One of the pleasures of writing this blog is the opportunity it provides to record the stories of small incidents from the history of City Group’s anti-apartheid activism that might not end up being used in our other work. This is one of those moments. On the face of it, the incident we report here was relatively inconsequential; but it did lead to (one of) the first prison sentence(s) imposed on a City Group activist.
In 1985, the activist in question (who has asked to not to be named in relation to this story) was arrested for taking part in a symbolic direct action, a ‘die-in’, in front of the South African embassy. In her recent interview, she reported the incident in a very ‘matter of fact’ manner,
I was arrested for this lying down outside the embassy, murdered by apartheid, which is when I decorated the police cell and went to prison.
Following her arrest, she was only searched very superficially at the police station, and was allowed to take a marker pen into her cell. She claims the police knew she had a marker and she drew this to their attention. When they still didn’t take the marker pen off her, she decided to use it to pass the time and decorated the interior of her cell with anti-apartheid slogans. As can be seen in the photo below, part of the police evidence against her, the activist even records the details of this conversation on the wall.
She elaborated further on what happened next,
I got convicted of the lying down, obstructing the highway, and damaging the police cell, for which I got a fine, but I didn’t pay the fine and that’s why I went to prison. It was for about three days…Obviously people are scared of going to prison and if it were a long time obviously you would be scared, but the most I was going to be in there was a week. And bear in mind my sister was a Greenham woman and all her mates had been in there. So I wasn’t particularly perturbed.
With City Group’s support, she highlighted the political nature of her arrest and conviction, writing to the Labour MP, Frank Dobson, in November 1985 asking for his support,
I have been criminalised for my principles and will not back down now and pay money…I am not keen to go to prison but it seems to have become inevitable.’
When she eventually was sent to gaol, in December of that year, City Group organised a protest outside Holloway Prison in solidarity.
Although this was a relatively small incident, it is revealing in several ways. It demonstrates once again how direct action was central to City Group’s political campaigning, even before the Non-Stop Picket was launched. It reveals something of activists’ attitudes to authority and the police, with even the interior of a police cell being a potential venue for civil disobedience. The activist’s reference to her sister’s involvement at the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp demonstrates the extent to which direct action tactics and responses to legal proceedings were exchanged between different activist networks at the time. It was common for Greenham women to refuse to recognise the authority of the courts and be imprisoned for refusing to pay fines imposed for actions they felt were politically justified. The text of the graffiti, in addition to illustrating a particular attitude to authority, also demonstrates City Group’s ‘non-sectarian’ approach to anti-apartheid solidarity work – Namibia and Angola are mentioned alongside South Africa; Mothopeng and the Pan-Africanist Congress are offered support alongside Mandela and the ANC. This incident may only be a tiny fragment of the history of City Group’s anti-apartheid campaigning, but the graffiti speaks volumes about the group’s political approach.