ANALYSIS – Can our cities cope with protest and unrest?

Trafalgar Square in London. (


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. 

© 2017 Distributed by Troy Media

About Mel Rothenburger (9634 Articles) is a forum about Kamloops and the world. It has more than one million views. Mel Rothenburger is the former Editor of The Daily News in Kamloops, B.C. (retiring in 2012), and past mayor of Kamloops (1999-2005). At he is the publisher, editor, news editor, city editor, reporter, webmaster, and just about anything else you can think of. He is grateful for the contributions of several local columnists. This blog doesn't require a subscription but gratefully accepts donations to help defray costs.

4 Comments on ANALYSIS – Can our cities cope with protest and unrest?

  1. R A George // March 24, 2017 at 9:29 PM // Reply

    In the immortal words of Cary Grant.Judy,Judy,Judy. Canada is not a Democracy, never has been.Close,but not close enough.I,ve said this before,but I,ll say it again, Alan Fotheringham,a great journalist once wrote,” Canadians get to practice Democracy once every 4 years” Nothings changed.

  2. Judy Galley // March 23, 2017 at 10:09 AM // Reply

    Sometimes public protest is the only way to influence a govt. The deaths and injuries that occurred to bring about the vote for women and unions to protect employees are two examples. The people have given govt. too much power. There is no democracy in Canada as long as any allowed to make decisions to profit their own agendas rather that protect the rights of its citizens.

  3. -The Long Road Back To Rationality Or A Need For Continued Civil Discourse.

    “London Attack: British-Born Attacker ‘Known to MI5.'” 03/23/17, BBC coverage.

    “The Westminster attacker was British-born and known to the police and intelligence services, Prime Minister Theresa May has revealed.

    “She told MPs he had been investigated some years ago but was not part of the current intelligence picture.

    … “Every day they [Mi5 intelligence services] have to prioritize, or triage, who to pursue and who to discount. People who were once a threat change their thinking. They grow up, have kids and settle down. MI5, meanwhile, is tasked with focusing on those they know of (-those) with the most advanced plans.

    “Some of those they discount, or temporarily ‘Turn away from…,’ later, ‘Turn out to be more dangerous than initially thought. ‘

    “Intelligence is never a complete picture – it is not even like a jigsaw with missing pieces. It’s a case of trying to interpret fragments of information that rarely amount to a whole.”

    ( )

  4. Almost like The DNC Convention in Chicago in 1968 slipped down the memory hole.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: