Twenty-five years ago, an anti–poll tax march in London turned into a full-on brawl. Here's what the cops were saying about it as it happened.
This post originally appeared on VICE UK.
Twenty-five years ago, on March 31, 1990, a massive demonstration against Margaret Thatcher's poll tax turned into a huge riot that spread across central London—shop windows were smashed, cars were set ablaze and people were hurt.
Conservative and Labour leaders condemned the riot, but it was successful. It contributed to the end of the poll tax, which in turn led to the fall of Prime Minister Thatcher, who resigned within the year. The wheels came off the Thatcherite bus that day. VICE has obtained the full police radio log of the events, which show what it was like to be a cop inside that bus as it was pelted with bricks by angry socialists, anarchists and drunk looters. Reading like a play script, this log shows a police-eye view of what it looks to the Met when they lose control of the streets.
The poll tax was introduced into Scotland in 1989 and the rest of the UK on the day after the riot. Officially named the "Community Charge," the poll tax replaced the previous form of local taxation, the "Domestic Rates." Under the "Rates," people paid more or less tax depending on the value of their property. Under the new Poll Tax everybody paid the same amount. Having a "Flat Tax," which doesn't charge the rich more than the poor has long been a dream of some people on the right wing of politics. It became a nightmare for the government as a huge campaign of resistance to the poll tax hit Scotland and then the rest of the UK. Under the slogan "break the law and not the poor" campaigners organized mass refusal to register for or pay the tax, which weighed heavily on the least well off. This proudly law-breaking campaign was opposed by the law-abiding Labour Party and Trade Union leadership.
The Trafalgar Square demonstration was the culmination of that campaign. The Metropolitan Police sent a "Draft Report" to the Home Office the day after the riot, which I obtained under Freedom of Information laws. The report says that, "In real terms, the actual organization of the event was handled by the Militant Tendency." The Militant Tendency—forerunners of today's Socialist Party—founded the All British Anti Poll Tax Federation and were central to the campaign. The report also says that in the run up to the national protest there had been "a number of demonstrations, some violent" outside Town Halls as local authorities tried to set poll tax rates.
The log of all police radio communications on the day is included as an appendix, giving an undoctored view of the police response to the protest. They began the day by focusing on left-wing groups, but ended in confusion and panic as the demo became a riot—armed police stood helplessly by while crowds battered the South African embassy. One officer reported watching helplessly as crowds were "smashing everything in sight."
Shortly after the riots, WPC Fiona Roberts told a press conference: "I think we lost it." The Metropolitan Police were embarrassed and denied her claim, but these documents show that she was right. They also show that the most senior commanders simply stopped giving commands as events spun out of their control.
As demonstrators gathered in South London for the march to Trafalgar Square, police calls mostly related to political groups.
The first focus is on suspect "anarchists," with reports like:
12:08 PM: group of 17 anarchists 200 yards from Kennington Road and 100 in the park under a black banner.
1:24 PM: 200 anarchists at L[ower] K[ennington] road.
The demonstrators mood was still judged "reasonably good" as they approached the river.
When marchers crossed the Thames and walked up Whitehall into Trafalgar Square, the police reported a change. At 2:16 PM, a police "bronze commander," probably a sergeant, reports: "O/S Parliament—one arrest—bottles and missiles thrown at officers during course of arrest. Prisoner removed from scene—punks concerned."
Ten minutes later, also outside Parliament, there are, "barriers torn down and two smoke bombs thrown at police." At 2:30 PM, a police "bronze" officer reports: "SWP [Socialist Workers Party] hardcore stopped outside Downing Street." At 2:47 PM, the log notes, "Opposite Downing Street, hardcore SWP still remaining."
At 3:06 PM, officers radio in, "Area opposite Downing street—barriers now pulled down." By 3:22 PM, there is a "SITREP ]situation to report] at Downing Street—noisy drunken crowd—hardcore of SWP at Downing Street." This was the day's turning point.
The battles between police and protesters reported in the log mostly happen after this sit-down demo outside Downing Street. Demonstrators said that heavy-handed police attempts to move the enormous crowd sparked the riots.
