In Part VII of ‘Can’t Pay, Won’t Pay’, CHRIS ROBINSON examines the magnificent 200,000 strong anti-poll tax demonstration that turned into bloody violence in Trafalgar Square on March 31, 1990 which was used to try and smear the movement that was standing up against the Tory government, the rest of the political parties and their shadows in the capitalist media.
“Without warning, one of the riot vans drove straight into the crowd” – Dave Bennett, Northwich APTU
Make no mistake, the anti-poll tax campaign, despite the accusations of the rabid rightwing Tories and their shadows at the tops of the local and national Labour Party, was not a Militant front.
What Militant provided was the organisational backbone of the mass movement against the Tory tax. No member of Militant encouraged any violence or rioting in the campaign. We knew that riots only gave the ruling class the excuse to use violence as a means to demonise any organised revolt against the poll tax to enable them to label genuine working class anger as ‘lawless thuggery’. It would also justify Labour’s leaders stance and provide them with a further excuse not to support us and stand aside while the Tories carried out their vicious attacks on us. As the Kinnockites used the same way out not to come to the aid of the 1984-85 miners’ strike when they could denounce so-called ‘picket line violence’.
Militant, and most members of the anti-poll tax struggle, always called for peaceful demonstrations in the best traditions of the labour movement. We were always aware of those who would try to latch on to our movement – the anarchists of Class War, for instance – who would use any demonstration as an opportunity to have a go at the forces of law and order. We understood people’s anger at the poll tax as the expression of a pent up frustration against eleven years of Thatcherism, against Labour’s failure to organise a proper fight back, but we also recognised that the Tories would always use any riot as a way of portraying us as mindless morons, but it was never to stick.
What we condemned was the violence of the Tories that had cut a swathe through industry, creating unemployment and misery for working class families, for the poverty created by years of anti-working class policies.
This did not mean, however, that we were pacifists who intended to sit back and allow physical attacks on us, self-defence was always justifiable, especially when the attacks came unprovoked. Nobody could honestly condemn the sight of young miners, wearing little more than jeans and t-shirts, defending themselves against charging ranks of police (and soldiers in unmarked police uniforms!) fitted out in body armour, helmets and wielding batons and shields, backed by their own mounted force.
Since our first mass meeting at Northwich Memorial Hall in February, we had again brought in Militant members we had known during our time as a branch, and with their help we formed a new Northwich branch from our campaign against the poll tax. We were influential in the Northwich APTU, we instigated it, but we did not dominate it. There were non-Militants in the APTU leadership, but we did lead much of the way because we were the most experienced in the union.
During the publicity surrounding the Hackney riot, some people at our committee meetings – often attended by some forty people – didn’t like us to sell our paper at our stalls, yet ours was the only paper that provided priceless information from the national campaign. And, to be frank, when we spoke at meetings, people sat up and listened, and looked to us for leadership. We always tried to recruit people to Militant and did so successfully. Obviously, our methods spoke for themselves. Some people suggested we hide our paper because it would ‘put people off’. But we refused to hide.
Following our picket at the Floatel, George and I went to a rock gig at the Northwich Victoria Football Club. There, in between bands, I made an impromptu rallying call against Thatcher and the poll tax which went down really well and we sold dozens of papers and had more enquiries about Militant and the fight against the poll tax. We were not aliens from outer space, most people actually talked to us!
A buzz in the air
The next morning, we were up bright and early for our coaches down to London. Sixty-nine of us on our coach, and another coach from Winsford APTU. We had our banners and placards on board and off we set for the capital.
On our way down, we gathered forty-three signatures to apply for membership of the Labour Party. This, at that time, was Militant’s agreed policy, recruit for the Labour Party as our comrades were being expelled, recruit more socialists to maintain our position in the workers’ party. Their applications were never to be processed. The Labour Party must have received thousands of new applications from across the country. Obviously, they knew who was doing the recruiting and probably ‘lost’ the applications.
