Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Remembering The Poll Tax Riots

On March 31st 1990 over 100,000 people converged on the nation's capital to deliver a message to their government, a message of discontent over the imposition of the Poll Tax. What started out as one of the biggest rallies the city had seen since the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament) marches of the early eighties, escalated into violence. By the time it was over London bore some resemblance to war torn cities like Beirut with burned out buildings and overturned cars bearing the scorch marks of raging fires and explosions. The number of those detained and charged with Public Order offences were so many it took days to process them.

I was there in the middle of the carnage, having travelled by coach with friends and other students, not only as a young idealist adding my voice of dissent to thousands of others but also to report for the student magazine BACUS. Armed with my father's Cannon 35mm camera together with a full set of lenses, fresh batteries in the speed winder and my Dictaphone with an endless supply of tapes, I wanted to capture the events as they unfolded. I never had an inkling that I was to get a much bigger story than first anticipated. The march had started peacefully enough from Kennington Park and unlike previous demonstrations I had attended, consisted of a more diverse cross section of people aside from the student crowd I had grown accustomed to. Families had come far and wide, with kids and prams in tow (which in hindsight must have seemed ill conceived) along with union groups, and even pensioners (see picture above left).

There were delays as so many people had converged in one area the police took steps to prevent a potential stampede. Aside from some minor disturbances and a sit down protest near Downing Street, the march continued towards Trafalgar Square. Along the way I noticed police on horseback waiting in the wings and it was then I realised that this was going to be unlike any demonstration I had ever attended. Approximately half of the total procession of demonstrators were able to converge into Trafalgar Square to hear speeches from members of the Anti-Poll Tax Federation, and politicians speak out against the tax and promise big changes to prevent its implementation.

When the posturing and speeches had finished the procession was to retread its steps back towards Kennington Park where their carrages home awaited. That was when the trouble started. Even I was not sure how, but I do recall it started with the sound of smashing glass hitting the road followed by agonising screams. My friend, Gregg and I felt the whoosh of objects brushing over our heads followed by a loud crash behind. It wasn't until the horses came charging did we then push past other fleeing (and some fighting) protesters onto the pavement to watch the unfolding carnage. As Gregg provided unfolding commentary of the events into the Dictaphone, I ran back into the crowd, camera in hand and began taking photographs, even stopping to change film midway and just missed getting caught up in a charge by a group of youths towards the police who were able to hold their line against the ensuing chargers. I zig zagged in and out of different tussling and scrapping groups, trying to avoid getting bludgeoned or arrested, taking a dozen or so more photos before retreating back to where Gregg had been standing, in supposed safety.

We continued watching the violence escalate, when Gregg suddenly yelped, seemingly in agony. A flying piece of wood had caught him on the back of his head sending him reeling. I asked him if he was okay and should we rendezvous with our coach. Gregg, a real trooper wanted to carry on reporting and continued his commentary into the Dictaphone. He began pointing towards another scuffle thinking I might have want to take more pictures and just checked the back of his head where he had been hit. Gregg drew his hand back and we both looked on in horror as it was covered in blood. No time for arguments we headed into the crowd towards a station of waiting ambulances. The flood of bottles, broken bits of wood and other unidentifiable missiles continued flying past our heads. In the distant we heard an explosion. At this point fear jumped in and I was convinced we were either going to get beaten up or arrested but thankfully we made it through.

Luckily the leader of our travelling party, Andy had the foresight ( and courage) to come and find us. Gregg was taken to hospital accompanied by Andy who brought him home by train later that evening. By then the police had everything under control and the crowds were dispersed. People, began moving away from the trouble sites and I began the long walk back to my coach and informed our party of the whereabouts of Gregg and Andy.

On the journey home, as others slept or stared fleetingly out the window, I began looking back at the day's events trying to make some sense of why something that started out so positive ended in violence. Then under the dim glow of the coach's overhead light I began penning my article which BACUS published along with my two photographs featured above. To this day it remains my biggest most important piece.

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