Certainly, the log shows that the disobedience at Downing Street threw the police into confusion. At 2:35 PM, there is a debate between the "silver" and "gold" commanders about how to keep the massive crowds moving. The "gold" commander, normally an assistant chief constable or higher rank, is in overall charge, setting strategy for policing the demonstration. The "silver" commander, typically a superintendent, is on the scene, devising tactics to match the "gold's" orders, which are then passed on to the "bronze" commanders on the streets.
Faced with the sit-down, the silver commander says: "I want to divert crowd—Bridge Street towards Embankment and onto Trafalgar Square if sufficient serials and stewards. Crowds in Whitehall very slow."
The gold commander responds: "Give it a little more time."
Soon, the diversion is made. However, by 4:30 PM, police attempts to split the demo and move the crowds become incoherent—each push on the crowd is met with a violent response and one set of police lines ends up forcing rioters against another.
At 4:29 PM one officer reports, "crowd being pushed towards Trafalgar Square, where officers are under attack. This is the wrong strategy."
There are no communications from the "Silver" commander after 4:07 PM. "Gold" communications stop at 2:41 PM. Communications from call sign "GT," which seem to be from a control room and may reflect "Gold" command, continue longer, up to 5:57 PM. As central command fades, officers on the ground wrestle with crowds slipping out of their grasp.
The striking thing about the police communications is not the fact that buildings are set on fire, bricks and bottles are thrown or the deployment of police horses. It is how powerless the police were.
As early as 4:24 PM, a "bronze" reports: "We are unable to hold at Northumberland Avenue and will withdraw to reinforce the cordon across Whitehall."
By 4:52 PM, officers report: "shield serials are not making any headway into the crowd." At 5:04 PM, they note that a "mounted charge has had no effect. We have lost the ground we had gained."
Even though at 5:15 PM the police report, "looting in Charing Cross Road junction with Trafalgar Square," they are in no position to take command of events. Aware of their lack of control, an officer reports: "Holding line outside South Africa House. I do not presume to push further."
The back of South Africa House remained vulnerable. A message from "ranger control" says, "South African embassy. Windows being broken at the Strand entrance. No police about. Can you please deal, as we are not sending armed units." Ranger control are the armed police who guard embassies. They wanted other officers to deal with the window-breakers because they did not want their gun-carrying men drawn into the melee.
At 5:37 PM, officers report a "stand-off at T Square at the moment. Sporadic throwing of missiles." Even this limited truce soon breaks down.
From this point on, the communications log shows that dispersing demonstrators beyond Trafalgar Square simply spreads a mixture of rioting and spontaneous uncontrolled demonstrators throughout London.
6:31 PM: Trocadero Centre, W1. Bin through window. Large crowds getting in .
6:56 PM: Very large crowd now making their way back to Oxford Circus from Portland Place, smashing everything in sight. Unable to do anything on my own .
7:19 PM: Windows being smashed, Hanover Street.
7:51 PM: 1,000 demonstrators towards Oxford Street. This is now another march. No police at head of march. Serials trying to police from the rear.
8:02 PM: Tottenham Court Road police station under attack. PC on his own.
8:21 PM: Charlotte Street, W1. Large number of youths rampaging in streets smashing windows.
9:37 PM: Looters have entered a sports shop in Leicester Square and taken crossbows and knives.
The last reports of conflict are made at 10:57 PM, with "windows being broken" by a "vociferous" group of 100-plus people.The police log ends at midnight, although sporadic fighting continued until the early hours of the morning.
The next day politicians queued up to denounce the rioters. Thatcher was "horrified." Labour's Neil Kinnock called the crowds, "Cowardly and vicious." Newspapers printed photos of riot "suspects" drawn from press and police pictures of the day. Many were prosecuted and imprisoned in the months after. But despite this, the completely unofficial, rag-tag army led by left-wing and anarchist ne'er-do-wells won their battle. Despite the condemnation of established politicians, the riot was a turning point. Thatcher resigned later that year. Her successor, John Major, announced that the poll tax would be abolished.
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