03 February, 2010

Back-B-Log: UK20: Poll Tax-Riot?

[From the 1st issue of the Tuesday Express/American Defendant Winter/Spring 1990
O.K., so I'm not Kate Adie, but this is a bit of history, and why I'm not a great candidate for journalism]

31-3-90. Sunny London Saturday. The Oxford-Cambridge boatrace on the Thames. Oxford has consistently won, so it's not the thrill of the competition that has the crowds out, it's the amazing weather. NOTHING can keep the English inside if the weather is nice.

I had lazed around the house, toying with inertia, sunning in the yard with B52's from the cassette deck. Last night partied with diverse Australians on the Thames. Lethargy and phone games, trying to Shanghai different Americans I know into joining me for the afternoon, keep me housebound until almost two. Betrayed by a moment of motivation I leave the house with my backpack and camera. I stop off at my office in Chelsea, to collect some needed items from my briefcase which I had stowed there before joining the Aussies. I stop to buy sandwich, drink and crisps before jumping on a bus headed down the King's Road towards Putney. The race, I hear, will begin or end near Putney Bridge.

Half the people on the bus seem to be headed toward the race.

Bishops Park Fulham Post Gt Storm 19900331

I picnic then wander in the Bishop's Park. Although I meander over to the tube over an hour later, there is still a steady flow of attendance from the race.

Earlier I had heard about the Poll-Tax demo planned for that day in Trafalgar Square, but I didn't pay much attention... the poll-tax and its demonstrations have been in the news here for weeks. Minor rioting and candle-lit vigils outside town councils as they set the rate for their district. The poll-tax or community charge varies from area to area from between £165 and £700 annually, it is being applied to virtually everyone, including homeless squatters, considering that salaries are say 9K for secretaries, 12K for average college graduates, etc.-it is grossly unfair. It may finally be the downfall of the Thatcher government... most people seem to dislike Maggie, but the opposition Labour Party's lack of organization and coherent policy has been keeping her in for a decade (sound familiar?).

On the tube I consider introducing myself to a bunch of American co-eds, although I've done this often, these are patently too young for me to sanction the 6x of homegrown accents. I get to Leicester square, and almost automatically, habitually, I head for the Half-Price Theater Ticket Booth; the pickings are slim, which is typical for Saturday. I narrow it down to Never the Sinner, a play about the Leopold /Loeb case featuring Joss Ackland and Julian Glover; The Gambler, a Prokofiev Opera at ENO; Marya, a play by Isaac Babel at the Old Vic. I choose the courtroom drama.

I amble around the perimeter of the square along the north side. Most of the time I've been here L(square) has been undergoing restoration, boarded up with murals depicting scenes from Hollywood (SQUARE is flanked on 3 sides by massive cinemas). They've just started bringing the murals down, chicken wire still fences off the area. I pass the Baskin & Robbins, which at any given time houses a maximum of 24 flavours (they use the 31 logo), and don't bother looking for any of the exotic ones (sorry, no Crunchy Frog). Suddenly about 100 people come running down the street into the square, as if being chased. They chill out, slow down, and make their way out in various directions. This is the first sign that anything is amiss. I look toward Charring Cross Road and see smoke billowing up a few blocks away.

I walk down the east side of the square. There is an early line for the Comedy Store. I see some more stragglers, overflow from Trafalgar demo down the block in front of me. Outside the chicken wire, next to the construction, there's a pile of concrete sacks. Unfortunately concerned for my camera, I put my backpack down on the sacks and stow the camera inside. This causes me to miss the best shots to come. I go and stand next to the line for the Comedy club, behind a sandwich board sign for a Chinese restaurant.

The group in the square grows, milling about, they seem mostly peaceful, punk hair, hippy throwbacks, squatters, Folk stagers. One or two tense, angry types come along start kicking the trash cans. A couple in their fifties dressed in tweed, try fadeing back against the wall beside me, I follow suit. The chinaman dashes from the restaurant seizes the sandwich board and moves it inside. The cops enter at the southeast corner of the square. The angry men run over to the sacks of concrete and start trashing the pile. The police with clubs and riot shields charge forward about thirty feet than stop just in front of where I'm standing along with other tourists and bystanders. They make no announcements or instructions to the crowd. They seem to regard us all as the enemy. Someone, who simply wants to walk through in the opposite direction, foolishly starts a screaming match with one of the police. There is a gap bet seen the wall and the line, the elderly couple, and one or two other walk through, I am about to, when the cop on the end steps in front of me, blocking.

Again, without bothering to issue directions they simply start pushing forward, shoving physically. A timid voice behind me reasonably pipes-just like to go the other way please. They let a few of us by. "have a nice day" I call after them. The police break up into smaller groups and strut about the square peering down the side streets. I round the corner.

There's a man standing in the doorway of an 'American' Style café/bar called the Dug Out. Next to him is the bouncer. The man has a cellular phone into which he's reporting the situation as if this were a state of siege. They eye me suspiciously as I size up the menu, but when I sincerely move to go in they do not block my way. Looking around nervously he stage whispers into the phone,-I think they all went back to Trafalgar...

On my way to the play, there is still a strong police presence, I avoid Trafalgar by skirting around the back of the Church of St. Martin in the Fields. Later, from the news and from flatmates who were having their night out near the financial district, where the angry mayhem got most out of hand, I get an idea of the extent of the violence, which explains though doesn't excuse the thuggish behavior of the police in Leicester Square wordlessly charging about eighty tourists and bystanders and at most two or three rioters.

[Addendum: The photos were all taken on the Day. 1. Charring Cross Road 2. Bishop's Park Fulham, the trees are down from the Great Storm of Jan 1990 3&4 Leicester Square Riot Police]

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