London Riots; the Old and the New

By Mike

Grosvenor Square Riots – 1968.

When the London Riots of August 2011 was ongoing, I was shocked, horrified and indeed frightened at the behaviour of the thousands of young men and women who were looting, assaulting and committing arson at numerous sites across the city and suburbs. I watched on television as police officers, fire officers and ambulance personnel came under severe attack from all directions.

My thoughts wandered back to the mid 1960’s when as a young Constable I found myself frequently on duty policing demonstrations against the Vietnam War. Quite often those demonstrations turned into what we then knew as ‘riots’ which bore no resemblance to the 2011 versions.

I shall try to outline a little of the ‘history’ behind the period of which I write whilst at the same time try to put it into context…………………..

When the Second World War ended in 1945, many young soldiers, both men and women, who returned from overseas and other military duties, settled down, married and began to have families. There was a boom in childbirth over the next several years.

Subsequently, in the mid 1960’s, those same children were in their late teens and early twenties. They had grown up hearing and reading about the tragedy of war from their parents in respect of WW2 and indeed most likely from their grandparents about WW1 and the horrendous harm to humanity both had caused. The majority had definite opinions about war and its effects.

As they grew through their teens, they watched the spectacle of the most televised war of all time, namely the Vietnam War. Again, nightly they watched in horror at the treatment of the Vietnamese. It appeared to most young people, and it was an honest held belief, that the greatest and most powerful nation on earth, America, was causing massive pain and suffering on a distant people. As a result, many hundreds of thousands of young people worldwide began to protest. The UK was no exception………

I was one of many young police constables in London at the time and very quickly we began to police weekly anti-war demonstrations – mostly on Sundays. In fact in early 1968 I doubt if we ever had a Sunday off. Being young myself, and many others of my age with young families, we felt badly done by. We regularly found that whatever arrangements we had made for upcoming Sundays had to be cancelled as we were being called on for demonstration duties.

We, and I would include 99% of all young officers were completely against the ‘War’ and in sympathy with the demonstrators. Of course there was a conflict of interest but we did our duty fairly and squarely and did what was necessary.

In March 1968, most British demonstrations against the War were aimed at the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square London. University Students in particular, with others, were being bussed into the Capital from all corners of the country every weekend to demonstrate. The Metropolitan Police did not have catering for officers at that time and it was a case of taking sandwiches with you when leaving home and hoping that somehow one would be able to get a cup of tea at some stage. At the Embassy, a couple of other young officers and myself, found that if we quietly made our way to the rear, one of the Marine guards would provide hot coffee during the tour of duty. It was a Godsend……………

A point about policing demonstrations that is constantly lost sight of by most people – especially those demonstrating – is the fact, and I guarantee this, that the police are there to ‘protect those protesting and their right to peacefully protest within the law’. I and I honestly believe that the vast majority of officers I have known always upheld that rule. One must remember also at that time that we did not have body armour, riot gear, reinforced helmets or any other protection. In fact our uniform at that time when wearing it during cold weather required extra cumbersome pullovers etc. We had an armband at that time which was supposed to denote that we ‘were on duty’ which was ridiculous. As if we would, when off-duty remove the armband and wear our uniform for whatever reason. It did in fact give the demonstrators something extra to grab hold of.

Some of the demonstrations in March 1968 became known as the ‘Grosvenor Square Riots’. It was frightening; it was dangerous and almost went out of control on several occasions. On one Sunday in particular, the crowd, estimated at about 80,000 crowded into the square and side streets. It became extremely noisy; the crowd became threatening and determined to storm the Embassy. Firecrackers were lit and thrown as were rocks and any other missiles that came to hand. Officers were attacked with the wooden handles used on the placards.

The troublemakers, loosely called Anarchists, who had forced their way to the front of the crowd, were determined to enter the embassy and many managed to breach the police lines. Mounted police officers were brought in to assist in controlling the ever-encroaching crowd.

The point about mounted police officers in London at that time is that – and it probably is as a result of their ‘horsy’ duties, is that the vast majority of them were very gentle people.

The horses are highly trained for crowd control and are still used mostly for ceremonial duties and football crowds. The mounted officers are high above the crowd and therefore become easier targets. And so it was. We foot officers began to see them being quite brutally attacked with long pieces of wood and one officer in particular was taking a serious beating.

