Obstructing the highway from inside a building

In addition to maintaining the Non-Stop Picket outside the South African Embassy, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group frequently protested at the offices of South African Airways in Oxford Circus. A favourite tactic was to occupy the airways’ offices.  In 1988, in particular, South African Airways was a frequent target of the group, with regular occupations, sometimes more than one in a day.

In early June 1988 (we think Wednesday 1st, but it could have been a week later), six City Group activists once again occupied the South African Airways offices.  Here is how their protest was described in the following week’s issue of Picketers News:

[They] stayed in the airways for about 40 minutes, the longest time yet.  The reason for the long stay was that the police were in a mess, trying to think up an excuse for either arresting them or for ejecting them from the premises.

This situation occurred because the campaign has taken legal advice, which states that the police have no right to remove us from the building, unless we are arrested for a criminal offence committed inside the racist airways. [One of them] told the police this and in the end the demonstrators were arrested for Highway Obstruction.

The grounds for the arrest are that they were causing an obstruction to the highway outside the building by their actions inside. (Picketers News, 10 June 1988, pg 2).

Presumably, the police argued that the visibility of the protest through the plate-glass windows of the airways’ offices had attracted a crowd of bystanders that was itself obstructing the highway. Certainly the Picketers News report opens by stating that the occupation took place “to the delight of many passers-by”.  It is not clear (from the papers in the City Group archives) whether these arrests ever went to court and, if they did, what the outcome was.  However, what we have discovered are a number of hand-written posters used by those who participated in the No Rights? No Flights! occupations, around that time, informing the police that their legal advice was that they were not committing an arrestable offense.  Once again, this demonstrates City Group’s willingness to make effective use of sympathetic legal counsel to advance their cause and enable their chosen methods of protesting against apartheid.  City Group was committed to breaking British economic links with apartheid South Africa and was prepared to take direct action in pursuit of that goal.  Just as the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy was highly visible in Trafalgar Square, the position of the South African Airways offices on Oxford Circus allowed the group to bring militant anti-apartheid activism to one of the busiest shopping streets in Britain.

Legal advice poster from South African Airways occupation, 1988 (Source: City Group)

Legal advice poster from South African Airways occupation, 1988 (Source: City Group)

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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Obstructing the highway from inside a building

  1. Gillie says:

    On a slightly sentimental journey this evening I found your blog. On my return from a year in the Transkei in 1982 I was an active member of the Anti Aparthied movement and went on to work with a South African theatre company. Though not a formal member of the City Group I joined with and remember the non-stop picket well.

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