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