Eyewitnesses tell their stories against a backdrop of video footage showing the days events as they unfolded. Demonstrators’ testimonies raise some uncomfortable questions: Questions about public order policing, the independence and accountability of the media and the right to demonstrate.
The footage below was an alternative introduction to the Battle of Trafalgar.
The idea was to situate the poll tax riots within a history of protest in Trafalgar Square around democratic issues, dating back to the chartist’s demonstration of 1848. The pram rolling down the steps is a reference to Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin.
For the first time Spectacle is making the entire Despite TV magazine series available. This release is the first of several Video Libraries we will be putting out on Vimeo On Demand over the coming months. These libraries will use the Vimeo’s series format to curate selections from Spectacle’s back catalogue, grouping together finished films with previously unreleased archive material. We will be releasing Video Libraries on Murray Bookchin, the Exodus collective and Battersea to name a few.
Despite TV was an video group founded in 1982. The group operated out of the Tower Hamlets Arts Project on Whitechapel Road East London and produced video magazines that explored local issues, showcased local talent and promoted community organisations. Despite TV covered issues that have shaped the political, social and topographical landscape of London in profound ways. Despite TV documented and commented upon events such as: the dissolution of the Greater London Authority (GLC), the London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) taking over the old docks to turn them into an annex of the City, and the transformation of Brick Lane from a National Front stronghold to the Bengali street we know today.
The films are not all slick productions but they make up for this with creativity and anarchic energy. Despite TV’s magazine shows were made at a time when video was far from ubiquitous and there is a feeling of excitement, a sense of discovery and possibility that underpins all the films. A typical episode moves from a report on a nurses strike to a situationist dissection of a Big Mac to a local band performing and then on to a short film about a toucan reminiscent of Chris Markers work.
The episodes in this series give insight into political events large and small, from enormous development projects to campaigns for more cycle paths to protests against Page 3. The breadth of events covered gives the series the feeling of a time capsule, giving insight into the political and cultural mood of England in the 1980’s and early ’90s.
In honour of the anniversary of the 1990 anti-poll demonstration on March 31st, Spectacle hosted a free screening of Despite TV’s film Battle of Trafalgar. This was followed by an online Q&A with filmmaker Mark Saunders.
The discussion brought out the many ways that the public order policing tactics captured by the film are still in use and can readily be seen in the policing of the #KilltheBill protests against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill, and recent public order policing at Clapham Common of the Sarah Everard Vigil.
The Protest and the Making of the Film
Despite TV was a filmmaking collective based in Tower Hamlets that operated through the 80s and 90s. Working as a co-operative, sharing resources, and making all editorial decisions through consensus, the collective published magazine videos.
The main aim of Despite TV was to revert hierarchies commonly reproduced in the media industry, promoting video production as inclusive, non-hierarchical group activity, and shared authorship and editorial control. Everyone in the group, in fact, had access to equipment and initial training, could propose what to film, contributed to the technical realization of the initial ideas, and was co-director of the final films. In order to enhance participation and avoid the exclusion of marginal voices in the group, all decisions were taken by consensus and all tasks and roles -such as chairing meetings, but also interviewing, operating cameras, sound recording, or carrying out runner’s tasks- were shared in turns.
In 1990, Despite TV was working on a special issue on the poll tax called Despite the Poll tax. The proposed poll tax was despised throughout the country. It was a blatantly extortionate tax which required all individuals, regardless of wealth, to pay the same amount, and anti-poll tax chapters sprang up across the country. Despite the Poll Tax was not so much focused on the inequities of tax, but how the law would necessitate ID cards, which were the origin of infamous SA pass laws during aparthied. The tax would offer a great deal of social control and create a data blackmarket. The tax itself was therefore a colonial instrument. It was actually the second time that the British government had tried to institute such a tax. The first time was in the 14th century and led to a famous peasants revolt.
