This week marks the 24th anniversary of an important legal victory for City Group and the Non-Stop Picket. On 27th July 1987 Bow Street Stipendiary Magistrate David Hopkins threw out charges against two picketers, Tim Perry and David Markovitch. Both Tim and David had been charged with breach of (Metropolitan Police) Commissioner’s Directions and police obstruction when they had taken direct action to defend the right to demonstrate outside the South African Embassy.
On 6th May 1987, the Non-Stop Picket was moved by the Metropolitan Police under Commissioner’s Directions after red paint had been thrown on the Embassy doors by Adam, Liz and Irene, three City Group activists, in protest at the whites-only election in South Africa that day. The police used this action as a pretense to try to ban anti-apartheid activists from protesting directly outside the South African Embassy. The Picket relocated across Duncannon Street to the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields church, opposite the embassy.
City Group responded swiftly to this attack on their right to protest. On the evening that ban was imposed 20 picketers crossed Duncannon Street, defying the ban and continues their protest outside the embassy gates. They were arrested. The following day another six activists, including Tim and David, crossed the road. Over the following eight weeks 151 picketers and their supporters defied the ban, resulting in a total of at least 171 arrests.
Eventually, on 2nd July, the police were forced to allow the Non-Stop Picket to return to the pavement outside the South African embassy. On that occasion, four Labour MPs – Tony Banks, Denis Canavan, Harry Cohen and Allan Roberts – stood and protested against apartheid in South Africa and the ban on anti-apartheid protest in London. The police refused to arrest them. They were then joined by several key City Group activists, including Norma Kitson, Carol Brickley and David Reed. Although Superintendent Little, the senior police officer on the scene, explained that Commissioner’s Directions did not apply to the MPs, but did apply to the other activists, he declined to arrest them at first. He was finally forced to concede that City Group could protest in front of the embassy, but attempted to restrict that protest to a ‘designated area’ out of site of the main embassy entrance. Later, after the MPs had left, Norma Kitson and David Reed returned to the spot they had occupied directly in front of the entrance and were again arrested. However, by then, through a concerted campaign of defiance and direct action, City Group had defended their right to protest peacefully in front of the embassy that represented the apartheid regime in Britain.
The outcome of Tim Perry and David Markovitchs’ court case on 27th July, was an important step in vindicating the actions of those protestors who defied the ban on the Non-Stop Picket. Magistrate Hopkins ruled that peacefully ‘waving a banner’ did not impair the ‘dignity’ of the Embassy and the use of Commissioner’s Directions was unjustified. He not only dismissed the case, he awarded costs to the defendants. In response, the Crown Prosecution Service had little choice but to withdraw all 151 charges brought against picketers under Commissioner’s Directions. As City Group stated at the time:
“151 people were wrongfully arrested over a period of eight weeks. 151 people were wrongfully prevented from exercising their democratic right to demonstrate against apartheid outside apartheid’s headquarters in Britain. 151 people were wrongfully dragged off to police vans: some were assaulted; many were verbally abused. 151 people were wrongfully held for many hours in disgusting conditions in police cells” (Non-Stop News, No. 22, August 1987, p. 2)
City Group’s defiance of the Metropolitan Police’s attempt to ban the Picket says much about the Group’s politics. It draws attention to City Group’s commitment to peaceful direct action to confront the representatives of apartheid. It serves as a reminder that for City Group extending solidarity to those resisting apartheid in South Africa could not be separated from challenging racism in Britain or resisting state attempts to curtail the right to protest. This suggests that City Group’s practice of solidarity did not just flow in one direction – from the streets of central London towards southern Africa – but stemmed from an understanding that political change in Britain and South Africa were intimately linked.
Did you participate in the actions to defy the ban on the Non-Stop Picket in 1987? If so, please share your story with us in the comments section.