Friday, August 17, 2018

Reagan vists London (1984): mass demo, 'punk anti militarists' and a quick rampage through Covent Garden

The recent demonstrations during the visit by Donald Trump reminded me of demos against another controversial US President more than 30 years ago. In June 1984, President Ronald Reagan visited London to participate in a World Economic Summit at Lancaster House. This was during the period when US cruise nuclear missiles were being deployed in Britain in the face of widespread opposition.

To coincide with the summit, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and other peace groups called for demonstrations on Saturday 9th June 1984. We know a fair amount about how these protests were viewed by the state as a result of the release of various official files relating to CND in this period, collected together at the Special Branch Files Project.

Home Office and police correspondence indicates that UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was unhappy about the potential for news coverage of the demo distracting from the Summit. However she was advised that there was no legal basis to prevent the march and that in any event it would be impractical to enforce any ban. Summarising police advice, a note from Home Office F4 Division (Counter-Subversion/Terrorism) states 'unwelcome though this demonstration may be, there do not appear to be any grounds or powers to prohibit it'. The predicted large crowd would be 'a body of a size which cannot be physically prevented from moving if it wished to do so, and the police have proceeded throughout on the basis that some demonstration on these lines should be allowed to go ahead'.  A note from Downing Street (28 May 1984) states that 'Mrs Thatcher agrees that we have to accept the judgement of the police on the handling of this demonstration'.

The Metropolitan Police Special Branch Threat Assessment of the protests was shared with the Home Office on  8 June 1984. It advised was that the main event was to be the 'Return to Sender' march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, expected to attract around 100,000 people (the name of the demo referring to sending back cruise missiles).  In addition a non-violent sit down blockade of the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square was expected to attract 2,000 people. What the report describes as 'autonomous pacifists' under the banner of 'Summit '84' were proposing to undertake similar action to try and blockade Lancaster House itself.

On the day, Reuters estimated that around 150,000 demonstrated (CND claimed it was nearer to 200,000).  There were 214 arrests, including 13 who were arrested in the evening outside Buckingham Palace as Reagan arrived to attend a banquet given by the Queen (Canberra Times, 11 June 1984).

Trafalgar Square, 9 June 1984. photo by Alan Denney at flickr


The police threat assessment also included reference to anarchists:

'The Class War Collective of Anarchists and its motley collection of punk anti-militarist followers are known to oppose the middle-class manner in which CND conducts itself. At the 22nd October 1983 demonstration some 100 Class War followers attempted to storm the stage at the rally but were unsuccessful. Whilst there is no intelligence to suggest they will attempt the same maneouvre, it is known that their 'Spring Offensive against the rich' has not so far been successful. There has been a suggestion, however, that they may use the cover of the demonstrations to go on the rampage in Mayfair and even to subvert other extremists into similar action. It is most unlikely that any other group would in fact act in this way, but if sufficient confusion can be generated these anarchists (about 100) might be emboldened to commit acts of random criminal damage.

Easily identifiable, with their punk hairstyles and dirty black clothing, these anarchists will undoubtedly congregate around their black, and black and red, anarchist flags in Hyde Park prior to joining the main demonstration'.

Knowing what we know now about infiltration of groups like Class War it is highly likely that undercover police were present at an organising meeting held in the lead up to the Reagan demo at the Roebuck pub in Tottenham Court Road, called by Class War with people attending from around the country. So perhaps not surprizingly the police assessment turned out to be fairly accurate.



The events of the day are described in Class War founder Ian Bone's book 'Bash the Rich':

'We couldn't get anywhere near Lancaster House and tail-ended a whooping it up anarcho-punk mob running around central London - ending up at a rally in Trafalgar Square (the opposite of what we'd intended). We had to rescue something from the day's disappointment. Thinking on our feet we decided to trash the Savoy just up the Strand. The word was spread furtively out of the corners of many mouths and about 100 black flag carriers sidled away from the rally at 4 pm and self-consciously drifted up towards the Savoy. Down the side of the Savoy towards the embankment there was a lorry load of scaffolding poles.

Whoop! Go for it!. The poles came off the lorry. Red Rick - an old brick shithouse builder mate from Swansea - caves the first windows in with the poles. Crash, every Savoy glass window in sight goes in. Up and away and leg it down to the river. Five minutes and still no sign of the cops coming. OK, let's have another pop, 4:30 pm. Covent Garden - disperse, mingle and meet up there., and we'll start with the big bank on the corner.  Covent Garden - no black flags now - the distant sound of belated copes getting to the Savoy. People have picked up ammunition on the way. 4:40 pm we'll go for it...  Red Rick leads the way again. Two bricks straight through the bank windows. Shoppers scatter screaming. We run through Covent Garden trashing everything in sight. The sound of smashing glass cascading after us. A two minutes rampage around the streets - an American skinhead girl gets pulled for trashing one restaurant window too many'.

Ian's Bone's account is pretty much as I remember it. There's an alleyway down by the side of the Savoy Hotel leading down to Victoria Embankment and most of the damage was on that side of the hotel. I think the main Covent Garden action was running west along King Street, there was a skip near a branch of Midland Bank (now HSBC) full of lumps of rock some of which ended up crashing through windows. I also recall a window being broken in the office of the Lady magazine nearby.

All of this was taking place against the background of the first few months of the national miners strike - note banner being held up in Trafalgar Square saying 'Yorkshire NUM will win'.

The Reagan demo was to be just the start of a busy weekend. The following day (10th July 1984) there was a free 'Jobs for a Change' music festival on London's South Bank, organised by the left wing Greater London Council. Fascist skinheads stormed the stage as The Redskins were playing, and I ended up with an ad hoc group of ant-fascists chasing them around the area (see here for further details of those events).
Photo by Chris Dorley-Brown on flickr

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