There was talk of ball bearings being thrown under the horses to make them slip and rumours were rife that the horses were being attacked with some kind of weapons believed to be knitting needles or such. One must remember also that we did not have ‘police radios’ at that time, they did not come in until a year or two later. All information we were receiving was by word of mouth and like all ‘Chinese whispers’, such information was either vague or embellished.

Word came to us that if any of the demonstrators managed to breach the police line and enter the Embassy, there were Marine guards on the first floor with mounted machine guns with orders to use them. This truly put the fear of God into each and every one of us. I think it was at this stage that our sympathy for the anti-war line was put on the back burner. Self-preservation became the rule of the day.

Truncheons were drawn and used in an attempt to force back the crowd who were now almost on the steps of the Embassy. In fact, we were truly in fear for our lives – either from the now totally out-of-control demonstrators or the armed Marines behind us. We were being forced by the crowd closer and closer to the doors. Arrests were of no avail, as it would have entailed officers leaving the lines to deal with the prisoners.

After an hour or so, some semblance of peacefulness began to prevail and things started to quieten down. There were many injured police officers and protesters. As in all such cases, it was a case of innocent people taking the brunt of the injuries. Of course some were injured by police officers but in fact most were injured by those determined to cause havoc among the crowd.

Quietly the crowd began to disperse and it seems now that within about half-an-hour or so, the Square was deserted. I well remember slowly returning to the Police coach and falling into a seat totally exhausted. It was one of the most traumatic days in my police service up to that stage.

When I look back at it now and watch the YouTube video that I link at the bottom of this posting, I have the feeling that in fact the so called ‘Riot’ was nothing whatsoever compared to modern day riots that police in London have to, or have had to deal with since. To modern day police officers it must seem like a ‘doddle’ and more like a mere ‘Saturday Night punch-up’ outside the local pub.

However, on that fateful day in March 1968, I can honestly say that I was scared beyond imagination. Thankfully, in those days, demonstrators did not carry knives, guns or bombs – unlike today……………..

The following link is a demonstrator’s memory of the events
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcCzQA_0MHM

17 Comments on “London Riots; the Old and the New”

  1. Mike, i watched the U-tube video link, feeling very sad and uneasy about the attacks against the horsed officers, who seemed really to be just doing their duty. It made me reflect on my own youthful days. I was a child of the seventies, as outspoken as any about perceived injustice. The thing was, it seemed you couldn’t provoke police action if you tried. I remember taking a couple of college courses in Chapel Hill, N.C. One day, i was sitting on the wall, talking to a panhandler, hoping to get a good story for the college paper, when a policeman came along and urged the panhandler to move on. I immediately jumped down from the wall, threw myself at the policeman’s feet, crying, “almighty ruler, should i kiss your feet.” He backed up as though i held a bomb in my hand. He absolutely did not know what to do, and finally just shook his head and walked away.

    It wasn’t until a couple of years later that i actually saw real police brutality in action. I had drifted over to California and was visiting in San Diego with my boyfriend. We went to see the movie, “Apocalypse Now”. As we came out, the police were hauling some young people out of a club that featured pin ball machines. They were beating these weaponless young people with bats and shoving them into patrol cars. I didn’t know what they had done, and didn’t want to know. In retrospect, i think i was witnessing the beginning of the new era, the groundwork for what has become the police state. I don’t know what happened to the policeman who was just doing his job, but i do know i miss him.

  2. Honestly the film from the 60’s and 70’s is so incredibly different from what we have seen afterwards. Violent response from police personel has raised sharply from thereon.

    I wonder at the why of it? What was it? A newer angrier generation joining the ranks? I’d be interested in ideas. I’ve never really thought about it before.

    Karla, as for your experience in San Diego, I’m not sure you were seeing the beginning. Los Angeles and San Diego have a long history of more violent responses in those who police the area. It has been a very tenuously held together slow boil of violence since Europeans started settling the area in earnest after the Mexican-American war.

