HOW NOT TO RUN A
[Note, Oct. 2004. Since this was written, a new generation of militants has grown up, learning the lessons about the left this article outlines. At the time of writing, a mob has just attacked the leftist hacks at the European Social Forum, preventing the mayor of London from speaking, and exposing the icepick-heads as the cops they were then, are now, and always will be].
The anti-poll tax struggle in Britain showed that even in times of defeat, when workplace strikes are at a fifty-year low, the working class still has power to resist the attacks of the capitalists.
The class struggle is everywhere. This battle was fought at home, on the streets, in the courts and jury rooms. The main method of struggle was simply not paying the tax, which was introduced by the Conservative government in 1989-90 in order to make poor people pay more for local government. Previously, only house owners had to pay. As it became clear that millions had not paid a penny, millions more gained the confidence to stop paying. When the government finally announced the abolition of the tax in the wake of Thatcher's forced removal from office, non-payment figures continued to rise. The struggle for a complete amnesty for non-payers continues. The practice of "auto-reduction", pioneered in Italy in the seventies, not paying for things we can't afford, has spread - though obviously not far enough.
Though the struggle has failed to spread much beyond non-payment of one particularly onerous tax, it has created a culture of non-cooperation. This invalidated the British census data for 1991, because in many urban areas, a significant minority refused to fill in the census forms. Hundreds of thousands have dropped off the electoral register.
It has also helped foster the growing militant mob within the working class. By this we mean people who don't merely respond to state attacks like the poll tax, but go out of their way to look for trouble, and whose hatred of the police and all other arms of the state has a definite political edge. These are the people who see the need to prioritize support for prisoners, an area where the anti-poll tax struggle has helped links with a crucial area of the class struggle - for example, Trafalgar Square inspired the Strangeways uprising, which started the following day, and turned into the longest prison rebellion in British history. Prison pickets have not generally limited themselves to calling for imprisoned non-payers and poll tax rioters to be released. They have openly called for the example of Strangeways to be imitated.
One of the main weaknesses of the miners' strike of 1984-85 was the failure of miners to support class struggle prisoners. A movement which cannot support its own POW's and MIA's is doomed. We tried to set up a prisoners' aid network during the strike, and both this and an attempt to build a more liberal version failed due to lack of interest among miners and other workers.
The anti-poll tax movement has been different. The Trafalgar Square Defendants' Campaign (TSDC) was created immediately after the 500 arrests on 31 March 1990, and has been actively trying to support these defendants ever since. Other support groups were established in Colchester, Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol and Nottingham. It has been made difficult for the All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (Fed) to denounce the prisoners and split the movement between respectable non-payers and rioters.
However the purpose of this article is to look at the weaknesses of the movement, to critically assess how far we still have to go.
FROM MARCH TO OCTOBER
From the beginning there were, quite rightly, numerous arguments within the defendants' campaign - including everyone who was involved, not just the official campaign in London. At one of its meetings, the TSDC agreed to cooperate with the enquiry which Militant and the Fed were planning to set up, in spite of the fact that Militant had appeared on TV directly after the 31 March riot saying that this enquiry would give information to the police. The communists within the campaign argued against this of course, and in the end the matter was quietly dropped. The enquiry never happened. There were various other disturbing tendencies in the TSDC prior to October 1990. They telephoned bookshops asking them to stop selling the Poll Tax Riot pamphlet, because it mentions the TSDC. There was no legal reason for their paranoia : the pamphlet could not have been used as evidence against defendants merely because it mentioned the TSDC. No prosecutor would risk such an overtly political trial. The campaign were opposed to the working class politics of the pamphlet, which demonstrates that a large crowd of hooligans were in Trafalgar Square looking for trouble before the police started it. This undermines the myth that all the violence in Trafalgar Square and the West End was caused by the police provoking a crowd of respectable protestors.
The riot was caused primarily by the desire to attack the police and capitalism in general. The rioters took advantage of tactical mistakes on the part of the police. The working class is rediscovering its history of struggle, and this means being proud of victories like Trafalgar Square. The liberals in the TSDC and their allies in the media smother this history. They isolate Trafalgar Square from the series of mini-riots which preceded it. Take for example Despite TV's documentary "Battle of Trafalgar". Instead of showing that the riot was a great victory - it was the single most important cause of Thatcher's downfall - the documentary whines about how horrible it was, how the police spoilt a nice family outing. The attack on the South African embassy, the looting of shops, the rioting which spread for miles - this was not a crowd of peaceful protestors acting in self-defence! The liberals present the working class as victims, and working class violence as a result of desperation and police provocation. Yet they believe they are an alternative to the official media. This is what the presenter of "Battle of Trafalgar" says when questioned about working with the official bourgeois media (in Flux no. 2 - "a magazine of libertarian socialism").
"DTV wasn't part of the media establishment then and it isn't now. Although ultimately we had the IBA looking over our shoulders, there was no direct censorship or control from Channel 4. Look at what we achieved. 1.4 million people watched a programme which told them that the media were lying, the police were lying, this is the reality that 200,000 people experienced. It was a chance to claim back some of people's history, to prevent the state having the final word. If you were purist and turned that down because you didn't want to become part of the Spectacle, it would be a crime."
The TSDC could use the excuse that their distorted account of what happened on the 31st was caused by the need to present a one-sided case in court, emphasizing police brutality. But liberalism has not helped win cases. The one successful plea of "self-defence" at Trafalgar Square was won by a direct appeal to the class instincts of the jury, not by leftist barristers making long-winded political speeches, and calling the demo organizers as "defence" witnesses.
We are not saying all lefty lawyers are no good. Some of them have been brilliant. We are saying the TSDC should have been more selective. Its legal support work has not been as effective as it makes out. Neither have its videos. In one case, when the prosecution video and TSDC video were shown, a supporter innocently asked which was which.
The TSDC also suppressed attacks on Militant grasses from its newsletters. All of this was worrying, but communists who are actually involved in the class struggle, who have comrades facing prison, can't simply wash their hands of a campaign because its not as pure as driven cocaine.
So when the TSDC eventually pressurized the Fed into organizing a demo in London on 20 October 1990, communists actively supported it, proposed a detour to Brixton prison at the end of the demo, and produced a leaflet attacking the prison system, and calling for everyone to join the march to the jail. Our leaflet had some effect on swelling the numbers heading for the prison. The main error in this leaflet was that it didn't clearly explain how to retreat. It was totally uncritical of the TSDC, in spite of the fact that the campaign had managed to turn self-defence into "monitoring". The idea is, instead of grabbing people back from the police, and learning how to fight them more effectively, you wear bright pink jackets, and take photos and videos of police brutality, so you can complain about it afterwards.
This would be funny if it wasn't for two things. Firstly, it turns class struggle militants into leftist idiots. Secondly, it helps promote liberalism. We use this word, not simply as an insult, but to denote a serious program of reform, which could be put into practice if the state's legitimacy was threatened by rising class struggle. An example of this program is the TSDC's Report on the Policing of the October 20th Demonstration, following the police attack on the 3000-strong crowd outside the prison. This report was a turning point. It became obvious that communists would have to turn against the TSDC.
"It is our sincere hope that this report will be read carefully and with an open mind by those with responsibility for public order, and that it will lead to a serious re-assessment of the role of the police in public order situations such as this".
People who support public order were terrified by the battle of Trafalgar Square. It was open class war. The left were simply swept aside. The TSDC report asks whether the police are capable of keeping public order - in other words, the rule of law - in situations of class conflict such as Wapping and Trafalgar Square. What they are in effect saying to the government is - leave it to us, we and our Militant friends can keep order. We won't mismanage the situation like the police did on March 31st.. We won't provoke mass outbreaks of class warfare.
The 20 October report ends with four recommendations. It calls for the suspension of a top cop, the prosecution of others, and the setting up of a public enquiry. These three proposals are designed to reform, and thus help restore credibility to, the police. And they're probably not going to happen. Why should any of the police be disciplined for what they did on 20 October? They smashed a demonstration outside Brixton nick which was openly opposed to the prison system, the foundation of state power. They did exactly what they are paid to do. No public enquiry has been set up, but this may happen at some stage. As the government tries to reorganize its machinery of justice, punishment and terror, it may "seriously reconsider" whether the police can take charge of demonstrations. Then the TSDC or its successor may find a role. The fourth recommendation is "The immediate suspension of all the charges against protestors arising from March 31st. and October 20th.", though the original draft continued "pending the outcome of the public enquiry".
A public enquiry is a euphemism for a state enquiry. The state will hold an enquiry into the police when it thinks its not crushing the working class as well as it ought.
We thought the issue of grassing was straightforward. You might have expected anarchists, even British ones, to understand that you do not cooperate with known police informers like the Militant hacks who run the Fed. They have been seen grassing people up at demos; they have gone on TV openly boasting about it.
FROM OCTOBER TO MARCH
So when the TSDC invited police informers to its meeting on 20 March 1991 to explain how they and the TSDC were going to work together on the 23 March demo, we and some of the comrades from Sussex Poll Tax Resisters decided to produce a leaflet warning people of this, with the intention of persuading them not to cooperate with the TSDC.
That Leaflet in Full
The TRAFALGAR SQUARE DEFENDANTS' CAMPAIGN was set up after the Trafalgar Square riot last year to coordinate the defence of people arrested. One of the reasons it was set up is because the official All-Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation advocated informing on people involved in the riot to the police. Two of the Federation's leaders went on television advocating grassing people up.
In spite of this, the TSDC have gradually moved towards a close relationship with the Federation. It has tried to suppress criticism of the Federation in its newsletters and other channels.
