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On Our Streets

Since my last post – in which I wrote of my late father’s signposting of the Public Order Act 1936 – I’ve been pondering policing.

After the 1936 Act was repealed and replaced by the Public Order Act 1986 – in response in substantial part to ‘the Brixton Disorder’ of 1981 – the law developed more detailed mechanisms to manage disorderly conduct.

Considering policing in my local part of Brixton now generally to be proportionate and neighbourhood officers to be respectful, it’s always disturbing be reminded of the extremes to which abuse of police power can be pushed.

Added to the shock of the murder of Sarah Everard,by a serving officer of the Metropolitan Police (‘the Met’) their handling of the vigil on Clapham Common to mourn her caused me deep unquiet, stirring youthful memories.

In the summer of 1979, on my return from Hamburg, my father drove me in his motorbike-and-sidecar to Leeds Trade Hall. There we heard Celia Stubbs,Blair Peach’s widow, call for an effective inquiry into his death by head injury after witnesses saw a police officer strike him at a demonstration that April against the National Front in Southall.

My father and I found Celia’s account of the death of her husband at an anti-fascist rally chilling.This was seemingly the second such in five years at the hands of the Met. In June 1974,I had been appalled by the TV footage of a protest at Red Lion Square, at which Kevin Gateley died – from a blow to the head. (Whenever I traverse that square,or Clapham Common,or pass the memorial to Cherry Groce on Brixton’s Windrush Square, I pay silent tribute to them.)

In the autumn of 1979, I attended a large demonstration in London against the Corrie Bill*, intended to limit abortion legislation.A dispute between feminist organisers and trade union officials, who wanted to lead the march notwithstanding, the protest was peaceable.

By the end of that year, I’d read Edward Thompson’s seminal work and his summation that in the eighteenth century “The British people were noted throughout Europe for their turbulence, and the people of London astonished foreign visitors by their lack of deference.”

Early in 1980, I bussed down to London, for a further protest against the Corrie Bill at Westminster. After a number of us flowed into St. Stephen’s Chamber, police officers removed us. I was dragged out by the scruff of my neck, struggling for breath, then thrown onto the pavement, winded. From my father’s smile, after he’d bought the next edition of Spare Rib, I discerned his pride in seeing my face amongst the women assembled outside Parliament.

In November that year, I joined a Reclaim the Night March through Leeds city centre. (The first had been in 1977, after ‘the Yorkshire Ripper’ began murdering women.) Not only was he still at large, films depicting violence against women were becoming standard. As well as chanting, we feminist protesters were incensed by these demeanings of women. As the march stopped outside a cinema, where one such film was showing, a policeman seized a marcher, who had been visibly enraged by the screening of such further degradation. Standing three metres behind, I was amazed when local women managed to release her from the officer’s grasp. Thereafter, the demonstration continued without further police intervention.

By early 1981, I was excited to be signed up to the national Lesbian Conference, at Star Cross School in North London. To accommodate the hundreds of lesbians in attendance, the evening’s social took place at a huge hall in Notting Hill. After leaving the event, on my way to stay overnight in another part of town, I got caught up in a melee that had been sparked by others’ encounter with the Met, on the street along which I’d been walking. Glancing down the road, I was surprised to see police reinforcements, which I took to be Special Patrol Group, running up towards us.

A week later, as news from Brixton dominated the news, I wondered whether what I had witnessed had been a trial-run of rapidly deploying back-up.

By the following spring, I was back working at a school in Hamburg, and living in a Frauengemeinschaft, a women’s household (next door to a Frauenbuchladen, a women’s bookshop). In the build-up to May Day, having that March been to the first Hamburgerfrauenwoche (Hamburg Women‘s Week) I was intrigued by posters for a women’s demonstration for women’s rights on Walpurgisnacht (May Eve). When friends and I joined the March, I was startled to spy, spanning the boulevard on which we had gathered, armed lines of police donned in shiny white helmets, alongside ranks of ordinary officers, who stood clad in long leather coats, verdigris sheen catching the weak sunshine. My sister marchers were unsurprised, uttering the German for ‘the authoritarian state’ – der Obrigkeitsstaat. The march proceeded without incident. The next day, I was surprised by the lack of a similar police presence at the trade union led May Day rally, to which I went with my friends from home, each of us carrying a red carnation.

Back in Britain, by the mid-eighties under the second Thatcher administration, women’s campaigns were making key interventions, and appealing to a wide audience. Historic stand-outs were the encampment and circling of the American military base at Greenham Common, and the founding of Women Against Pit Closures. The latter’s aim was to save coal mining communities, in the face of Mrs Thatcher’s determination to close the nation’s pits. Having been struck in the early months of ‘the Great Strike’ by the pluck of the miners’ wives I’d met raising funds in London, and been to the ‘Pits and Perverts’ benefit concert, by the bitter winter of 1984-5 I could see the desperation in the women’s faces as they jangled red buckets outside Camden Town Tube station – knowing their families were hungry and freezing.

On an unseasonably warm and sunny day in late February 1985, I joined the tens of thousands who marched through central London to protest against pit closures. Towards the march’s end, we waited in Whitehall to enter Trafalgar Square for the closing rally. Soon after I’d noticed that a large group of young people had staged a sit-down protest near the entrance to Downing Street, mounted police suddenly charged at the march. Those of us who were ambulant ran, a sister marcher clasping my hand as she and her girlfriend led me away.

Etched on my memory are the stricken faces of an older woman and her grandchild in a Maclaren buggy, fleeing the police charge – her steel-grey and his golden curls bouncing as she mounted the kerb, bumping his pushchair onto the lawns laid near the Ministry of Defence. Afterwards, my friends and I sat in shock, at the disruption of a peaceful, legitimate protest, attended by many first-time marchers. Recently, I’ve wondered what those dispersed that day made of the current Prime Minister’s casting of Mrs Thatcher as eco-warrior.

As the below extract, from a 1938 article, signals: there exists a real tension between popular protest and abuse of police power; this is likely to be stretched tight when the new policing Bill** is enacted.

Without the right of assembly, guarantees of free speech are empty gestures; for if no public forum is available, the right to speak freely is of little value. Nevertheless, right of assembly is subjected to varied restrictions both in England and America. Some have evolved from judicial interpretation of “thecommon law; others are crystallised in statutes.These restrictions have generally been made in the name of public order. They seek to avoid disturbance by punishing conduct which, it is thought, if allowed to continue, might endanger the public piece…

Because such restrictions in the name of public order provide the lawenforcement agencies with broad discretion, they offer convenient legal weapons for curbing the activities of unpopular minorities.”


The Making of the English Working Class Thompson, E.P., Penguin Books,1980



** Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill: see Justice briefing:

Public Order and the Right of Assembly in England and the United States: A Comparative Study, Yale Law Journal,Vol. 47, No. 3 (January 1938)

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