Also, while driving down, we used the coaches’ public address systems to remind people this was to be a peaceful demonstration and we should remain disciplined throughout. The first sign of violence or riot, people were advised to withdraw and return to the coaches.
It was a great atmosphere on our coach with a buzz in the air and plenty of anti-poll tax sing-songs. My mate Arthur, who had been involved at the beginning, seemed to have forgotten his marital woes, laid off the drink, and had adapted a few folkie songs with his own political lyrics, and led much of the singing.
We arrived at Kennington Park by about 11.30am where the demonstration was to assemble. On our way through London, we saw long lines of police vans parked up in side streets with police beefing up with riot gear. It seemed to us they were expecting trouble.
The assembly point in the crowded park was surrounded by dozens of coaches spilling out hundreds of protesters wearing a variety of anti-poll tax t-shirts, funny costumes, with people unfurling APTU and trade union banners, carrying musical instruments, drums, guitars. It was a real carnival atmosphere.
As the Northwich contingent got off our coach we were approached by members of the SWP who tried to hand out their own placards, their van was parked nearby stacked full of them, but we refused theirs, we had our own.
Once we posed for our own commemorative photos, we began to assemble behind our main banner and formed up behind other groups. It must have taken an hour or so to make our way onto the first part of the route. Once we started, we moved at a snail’s pace so packed were the streets, all the time accompanied by music, chants and singing: “We’re not paying the poll tax!” and “Maggie! Maggie! Maggie! Out! Out! Out!” and “What shall we do with the Tory poll tax?” Also, in naughty reference to Tory Cecil Parkinson’s sexual indiscretions who had had to resign from Maggie’s ‘Victorian values’ government: “Cecil! Cecil! Cecil! In out! In out! Shake it all about!” Topical.
Friendly police officers
We had our own stewards to keep formation and pace but, lining the streets all the way were friendly police officers – you could almost call them ‘bobbies’ without a hint of irony. Many of them joked with us, smiled, some even applauded us. One of them I spoke to said he and a lot of his colleagues supported us but couldn’t say so openly. There were thousands of shoppers along the way too, residents hanging out of windows waving, shop workers cheering us on and dropping change into our collection buckets. Cars and buses tooted their horns. People were still assembling in Kennington Park while the front of the march was arriving at Trafalgar Square.
It was a great day for reunions too. On the march were Martin Bates up with the Brighton APTU. Matthew Davies was down from Chester, just to underline the ‘great coming together’. There were lads I knew who were living and working in London in the building trade as there was no work for them ‘up north’. Our way was plastered with anti-poll tax posters. Grand, grim statues of history, as we crossed Westminster Bridge and neared the Houses of Parliament, were adorned with Militant and anti-poll tax placards. Churchill and Cromwell frowned down on us as we marched by. Frequently, the marching had to grind to a halt due to the sheer numbers of people – 200,000 – on the move. On the roofs of office buildings we spotted the police filming us so we waved and showed them our best sides.
We came to a standstill for a good half hour near Whitehall. We had no idea that, ahead of us, the police had cordoned off Downing Street and Whitehall itself. Part of our briefing on the coach had included advice not to stage a sit down protest as this would only provide the excuse for riot police to ‘wade in’. This was precisely what some elements intended. SWP and Class War types called on people – unknown to us at the time – to sit down near Downing Street. Little did we know that the beginnings of a running battle was taking place near ‘Thatcher’s Den’ as police began to truncheon and send in mounted police. Ignorant at that stage about what was going on, we were diverted around the opening violence.
