After nearly two months during which the Non-Stop Picket was banned from protesting directly outside the gates of the South African Embassy, on 2 July 1987 the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group won back the right to protest where they chose. May and June 1987 was an intense period of civil disobedience and political campaigning during which City Group sought to overturn the ban on their protest. At least 169 people were arrested during these two months for crossing Duncannon Street (by various means) and attempting to re-establish the Non-Stop Picket in its preferred location.
The Metropolitan Police had used a piece of legislation known as Commissioner’s Directions to effect the ban on the Non-Stop Picket. Commissioner’s Direction allowed the police to disperse gatherings within a mile of Parliament to allow MPs to freely go about their parliamentary business. In the end, City Group found a novel way to use this law against the police in order to re-establish the Non-Stop Picket in front of the Embassy.
On Thursday 2 July four Labour MPs joined City Group’s defiance of the police ban on anti-apartheid protest. Tony Banks, Denis Canavan, Harry Cohen and Allan Roberts, carrying City Group placards, lined up to protest outside the Embassy gates. Television crews and press photographers were there in force, crowding around to witness their action. The senior police officer on the scene, Superintendent Little, chose not to arrest them. They were soon joined by Norma Kitson, David Reed and other leading City Group activists. Superintendent Little was forced to explain that Commissioner’s Directions did not apply to the MPs, but did apply to the other protesters. Nevertheless, while the MPs were present he declined to arrest the others. His compromise was to create a ‘designated area’ (a pen of police crowd control barriers placed to the north of the Embassy doors) where City Group could protest at that time. Norma and David stayed there protesting alongside the four MPs. Eventually, their work done, the MPs left the area and David and Norma remained. Half an hour after the MPs’ departure, Superintendent Little arrested David and Norma, under Commissioner’s Directions, for doing exactly what he had allowed them to do while the MPs were present. But, by that time, it was too late, City Group had re-established their right to protest against apartheid where they chose – directly outside the South African Embassy and not across the road from it on the steps of a church.
I learnt last week that City Group’s two-month campaign of defiance against the use of Commissioner’s Directions to ban anti-apartheid protest from Trafalgar Square is used as a case study in a number of legal text books on public order and civil liberties. I shall be tracking down those references when I get a chance to rummage in the law library. City Group’s campaign combined direct action to break the ban and make it unworkable, political campaigning to raise the issue and question the ban in Parliament and the media, and legal challenges to the charges brought against those arrested during the defiance campaign. With the ban effectively broken and overturned on 2 July, eventually all of the 171 charges brought against City Group supporters during the defiance campaign were dropped, thrown out of court or overturned.
Politically, City Group understood the police ban on their protest as an expression of British collaboration with apartheid. By making the ban unworkable, City Group activists believed that they were not only defending the right to protest in Britain, but contesting the British Establishment’s defence of apartheid’s representatives in London to go about their business unchallenged. This political analysis is highlighted in the slogan used on the posters [seen in the photos accompanying this blog] protesting the ban on the Non-Stop Picket – “Botha’s laws come to Britain“. But, having sustained the Non-Stop Picket outside the Embassy gates continuously for over a year, City Group members were fighting to regain control over a small patch of the city that they had made their own.