The magazine was nearly finished. Three camera crews went to the protest to get some shots for the end credits. They stationed one camera near the front, one in the middle, and one at the back. Their expectations for filming a peaceful joyous mass demonstration quickly went out the window.
Violence against protestors by the police left many bruised and bleeding. Hundreds were arrested. Police horses and vans repeatedly drove through the crowd, trampling people underfoot – all in the name of public order. However, none of this violence was reflected in the narrative on the evening news which depicted the demonstrators as violent and the police as responding to life or death violence.
Despite TV managed to persuade Channel 4 to commission a film based on the footage to create a film showing the events in the order they really happened. The documentary was broadcast on Channel 4 in Sept 1990 and resulted in the upending of the accepted narrative of that day.
The film was also used in court as a part of a common defence of protestors who had been arrest that day, showing many were acting in legal self defence.
Connections to the Current Moment
In policing of public events in the last year including at the George Floyd BLM protests in 2020, Sarah Everard vigil at Clapham common, and Kill the Bill protests happening currently in Bristol.
In the Battle of Trafalgar we see police vans driving through crowds, and the same tactics were used in Brooklyn 2020. Police vans were driven into crowds of BLM protesters who were protesting the murder of George Floyd. The Battle of Trafalgar demonstrates that the police were not “out of control” but following a dangerous and near secret tactic which was very likely to cause a crowd to react violently. During the anti-poll tax demonstration, the film argues, the protesters gained no benefit from violence, but the state did benefit because it allowed them to paint all protestors as criminals.
This narrative is easily created when media sources uncritically present police statements as their only coverage of such protests. Again there is an uncanny similarity between the commentary of a mounted police woman in 1990 and one in 2021, both who claim to have never seen such violence directed at police in their entire lives.
The use of provocation by police including the use of vans, attacking women, collective punishment, kettling, creates a large dragnet of offenders and erases the divide between peaceful and violent protests. The criminalising of protesting creates an excuse for the use of violence which paints the entire cause (whether it be BLM or anti-tax demonstrations) to be viewed as criminal in the court of public opinion.
April 3rd – National Day of Action
The 3rd of April has been designated as a national day of action against the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Court Bill. Over 40 cities and counting across the UK will see #killthebill demonstrations, and they will be joined by those supporting the #ReclaimTheseStreets movement which grew from the murder of Sarah Everand and the policing of the vigils in her honour.
In the demonstrations the week before violence from the police in Bristol created headlines of “violence against police” and “rioting,” but, as in 1990s, from the point of view of those on the ground the papers seemed to have switched around the subjects and objects of their sentences.
It will be interesting to see what policing tactics will be employed and what narrative the media will offer after April 3rd.
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This music video for “Real Woman” was made in 1984 by Wildtrax women’s video collective: Anne Robinson, Caroline Sheldon, Claire Glassman and Jeanette Iljon – ( with thanks to all the ‘real women’ who did it.)
The Poision Girls’ 1984 single “Real Woman” – which was later re-released on Poison Girls’ 1995 compilation album “Real Woman”. Poison Girls’ 1984 single “Real Woman” was released via X-N-Trix Records. The song explores themes of sexuality and gender roles, influencing feminism and punk in the UK. This video is one of few music videos from Poison Girls, and features singer and guitarist Vi Subversa – who also features in the Spectacle produced documentary film “She’s A Punk Rocker”.
The Poison Girls, originally from Brighton but later relocating to Essex – which also played home to punk band Crass, whom they performed with frequently. The Poison Girls were influential at the time, challenging sexuality and gender roles in both post-punk culture and wider society. Poison Girls were also involved in “Aids – The Musical” and formed their own label “X-N-Trix”.
The Sari Squad were a group of activist women, mostly South Asian, who helped to defend multicultural clubs and gatherings from racist attacks in the early 1980s. Based in East London, they campaigned to raise public awareness for Afia Begum, a young Bangladeshi widow who was deported from London with her child, Asma, in 1984, despite there being no concrete justification for such action. Her treatment was harsh, described by the European Parliament as ‘callous and showing the racist and sexist nature of the United Kingdom immigration laws’. In April 1984, the Sari Squad took their case to the European Commission of Human Rights. However, in the same year, and before the Commission could rule, the UK Government arrested Afia in a dawn raid and deported her.
