As regular readers of this blog will know, the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy started on 19 April 1986. We have previously posted footage on this site of the march and rally that started the Picket on that day. To mark the anniversary of the start of the Picket, this is the first of a series of blog entries over the next week that will recall the rallies organised by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group in 1987, 1988 and 1989 to celebrate each year that the Picket continued.
The celebration of the first year of the Non-Stop Picket (unlike those in subsequent years) was actually held on the anniversary itself. On 19 April 1987, 400 people came together outside the South African Embassy to celebrate a year of continuous protest there against apartheid. During that year, the Picket collected over 300,000 signatures on the petition calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and all political prisoners in South Africa and Namibia, as well as for the closure of the South African Embassy. In that time, City Group donated £5000 to political prisoners and their families. But, City Group spent at least double that in legal fees defending the more than 100 people who had been arrested during the first year of the Picket. Some of those arrests resulted from direct actions on the Picket, where arrest was always a possibility, but many resulted from the picketers’ refusal to comply with attempts made by the Metropolitan Police to curb the effectiveness of their protests (by restricting where they could stand, when they could use a megaphone, or whether they could collect donations).
The first year of the Picket had been hard-won, but its celebrations were not allowed to go unchallenged. During the rally, a squad of Territorial Support Group officers from the Met attacked the Picket (if memory serves me correctly, they were trying to confiscate a small, ‘unauthorised’ stage from which the speakers were addressing the crowd). In the process, Steve Kitson, the son of David and Norma Kitson, was knocked unconscious. As can be seen in the accompanying photograph, Steve was dragged off to a waiting police van, still unconscious. In uproar, picketers demanded that an ambulance be called to attend to him. After considerable delay, he was taken to hospital, where he was kept under medical observation overnight. He was not charged at the time, but for good measure, the police insisted that he report to Cannon Row police station a week after the rally to find out if charges would be pressed against him. In the furore after Steve’s injury, a further ten picketers, including City Group’s Secretary at the time, Andy Higginbottom, were arrested – one, slightly ludicrously, for assaulting a police officer with a daffodil (a standard one, not the large prop in the first photo above).
Now, here’s where we need your help, dear readers – we believe that the final photo included in this entry is also from the Picket’s first birthday celebrations. Can you confirm this? From what we can piece together, during the scuffles (as the police launched into the Picket on that afternoon) one officer lost his helmet. Angered by the injuries sustained by her son, Norma Kitson later displayed the police helmet on a pole from which an ANC flag also flew. Whether this helmet-on-a-pole incident did occur on the first anniversary or not, the event inspired Picketers to pen their own parody of the spoof pop hit ‘The Chicken Song’ from the satirical television series of the time Spitting Image. But that treat will have to wait for another time…