An archive of petty harassment

Over recent weeks I have found myself reading over and over an internal document written for the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group in January 1990.  The document is entitled Record of Police Harassment on and around the NSP, 28th September 1989 – 4th January 1990.  It was written for City Group’s committee by Mark Farmaner, who was the Picket Organiser at the time, and is a detailed record of the Metropolitan Police’s treatment of anti-apartheid protestors during that period.

It is not clear exactly what happened or changed in late September 1989 that prompted the report to start at that point.  Mark Farmaner recalls that harassment was increasing at the time and one or two officers were perceived to be acting over-zealously in their policing of the Picket. He suggests that the City Group legal team recommended compiling the report believing it might be useful in pending court cases. My suspicion is that responsibility for policing the Non-Stop Picket shifted around that time, in preparation for the opening of the new Charing Cross police station.  For most of the four years of the Non-Stop Picket, the protest was policed by officers from Cannon Row police station (with their AD badge numbers); but all the officers referred to in the report have CX numbers.

Colette stands her ground (Source: City Group)

On each 3 or 6-hour shift on the Non-Stop Picket, one protester was designated as the Chief Steward.  They were supposed to provide political leadership to the picketers on the shift and they were responsible for the safety and integrity of the Picket.  The Chief Steward served as the main (officially, the only) line of communication between the Picket and the police officers protecting the South African Embassy.  In this role, they recorded details of any incident on the Picket in a notebook that was passed from Chief Steward to Chief Steward across the day.  These contemporaneous notes were, when necessary, used in evidence in court cases.  During the period recorded in this report, at the end of each shift the Chief Steward completed a report form about their shift noting who had been there, any new members recruited, any shortages of publicity materials that needed replenishing, as well as any incidents involving the police during the shift.  These reports were collected by the Picket Organiser daily and taken to City Group’s office for action.  Mark Farmaner’s report on police harassment was collated from the stewards’ notebook and the reports completed at the end of each shift. Interestingly, several of the incidents recorded in the report demonstrate a renewed attempt by the police to undermine the role of the steward as the point of reference for the Picket.

Taken in isolation, many of the incidents it records are quite petty, but as a single document it makes quite grim reading. In total it records (and cross-references) 45 police officers who were present at incidents involving 40 separate protesters.  Most of the officers cited in the report were only present at a single incident; a handful have five or more incidents attached to their badge number.

The specific incidents recorded range from petty insults and name-calling to the use of arrest under the Prevention of Terrorism Act to politically harass Irish protestors.  Some of the name-calling was simply personal and a little absurd – threatening to arrest one picketers because “he had an ugly face”, or another because he “had bad breath”.  Frequently, there were racist and homophobic overtones to the incidents.  One young Asian protestor, Selman, was racially taunted on several occasions and officers stood in front of him on the evening of 10th October 1989 talking loudly about “monkeys”.  On 5th December 1989, an officer followed a young Black picketer, Danny, up and down the pavement repeatedly asking “what’s that smell?” and making ostentatious sniffing noises.  On 28th September 1989, an officer arriving at the start of his shift greeted the predominantly male group of picketers present with a call of “hello girls, how are you?” in an affected camp voice. At other times during this period gay and bisexual men on the picket (myself included) were told they “had a nice profile”, called “paedophiles”, and blown kisses.  Although picketers from a range of social backgrounds were harassed during this period, those who were most vulnerable to police attention, and who were targeted repeatedly, appear to have been Black and Asian picketers, Irish protestors, and gay men.  Many of those who appear to have been targeted were younger picketers who were in the process of taking on more responsibility on the Picket and within the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group.  This may not have been deliberate, but it seems unlikely it was coincidental.  These small acts of harassment, these micro-aggressions, seem to have been used either to provoke arrestable offences or more generally as acts of attrition intended to undermine the confidence of younger protestors taking on leadership roles, and test their resilience.

Re-reading the report at twenty year’s distance, and seeing my name crop up several times (either as the direct target of harassment or as the steward on duty when incidents occurred) has been a curious experience.  Prompted by the details in the report, I remember some of the incidents vividly but not necessarily how they made me feel at the time.  I suspect, at times, I did feel nervous, angry and upset, but that I tried really hard  not to let that show to the police (not always successfully).  If I was steward at the time, I knew the routine, recorded the incident in the log book and tried to hold the political focus of the picket together.  On the days I felt more confident, more sure of the people I had around me, I probably got on the Picket’s megaphone and made a speech, drawing to the attention of the passing public that the police were harassing anti-apartheid protestors.  That was always a calculated risk, it could either escalate the situation or, by making the harassment public and visible, force the police to back down.  In a curious twist, responding to police harassment in this way often brought the Picket alive, made it more active and political, and led to more members of the public stopping to sign the petition, make a donation, debate apartheid or even join the protest for a while.

Overlapping with the incidents where specific picketers from minority groups were seemingly targeted as a result of their gender, sexuality or ethnicity, the report records many incidents when the fabric of the Picket itself was the object of police intervention.  Between the police and the picketers, the physical materiality of the Picket, the space it occupied, and the practices that constituted it were constantly contested.  In the very early months of the Picket in 1986 questions of where the Picket could be, when and how it could use a megaphone, and whether donations could be collected from the public had all been contested on the streets and in the courts.  In late 1989, during the period covered by Mark Farmaner’s report, many of these issues were tested again. With new officers involved in policing the Picket, picketers and particularly stewards worked hard to defend previously favourable precedents.  This may, in part, explain why police officers appeared to test the knowledge, confidence and resolve of newer, younger stewards and committee members.  Most hotly contested during this period was the space that the Picket occupied on the pavement.  Several officers took it upon themselves to try and push the Picket’s placards and donations bucket back towards the curbside (away from the Embassy) or to warn and report picketers for Highway Obstruction, if they were deemed to be standing too far forward.  Warnings for Highway Obstruction were used both to try to intimidate picketers but also to contain the Picket.  Despite some occasional tactical retreats, the report suggests that picketers worked hard to defend the established parameters of the Picket and to assert control over what they viewed as their territory.  When Lorna was approached by officers on 1 November 1989 and told to move back (behind the line of placards on the ground), she confidently replied that she would stand on the same line she had since April 1986.  After three and a half years non-stop picketing, City Group activists were (mostly) confident in determining for themselves where the Picket should stand.

Where the collections bucket and placards could be was sharply contested (Source: City Group)

The report on police harassment during the autumn and winter of 1989 is a useful resource for us in our current research about the Non-Stop Picket.  As we do our own archival research on the papers that have been stored from the City Group office for over two decades, it is fascinating to find individual documents that in themselves represent some kind of ‘archive’.  In reading it, and writing this blog entry, I have found myself questioning what the report ‘did’.  It seems to me, that through the act of compiling the report, the mundane records of daily life on the Picket during those months were transformed.  The individual entries in the stewards logbook and shift reports, when sifted, selected and placed beside each other in a systematic manner were used for political effect.  Patterns emerge from the document in how micro-aggressions were directed at individuals and groups of protesters; small acts of harassment are made intelligible as part of a systematic approach to policing long-term protest.  In these ways, the report will have had effects within City Group. It reminded activists that the policing of the Picket was political and will have shaped how they continued to relate to the police.  And yet, I also note that unlike other periods during the Non-Stop Picket when Black picketers and women activists were particularly targeted for harassment, no public use of was made of the document.  To the extent that the report was used at the time, it worked to consolidate City Group’s framing of its own activism.  In making the document public now, in what ways do I transform that material once again?

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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