In a Commons sitting on 11 June 1984, MP Harry Cohen condemned this deportation as a ‘disgraceful action’. He pointed out how the Home Office’s haste to deport Begum, and their total disregard for her situation (recently widowed after her husband died in a slum fire in Brick Lane) reflected how she had become a ‘victim of prejudice of the worst kind and at the highest level.’ Responding to Cohen, David Waddington MP essentially dismissed all the issues raised as missing the point, arguing that ‘the vast majority of people do, however, accept the need for immigration laws and for adequate machinery to enforce the control required by these laws’
Just what he means by ‘adequate machinery’ is unclear, but if this recent interview with Benjamin Zephaniah for The Guardian is anything to go by, it wasn’t so much machinery but bigotry in the form of attacks, especially from the National Front, that operated to control immigration. Retaliation was a means of survival (‘we still had to fight them on the street’), and Zephaniah praises the ‘legendary’ Sari Squad for the way they fought against racism.
In this extract, taken from our video magazine, Despite TV 3, various members of the Sari Squad discuss how they go about fighting for tolerance and justice, and why Afia Begum’s case is so important to them. Although the footage was shot in the 80’s, it remains just as current today, in our increasingly unsettled, multicultural, yet ironically intolerant society. The post-Brexit climate of casual racism and violent racist attacks makes it all the more crucial to raise awareness that this kind of intolerance is just as prevalent and unjustified today as it was then, and we must continue to raise awareness.
This video is available to watch on Vimeo, and is part of a new series of archive material from Despite TV, which will be re-circulated over the coming months.
From Joi Bangla’s first music video, produced by Ageliki at Despite TV in 1986, here is the introductory trailer for this local East London duo. Active since 1983, Joi Bangla (now re-named ‘Joi‘) represent the second-generation Bengali immigrant population, whose parents came to Britain in the 50s and 60s. The two brothers, Farook and Haroon Shamsher made up some of the first Bengalis to refuse to keep their heads down in a land they now called their home and fought to promote the multi-culturalism of East London’s Brick Lane which was, at the time, a hotbed for “paki-bashing” fascists and the activities of The National Front. The Brick Lane of the 80s openly sold the Young National Front’s fascist newspaper, The Bulldog: the antithesis of the white-washed history this street commonly holds today. Joi Bangla were the marching band to win their neighbourhood its brand new reputation through their enterprising contribution to the growing Asian dance scene of the early 80s.
In the late 1980s and 90s, Despite TV, a collective of filmmakers founded by Mark Saunders (Spectacle Media) specialising in social and political issues, took an active interest in documenting and raising awareness of state-sanctioned discrimination against LGBT (Lesbian Gay Bisexual and Transgender) persons in the UK.
In 1988 Despite TV produced a short campaign film, ‘Despite the Clause’, in response to the proposal of Section 28, a typically Thatcherite Local Government act proposed in 1986 and passed in 1988 which banned the “promotion of homosexuality”. The bill was proposed by the Conservative Party during the HIV/AIDS epidemic and purported to fear-mongering, homophobic tropes which portray LGBT people as deviant.
Section 28 was to have a damaging affect on LGBT individuals and, in particular, LGBT political and community groups, forcing them to limit their vital contributions to their communities, and in some cases shut down entirely for fear of legal backlash or censorship.
Despite the Clause features appearances from high profile activists including co-founder of Stonewall UK, Sir Ian Mckellen and Michael Cashman and M.P. Diane Abbott. In the film, Abbott, who was present at the proposal of the clause in the House of Commons, describes it as “A horrible, hysterical witch-hunting debate.” She also states that “The spirit behind Section 28 is a spirit of violence and intolerance to anybody that doesn’t conform, to anybody that’s different.”
