By ALLAN BONNER
IN UNSETTLED political times, it’s worth noting how our predecessors dealt with – or failed to deal with – unrest.
North Americans thinking back to the turmoil of the 1960s can easily forget that there was also turmoil elsewhere.
One spot notable in the history of protest is Grosvenor Square, London, on March 17, 1968. This protest was the local manifestation of Russia invading Czechoslovakia, student protests in Paris, political protests in Chicago, assassinations in the U.S., the Vietnam War and more.
Events like the protest in London’s Grosvenor Square in 1968 can help us understand how violence builds and how we can minimize its impact
Adding to the confrontational atmosphere of the time was Enoch Powell’s speech to a conservative meeting in Birmingham a month later. It criticized immigration and anti-discrimination legislation. Powell, a sitting MP, lost his position in the British shadow cabinet because of the intolerance of the speech. He didn’t use the term “rivers of blood” but alluded to Virgil’s epic poem Aeneid – “I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
History can’t record what percentage of people who go to a protest are protesting which particular issue. It seems that 1968 featured many protests with multiple motivations.
In London, Trafalgar Square was the staging ground for the protesters. The estimate of their numbers ranges from 10,000 to 50,000. On their way to Hyde Park, they wanted to drop off a petition at 10 Downing Street, where the prime minister lives. The petition asked the government to stop supporting the United States in Vietnam. A few thousand Britain-Vietnam Solidarity Front members, said to be Maoists, broke away from the main group to attack the U.S. Embassy in Grosvenor Square. There were as many as 9,000 police officers deployed, with another 1,000 trying to prevent access to the embassy – perhaps more officers than protesters.
The crowd pelted the cops with what they could find lying around. They also brought firecrackers to frighten police horses, and marbles and ball bearings to hurt the soft spot under the horses’ hooves. It’s a shame animal rights groups hadn’t been in on the meeting that chose this tactic. About 86 people were hurt and 200 arrested. It may be that even more police officers required hospital treatment.
A last-minute change of route caused confusion and a bottleneck, which is dangerous in cities. Like a pressure cooker, you don’t want to pack or isolate crowds – even ones that don’t start out angry. They’ll get angry or scared.
The early days for such protests requires the benefit of hindsight to understand. British Academics Peter Joyce and Neil Wain have done just that in their Palgrave Dictionary of Public Order Policing, Protest and Political Violence. They note that protesting the United Kingdom’s support for the Vietnam War provided a nebulous enemy for the crowd.
What was the subject of that protest – the ineffectual International Control Commission (or ICC, of which the U.K. was a member) doing studies and reports on Vietnam? The ICC was either lifeless or dead by 1968, and little known before that.
Was it phone calls among diplomats, speeches by politicians or trade in military supplies?
You might get a dozen answers from the crowd. But when the U.S. Embassy became a hard target, there was focus. Protesters would use that focus at many later events.
The police learned as well.
Despite searching buses loaded with protesters coming into London, they didn’t find many weapons. Perhaps they should have also seen and removed debris from the square, since that debris became weapons for protesters.
The violence took police by surprise. It’s said they responded with gratuitous violence of their own, including toward non-violent protesters.
With the current turmoil over unemployment, trade, terrorism and other matters, it’s worth taking some lessons from 1968.
How are our cities prepared to cope with protest?
Dr. Allan Bonner has consulted on some of the major planning and public policy issues of our time on five continents over 25 years. He is the author of Safer Cities.
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