Before Christmas, I wrote about a series of complaints made in December 1987 by the South African Embassy in London about the anti-apartheid Non-Stop Picket outside their premises. I quoted the reply to these complaints by an official at the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office who reminded the South African Ambassador that the British Government had no powers (at the time) to ban lawful protests. I noted that, unlike some previous occasions when the South African Embassy complained about the Non-Stop Picket, no new police offensive against the protestors appeared to follow this complaint. This is a useful reminder that the British state, during Thatcher’s third government, was not universally authoritarian in its policing of protests, nor was it universally sympathetic in its relations to the South African regime. There may well have been specific political and diplomatic reasons for the FCO’s lukewarm response to the South African Ambassador in December 1987 (I am still looking into that…).
This post offers a counterpoint to that argument. Here I want to examine two incidents that occurred within days (either side) of the Ambassador’s complaint and the FCO’s response. On both occasions, supporters of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and the Non-Stop Picket were assaulted – once by uniformed police officers in the course of an arrest; and once by a group of plainclothed men who claimed to be police officers on the London Underground. In noting that these events occurred around the time of the Ambassador’s complaint, I am not trying to imply that these events were directly and causally linked. However, I am presenting this series of events from December 1987 together to highlight that (despite the seemingly sympathetic response of the FCO) the relationship between anti-apartheid protestors, defenders of the apartheid regime, and the Metropolitan Police appear to have been particularly tense at this time.
In the first event, two black picketers were violently arrested during the early hours of Sunday 6 December 1987 after they confronted an individual who was displaying pro-apartheid placards opposite the Non-Stop Picket. Later that day, as details of the incident emerged, City Group issued a press statement condemning the police actions. It described the events that morning in the following terms:
Early this morning (6/12/87) two black picketers were viciously assaulted by Metropolitan police officers.
At 1.25 am TUNDE FORREST (22) and RONALD TOMLINSON (27) left the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy and approached a white South African who was displaying a placard on the steps of St. Martins-in-the-Fields church, Duncannon Street. The man is known to the picket as a supporter of the apartheid regime.
TUNDE and RONALD had just reached the steps when AD125 said: “I’m going to nick you, nigger.” He then hit TUNDE across the head with his helmet, threw him onto the ground, punched him repeatedly in the face and pinned him to the ground with his fist in TUNDE’s throat.
Up to 15 police officers arrived on the scene. Five of them punched and kicked TUNDE. He was then handcuffed and dragged along the ground, head down, across Duncannon Street and the full length of the east side of Trafalgar Square. As he was being dragged to a waiting police van, witnesses say he was screaming in pain and bleeding heavily. He was thrown into the van head first.
Meanwhile RONALD ran back to the picket to inform the picketers of what was happening. Police officers chased after him and arrested him. Inside the police van RONALD was punched in the face, kicked in the groin and a police officer pressed his thumbs into RONALD’s eyeballs.
On the way to Cannon Row police station, a police officer instructed another to punch him [the police officer] in the face so as to leave a bruise.
RONALD and TUNDE have both been charged with causing Actual Bodily Harm to two policemen.
TUNDE was examined by a police doctor at Cannon Row who found injuries consistent with a blow to the mouth and being hand-cuffed.
Today the Convenor of City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, Carol Brickley, said: “We regard this as a racist attack and we are considering the most serious measures against the officers concerned.”
(Press statement issues by City Group, 6 December 1987; capitalisation as in the original)
In September 1988, Tunde and Ronald were acquitted of all charges relating to this arrest. A complaint was made to the Police Complaints Authority, but they did not pursue it. Throughout 1988, and particularly the summer months, both Ronald and Tunde (along with a handful of other prominent black activists on the Non-Stop Picket) were subjected to continuing harassment and repeated arrests. City Group responded at that time with a high-profile political campaign – “Hands off black picketers” – which publicised, drew attention to, and critiqued the apparent targeting of black anti-apartheid protestors.
The second incident occurred a week later, on the evening of Monday 14 December. [Note: this was after the Embassy had complained to the FCO; but, as I have said, that is probably completely incidental]. The following account of these assault was published in the Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! Non-Stop Picket Bulletin produced by members of the Revolutionary Communist Group for distribution on the Picket:
On Monday, 14 December, two members of City AA, who are also supporters of Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! were savagely assaulted by three men who claimed to be police officers.
Jimmy Brosnan and Adam Bowles were on their way home from a City AA meeting when they were followed off the train at Green Park by three men. They were on their way to the Victoria Line when one of the three told Jimmy Brosnan that they were police officers and that he was under arrest for being ‘Drunk and Disorderly’; he was thrown against the wall, handcuffed and beaten about the face. These police officers poured spirits down his throat and over his head. Jimmy was then dragged to the southbound Victoria Line train. They said that they were taking him to Stockwell police station where they would kill him.
When they arrived at Vauxhall tube station, Jimmy was dragged off the train by the handcuffs. He had resisted being taken off the train and the three men had the train stopped and the doors reopened by shouting to the driver that they were police officers. Two of the three men then systematically assaulted him, kicking and punching him in the head. He was beaten unconscious.
Meanwhile, the third man told Adam that he was being arrested and was then handcuffed. Adam was dragged up the escalators where he broke away and fell back down the ‘up’ escalator with half the handcuffs still attached to his left wrist. The three men then disappeared. Jimmy and Adam both noted that the three men seemed very calm and controlled throughout the incident.
Passersby called an ambulance and both Jimmy and Adam were given medical treatment at St Thomas Hospital casualty ward.
This violent attack came just a week after two black members of City AA, Ronald Tomlinson and Tunde Forrest were beaten up by Cannon Row uniformed police. Both City AA and the RCG are determined to expose those behind this latest assault.
(FRFI Non-Stop Picket Bulletin, 78, 18 December 1987).
At the time of this attack, Adam Bowles was awaiting a retrial for his part in throwing a large volume of red paint over the front of the South African Embassy on 6 May 1987. Why exactly he and Jimmy were targeted on this occasion, or who exactly their attackers were, cannot be known.
If such assaults were intended to be (at least in part) intimidatory and to send a message to the picketers in general, they often backfired. As can be seen from the two reports reproduced here, City Group (and the RCG) responded politically and gained political capital from their reporting. Violent arrests of black picketers and assaults on anti-apartheid activists provided City Group with ammunition to support its claim that racism in Britain and apartheid in South Africa were closely linked. The group used such incidents as evidence to support their claim that the Metropolitan Police were not neutrally protecting the embassy as a diplomatic mission, but were acting politically to defend supporters of apartheid against their critics. Such incidents, and the publicity that surrounded them, served to strengthen anti-police sentiments amongst some sections of City Group’s membership. Whatever fears individual picketers experienced after such attacks, they tended to respond collectively with anger and indignation. Such attacks probably fostered a collective sense of righteousness more than they did fear and intimidation.
The assault on Adam and Jimmy was slightly different – violent arrests in the vicinity of the Non-Stop Picket were treated somewhat as an occupational hazard (even as many picketers appreciated that some of their number were more likely to experience them than others). But, a seemingly targeted assault on two picketers who appeared to have been followed from a City Group meeting probably did provoke a greater degree of anxiety amongst some picketers. Rather than dropping out of activism, those who were worried about this threat tended to take greater individual and collective responsibility for their security. As well as shaping how they understood their anti-apartheid activism politically, such assaults had emotional consequences for a wider layer of City Group activists than just those who were assaulted or witnessed the incidents. Knowledge of these incidents and precautionary attempts to prevent their repetition shaped how (and where) supporters of the Non-Stop Picket moved around the city.
As we enter the main interview phase of this research project, it will be interesting to see how former picketers remember their responses to these specific incidents and to other events like them.