  3. Karlsie: I would not even try to justify any police brutality. Power corrupts etc. and police officers who are representative of their community often fall foul of the expected standards.
    Grainne: I see your point precisely. We ‘young’ officers of that time had been brought up on some wonderful BBC TV programmes such as Dixon of Dock Green and Z cars. They dealt with the ‘old fashioned policeman’ who would give a child a ‘clip around the ear’ with his glove rather than arrest him. Of course there came a time when some police officer would put a ball-bearing in one of the fingers of the glove causing brusing. In the late 70’s, more ‘rough’ TV programmes such as the British TV Sweeney and the US Hill Street Blues gave the young officers of that era a rough/tough idea of policing. Idiots would not think twice of producing and using their truncheons whereas a ‘clip around the ear’ would have done. The era of drugs brought a new dimension to it all with the pushers having armed minders. From about 1975, respect – whether justified or not – for all of those in ‘authority’ such as parents, police, priests/church ministers, doctors, solicitors and in particular politicians lost vast amounts of ground and in many cases dropped to zero. Weapons seemed to be carried by everyone and if an officer was not careful he/she was likely to be severely injured. A slash from a Stanley knife (carpet knife?) causing severe injury can result in that officer being wary of any movement by a suspect in any future incident. In modern policing, new truncheons, Tazers, riot gear and such represents to a young officer that ‘they’ – the opposition – are out to get you. Self preservation seems to be the order of the day.
    It is a great pity but I doubt if we will ever see again the happy old, somewhat tubby police officer of our childhood. I for one certainly miss their like……………………Mike…

  4. “but we did our duty fairly and squarely and did what was necessary.”

    You article could have stopped right there, you know. What does it matter what you think, if you can justify cracking the skulls of angry poor people, you have the moral integrity of a gnat. Fascism doesn’t need you to have quaint little thoughts about the good old days beating down the ’68 uprisings and how today’s disanfranchised are so much less civilised when they rattle their chains. Fascism just needs you to do ‘your duty’.

    I’m also quite shocked that the Subversify staff would put up a piece in favor of repressing the subversive. I’m looking for some irony here but I can’t see it. I love you guys but this is some serious bullshit.

    If anyone cares you can check out the glorious of your precious ‘peace keepers’ (more like political police) during three month’s student strike in my homeland of Quebec. Just last weekend a girl lost an eye to a rubber bullet, that’s fine work indeed.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cL1Gd1qjqEg&feature=youtu.be

  5. We’re not an agenda-based magazine. Subversify means freedom of speech at all cost. In order to be fair and to truly combine the qualities of subversive and diversify, we have to be willing to explore any viewpoint–even if we don’t like what it has to say.

    To censor an opinion, an experience, would be the ultimate hypocrisy from the editorial point of view. This is where fascism starts-to say, “No I’m not going to let you say that. Because from my perspective, it’s wrong.” From another perspective, it may be “right”, but we all have to decide for ourselves.

    In a truly free society, we cannot ignore the thoughts, the attitudes and the feelings of all people. We can debate, disagree and attack those beliefs all we want. But we owe it to ourselves, as thinking, intelligent beings, to discover all points of view.

  6. Raven: Had you bothered to read the first line of my reply to Karlsie you would have seen: ‘I would not even try to justify any police brutality. Power corrupts etc. and police officers who are representative of their community often fall foul of the expected standards’. I stand by that. As a young officer the only protection I was permitted to carry was a 12 inch wooden truncheon. I was not permitted to carry any other form of protection. Even our flashlights had to be made of rubber and contain no more than two normal batteries. I have seen officers crippled, maimed and severely beaten by those who were armed up to the hilt.
    I do not for one moment agree with most of your comment but I will totally defend your right to make it. I respectfully suggest that you too should respect my viewpoint about something that happened nearly fifty years ago – or do you think that such a point of view is not worthwhile making.

    The Late Mitchell Warren: Thank you for your comment. Mike…

  7. Raven, i love you dearly. You’re a champion of the people and a valued member of the global community. Mike is also a wonderful person, whose stories are rich with culture, and filled with compassion for the downtrodden. I think what he was trying to do, and what we are all trying to do, is make sense of a society where officers of the peace have been transformed into enforcement of brutal, vicious law.

    Grainne, when i said i believe i saw the beginning… i did not bean the beginning of police brutality in the specific area of L.A. and San Diego. I meant that the brutality exhibited by the police was a message of “here’s the way to handle things”. It was a message that spread like a cancer, turning what had once been law abiding communities into communities that ardently hated the representatives of law. Aggressive acts leading to retaliation, which leads to more aggressive acts and greater retaliation.

    Our modern society is not like the society of forty years ago, when people took for granted they could peacefully assemble, hold demonstrations and protest against policies they thought were unwise or unfair. It is not like the society of forty years ago when a policeman would arrive to break up a bar fight and simply send the culprits home. It is not like the society of forty years ago when kids that pulled public pranks were just having fun. It is now a society of “obey the letter of the law or face the consequences”, and the letter of the law becomes more stringent, more restrictive, more seeped in absolute tyranny on a daily basis. We can’t truly begin to undo what has been done until we can begin to understand just what happened to the Andy Griffith who rescued cats from trees into a lean, mean, ruthless killing machine.