Despite the best efforts of activists, Section 28 was ultimately passed and not repealed until 2003. Nonetheless, activists describe the resistance built against it as having a positive effect in establishing solidarity between LGBT people across the UK. Stonewall and other activists fought continuously for it’s repeal for over twenty five years. This campaign film subsequently remains a significant piece of LGBT history.
Both films, Despite the Sun (1986), an investigation into the year-long dispute, which shook the print industry, and The Truth Lies in Rostock (1993), one of the rare documents about the riots in Rostock-Lichtenhagen in August 1992, will be shown on Saturday 21 as part of the film programme ‘The truth of memory and the fiction of history: the politics of representation at the interface of anthropology, art and film making’. Furthermore, there will be a third screening of Spectres (2011), a film essay by Sven Augustijnen that explains one of the darkest pages in the colonial history of the Belgian Congo, around 1960.
This film session focuses on recent anthropological works that have argued that standard anthropological accounts can be inadequate to engage with contemporary socio-economic and political transformations. In questioning standard ethnographic practices, anthropologists have started to explore the relationship between facts and fictions, between truth and representation, and between individual and collaborative or collective projects. These new strands at the convergence between art, anthropology, history, film making and literature raise important issues concerning the limits of the production and representation of anthropological knowledge. This session aims to engage with these debates by presenting three films that in different ways respond to many of the wider conference themes.
The screenings will be followed by a talk and discussion with Mark Saunders, film maker and director of Despite the Sun and co-director of The Truth Lies in Rostcok. All film sessions will take place in the Lecture Theatre of the Symposium Hall.
Despite the Sun will be showing at Tate Liverpool’s exhibition ‘Keywords: Art, Culture and Society in 1980’s Britain’, which is running from 28th February until 11th May 2014. The film investigates the state of the media and the context in which over 5,000 print workers, clerical staff, cleaners and secretaries lost their jobs. It was produced in 1986 by Despite TV, predecessor to Spectacle, both founded by Mark Saunders, documenting the dispute over Rupert Murdoch’s decision to relocate his printing operations from Fleet St to Wapping. There is also a new website dedicated to the strike where there is a lot of information.
“…Despite TV’s ‘Despite the Sun’… was shot on VHS at night, so it’s full of comma tails and smears and it was shot colour, but actually there was insufficient light, so it comes out as a greyscale, that’s I think one of the most gripping pieces of political documentary to be made in this country in the last 50 years, it’s a phenomenal piece of work. It was using the aesthetic of both the recording equipment and the playback, the immediate circulation for ‘Despite the Sun‘ were people in the immediate area of the dispute over moving the Murdoch group newspapers down to the Isle of Dogs and the famous picket lines. The BBC crews, which they interviewed, weren’t allowed through the police lines, but these guys were all locals, so they all went scooting round through people’s houses and so on to get stories that the national media weren’t getting, and it’s a fabulous piece of work, but it was designed to be shown locally and distributed through the library service in Tower Hamlets, so they were expecting domestic TV and VHS playback, so it was pretty raw, and also released very swiftly, I think they cut it in less than a week from about three weeks of shoots. So it was very important aesthetically as well as in terms of its politics.”
With the recent revelation of the true events of the Hillsborough disaster, new accusations are flying…
‘So, former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie has instructed solicitors to demand an ‘apology and recompense’ from South Yorkshire Police over the newspaper’s discredited reporting of the Hillsborough disaster’ writes Granville Williams on the CPBF web site www.cpbf.org.uk . ‘It really is the most amazing cheek for him to portray himself as a ‘victim’. Disgusting in fact…’
Despite the Sun is an investigation into one of Rupert Murdoch’s scandals back in 1986:
In January 1986, Rupert Murdoch moved his printing operation, News International, from Fleet St to Wapping in East London. Over 5,000 print workers, clerical staff, cleaners and secretaries were sacked in one day.