Playing with fire: protesting against apartheid heats up (briefly)

With snow on the ground here in Leicester (and continuing to fall over much of the UK) the article I had planned for this week seems more apt than ever.  In January 1987, in the midst of one of the coldest winters for several decades, City Group activists tried to introduce a brazier onto the Non-Stop Picket on cold nights to keep the protestors warm.  I reported that story on this blog last year, but we have since found some additional material relating to it.

A postcard produced by City Group recording the first attempt to light the brazier (Source: Andy Higginbottom)

A postcard produced by City Group recording the first attempt to light the brazier (Source: Andy Higginbottom)

On 26 January 1987, Richard Roques, City Group’s Treasurer presented a report on the brazier to the group’s committee.  In it he described the first attempt to install and light a brazier in the early hours of Monday 12 January.  At 12.30am that morning, Richard attempted to light the brazier accompanied by Bob Crossman, the Mayor of Islington.  The brazier was promptly removed by the police and “reported under a 1839 act prohibiting lighting a bonfire”.  City Group spent £330 taking out an injunction against the Metropolitan Police and went to court on 16 January.  City Group were not successful in court.

When an attempt was made to light the brazier the following winter (December 1987), firefighters refused to extinguish the charcoal. The story of the police taking away a still-smoking brazier in the back of their van became part of City Group’s folklore.  Several former picketers who weren’t present that night have retold the story in their interviews.  Francis acknowledged the incident’s ‘legendary’ status in the context of a general description of night shifts towards the end of the Picket:

As the night wore on, fewer people were about, and even in summer, it got cold. The legendary brazier had gone before my time. (Interview with Francis, 25 November 2011).

Richard’s (January 1987) report outlines City Group’s next move:

At the following committee meeting (19th) we decided that we would bring the brazier down again to the picket in a weeks time and mobilise MPs to come down. As it stands we have Bob Crossman, Sharon Atkin, Westminster Councillors and possible attendance by Harry Cohen (MP), David Alton (MP) and Janet Boateng. We have sent a letter to Cannon Row police station from Louis Christian who states that she has advised us that it is not unlawful for us to light the brazier. We are now proceeding as we proceeded when we were reported for use of the megaphone and for collecting money. (Report to City Group committee, 26 January 1987).

As Andrew Privett described in his interview, whether the issue was use of the megaphone, collecting donations on the street, or the use of a brazier, City Group “played cat and mouse” with the police – pushing the limits of legality and repeatedly performing contested acts in the hope of securing them as custom and practice.

Tensions over the use of the brazier were also remembered by one of the small number of retired police officers who have been in touch with us.  This particular officer, who prefers to remain anonymous, was a young WPC at Cannon Row at the time, five years into her service with the Metropolitan Police.

Nights after the theatre and pub traffic had passed tended to quieten down considerably. Picket numbers were reduced to a handful just maintaining a presence and it could be a cold hard slog for all waiting for morning. I remember a brazier turned up at the picket during the colder months and seem to recall there was a standoff over it not being permitted and it being seized or removed but I’m afraid I can’t recall the specifics.

She continued, acknowledging that the police deliberately tried to restrict any infrastructures that would make picket life more comfortable and more permanent.  She too recognised that, at least between the picketers and the police who actually stood on point outside the embassy, this frequently degenerated into a ‘game’:

Initially the main points of contention were the picket’s continuous presence, was it obstructing the highway, tried and failed! Then the use of the megaphone, music and constant noise to disrupt those inside the building. The picket would try to creep out and take over more of the footway, the use of brazier as mentioned above. We would challenge anything that made it easier or more comfortable for them to stay there, to try and wear down their resolve but like us they just did their bit in shifts so it wasn’t quite so uncomfortable. The arrival of chairs, tables, sleeping bags, tents or tarpaulins – it was all up for dispute. They’d bring along something new, we’d baulk at it – games. (Email correspondence, 10 December 2012).

These comments offer some confirmation of the Metropolitan Police’s strategy for containing the Non-Stop Picket by reducing its facilities and the space it occupied to the bare minimum.  It also gives a fascinating insight into how some of the rank and file officers who policed the protest understood their role (and attempted to pass the time there).  Of course, on cold nights, they would tend to retreat to the relative comfort of a heated police van, leaving the picketers exposed to the elements.

A group of striking workers huddled around a burning brazier has become an iconic image of British industrial disputes in the 1970s and 80s.  Similarly, campfires – whether purely as a source of warmth, or as a focal point for socializing and discussions – are a central part of the infrastructure of contemporary protest camps.  The Protest Camps research collective have even made campfire chats a key aspect of their research methodology. Although the Non-Stop Picket had a longer duration than many protest camps, and City Group fought hard to develop a physical infrastructure for the picket that would make time spent there more comfortable, its location outside the embassy in Trafalgar Square precluded the development of many infrastructural elements that have come to define the physical appearance of protest camps.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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