In the UK, 30 years ago this week, a widespread movement against the hated poll tax reached its peak in a massive riot that wrecked large swathes of downtown London and brought down Margaret Thatcher’s conservative Tory government. With the poll tax, Thatcher had attempted to force a fixed-sum tax on every person regardless of resources or ability to pay. In response, people throughout the UK organized solidarity campaigns to support each other in not paying the tax, defend themselves against state crackdowns, and attack the authorities responsible for the tax. This shows the tremendous transformative potential of non-payment campaigns to catalyze resistance and illustrates the risks for governments that overreach their power.
Including photography by David Hoffman.
Today, as people in the United States, Catalunya, and elsewhere around the world organize towards a rent strike in response to government efforts to force renters and poor people to bear the chief economic impact of the financial crisis caused by the COVID-19 epidemic, we can look back to other non-payment movements throughout history. Even as we face new challenges, we can learn a lot from the strategies of previous generations and draw inspiration from their victories.
It is noteworthy that at first, most established left and labor organizations opposed the movement against paying the poll tax. For structural reasons, such organizations often represent the most conservative part of social movements. Like leftist politicians, they do not begin or lead struggles; more often, they are dragged along despite themselves by the radicalism and courage of grassroots participants, whose initiative forces them to scramble to maintain their relevance. This dynamic remains familiar today.
At the high point of the demonstrations in London, protesters set the South African embassy on fire as a gesture of solidarity with people struggling against the racist apartheid system in South Africa. Massive rent strikes in Soweto were also an essential part of the struggle against apartheid. Within a year of the riots in London, the white racist government of South Africa admitted defeat.
Since then, the tensions and contradictions within global capitalism have only grown starker. But nothing lasts forever.
The following text originally appeared in Rolling Thunder #6 in 2008; it is adapted from primary materials composed by participants in the resistance to the poll tax. You can read selections from police communications during the demonstration in London on March 31, 1990 here.
March 1990, what a month! All across the country, every night on the telly, every morning in the newspapers, all day conversations in the street, Poll Tax, Poll Tax, Poll Tax. Two years of continuous hard work against the tax in Scotland, a year everywhere else, and at last we seemed to be moving. Protests in Bristol, Brixton, Shepton Mallet, Leeds, Hackney… a rolling circus of hatred against the tax, each action angrier and more ferocious than the last. There was a real sense of excitement—what would happen next?
The March 31 demonstration felt like it was going to be the crescendo, the finale of everything that had gone before: it was the start of the long battle ahead, it would show the government and the councils what a fight they had on their hands—this was where everybody would be together in the center of “power,” this was going to be the big one… and it was.
In the late 1980s, Margaret Thatcher’s Tory government, which had already succeeded in imposing several bitter defeats on British workers and poor people, attempted to implement a new flat rate tax. Officially, the tax was called the “Community Charge,” an instance of Orwellian doublespeak if there ever was one; but across the UK it was dubbed the Poll Tax, in reference to an extremely unpopular tax that had sparked a peasants’ revolt in 1381. Because this tax demanded the same payments from everyone regardless of income, a great many people simply couldn’t afford to pay it, and opposition to it was widespread from the outset.
Most of the Labour Party, Britain’s equivalent of the US Democratic Party, paid lip service to this opposition, but still insisted that citizens would have to pay it. Their rationale was summed up thus by one representative: “This is a party that aspires to be in government… I don’t believe such a party can afford selective amnesia when it comes to the law of the land.” Others argued against a campaign of non-payment on orthodox Marxist grounds.
For example, one Socialist Workers’ Party pamphlet read:
Community organization stands in stark contrast to the power of workers organized in the workplace. Community politics diverts people away from the means to win, from the need to mobilize working-class activity on a collective basis. And by putting the emphasis on the individual’s will to resist, difficulties and defeats will be the responsibility of the individual alone… The biggest danger for socialists is to substitute individual non-payment organized through community campaigns for mass working-class action.
