Policing the Non-Stop Picket: more questions than answers

When I first conceived of the Non-Stop Against Apartheid project, my main intention was to record the experiences of former participants in the Non-Stop Picket.  I thought tracking them down and recording their memories would be more than enough work, given the time and resources available to us. We aimed to interview 35 former picketers, but (to date) we have managed to record 64 interviews, with the possibility of a few more to come. However, it quickly became apparent that it would be important to try to triangulate their stories of the Picket with evidence from other sources.  That’s where our initial Freedom of Information request to the Metropolitan Police came in.

We hoped that data from the police would help confirm (or challenge) the veracity of stories we were hearing from former picketers.  Too often, academic studies of social movements only rely on the narratives of activists, and we hoped to do something different. Later still, we decided to conduct a small number of interviews (now nine, in total) with retired police officers involved in policing the Non-Stop Picket.  It has been very valuable to hear and record their perspectives on the protest.  Their stories are complex, nuanced and, at times, challenging, but they still do not represent the ‘official’ police record.

In making our request to the Metropolitan Police, we hoped (at the very least) to gather some corroborating evidence about how the Non-Stop Picket was policed during its four-year duration.  At times, we allowed ourselves to entertain the hope that they might follow the lead of the Foreign Office and release partially redacted minutes of relevant meetings about the policing of the Picket.  The material released (prior to our research) by the Foreign Office has been very valuable in understanding the diplomatic pressure applied by the South African government with regard to the ongoing protests outside their embassy.

Policing the 1000 Days and Nights rally on the Non-Stop Picket, January 1989 (Source: Deirdre Healy)

Policing the 1000 Days and Nights rally on the Non-Stop Picket, January 1989 (Source: Deirdre Healy)

Our first, quite general, request elicited nothing. So, we tried again – this time asking more specific questions:

1)        How many people were arrested in the vicinity of the South African Embassy, in relation to anti-apartheid protests, between 19 April 1986 and 24 February 1990?

a)        Of these arrestees, how many were charged?

b)        Please provide a breakdown of the charges brought against those arrestees during this period.

c)        Please confirm how many of those arrested were subsequently convicted of offences.

2)        The relevant part(s) of the minutes of any meetings between representatives of the Metropolitan Police and representatives of the South African Embassy concerning anti-apartheid protests at the South African Embassy between January 1986 and April 1990.

a)        The relevant part(s) of any reports, papers or correspondence between these two parties dealing with this issue during the period stated.

3)        The relevant part(s) of the minutes of any meetings between representatives of the Metropolitan Police and representatives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office concerning anti-apartheid protests at the South African Embassy between January 1986 and April 1990.

a)        The relevant part(s) of any reports, papers or correspondence between these two parties dealing with this issue during the period stated.

4)        The relevant part(s) of the minutes of any meetings between representatives of the Metropolitan Police and representatives of the Home Office concerning anti-apartheid protests at the South African Embassy between January 1986 and April 1990.

a)        The relevant part(s) of any reports, papers or correspondence between these two parties dealing with this issue during the period stated.

5)        The relevant part(s) of any internal reports, papers or correspondence produced by the Metropolitan Police concerning anti-apartheid protests at the South African Embassy between January 1986 and April 1990.

That request was submitted on 7 March 2013.  The response came on 10 September, this week, and it is very useful.  In response to our first question, the police service released the following statement:

 [We] have today decided to disclose data for questions 1, 1a, b and c.  Please note the following:

·        Data only exists covering the period April 1987 to February 1990.  
·        Details were only recorded of those who were arrested and charged.
·        Where an individual was arrested and charged, information was not always available to denote whether this resulted in a conviction.  

The data is as follows: 1.  Between the period April 1987 to February 1990, 64 arrests were made in the vicinity of the South African Embassy.  As some people were arrested more than once, this amounted to 54 people.a) Of those arrested, all were charged. b)  The breakdown of the charges were as follows:     ABH on police
     Assault with intent to resist arrest
     Assault on police
     Assault occasioning ABH
     Affray
     Breach of probation
     Criminal damage
     Disorderly behaviour
     Highway obstruction
     Obstructing police
     Public order – causing harassment, alarm or distress
     Public order – fear of provocation or violence
     Street trading
     Threatening behaviour
     Using insulting words and disorderly behaviour.
c) Of those arrested, from the information available 34 were convicted of the above offences.

