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.
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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John Carlos, who marked his medal at the 1968 games with a raised fist ‘black power’ salute, will speak about inequality, resistance and struggle in London on Monday 21st May 2012 at a meeting organised by members of the RMT trade union on the London Underground and sponsored by the Fire Brigades Union. The famous gesture by John Carlos and fellow medal winner Tommie Smith epitomised resistance to racism.
The world is under the spell of the Olympics 2012. In these times of global gathering around an sports event, resistance is the best Olympic spirit according to Olympic athlete Carlos. Resistance against inequality and being pro human rights.
At the Olympic Games in Mexico City John Carlos created one of the most powerful images of all times. When the American anthem started, he and Tommie Smith bowed their heads and raised their fists to represent the Black Power movement of that time. Their way of dressing and posing represented symbols for working people, black poverty, peace, and lynch mob victims. In defies of the important Olympic rule: no politics. This controversial gesture created huge debates about politics. Carlos’ athletic career was over, but his human rights spirit did not die. He represents personal sacrifice for humanity and equality and this is your chance to hear him speak in real life.
John Carlos will be joined by activist and campaigner Doreen Lawrence, whose son Stephen was murdered by racists and whose long battle for justice brought the conviction of two of his killers earlier this year. Also on the platform will be Janet Alder, whose brother Christopher died in police custody, and Unite Against Fascism joint secretary Weyman Bennett.
Other speakers include Samantha Rigg-David from the Sean Rigg Campaign for Justice and Change and United Friends and Families Campaign, Sharhabeel Lone of the We are Babar Ahmad Campaign, FBU general secretary Matt Wrack and Mac McKenna, an RMT activist on London Underground.
The Counter Olympics Network (CON) held a conference on the 14th April at the Bishopsgate Institute where they discussed the problems that the 2012 Olympics has caused and planned points of action for the coming months to tackle such issues.
Derrick Evans Representing the Gulf Coast Fund for Community Renewal and Ecological Health
BP is one of the sponsors for the London 2012 Olympics, as the ‘Official Oil and Gas Partner’ as well as sponsoring the USA Olympics Team. The corporate sponsorship of the Games by BP has angered campaigners who want to publicise the adverse effects BP contributed to the natural environment. Derrick Evans is one such campaigner who argues that BP’s involvement with the Olympics is an attempt to divert attention from its “incomparable contributions to unsustainability globally”.
He gives the example of the Deepwater Horizon Spill when BP discharged two hundred million gallons of crude oil into the gulf of Mexico in 2010 and then “applied nearly two million gallons of chemicals dispersant of Correxics not clean up, but to hide because it has the effect of breaking the oil up.” This has resulted in oil particles being consumed by the smallest life forms in the gulf and therefore infiltrating the whole food chain. Two years on the oil is still present and washes ashore in the Northern Gulf.
This has resulted in economic damage and health problems for the local people. In particular, the local fishing communities have been badly affected as two of their fishing seasons have been completely destroyed and very few of them have “received anything near the level, if anything at all, the level of compensation to compensate them for the lost income and the lost investment in their one asset, which is their boat, and their nets; and the things that they pour all their money into, to get ready for the fishing season.”
The health of the local population has deteriorated considerably since the oil spills. “Thousands, tens of thousands children and adults are exhibiting in large scale, physical symptoms: respiratory issues, skin issues, loss of short-term memory, a lot of the same issues, they don’t know each other.” And these people have not received any compensation, “they haven’t received a dime.” What is more worrying is that not a single cent of BP’s twenty billion dollar Gulf Coast Trust Fund has “pay for a single medical bill for a single person”.
The aim of the Gulf Coast Fund is to “seeks to assist and renew and empower the most vulnerable of the communities and ecosystems on the gulf coast.” The very same ones that have been affected by the BP Oil Spills.
