Although the Metropolitan Police tried many tactics to curtail the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in the late 1980s, the Picket never had to endure the frequent eviction attempts that have characterised life at other long-term protest camps. The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group always maintained that the Non-Stop Picket was non-stop from 19 April 1986 until Nelson Mandela was released from gaol. That is true; although, there were a couple of occasions when the police did manage to briefly interrupt the continuity of the Picket.
11 March 1989 was one of those occasions. That morning, the whole Picket was arrested and all of the Picket’s infrastructure and equipment was removed. Other than a note in my diary from the time, we actually have very few details of this particular event (although Picket stalwarts are beginning to help piece events together). On each shift on the Picket, one picketer acted as the Chief Steward. One of their responsibilities was to keep a contemporaneous record of any major incidents on the Picket during their shift. These records often proved very useful in constructing the legal defense of protesters who had been arrested. Unfortunately (for us, writing the history of the Picket), when significant arrests did occur the steward’s notes were often passed to solicitors as evidence. The steward’s notes of this particular arrest of the entire Picket do not seem to have survived to make it to the archive. What does seem clear is that the police were on an offensive against the Picket around that time – the following day, the Picket was moved from outside the Embassy gates for seven hours when the police invoked Commissioner’s Directions.
Since first publishing this story (on 11 March), several former picketers have been in touch to offer further information. It appears that on this occasion in 1989, a lone picketer had been arrested for ‘littering’ (after dropping a cigarette butt on the pavement). This, of course, is not an arrestable offence. But the police took the opportunity to arrest the entire picket and remove all of its equipment. City Group’s Picket Organiser arrived a short time later, turned the corner into Trafalgar Square and found the Picket gone. He asked the police on duty where the Picket was and received a cheeky “what picket?” in reply. The arrested picketer(s) and equipment were traced to Bow Street police station and the equipment was ferried back to Trafalgar Square in a taxi within an hour, so that the Picket was firmly re-established.
City Group made a determined commitment to keep the Picket going at all times. But, during the winter months (in particular), the number of picketers on some night/early morning shifts could be skeletal, and there was a greater likelihood that someone might not turn up for their shift on the Picket. In such circumstances, the picket/rota organiser would be paged and they would either attempt to mobilize a last-minute substitute, or come out to offer relief themselves. Inevitably, this sometimes meant that sole picketers were left alone on the picket for a period. A lone picketer was highly vulnerable in relation to the police. It seems this happened on 11 March 1989 and the police opportunistically took advantage of the situation.
The only other time that long-term picketers remember the whole picket being removed was in the early months of the Picket, in 1986, when three picketers and all the equipment were taken into custody. Again, the Picket was replaced very quickly.
The following story about one ‘incident’ that disrupted the Picket’s seamless continuity was told to us by a former Cannon Row police officer:
I remember a particularly funny incident. The bin men used to come round early in the morning about 6 am. There was a solitary demonstrator who had an urgent call of nature. The bin men pulled up and I shouted, ‘any chance of clearing this rubbish ‘ (pointing to the boxes and leaflets left behind). 30 seconds later the pavement was cleaner than my dinner plate. The look of despair when the demonstrator returned was a sight to remember. I’m not proud of my actions but it was certainly amusing at the time.
While he claims not to be ‘proud’ of his actions, there is a certain amount of bravado to the telling of this ‘funny incident’. It is possible this officer was involved in one of the two incidents mentioned above, but neither of them fit with his description. Indeed, having checked with key City Group activists involved throughout the Picket, we can (currently) find no evidence to corroborate this retired officer’s recollections. It seems likely that if such an incident had occurred it would have entered picket-lore. City Group organised highly effectively to maintain a non-stop protest outside the South African embassy. While there was a protest there, day and night, for nearly four years, there were a handful of occasions (we think, just two) when the non-stop nature of the protest was very briefly disrupted by the actions of the Metropolitan Police.
This is an appeal to our readers: were you ever on the Picket when the entire protest was arrested and removed? Please tell us your story.