Trafalgar Square has been a focus for protest and dissent since the 19th Century. This blog focuses on the history of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square in the late 1980s, but the square is also remembered for early anti-nuclear protests in the 1950s, protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and a host of other demonstrations since. This brief blog post remembers a protest that took place there on this day (31 March) in 1990 – what became known as the Poll Tax Riot. Although this occurred after the end of the Non-Stop Picket, the City of Anti-Apartheid Group were still regularly picketing the South African Embassy at this point and were there on the day of the huge poll tax protest.
Francis was stewarding the picket of the South African Embassy on that day and remembers the events of that afternoon in the following terms:
I was acting as chief steward and recorded everything as it unfolded in the steward’s notebook…I hope it still exists. I arrived on the picket quite early in the morning and a police officer walked over to tell me that we may have to move the picket to the steps of St Martin in the Fields if the demonstration turns out to be very big: Ha! Ha! Ha!
[The police] turned out to be real cowards; whenever they retreated, the doors of the racist embassy opened to let them in. Obviously the picket had to move, but I’m very proud to say that with the help of my comrade Hannah Caller, all picket equipment was saved! From time to time, someone asked if they could use our thick wooden blocks with anti-apartheid slogans as ammunition, (naturally for defensive purposes!) but they always accepted “no” for an answer with good grace. When the square got very crowded with demonstrators, we were moved to the steps of St Martin in the fields. There, Trevor took the megaphone and gave a speech on the history of demonstrations in Trafalgar square.
Former Non-Stop Picket activists tend to remember the day of the Poll Tax for several reasons. First, that several of them ended up getting arrested during the disturbances. Second, as Francis mentioned, that during the fighting the police retreated inside the South African Embassy on at least one occasion (thereby confirming for them their long-held views about police collaboration with the agents of apartheid). Finally, that at the height of the fighting, when the police had lost control of the Square, several attempts were made to set fire to the Embassy when windows in the southern wall of South Africa House (on the Strand) were smashed and the tourism posters were set alight. Having stood outside the edifice of the Embassy for nearly four years, with its fabric remaining largely untouched throughout (bar that red paint and some other incidents of graffiti), most Non-Stop Picketers celebrated this breach of the Embassy’s integrity.
It is measure of how much the Non-Stop Picket had drawn attention to the apartheid Embassy over the previous four years that many accounts of the Poll Tax Riot (by protesters) that exist on the internet note and celebrate the attempt to burn down South Africa House. Indeed, like Spartacus, they all seem to have been right there at the time.
Note: former City Group members (and others) may want to share their memories of the day in the comments. But, please don’t attribute any actions on that day to named others – let them choose to tell their own stories.