One useful way for a protest group to gain sympathetic coverage in the mainstream media can be to enrol the assistance of a well-known and seemingly neutral observer. In June 1987 the novelist Lynne Reid Banks placed a feature article about the Non-Stop Picket in The Observer. It graced the cover of the ‘Weekend’ supplement on 21 June.
As I outlined recently, although Lynne Reid Banks was not a regular participant in the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy, neither was she an entirely neutral observer. Banks was a good friend of Norma Kitson’s and she had been persuaded to lend her support to the Picket on a number of occasions, especially when it seemed under threat.
The article in The Observer appeared under the headline “The day I lost my illusions” and the story focused on Banks’ experience of two events on the Non-Stop Picket – the first was the Picket’s first anniversary celebrations in April 1987, and the second was the commemoration rally for the Soweto Uprising on 16 June, during the period when the Picket was banned by the Metropolitan Police from its normal location directly outside the embassy gates. Her main argument was that the Picket addressed an important cause that most fair-minded people should support and that its fourteen-month duration at that point was a feat of remarkable endurance. She conceded that the appearance and conduct of some picketers might be off-putting to some of their natural supporters; and that she sometimes felt uncomfortable about the way picketers appeared to relate to the police. That was until the first anniversary of the Picket, when her sympathies for the police changed.
On ordinary days if one visits the picket, which I do occasionally (looking very middle-aged, middle-class and out of my element) there are a handful of kids there who to my eyes represent — to put it charitably – alternative lifestyles. This faithful little band stands in rain and shine, shouting slogans through a megaphone (when it is not confiscated), singing African songs, and chanting – “Close – down – this nest of spies! Stop their murders, stop their lies!” into the faces of the two bored young coppers on duty.
Lynne Reid Banks contrasts this sketch of ‘everyday life’ on the Picket with what confronted her when she attended the Picket’s first anniversary celebrations. That event clearly had a profound effect on her, as a description very similar to what follows was included in her novel Fair Exchange, which was published a decade later.
But on that Sunday in April, you could hear the roars as far away as Northumberland Avenue. Between 100 and 200 demonstrators crowded the wide pavement outside South Africa House. Most of them were young, white and defiantly scruffy, but there were a number of blacks and a sprinkling of ‘white-collar women’ like my friend Joan and me. People had been asked to bring daffodils as a symbol of solidarity with the detainees, but by the time we arrived most of the flowers had been trampled underfoot and the atmosphere was tense and angry.
[…] The demonstrators were milling about quite peacefully (Joan and I threaded through them twice , looking for Norma) but the language being shouted through the megaphones was, though not obscene, certainly furious and colourful.
Quite as much of it was directed against the police as against the Botha regime. Joan and I stood near the [scan is unclear] clutching our daffs and listening uncomfortably. It is never pleasant to hear ‘our’ boys in blue being slagged off as racist pigs, fascist bullies and Thatcher’s Judases. But I listened stoically because I happen to know the background.
Banks then describes in some detail the negotiations between the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and the Metropolitan Police when the Non-Stop Picket was proposed, and the limits that were placed on its operation from the beginning. She charts how, from very early in the Picket, there were confrontations over ‘obstruction’ and ‘illegal street collection’, and the numbers of arrests quickly mounted. She notes how young black picketers appeared particularly vulnerable to arrest and highlights how some women picketers had been strip searched during routine arrests. She argues,
These continual and worsening incidents, over a long period, convinced City Group that the police were taking orders from above to protect the hated embassy by treating the pickets as dissident rabble. Which, regrettably, is what they occasionally look and sound like, especially after some especially unpleasant arrests.
Banks accepts that the demonstrators were taunting the police during the anniversary rally, notes her discomfort, but accepts that it was probably inevitable after a year of arbitrary arrests (more than two-thirds of which, as she notes, had not resulted in convictions, by that point). But her understanding of what the police were capable of was about to change.
Nevertheless it was a shock when the raid happened. A large new group of police struck without warning from the rear of the crowd (i.e. from the road). They plunged in, grabbing about a dozen demonstrators, mainly black, and bundled them away.
The effect on me was like a shock-wave as the rest of the crowd pressed back from the epicentre of the struggle. And abruptly – as I was trying to move away – a policeman reached across the barrier and, seizing me by the arm and shoulder, shoved me forcibly to one side.
What had I done to be shoved? I felt furious and upset. Having been brought up to respect and trust our law-keepers, I couldn’t easily bear to learn, by the imprint of rough hands on my own body, that the gentlemanly days are over.
Shocked by her own, relatively modest, experience of rough policing, Banks’ attention is quickly drawn to her friend, Norma Kitson.
Now we heard shouts of “Ambulance” and I saw a tall, youngish white man being carried away by four policemen. Then I saw Norma in the crowd, looking frenzied. “They’ve hurt Steven!” she was shouting, and began struggling back to the ‘platform’ (which was only a bench on the pavement).
Taking the microphone she began a bitter tirade against the police line. “You’ve hurt my son! You’ll pay for this,” she hurled into their impassive faces. I’ve seen her angry before, but never this angry. My humorous, philosophical friend had become a firebrand, utterly fearless, despite a clout on the jaw she’d just received from one of the policemen carrying her son.
Having told her readers further details of the Kitson family’s history, including Steven‘s brief detention in South Africa, which led to the formation of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, Banks’ returns to the Picket and the Soweto Day rally.
Since then, the picket has been moved. Three over-zealous youngsters threw red paint against the embassy wall. They were not regular pickies but City Group wouldn’t disown then – this act was regarded as justified protest in view of what is going on in South Africa. The police claim they shifted the picket because of the paint-throwing, The pickets say they were going to do it anyway because the new ambassador said he wouldn’t take over unless the pickets were moved.
The three paint-throwers were, of course, regular picketers, but we’ll forgive Banks that embellishment. She describes how seventy picketers had gathered on the steps of St Martin-in-the-fields church on that Tuesday evening to remember the Soweto uprising and support groups of their fellow picketers who ‘crossed the road‘ in defiance of the police ban on the Picket. She closes her article by noting,
Norma was arrested. Again. Last time (Friday 12 June) she was fingerprinted once more, and held incommunicado for four hours. She deeply fears she may soon have to go to prison.
… When I left, the third contingent of 14 were ‘crossing the road’. The others had been marched away. It was not a pleasant sight for one who believes in freedom.
I am sure that, in large part, Lynne Reid Banks was genuinely shocked and shaken by the police actions against the Picket’s first anniversary rally and in the weeks that followed. But, I also suspect that, to some extent, she was playing to the liberal sensibilities of The Observer‘s readership. Nevertheless, as our interviews with former picketers have revealed time and again, experiences on the Non-Stop Picket profoundly changed the way that many participants related to the police. For several, that distrust of the police has been one of the most enduring personal and political legacies of their time protesting against apartheid.
As an aside, I recently interviewed Sam, a young picketer who was featured in main photo accompanying Lynne Reid Banks’ article. Sam was sixteen and still at school at the time. On the day after The Observer article appeared, he was summoned to see his headteacher. After taking out the newspaper article and reading out some choice quotes from it, including the caption to the photograph, from which the title of this blog post comes – “Being arrested is now a way of life”, the teacher sternly asked, “Do you know how it makes me feel for one of my pupils to be associated with this sort of thing?” As Sam tells the story, he offered a nervous, “No”, by way of reply, and was pleasantly surprised when his teacher looked up, smiled, and said, “Very proud, Sam, very proud”.