The Routemaster bus as an agent of direct action

Throughout May and June 1987, members and supporters of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group continued their campaign of direct action to try to overturn the Metropolitan Police’s ban on demonstrations outside the South African Embassy.  During the ban, the Non-Stop Picket continued, but was relocated to the steps of St. Martin-in-the-fields church, across Duncannon Street from the Embassy. 

In the first two days after the ban was imposed twenty-six picketers were arrested for defying it.  Over the following weeks over a hundred more protesters were arrested for crossing Duncannon Street and taking their protest directly outside the embassy gates.  The Picket’s regular Friday evening rallies became the focus for set-piece acts of defiance, but groups of anti-apartheid protesters took surprise actions at other times too.  Increasingly, they had to find novel ways of evading the police in the first place so that they could reach the embassy.  Quite apart from the important political objective of defending the right to protest, that game of cat and mouse with the police was part of the fun (both for those participating and their supporters observing from the vantage point of the church steps).  One tactic that was used on several occasions (and has been joyfully recounted in several of the interviews we have already conducted) was to walk a little way up Charing Cross Road, hop on a bus (invariably, without paying – why pay for the bus, if you are about to be arrested anyway?), and alight at the stop outside the front of the South African Embassy.  The open back platform of the old Routemaster buses allowed for the protestors to quickly get on and off the bus, and to speedily get into place outside the embassy.  In his recent interview with us, Andy Higginbottom, City Group’s Secretary at the time, commented:

City Group responded [to the ban] very well, the people involved did brilliantly and it was really quite a fun cat and mouse with the police – people getting on the bus – there was a bus stop just outside the Embassy and people were getting off the bus and suddenly appearing as Pickets.  I have very fond memories of all of that. It was very good.

The sequence of photos below illustrates beautifully how this tactic was used [I have not been able to identify the exact date of this action - if you took part, and can remember the date, please let us know].

Hopping of the number 29 (Source: City Group)

What I find interesting in this first photo is that even though the women are making no attempt to hide their placards, neither are the two police offices standing right beside them making any attempt to stop them.  They are allowed to take their places and protest, thus breaking the law.

Let the protest begin… (Source: City Group)

This photo captures the speed of events, with the sense that, with the pointing of her finger, the protest starts just as the final woman takes her place in the line.  I can imagine that, as they found their place outside the embassy, the women started chanting anti-apartheid slogans.

“Cannon Row hear us say…” (Source: City Group)

Police move in to caution protesters (Source: City Group)

The numbers of police ready to caution and arrest the women suggests that this action took place during a Friday evening rally and the police were expecting an act of defiance to take occur.  The police in this penultimate photo seem to mirror the earlier actions of the protesters as they filed in line to take their respective places outside the embassy gates.

Place mattered in these actions. Their aim was not just to defend an abstract right to protest, they attempted to defend a concrete site of protest that the Non-Stop Picket had fought hard to make its own over the previous year (and more).  In recent years geographers and other social scientists have developed a renewed interest in thinking about different forms of mobility.  This story is saturated with different mobilities – some chosen, some imposed and constrained. The police forced the Non-Stop Picket to move on 6 May 1987 and that sparked off a series of protests that required playful explorations of how to relocate to the Picket’s chosen site.  Those protests required moving across Duncannon Street without being stopped by the police in transit.  In the specific action recorded in this sequence of photos, the public transport system in the form of the Routemasters of the number 29 bus route enabled that mobility and played an unintended role in anti-apartheid direct action. 

The inevitable arrest shot (Source: City Group)
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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research, Interview material and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Routemaster bus as an agent of direct action

  1. Pingback: The Pavement is Our’s: ban on anti-apartheid protest defeated | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

  2. Pingback: Lessons of the anti-apartheid sports boycott for Palestinian solidarity | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

  3. Sylvia McNeill says:

    That’s me! Third from the left… I have never seen these photos before but remember the day; the routemaster and the arrest. Thanks for archiving these. It was great to be able to show my kids Amandla,
    Sylvia McNeill

  4. Pingback: Mandela Memories: connecting through protest | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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