal liaison volunteers].
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. I watched with a friend:
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.
Danny Bums, extract from diary, 20/10/90.
We were lucky. Others were badly injured. Over 40 police officers were wounded and, as usual, it was impossible to tell how many civilians were seriously hurt. 135 people were arrested, their charges ranged from Obstruction to Riot. 27 people were charged with Violent Disorder, an offence which carries a sentence of up to five years. This riot was not as significant as that of Trafalgar Square. But the way it was documented provides some important political lessons. As a result of a highly planned approach to defence, the TSDC was able to record minute by minute everything that happened. This meant that we could go onto the political offensive, and instead of asserting that the march had been attacked by the police, this time we could prove it.
A Planned Approach To Defence
The likelihood that the march to Brixton Prison would be attacked made it extremely important that effective support work was done beforehand. The TSDC ensured that detailed briefings were carried out. Stewards were sent information about what they were expected to do weeks in advance. 20,000 bust cards, outlining people's legal rights and giving a legal contact number, were produced, and distributed on the demonstration. The TSDC sent down its own video crew, which was trained to take pictures which would not incriminate defendants.
60 legal liaison volunteers (LLVs) were on site wearing highly visible pink vests. They carried two-way radios (linked to a 48-hour co-ordination centre) and were, consequently, in a position to call up extra support wherever it was needed. They recorded all arrests, and got names and numbers of witnesses as they were happening. As I have mentioned over 135 people were arrested, 120 were charged. That evening volunteers were sent to every police station to welcome those who were released on bail.
This high degree of organisation produced results. This time every single one of the defendants had made direct contact with the campaign within the first week. A meeting was held the day after the demonstration which was attended by nearly 60 defendants. The legal liaison volunteers were brought together after the demonstration to collate their information and witness statements. 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, 25/4/91
The following day the media carried two versions of events, contrasting strongly with March 31st, when most newspapers carried only the views of the police and the political establishment. At the beginning of 1991, the campaign realised that there was an increasing need to focus on prison support work. Up to then, solidarity work had been done outside the prisons, pickets had been organised etc., but no-one had thought much about what they could do for people inside.
In January 1991, a prisoners’ support group was set up. By April it was supporting 27 long-term prisoners. This involved finding out the views of the prisoners; seeing if they wanted support and publicising their details to the Anti-Poll Tax movement. It also meant offering practical support. The TSDC made sure each prisoner was written to at least once a week by members of the campaign and visits to prisoners were co-ordinated through the campaign.
Those who had been inside offered support and advice to those who were about to be convicted, and a newsletter was produced which published the letters of prisoners. The campaign needed a minimum of £1,000 per month just to provide basic welfare support to the prisoners. This paid for newspapers and books; a Walkman cassette player for every prisoner; £10 a month income (the maximum they are allowed). In addition to this some of the families were offered limited financial support for visits etc.
Supporters of the campaign believed that those who were imprisoned were in prison on behalf of those who were outside, and it was the responsibility of the movement to take care of them. Some would still be inside in three or four years' time, and there still had to be an organisation there to support them. The organisation which the Trafalgar Square Defendants' Campaign mobilised is a good model for future resistance movements. It made crystal clear that it is no good providing tokenistic support. It is the responsibility of any political movement to defend those who have fought for it. But this defence work can also have a political impact. If the campaign is well prepared and has accurate information it can go on to the political offensive and this will be vital to its success.