“I’m only doing my job”: a grandmother’s protest

South African Freedom Day has long been celebrated on 26 June. The day commemorates the general strike and national day of protest that the African National Congress called on 26 June 1950. It also remembers the signing of the Freedom Charter on that day in 1955. On 26 June 1987, Mary Barnett, a 71 year-old grandmother from London protested against apartheid in London.  Shortly after the protest, Mary wrote an account of her experience. Here I tell Mary’s story, in her own words – her statement was amongst the papers (relating to the work of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group) that Norma Kitson deposited in the Mayibuye Archive in South Africa, and which I began to explore last week.

Last Friday I watched on the box Becker go down and Lendl cling on. It showed how much it mattered to them. Yet they were only doing their job.

A very little while later I was under arrest. Banged up for nearly four hours in a starkly bare cell at Rochester Row Police Station. I told the policeman who finally let me out it was the first time I’d ever been held in a cell, he said he hoped it would be the last. I couldn’t say Amen to that. It’s a matter of principle, I told him. He said he understood, but he was only doing his job. (MCH95 Folder 1 8.10)

Norma Kitson prior to her arrest, 26 June 1987 (Source: Gavin Brown)

Norma Kitson prior to her arrest, 26 June 1987 (Source: Gavin Brown)

This may have been the first time that Mary had been arrested, but she had been active in radical politics for several decades. Norma and David Kitson had known Mary and her husband, Henry, during their time in the British Communist Party’s Hornsey branch in the 1950s. When Norma returned to London with her children in the mid-1960s, following David’s imprisonment in South Africa, Mary and Henry were among the friends and comrades who rallied round to support her family. Mary was an early supporter of City Group and participated in the 86-day non-stop picket in 1982. When funding for David’s fellowship at Ruskin College was withdrawn, she became a stalwart of the Justice for Kitson Campaign.

As a former press reporter I’ve seen the insides of many police stations, ancient and modern, and had dealings with the police. I thought I knew it all. The reality was much worse than what I imagined I knew.

As the jailer clanged the bolts and turned the keys on me in my roughly eight-by-eight [foot] cell I experienced a new and dreadful feeling. Claustrophobia, I suppose, with fantasies of flood, fire, my own sudden illness. I wanted to shout ‘let me out’. It would have made no difference. Ashamed of myself I took Forster’s life of Charles Dickens out of my handbag to read and try to calm myself. Dickens had a lot to say about prisons and prisoners. Apparently it hasn’t made much difference.

… I decided I must speak to someone and began to pound on the door. I was not the only prisoner beating a tattoo and it was sometime before the jailer returned and called a woman PC.

She did not open the door but mouthed that she could not hear me, My requests melted into incoherence. “I want to phone my husband; I know it’s my right, a phone call. I do want a solicitor after all. I can’t reach the bell. I’m dying of heat in here.” She seemed not to hear and just went away.

She was only doing her job. But was she? Were the police really doing their job by arresting me and 34 others for an alleged offence that had already been tested in the courts and found not to be illegal, namely picketing opposite the portals of the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square?” (MCH95 Folder 1 8.10)

Mary goes on, at length, to tell how in June 1984, on the eve of a visit to Britain by President Botha, the Metropolitan Police took action to prevent protests directly in front of South Africa House. She recounts the story of the South African Embassy Picket Campaign through which members and supporters of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group defied the police’s ban and kept returning to protest there. She remembers the many arrests, on numerous different charges, and the legal test case against charges of obstructing the police (in the execution of their duty to protect ‘the peace and dignity’ of the embassy). Finally, she remembers that,

Mr David Hopkin, chief stipendiary magistrate, dismissed the charge and said the police had exceeded their duties. He upheld the right of Londoners to protest outside the embassy. (MCH95 Folder 1 8.10).

One of the 34 arrests on 26 June 1987 (Source: City Group)

One of the 35 arrests on 26 June 1987 (Source: City Group)

In the context of this precedent, Mary began to explain the circumstances of her own arrest on South African Freedom Day 1987:

In May this year the police cleared the non-stop picket from outside the embassy. They took up their stance on the steps of St. Martin’s Church and the group began a peaceful protest to win back the pitch. Every Friday pickets cross the road from the church steps to stand outside the embassy until the police cart them off to the police station.

… I have picketed the South African Embassy on and off for years with City Group and the national Anti-Apartheid Group – I belong to both – and I reckoned it was up to me to join in. Along with the others I was charged with refusing to comply with the Police Commissioner’s directions (which negates the right to picket the Embassy) and with obstructing the police in the course of their duties.

None of us resisted arrest and I heard that Norma Kitson, who has been arrested more times that I can remember, was grabbed from behind and thrown into a police van in the course of her ‘non-violent’ arrest and had to summon a doctor at the police station. There have been other similar incidents, particularly against the black activists and there have been strip searches. (MCH95 Folder 1 8.10)

The significance of 26 June in the history of the South African liberation movement undoubtedly explains why so many British anti-apartheid activists (and one enthusiastic Canadian tourist who joined in off his own back) defied the ban on that Friday evening. Although we have several photographs that we can date to that protest, sadly none of them appear to include Mary Barnett.

Mary goes on to describe the indignities of her treatment in the custody suite – like many other City Group activists in a similar situation, she complains about being fingerprinted and asked for personal details that she was not obliged to provide. But, she seems most affronted at being called by her first name (rather than a more formal salutation); and complains that the lighting in her cell “made reading a penance”.

Throughout this project, we have often emphasized the youth of many of City Group’s core activists and the dozens of others who were the backbone of the Non-Stop Picket’s weekly rota. Mary Barnett’s testimony serves as an important reminder that City Group had supporters from many walks of life and a wide variety of ages. When they felt it was important, City Group’s pensioner-comrades were just as prepared to engage in acts of civil disobedience and direct action. Mary’s statement gives a sense of how she was motivated to take action and risk arrest as a result of her long-standing opposition to apartheid, her socialist ethics, and her personal loyalty to the Kitson family. She ends her piece with the following call to action, linking the struggle against apartheid in South Africa with the fight to defend the right to protest in Britain:

The old saying has it that for injustice to triumph it is only necessary for good people to do nothing. It behoves us in Britain, for the sake of the South African people and for our own sake, to be there outside the South African Embassy. (MCH95 Folder 1 8.10).

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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