Wednesday, March 31, 2010

1990: Trafalgar Square Memories

Today in London has been cold and wet. Twenty years ago today, on March 31st 1990, things were much hotter in every sense of the word. It was the day of the biggest of the demonstrations against the hated poll tax. With hundreds of thousands of others I marched from Kennington park to Trafalgar Square, where one of the largest riots ever to take place in central London soon kicked off.

My memories of the March 31st 1990 are fragmentary, not just because of the passing of time, but because of the sheer disorientation of senses on the day.

There was no conspiracy to riot on the day, but on the other hand most people knew, and many hoped, that something big was going to happen. There was no single flashpoint either - things just seem to be surging up all over the place. For me, it was in Whitehall that it first became clear that this was going to be something more than one of those ritualised skirmishes between police and parts of the crowd.

As the bit of the march I was on came up to Downing Street, there was some pushing and shoving and the odd can being chucked. I stood on the green opposite to see what was going on, and shortly afterwards there was mass panic as people scrambled to get out of the way of a police charge, possibly precipitated by the pulling down of a flagpole. Running round the backstreets I ended up in Trafalgar Square which was already packed though fairly peaceful. Most people were probably unaware of what was going on down the road, but there was a sense of expectation, of an imminent explosion. The heat and the noise was incredible, loads of people drumming and chanting. Something was coming to the boil but nobody knew quite what. There was a creeping awareness that the police were losing control, and anything was possible. An off licence in the square had its windows put through and people helped themselves to bottles of drink.

The point the violence really reached the square was when two police vans drove at high speed into the crowd. What the point of this was I don’t know, but it was a miracle nobody was seriously injured. People went mad, although their aim wasn’t always very good. The friend I was with got hit by a stray brick and we retired to the steps of St Martin in the Fields to recover.
People had occupied a building site overlooking the square, and for a while things seemed to calm down in the square as everybody’s attention focused on a lone topless man climbing high to the top of a crane with a pay no poll tax placard on his hand, framed by the smoke from a fire someone had started on the site. Although this spectacle temporarily pacified the crowd, it felt now as if there was no going back. The starting of a fire seemed to mark the crossing of a boundary beyond the unwritten rules of political demonstrations with a bit of argy bargy then home in time for tea.

In front of the church, the fighting resumed. Windows had been smashed in the South African embassy and a small fire started (this was in the last days of Apartheid remember). People were throwing anything they could get their hands on at the cops, and every so often a line of mounted police would charge into the crowd. This was a Grand Old Duke of York strategy because they had no means of clearing the square, and every time they charged the crowd would part and then reform, to be met by the police charging back again.

Where the horses failed, baton charges did no better. Their only effect seemed to be to drive some of the most combative sections of the crowd out of the square and into the West End. I think I was in the first wave of people running up St Martins Lane. I passed a bloke handing out rivets and small bits of metal to people as they ran - there might not have been a conspiracy, but that doesn’t mean that people were unprepared. In the Lane some people ahead of me turned over a car, and windows were being smashed all over the place, like in a car showroom.

After this things become a bit of a blur. I can still picture scenes clearly- police on Charing Cross Road using plastic crates for cover as they ducked bottles; groups of people forming and dispersing, strolling along in all directions with no police in sight, windows breaking, a line of riot cops or some horses appearing from somewhere, a mad sprint through the back streets of Soho, people looting for the hell of it (I saw a woman take one boot from a window display as some kind of souvenir, and a young Chinese bloke sprinting down the road with a guitar from one of the music shops), bumping into friends with news of burning cars and other adventures, sirens and burglar alarms. As it got dark I found myself on Tottenham Court Road with people heading up towards Euston Tower trailed by van loads of cops. It was time to go home.

It didn’t feel like a desperate struggle, it was more like a carnival. Normal time was suspended, and every moment had a strange intensity.

I know it wasn't just the demonstration/riot that led to the poll tax being scrapped - there was a large movement organising for non-payment of the tax, sustained over a couple of years. But it certainly was an important moment in that struggle and I am sure that no one who was there on 31st March 1990 will ever forget it.

See also Stalker; Uncarved For lots more accounts written at the time see this collection at libcom. There was quite a hangover - 340 people were arrested, keeping me busy in prisoner support for the next year, but that's another story.

I don't recall too many great anti-poll tax anthems - but there was Don't Pay the Poll Tax by The Exploited.

Photographer David Hoffman's iconic image of the day

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There's a great song by Dog Faced Hermans about the poll tax. It's called Scottish Block: