Throughout the forty-six months of the Non-Stop Picket, the Metropolitan Police tried many ways of stopping the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group from protesting effectively outside the South African Embassy. In doing so, they were responding to political pressure applied to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office by the South African Embassy itself.
In the early months of the protest (in 1986), the Picket fought hard to defend where it could stand, how much space it could occupy, and how picketers could engage with the public. One of the key points of contention was how vocally the picketers could make their presence felt. The Picket was noisy – megaphones were used to engage passing members of the public in debate about apartheid; but, in the process, their amplified sound was also used to disrupt the ‘peace and dignity’ of the South African Embassy. Within ten days of the Non-Stop Picket starting in April 1986, the Embassy had complained to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office about the noise:
____ (South African Embassy official) said that the demonstration was an impairment of the dignity of the Mission; the noise from the loud hailer prevented the Embassy staff from properly conducting their business. ___ (FCO official) stressed the Secretary of State’s personal interest in the matter and our determination to enforce arrangements which, while protecting the demonstrators’ freedom of speech and assembly, met our obligations under the Vienna Convention. (Excerpt of a minute from ___ (FCO official) to Private Secretary dated 28 April 1986, released under the Freedom of Information Act).
In August, an official at the Foreign Office wrote to the Home Office on this matter,
As you know, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (CLAAG) has been mounting a “vigil” since late April outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square. The CLAAG has said that it will maintain the demonstration until Nelson Mandela is released. The group involved is small (normally less than a dozen people) but makes frequent and vociferous use of a loud-hailer.
The South African Ambassador has complained many times since April to the Foreign Office about the noise (the demonstrators are on the pavement beneath the Ambassador’s window). (Excerpt from a letter from ___ (FCO official) to ___ (Home Office official) dated 7 August 1986, released under the Freedom of Information Act).
Within this context, the police started using the City of Westminster byelaws about ‘noise pollution’ to attempt to curtail the Picket’s use of amplified sound. Technically, contravention of these byelaws was not an arrestable offence, and many picketers had their names and addresses taken by the police in order that they might be ‘reported for summons’. Nevertheless, some picketers were arrested for ‘noise pollution’ during this period.
Faced with these attempts to curb the effectiveness of their protest, City Group and individual picketers responded in two ways. First, they stood their ground and contested the use of the noise pollution byelaws on the streets and in the courts – refusing to be intimidated out of protesting in the way they saw fit. Second, they worked behind the scenes to challenge (within Westminster City Council) how the byelaws were being applied. On the Picket, dealing with the police’s use of the byelaws became quite playful, at times:
We played cat and mouse with [the police] – particularly over noise pollution. Once one person was warned for noise pollution, we would pass the megaphone up the line until the next person was warned. We knew that they had to warn each person three times individually before arrest.
The police probably found us irritating, but they were protecting the embassy of a criminal state. (Interview with Andy Privett, 12 March 2012).
When a group of picketers was prepared to work together like this, they could continue using the megaphone for quite some time before the police came close to making arrests (although this was always a gamble).
With these tactics being used on the streets, leading members of City Group conducted quieter political work on the issue behind closed doors. Even so, the focus was always on making attempts to curb the Picket’s noise unworkable on the streets. In October 1986, Andy Higginbottom, the Secretary of City Group, wrote to Andrew Dismore (then the leader of the Labour group on Westminster City Council, now a member of the London Assembly) asking him to intervene around the issue:
Since 18 August the police have taken individuals’ names and addresses over 40 times during office hours 9am to 5pm.
He continued by requesting that the Labour Group would,
agree a suitable weekday when councillors would again join us on the picket to test the police response.
While it is unclear whether the councillors did join the Picket to make a noise, in the way that was suggested, they did raise questions within the council chamber, challenging the political use of the noise pollution byelaws. The Labour Group on Westminster City Council responded by calling an extraordinary council meeting on 24 November 1986 to discuss concrete ways in which the Council could oppose apartheid (including material support for the Non-Stop Picket). City Group Singers performed (loudly) as the councillors arrived for the meeting – lobbying them with song. At this meeting, one of Andrew Dismore’s colleagues, Councillor Gavin Millar, had the following exchange with leader of the Council:
Councillor Gavin Millar: ‘How many people have been reported for prosecution or arrested outside South Africa House for alleged breach of Westminster byelaws, and how many of these have been convicted?’
Councillor Lady Porter: ‘Four people have been arrested, eighty-nine have been reported for prosecution, all ninety-three cases are the Crown Prosecution Service pending discussion.’
Councillor Millar: ‘Would the chairman explain the legal basis on which these laws are said to be applicable?’
Councillor Lady Porter: ‘No.’
This final response from Lady Shirley Porter seems telling (and must be read in the context of the earlier exchanges between Embassy officials and civil servants at the Foreign Office). City Group’s resilience in defending their use of a megaphone paid off. Lorna Reid was arrested and charged under the byelaws on 6 October 1986. Her case became a test case for the use of the byelaws. Jan Adams, a South African security guard employed by the Embassy gave evidence against her when she appeared in Wells Street Magistrates Court on 30 December. She was convicted at this trial, but won a subsequent appeal, when the judge and two magistrates ruled that the megaphone was not a noisy instrument compared to the background noise of vehicular traffic around Trafalgar Square. Following this judgement, the police intervention around ‘noise pollution’ tailed off (although the use of the megaphone remained contested for much of the Non-Stop Picket’s duration).
While City Group is best remembered for its noisy, confrontational protests on the streets of London, their alliance with the Labour Group on Westminster City Council around this case demonstrates that they also had the capacity for ‘quieter’ acts of political lobbying, campaigning and solidarity (with the Picket). Even so, the way in which the Labour Group raised this issue did not just address it as a local issue – in challenging the complicity of the ruling Conservative group on the City Council in attempting to silence City Group, they addressed local and global political issues simultaneously.
As a final aside, Lorna Reid’s role in contesting the application of noise pollution byelaws (and her ongoing vocal style of using the Picket’s megaphone) was celebrated in a couplet from the Picket’s ‘women’s rap’. Frequently, from then on, as she approached the Picket, Lorna was greeted with the refrain,
She’s Lorna, Lorna, you can hear her round the corner!