Therefore, the idea that BP being a major sustainability sponsor is ridiculous as the environmental and human damage that BP has caused through oil spills undermines its attempts to be a “sustainabilty sponsor” of the Olympics. “BP has essentially got away with murder in the country and in a part of the country where the state officials and the government agencies that defer to them are like useless law enforcement.” Derrick Evans concludes to say that: “I want to encourage to those of you who want to shed the truth and light on this apparently multi faceted fiasco.”
Bryan Parras Representing the Texas Environmental Justice Advocacy Services (t.e.j.a.s)
Bryan Parras is a campaigner from Houston, Texas who is also campaigning against BP and their involvement with the Olympics. He described BP as a “repeat offender” as they repeatedly have accidents and problems. Five years before the Deepwater Horizon Accident BP had an explosion where 15 workers were killed. BP are “constantly cutting corners and cutting back on their safety measures.” But at the same time they are spending huge amounts of money by sponsoring the Olympics.
Bryan Parras sees the “Olympics as just another one of those opportunistic moments where capitalism sort of comes in and reigns its terror on folks.” It’s like watching little league baseball in the stadiums, where “everyone is watching their children and their friends play ball” while their cars get broken into all the time. This seems to happen wherever the Olympics go, everyone is so “focused on where the lights are all shining that we are not seeing what’s happening” to the local communities.
Clayton Thomas Muller
Clayton Thomas Muller Representing the Indigenous Environmental Network
Clayton Thomas Muller is an activist for indigenous rights and environmental justice and lead campaigner of the Tar Sands campaign. The Indigenous Environmental Network comprises of indigenous people in the United States who have been affected by unsustainable development. BP’s involvement in the exploitation of the Tar Sands on the East coast of Canada has angered both campaigners and local indigenous communities as the extraction industry is unsustainable, causes irreversible damage to the environment and illegally encroaches on disputed indigenous lands.
“It is important to understand that for us BP using the Olympics spectacle, the biggest sporting spectacle on the planet. We all know, for those of us who have done the history of the Olympics, that the Olympics is nothing more than a mechanism for the neoliberal capitalist agenda that is essentially a real estate operation to utilize and justify the expropriation of vulnerable communities.”
Vancouver Protests Image by (c) Jason Levis
In Vancouver, the Coalition Olympics Resistance Network or ORN organised and challenged corporate sponsors of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. One campaign, called ‘No Olympics on Stolen Native Lands’ brought together different groups who were fighting for Native rights and sovereignty platforms in opposition to the Olympics. The Olympics caused the gentrification in downtown Vancouver where the local communities have been pushed out to make way for villages for the athletes and tourists. This gentrification mostly affected disadvantaged groups: low income, indigenous urban-based people.
As well as the gentrification of downtown Vancouver the Olympics had caused the destruction and desecration of sensitive ecological regions in and around Vancouver. In order to build the training facilities Eagleridge Bluff, a bald Eagle nesting site and a site that is sacred to the local tribal people. One Elder of the local tribe, Harriet Nahanee organised a campaign to protect Eagle Bluff by creating a blockade to stop machines from coming in. Elder Harriet Nahanee was arrested and contracted Pneumonia in prison and died. “So she died for Olympic resistance, standing up for her rights.”
The Olympics has also caused the increased surveillance in Vancouver. Vancouver is now the second most videotaped city on the planet next to London. Personal privacy has been negotiated as the CCTV cameras are still there. “And so what the Olympics really brought in was a new regime of both militarization and criminalization of the poor, gentrification of the most vulnerable communities, the destruction of ecologically sensitive sites [and] sacred sites to local indigenous people.”
Campaigners are therefore concerned with how the Olympics “created division that used poverty and alleviation as a way to divide different social movements that were converging onto the Olympics.” Clayton Thomas Muller concludes to say that it is absurd that BP is a sustainability partner of the Olympics, “it is nothing more than greenwashing of their horrific human rights abuses and crimes of ecocide against the sacredness of the earth”.