We moved up Northumberland Avenue and into Trafalgar Square which was pulsating and crammed with our demonstrators. The march was still stretching way back along the route. The drums, whistles and chants rang in our ears as speakers like Tommy Sheridan and Tony Benn were stood between the grandiose lions beneath Nelson’s column. The sun was beating down and we marvelled at the total success of the turnout. We had collectively delivered the working class answer to Thatcher’s flagship that was already holed beneath the water line – eighteen million people were not paying the poll tax! In Glasgow, 50,000 were marching on that same day, with 200,000 in London, a total of a quarter of a million. George Deacon’s words at our Memorial Hall meeting in Northwich way back in February were still in my ears – “We did this!”. The ‘we’ now represented all the thousands of people across the country who had organised, rallied and campaigned, despite the sneers of the Labour leaders, against the cynical catcalls of the press and against the savage denunciations of the Tories. ‘We’, the working class, had delivered the greatest campaign of civil disobedience. The ‘Berlin Wall of Silence’ had crumbled.
The anger was organised and disciplined. On one side of the square scaffolding had been erected. A few individuals climbed lamp posts and onto the scaffolding. I moved over to St Martin’s in the Field to get closer to the speakers with my camera. I didn’t want to miss any further history in the making.
Something going on
Across the square I could see that there seemed to be some excessive movement in the crowd. I noticed a flurry of placards in flight over people’s heads. A few black banners of the anarchists were gathering, people were pushing back into us.
Through the chants, as the speakers’ voices were lost in the gathering, rumbling roar, more placards were flying – something was going on. I moved back to Northumberland Avenue. Police vans were racing up and down causing people to run and vault over the street barriers. The police vehicles were driving at about forty miles an hour into the crowd. I was horrified. How somebody wasn’t killed, I don’t know. Anger spilled over. As police vans moved into reverse, they were pelted by anything people could find, mostly harmless plywood placards or coke cans. A crowd gathered around one van and rocked it. I saw the van drive over somebody. There were screams of protest. Men up in the scaffolding were hurling down steel poles onto the street, miraculously not killing anyone. Police moved in with their batons and shields, horses charged through, people ran screaming, falling over each other. Ranks of police charged, lashing out at heads. Young men and women in trainers, t-shirts and jeans were getting pounded by armoured riot police. The horror of the police vans ramming peaceful protesters triggered a desperate fight back. Litter bins were thrown, shop windows went in, scaffolding poles hit police cars and protesters fell on each other. I had to get back and find the others.
Down Northumberland Avenue, the riot police lined up across the street blocking people from withdrawing to their coaches. I saw three policemen dragging a young man across the street beating him as they went, his girlfriend screaming at them. Bystanders joined in to rescue him. It was time to go. All the way back to the coaches parked up along the Embankment, mounted police rode through the streets as a man with a big drum chased behind them, scaring their horses. As I found our coach, we saw above the tall buildings, a huge plume of black smoke that trailed into the sky. It was 4.30pm. We were all back on board the coach and accounted for. Everyone agreed, it was a police riot.
All the way home on the coach radio, we heard report after report of the violence and the condemnation by politicians. We were subdued, but we didn’t allow it to spoil our day.
As the coach arrived back in Northwich, it dropped us off at the Memorial Hall, directly opposite the police station. There were three or four police cars across the street. We saw at least two policemen shaking their fists at us, news had apparently arrived ahead of us.
As George told the local press later:
“We didn’t want to get involved in any disturbances. We were going down for a peaceful demonstration to show our opposition to this unpopular tax. We had heard that members of Class War would be there and that they were likely to create trouble, but we wanted no part of that. We condemn the use of violence. It is not necessary and it allows the Tories to distract people away from the real opposition that exists against this government.”
“For four hours 200,000 people peacefully carried this message through the streets of London. No amount of press and television coverage of the violence can disguise that fact”, he said.
“It is true that a small and unrepresentative group of people attached themselves to the demonstration with no intention of supporting the aims of the organisers”, George reported, “However, it is generally felt by those who saw what happened in Trafalgar Square that tactics used by the police simply inflamed the situation. Many innocent people who had come for the rally were simply caught up in the crossfire or were victims of indiscriminate police methods”.