We now have some work to do to compare the number of arrests recorded in City Group’s files over the same period.  From the material we have seen, though, there appears to be a significant discrepancy.  Some of this might be accounted for by the number of people arrested and released without charge (as these, it would seem, were not recorded in the police statistics).  Certainly, in the months following the start of the police record (April 1987 onwards), City Group’s papers suggest a far higher rate of arrests.  From 6 May to 2 July 1987, the Picket was banned under Commissioner’s Directions from taking place directly in front of the South African Embassy.  City Group’s papers suggest that, in that two month period, at least 169 arrests were made during a campaign of civil disobedience to defy the ban and win back the right to protest outside the embassy.

The list of charges presented here is also of interest.  Although many of those charges are fairly common in the context of policing protests and demonstrations, the charge relating to ‘street trading’ is a little less orthodox.  Given time, we should be able to identify papers in the archive relating to some of the incidents that led to these charges (and the court cases that resulted from them).  In some cases, we will also have recorded interviews with the individuals concerned. Together, we should be able to tease out richer descriptions and analysis of the contexts in which these arrests occurred, ‘triangulating’ from multiple perspectives.

In response to most of our other questions, the Police state:

In accordance with the Act, this letter represents a Refusal Notice for this particular request. The Metropolitan Police Service can neither confirm nor deny that it holds any further information you requested as the duty in s1(1)(a) of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 does not apply, by virtue of the following exemptions:

Section 23(5) – Information supplied by, or concerning, certain security bodies
Section 24(2) – National Security
Section 31(3) – Law Enforcement

And there follows a detailed, standard explanation of each of these provisions in relation to our requests.  Our original Freedom of Information request, submitted in 2012, elicited the same response and went no further (despite our request for the Metropolitan Police to reconsider and an appeal to the Information Commissioner’s Officer).  For now, we are resisting the temptation to read too much into the terms of this refusal.

However, in relation to our questions 2-5, the police did agree the following:

With regards to Q2 to Q5, I have today decided to disclose documentation, relating to newspaper and magazine cuttings and pamphlets, which covers the period April 1988 – February 1990.

Attached to their email were two pdf files containing forty pages of scanned material.  We are grateful for the release of this fascinating material. Most of the material in the documents are scans of leaflets and (the front page of) newsletters produced by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, and a few produced by the Revolutionary Communist Group for distribution on the Non-Stop Picket.  In addition to these, there are copies of listings City Group had placed in City Limits magazine advertising particular rallies on the Non-Stop Picket.  There are a few copies of articles from the mainstream media about the Non-Stop Picket (most of these we have seen before; but one, from the Daily Telegraph is less familiar).  These articles all either relate to the rally in January 1989 that celebrated 1000 days and nights of the Non-Stop Picket, or refer to Mandela’s release and the end of the Non-Stop Picket.

In some ways, I am surprised that the Metropolitan Police has kept this information on file for two decades.  What stands out amongst this scanned material are copies of two circular letters sent to all members of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group.  The first, from April 1989, advertises the planned rally to celebrate the Non-Stop Picket’s third anniversary. The second, from October 1989, calls on supporters to gather and defend the Picket, in “a disciplined and orderly way”, against potential neo-fascist attack on Remembrance Sunday. Although not surprising, at the very least, these two letters may suggest that the Metropolitan Police had set up a ‘fake’ membership of City Group in order to access internal circulars.  But why were only these two letters kept on file, when City Group wrote to its members with far greater regularity?

If I am honest, my first reaction on receiving this material was slight disappointment that no greater insight into the policing of the Non-Stop Picket had been revealed.  The last thing I was expecting was a package of City Group’s own literature to be released by the Metropolitan Police.  However, with a couple of day’s reflection, I think the release of this material is still valuable for our research – the material appears to cluster around some events, but not others, from that period. Why?  We now need to compare this material to other archival sources we have access to, to look for patterns, and to think about what else was going on at the time of these particular events.  We had hoped that our Freedom of Information request might provide an opportunity for the Metropolitan Police to present their perspective on the policing of the Non-Stop Picket.  We still hope the police might release more information to us.  But, if we receive nothing else from their perspective, all that we will be able to do is analyse the material that has been released through a process researchers call ‘reading for absences’ – looking for what’s not there.

The information released by the Metropolitan Police this week is useful, but limited in scope.  On its own, it offers no simple answers about the strategic and tactical decisions that were made about policing the Non-Stop Picket.  It does, however, offer valuable clues for future research, new patterns to look for, and new questions to ask.

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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 Policing the Non-Stop Picket: more questions than answers

  1. John says:

    Fascinating. Having been a young ‘bobby’ outside SAH during the protest, it is interesting to speculate on the machinations that took me there! Hope it would be done differently these days!

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