The TSDC now work closely with Federation stewards, who in turn work closely with the police. At its meeting on 20 March, the TSDC instructed its legal observers (the ones in pink bibs) to take notes, videos and photographs of any incident that happens, and not simply to select things that might be helpful to the defence in any prosecution. In other words, if anything does happen, the TSDC legal volunteers with be collecting information that might be useful to the prosecution. Given their close links to people who openly advocate grassing people up to the police, this could be dangerous. We must be aware of that danger.
The leaflet simply states the obvious. The information collected by the TSDC might fall into the hands of the police, because some of them might be prepared to give information to Militant, who would certainly be prepared to hand it over. Some of the TSDC bureaucrats are close to the Fed, and would have no scruples about giving them information. Witness their defence of the Millies from the platform on the 23 March demo, when they had been subject to a barracking from the crowd.
The reaction of anarchists to the leaflet was varied. Some of them threatened to beat up anyone distributing it. Another response was to dismiss the leaflet as "outrageous". Some argued, without any evidence, that we were opposed to any kind of legal back-up. This is not the case. If someone is arrested, we believe in getting them a good lawyer and collecting evidence for the defence, and have done this where we can. In the quasi-autonomous TSDC Prisoners' Group, there are those who thought our leaflet was a tactical mistake, though it makes valid points. We have more respect for this latter group than for those who simply distort what we say. But it is interesting to see how easily anarchists are drawn into defending leftists, who in turn defend the state, against their revolutionary opponents.
None of the people involved in producing this leaflet or its more extended successor "Keep off the Grass" (available from our address) accept any of the criticisms made of it. The only thing wrong with it is it is too mild.
March 23rd. was a defeat. Following the government's announcement of the abolition of the poll tax, it was mainly a jolly leftist carnival of back-slapping, and in the case of the TSDC speaker, arse-licking. There were some examples of people being rescued from the police, but mostly the rowdier elements were content to follow Class War, and shout at the left-wing scum on the platform. If Tommy Sheridan can still get on stage and only be shouted at, there's something seriously wrong with the class struggle in Britain, and with its militant minority. Anarchism is only the most obvious manifestation of this malaise. The worst leftist bureaucrats in the campaign whom we have had to contend with in the last year have all been anarchists. On the other hand, most of the class struggle militants in Britain still adhere to the Anarchist movement.
The militants in the campaign have tended to concentrate on "practical" work, like supporting prisoners, and leave the politics (press conferences, whining about the police, interviews in the Guardian, TV appearances) to the politicians. This is understandable, given the urgent practical tasks that need doing. Arguing with the liberals is a waste of time.
The campaign is more than a few film-makers trying to build their careers on the back of the class struggle. The campaign for the release of all poll tax prisoners continues, with demos, fund-raising, lively pickets outside prisons, etc.. Some of the pickets have managed to communicate with prisoners. This struggle has been more important than any in Britain since the seventies, because it has done more than the miners' strike to question the legitimacy of the state, leading at its high points to open attacks on capitalism and the prison system on which it depends.
A. D. Phendant, August 1991.
The Prisoners' Support Group can be contacted at Brixton Law Centre, 506 Brixton Road, London SW9, Tel. 071-738-7586. Here is a list of some of the longer-term Poll Tax prisoners. Please write to them, but contact the Prisoners' Support Group first, to check that the facts are still correct when you read this. Be careful what you write.
Richard Andrews, MW0962, HMP SEND, RIPLEY ROAD, WOKING GU23 7LJ.
Neil Bremner, MW0216, HMP COLDINGLEY, BISLEY, WOKING GU24 9EX.
Michael Dalley, PF3098, HMP WANDSWORTH, HEATHFIELD RD, LONDON SW18 3HS.
Timothy Donaghy, MW0105, HMP BELMARSH, WESTERN WAY, LONDON SE2.
Darren Healey, RA2183, HMP WANDSWORTH, HEATHFIELD RD, LONDON SW18 3HS.
Matt Lee, MW1054, HMP FEATHERSTONE, NEW ROAD, FEATHERSTONE WV10 7PU.
Simon Russell, ND1666, HMP THE MOUNT, MOLYNEAUX AVE, BOVINGDON HP3 ONZ.
Brian Tavares, MW3239, HMP CAMP HILL, CLISSOLD RD, NEWPORT, PO30 5PB.
Keith Wray, MW1241, HMP FELTHAM, BEDFONT RD, FELTHAM, MIDDX TW13 4ND.
Robert Wray, MW1242, HMP FELTHAM, BEDFONT RD, FELTHAM, MIDDX TW13 4ND.
(List correct on 8 August 1991).
"For these deeds" he said,
"You must pay",
My sentence four weeks away,
What will I get?
But I don't regret,
My Violent Disorder and Affray,
I broke Public Order so they say,
Some social reports that look in my past,
This Scar isn't my first,
And in this Scarred World,
It won't be my last.
By Keith Wray, Poll Tax Prisoner.