In the interests of so-called balance for those fainthearts who rounded on our APTU in the aftermath of the Trafalgar Square police riot, I’ll leave the final word to Dave Bennett who sent in a personal account to the press. Dave was a steward on the day and had no love for our Militant comrades in Northwich APTU:
“I was one of the people who attended the mass demonstration in London against the poll tax and I was appalled to see the way ITV and BBC edited the scenes at Trafalgar Square”.”
“I was there with around seventy other people representing Northwich APTU. My official job on the march was to steward the Northwich members along with seven other stewards and to help keep them together and away from any possible trouble from minority groups”.
“Official estimates of the number of people attending were between 150,000 – 250,000, not 50,000 as estimated on TV”.”
“The march began at Kennington Park turning into Lambeth Road. It was then to have gone along Millbank, straight up Whitehall, past Downing Street to Trafalgar Square”.”
“Only because of the sheer number of people, we were re-directed down Bridge Street to Victoria alongside the river then up Northumberland Avenue to the Square.”
“Where Northumberland Avenue joins the Square is the building which was covered in scaffolding and shown to be on fire on TV later in the day. The Square was already packed when we arrived and we were roughly in the middle of the march. We managed to move our members one hundred yards to the right of Northumberland Avenue”.
“So far, the march was extremely good-humoured with people from all over the country laughing and having a good time”.
“Some known anarchists began to climb the scaffolding to shout and put banners up on the scaffold itself. They were there for about twenty minutes, endangering nobody but themselves”.
“Suddenly, three police riot vans came into the crowd from Northumberland Avenue with their sirens wailing. They were unable to enter the Square because of the number of people so they retreated back up the avenue”.
“Then, without warning, one of the riot vans drove straight into the crowd at some speed. He drove round in a complete circle, driving over anyone who didn’t or couldn’t get out of his way, then disappeared back up the avenue”.
“This action obviously caused a mass reaction in the immediate crowd, so when the other two vans did the same thing the crowd began throwing bricks, bottles or anything they could find”.
“I actually saw the riot vans knock people down and drive over them”.
“It made me physically sick to see police drive into a mass crowd, many of whom were women and children, and just mow them down with their vans”.
“At this point, the trouble really flared up and fighting broke out. We were unable to take our members out the way we came in, so we made our way back to the coaches down the back streets. On the way out, we passed long lines of mounted police making their way to the Square”.
“Two of our members who were delayed in leaving the Square said that when the mounted police arrived, they just charged the crowd lashing out at people with their batons”.
“The riot police mishandled the whole thing and played right into the hands of the small minority who wanted to turn the peaceful mass demonstration into a riot”.
“I would also like to stress that no one from the Northwich APTU was involved in or agree with violence of any kind to achieve the abolition of the poll tax”.
Of course, in the wake of the national media furore about the ‘poll tax riot’ the likes of Neil Hamilton jumped up to plunge in his dagger accusing the APTU of the age old chestnut of being a ‘Militant front’, that good citizens were being ‘manipulated’ by socialist revolutionaries as if they had no minds of their own. He called for the ‘leading lights’ of the Northwich APTU to be kicked out of the Labour Party.
He was aided by Labour councillor Janet Mather who helpfully informed the local press that: “We collected a fair amount of evidence against supporters of Militant and presented it to the national Labour Party. We have heard that it is still looking into it”.
On April 18, we held another public meeting at the Memorial Hall, inviting both Labour and Tory councillors and Neil Hamilton, none of whom, of course, accepted. We used it as a platform to denounce Hamilton for his smears and to build for our own Northwich demo for April 28.
Prominent national figures in both the Tory and Labour Party used the excuse of the events in Trafalgar Square to condemn mass resistance against the poll tax. For the Tories, their poll tax was roundly rejected by the mass of the population. For the Labour leaders, the tactic of the ‘dented shield’ was once more shown in contrast to the brave struggles of the working class, demonstrating once again how they turned their backs on the people they were supposed to represent.
But who needed them? We were beginning to sense victory. Nothing could stop us now.