On Monday 18 August 1986 100 people gathered, gagged, on the Non-Stop Picket to preemptively break the silence that the Metropolitan Police were attempting to impose on anti-apartheid protest outside the South African Embassy. These attempts to silence the Picket by preventing protestors from using their megaphone was just one of the ways in which the Met harassed the protest in its early months. It occurred alongside attempts to prevent the Picket from accepting donations from the public, repeated harassment of black, female and gay picketers, and a catalogue of violent arrests.
As catalogued in City Group’s dossier 100 days and nights: a record of police harassment,
The police have persistently attempted to stop the use of the megaphone and the embassy have complained about it. We have no wish to disturb residents in the area, especially at night, but we are also determined that our message is heard. (page 3)
During the weeks preceding the break the silence protest, the police attempted to utilise three different sets of regulations to prevent picketers using their megaphone. They used breach of the Control of Pollution Act in order to restrict the use of megaphones at night. They charged a picketed under the Metropolitan Police Act (1839) claiming that she used “a noisy instrument to call people together” when she invited members of the public to join the Non-Stop Picket. They also worked with the South African Embassy to try to use Westminster City bylaws to prevent protestors from using the megaphone during the embassy’s opening hours. This approach to the local Council failed; although in this case the Embassy staff offered to appear in court against City Group protestors for the first time. This appears to indicate how much the presence of the Picket was disturbing the Embassy after just 100 days of continuous protests.
At a meeting held with the Metropolitan Police on 12 August 1986, Chief Inspector Frankton informed City Group and their legal representatives that, from the following Monday, police would begin taking the names and addresses of protestors using the megaphone. He made clear that he was pursuing this tactic in order to gather and provide evidence for the Embassy’s court case.
City Group’s response to this threat was the break the silence protest. From 9am on Monday 18 August, protestors gathered on the Non-Stop Picket wearing gags to symbolise how the Metropolitan Police and the South African Embassy were attempting to silence anti-apartheid protest in London. At midday, in front of the gathered media, the protestors removed their gags and sang protest songs, before a succession of City Group activists and their supporters began making speeches using the megaphone. Speeches followed by Jo Richardson MP, Sharon Atkins of the Labour Party Black Sections, David and Norma Kitson, Peter Tatchell and the author Lynn Reid Banks.
The police immediately backed down, and no protestors were reported for summons. The senior police officer on the scene, Inspector Perry, even told journalists that he had no idea where City Group had got the idea the police were trying to silence them. Despite his assurances on this occasion, picketers’ names and addresses were taken and reported for summons on at least 26 occasions during that summer. By the autumn, the police had found a new local bylaw to use in their attempts to silence anti-apartheid protest, and City Group’s refusal to be silenced continued on the streets and in the courts. Their use of the megaphone was partly as a political tool to inform members of the public about apartheid and the resistance to it; but, it was also a mechanism for disrupting the work of the embassy. Noise permeated the walls of the embassy quite effectively. Through their chanting, songs and speeches, the picketers never succeeded in closing down the apartheid embassy, but they did persistently disturb its work.