Heated solidarity

The winter of 1986/87, the Non-Stop Picket’s first, was a cold one.  The pavement outside the South African Embassy was very exposed to the elements – the wind, in particular, seemed to gather force as it crossed Trafalgar Square.  The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s protestors standing on that pavement had no source of shelter from the wind, rain and cold temperatures.  During the day, if there were enough people on the Picket, people took turns to warm up and dry out in local cafes, but on cold nights there were no such ‘luxuries’.

As ever, City Group was inventive in thinking about solutions to this problem.  With images of industrial picket lines in their minds, City Group took a decision to try to install a coal-fired brazier on the Picket.  Of course, City Group were aware that this innovation was likely to be hotly contested by the Metropolitan Police, so they ensured that a ‘celebrity’ supporter was there to witness the first lighting of the brazier and so were press photographers. 

In early January 1987, Councillor Bob Crossman, the Mayor of the London Borough of Islington attended the Picket in this capacity.  Once the brazier was set, a regular member of the Non-Stop Picket attempted to light it.  The police on duty promptly threatened them with arrest.  Next, Bob Crossman stepped forward and lit the burner.  The police did not threaten him with arrest, but did quickly extinguish the fire.  He later wrote a letter to the Metropolitan Police complaining about this discrepancy.

Lighting the brazier (Source: City AA Archives)

Following this attempt to light the brazier it was confiscated by the police. City Group spent £300 taking an injunction against them for the return of their property and went to court in pursuit of this case on 16 January 1987.  [Note: our archival research has not yet revealed what the outcome of this court case was – can anyone help us out?].

The next winter a further attempt was made to light a brazier on a cold winter’s evening – this time with comic results.  On that evening in December 1987 the pickets lit the brazier and the police on duty duly called the fire brigade to put it out. When the fire fighters arrived and appraised the situation they refused to extinguish the brazier.  Frustrated by this act of solidarity, the police then tried to extinguish it themselves.  They were not entirely successfully in this, so they decided to remove the brazier from the Picket, and drove off with smoke still billowing from the back of their van.

There is, perhaps, a tendency to think of solidarity as a grand gesture that makes a large political statement.  In contrast, the actions of Bob Crossman and the anonymous fire fighters demonstrate that small acts of solidarity (even if they are ultimately unsuccessful) can still be important.  In both cases, it appears that the Mayor and the fire fighters recognised the importance of the Non-Stop Picket’s cause and undertook small, mundane acts of care that were intended to make the pursuit of that cause easier.  In thinking about the flows of solidarity that passed through the Non-Stop Picket, it is as important to remember these small acts focused on the picket itself, as it is the demonstrations, donations and material aid for the liberation movements in South Africa.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Heated solidarity

  1. Brilliant stories Gavin. Don’t know if you remember but we did an over night one Saturday of the “Saturday pickets” – after Mandela was released. We resurrected the brazier for the night and I ended up seeing out the night shift and kept the brazier going until about 10 o’clock Sunday morning. The Chief Constable – can’t remember his name, the fat one with a beard – pulled up in his car and stormed across to the two cops on duty and said, “What the fucking hell are you doing allowing them to have that? It’s banned!”

    The irony is, I had no more wood to put on it and it was just about to go out anyway. Oh the joys of the picket!

  2. Pingback: The day being ‘Non-Stop’ stopped | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

  3. Pingback: Playing with fire: protesting against apartheid heats up (briefly) | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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