On the evening of 6 May 1987, anti-apartheid activists from the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s Non-Stop Picket of the South African embassy should have been rallying to protest against the white-only elections that were taking place in South Africa that day. That evening they did gather for that purpose, but their attention was on other things – the Metropolitan Police had taken the decision that day to ban protests directly outside the Embassy.
The immediate pretext for this ban was a direct action taken against the Embassy by three City Group activists. In protest at the white-only election in South Africa, Adam, Irene and Liz threw several gallons of red gloss paint over the Embassy’s main entrance (and, in the process, a policeman who got in the way). I have previously written about their first trial for this action, where the jury refused to convict them (persuaded by their political defence), and Adam’s subsequent imprisonment following the retrial, so little more need be said about it now. For me the action is significant because it did not just draw attention to the Embassy through a protest presence outside it, or attempt to noisily disrupt its normal functioning through the angry sounds of protest, it directly targeted the fabric of the Embassy building. The red paint powerfully symbolised the blood shed through the repressive maintenance of the apartheid system.
I do not know if Adam, Irene and Liz acted autonomously or whether other key activists knew of the action they had planned. Unsurprisingly, plans for the action are not recorded in the minutes of any archived meetings; nor has the planning of the action (yet) cropped up in any of the interviews we have conducted. In hindsight, though, it does not seem surprising that the Metropolitan Police reacted to the paint-throwing action in the way that they did.
In response to the paint-throwing, the police applied their powers of “Commissioner’s Directions” under the Metropolitan Police Act. This power, dating back to the Victorian era, allowed the Police to restrict any gathering within a mile of Parliament to allow the free passage of MPs going about their parliamentary business. In many ways it anticipated the protest exclusion zone around Parliament enacted by the 2005 Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA). Again, in hindsight, that the Metropolitan Police were seeking an excuse to use this power to restrict the Non-Stop Picket seems clear. A week earlier, on 30 April 1987, they had temporarily applied Commissioner’s Directions to force the Picket to move from its normal spot directly in front of the Embassy gates to the corner of Duncannon Street with Trafalgar Square (the northern corner of the Embassy, away from all its entrances). On that occasion they used the Territorial Support Group (the Metropolitan Police’s specialist public order squad) to forcibly move the protest. In the process they violently arrested two picketers – Lorna and Dele. Lorna was charged under Section 14 of the (then) new Public Order Act, becoming the first person in the country to be charged under this section of the Act. When their case eventually came to court, the magistrate (having seen the police video of the incident) dismissed the charges without even hearing the defence evidence and declared that the Public Order Act did not negate the right to peaceful protest.
On 6 May, having been moved under Commissioner’s Directions, the Non-Stop Picket – true to its pledge to continue a permanent protest at the South African Embassy until Nelson Mandela was released from jail – relocated to the steps of St. Martin-in-the-fields church on Duncannon Street, directly across from the Embassy and as close as they could get to it at the time. But, having fought hard over the previous year to maintain the Non-Stop Picket in the face of dozens of arrests, petty harassment and numerous court cases, City Group were not going to relinquish the site outside the embassy gates without a fight. They responded swiftly to this latest attack on their right to protest, drawing on their experience of successfully defeating a previous ban in 1984 through the South African Embassy Picket Campaign.
That evening, as City Group supporters gathered for the planned rally to protest against the white-only election in South Africa, following Norma Kitson’s lead, they decided to contest the ban with direct action. Twenty picketers (including most of City Group’s leadership) crossed Duncannon Street, defying the ban and attempted to continue their protest outside the embassy gates. They were arrested. The following day a further six activists crossed the road. Over the following eight weeks 151 picketers and their supporters defied the ban, resulting in a total of at least 171 arrests. Over the coming weeks this blog will recount various episodes from this important (and ultimately successful) campaign to defend the right to protest.
Were you amongst the picketers who crossed the road on 6 May 1987? Please share your story.