  8. While I respect the position of the Subversify staff and understand why they would post this piece, I have to agree with Raven’s position – the “duty” of the state’s paramilitaries has always been one of repressing dissent and I for one have no respect for any of their kind that hasn’t tossed his badge on the ground and stompped it into the dirt. But seeing as to how many people from the older generations have a sort of nostalgia for the “old days” (I guess that’s just unavoidable) I can see why certain people would miss the kinder, gentler agents of repression when they look upon the present ones: unless, of course, they hail from a background that was *never* given the soft treatment to begin with (particularly the impoverished or ethnic/reloigious minorities – they’ve always got the raw deal from “law” enforcement…).

    Bearing that in mind, I felt no pity for the paramilitaries on horseback getting mobbed – if they don’t want regular people to attack them, they should have just stepped back and let them do their thing…

  9. When you’ve been on the receiving end of the baton, tazer, rubber bullet and/or tear gas because you tried to exercise ‘freedom of speech’, it becomes very hard to rationalize.

    Where I live, every single popular struggle has been heavily repressed for the past thirteen years, though it goes back longer than that.

    For example, last year in Toronto at the G20 summit we’ve seen the largest mass arrest in the history of Canada with 1,200 arrests where people were thrown, give next to no food and water for days on end, and were sexually harassed by the guards. The whole operation cost 5,5 billion dollars in security, and at the same time the government is cutting down on social programs, environmental protection, human rights groups, etc.

    Just the other week in Quebec city there was a feminist protest and 5 minutes into the march the police beat down the protesters and arrested everyone. In the foray, a pregnant woman miscarried. There was a few hundred women there, peaceful and all, but guess what, they didn’t have a permit for the protest. Oh, the hooligans!

    There is no line between police brutality and police work – it’s the same thing. Sometimes you file paper work, sometimes you shoot students in the face. The pay checks still come in, don’t they? We’re talking about people trained and paid to frighten and beat masses who, in the vast majority of cases, are the under classes, who are very fucking entitled to be angry. Can you honestly sympathize with that?

    We live in a system that considers breaking windows a horrible violent act, and yet condones policemen beating poor people to a pulp. The laws protect the windows, but the cops can shoot to kill without proper cause and they get a paid vacation for it. Do you understand what that means? How bad that is? What it means for us in real life?

    So I take offense to Mike’s article, because we’re not talking about something harmless and cute and fuzzy. I understand Subversify’s freedom-of-speech-at-all-cost approach, but I’m sure you realize you have to draw the line somewhere, or is it all the same to you? What about creationist essays, pro-life articles, white power manifestos? There’s a reason people go to your website, and I think it’s because they’re hungry for alternative perspectives on life, implying that certain ideas and practices are better than others and are therefore worth seeking out. In that sense it’s my humble opinion you should at least favor articles that show actual critical thinking.

  10. Thank you Raven. I would just like to make it clear that during my service I never saw a rubber bullet, let alone fire one. I was unarmed as far as firearms are concerned for my entire service. I never used my truncheon once in 31 years. It was never alleged that I ever struck anyone. I spent my early years serving the public not beating seven bells of crap out of them. It was I and thousands of other young officers who picked up the victims of road accidents and yes, murders. We searched for the missing children who had been abducted. We attended and tried to help the victims of domestic abuse. I could go on. We cut down the unfortunate people who decided that this world no longer held anything in store for them and hanged themselves. We became police officers not because of some God-Almighty vocation or the desire to cause police brutality. I, and many of my generation merely became police officers to gain employment. I am not, nor have I ever been a cruel or brutal person – I would not harm a fly.
    So when you say ‘There is no line between police brutality and police work – it’s the same thing’ you are talking through your arse, if you will excuse the expression.
    I am sorry that the Toronto affair, etc., showed you the brutal side of some form of policing but I can assure you – in all honesty – that I have never witnessed anything similar. Maybe I retired before the advent of black block etc…………….Mike.

  11. @ wicklowmick1940,

    “I would just like to make it clear that during my service I never saw a rubber bullet, let alone fire one. I was unarmed as far as firearms are concerned for my entire service. I never used my truncheon once in 31 years.”

    I’m sorry, but I find this more than a little difficult to believe because I happen to know quite a number of people from the older generations that recall the police forces being just as violent then as today (but they were more subtle about it and much of what they did was kept out of the papers) – to hear them tell it, the notion of the “Andy Griffith” cop is a total fiction and that there kind have always been just thugs with badges…

  12. Azazel: I fully accept your right to believe what you wish to believe but what I say is true. In fact, again early in my career, I actually carved sprays of ‘shamrocks’ all over my first truncheon for which I was threatened by my sergeant with being disciplined. I actually threw it one night whilst chasing a burglary suspect. It hit the road and disappeared never to be seen again.
    My reason for posting this story of events 45 years ago was in an attempt to compare the ‘good old days’ with modern riot policing such as we had last year all over London. There was no comparison whatsoever and I honestly believe that watching TV of the attacks on innocent members of the public, the police, ambulance and fire services, the looting, the arson of private dwelling – not those of the wealthy, but those of the poor – was obscene and a sign of the times…….Mike.

  13. @ wicklowmick1940,

    That story sounds rather implausible – I have never known a paramilitary agent to throw his weapon and I doubt that most of the older people I know (being former militants for various causes, which I won’t identify to protect their identity…) would find that story believable either. Normally I’d be inclined to give you the benefit of a doubt but such actions contradicts the training that “law” enforcement receives (both historically and presently) that I have a hard time doing that.

    Regarding the riots – the reason most of them hit the poor areas of town is because the rich ones were too well fortified (by military/paramilitary agents of the state, BTW) for a meaningful attack to be mounted by an undisciplined group of rioters: the reason the riots occured at all is because the recession (which was planned in advance by the ruling classes) has made people desperate enough to try anything – the result being mindless lashing out at whatever they can get at (which just happens to be everything except the powers responsible for their plight – at most they caught of few of their agents in chaos…).

    This is why I prefer an organized guerrilla resistance movement to spontanious demonstrations and riots – the efforts made by such a thing would be far more targeted towards the forces of the state than innocent bystanders…

  14. Azazel: With the greatest respect, you have no idea what training I was given in 1966 – almost fifty years ago. I have no problem whatsoever in you not believing a single word I say. You know little or nothing about me yet you have made up your mind that I am a cruel, sadistic paramilitary. So be it. To be quite blunt – I could not care less…. At the age of 72 I have done nothing in my life of which I have any reason to be ashamed. Can you say likewise?……………..Mike.

  15. @ wicklowmick1940,

    1. I don’t know who you where/are as a person, but I do know that when people don a uniform they tend not to act as themselves – rather they act as an enforcement apparatus for some other power outside themselves (I got more than a few ex-military/paramilitary associates who will confirm that statement). I also know a few people from your generation that were on the receiving end of what your kind dished out: half a century later they still haven’t forgiven them – I believe that the hate they have towards “law” will continue until the day they die.

    And thus the reason I have a hard time believing that you never used a weapon in your entire career – let alone throwing a melee weapon. If what yu say is true, I’d say that you’re a rare breed among your kind (if not one that’s all but extinct…).

    2. You ask me if I’ve done anything I’m ashamed of – well, I’d say the one thing I truly regret was ever trying to be a “law”-abiding slave of society: I am truly embarrassed to think that I was once an naive boy scout that didn’t recognize the social sickness around me until I found myself with an overpriced piece of paper from a college and working for peanuts at some goddamn warehouse when I could have been doing much more interesting things for a living!

    My only regrets in life concern following the arbitrary dictates of society and failing to recognize the real, unadulterated freedom of Anarchy sooner…

  16. Azazel: I did not realise that you did not understand that I was/am situated in London. I am not a saint but have a deep sense of right and wrong being an Irishman. My word is my bond. You have my word that everything I wrote is true – well maybe saying I would not hurt a fly is stretching it a bit, as I cannot stand flies in our kitchen. I was what is/was known as a Neighbourhood police officer as were numerous of my colleagues. One day we would be visiting schools and various groups, the next day on Demonstration duties. That is still the current practice in London – we do not have a ‘riot squad’ or ‘swat team’. We do have ordinary day to day street officers who are trained in riot duties – for management to do otherwise would be ridiculous. We also have a strictly limited number of armed police officers who respond to armed situations. Apart from that, and when compared with your side of the pond, we have it cushy over here. In fact, during my time when firearms were discussed a majority of officers said that they would retire rather than carry a gun.
    Incidentally I was on first name terms with many of the demonstrators during my time and they with me.
    I wish you peace in your life but just once please do not ‘tar everyone with the same brush’ – you might get a pleasant surprise. Some of us are still gentlemen (or persons). Mike..

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