This rhetoric will sound all too familiar to anarchists who have more recently been subjected to arguments against people organizing themselves within their communities as they see fit, rather than according to the dictates of a power-hungry vanguard.
Despite most established organizations refusing to support non-payment, grassroots Anti-Poll Tax Unions sprang up everywhere to encourage and facilitate this form of resistance. Based in informal circles of friends and neighbors, these groups swiftly picked up steam and began to coordinate their actions on a national level. A typical group would cover its neighborhood in posters, set up literature tables on the street, go door to door distributing information, hold weekly meetings, and organize other regular events. Many opened offices with public hours and set up telephone hotlines to provide support for those who could not or would not pay.
This campaign drew attention to the massive numbers of people who were unwilling to pay the tax, which in turn strengthened the courage and resolve of non-payers. Anti-Poll Tax activists circulated petitions committing to non-payment, held public burnings of tax forms, and attacked local offices accepting tax payments. Canvassers who attempted to deliver the forms were also threatened or attacked. Other activists crippled the judicial system by means of delaying tactics, and when non-payers were taken to court, local Unions provided legal support and volunteers to accompany them through the judicial process.
In some cases, bailiffs were sent out to requisition property from those who did not pay; activists distributed information about the limits of bailiffs’ legal rights, and in many cases mobilized throngs to defend people’s houses from their incursions. Phone trees were often used to convene a crowd immediately at a house at which a bailiff was due; some bailiffs had their own houses attacked by angry mobs.
As a result of all this activity, many councils could not recruit the staff to implement the new tax, while Anti-Poll Tax Unions received more and more volunteers. In the end, over seventeen million people refused to pay the tax—practically a quarter of the eligible population!
All this local activity was complemented by a series of increasingly confrontational protests. Towns all across Britain held local demonstrations. In early March of 1990, five thousand people turned out for an event in Bristol, and when the police attempted to arrest a few of them, the crowd pulled them free, kicking one arresting officer unconscious and hauling another six officers out of their van. The next day, in London, at a demonstration of equal numbers, protesters attempted to enter the council meeting at the town hall. The police charged; in the ensuing riot, fifty corporate shop windows were smashed.
The stage was now set for the nationwide demonstration that had been called for March 31. There was some conflict over what to anticipate: Militant, the left wing of the Labour party, which had attempted to obstruct and co-opt radical organizing since the beginning of the campaign, at first only expected 20,000 people to turn out. This gross underestimation was the result of their being totally out of touch with the grass roots of the Anti-Poll Tax movement. They had arranged for the march to end in a rally at Trafalgar Square, but they realized only three days before the event that the crowd would probably exceed the square’s 60,000-person capacity. They requested permission to divert the march to Hyde Park, but the police refused.
The riot that ensued was the biggest in recent British history and, together with the non-payment campaign, had far-reaching consequences throughout British society.
In the days before the demonstration, two feeder marches followed the routes of the two armies of the Peasants Revolt of 1381. These arrived in South London at Kennington Park, south of the River Thames, on March 31; starting at noon, they were joined by between 180,000 and 250,000 people.
The march set off from Kennington Park at 1:30 in the afternoon; it began moving faster than planned because anarchists pushed open the main gates of the park so people were not forced through the smaller side gates. This meant that the march spilled over onto both sides of the road and stayed that way despite police and stewarding efforts.
An hour later, Trafalgar Square was nearing capacity. Unable to continue moving into the Square, the huge march slowed down and eventually stopped in Whitehall. The police, fearing a surge towards the newly installed security gates of Downing Street, blocked off the top and bottom of Whitehall. The section of the march which stopped opposite the Downing Street entrance happened to contain a large number of anarchists and a group called Bikers Against The Poll Tax, all of whom were angered by several heavy-handed arrests, including one of a man in a wheelchair.
Meanwhile, the tail end of the march had been diverted at the Parliament Square end of Whitehall. A large Class War banner was at the head of this diverted and unpoliced march. They led the march up the Embankment for a few hundred yards and then turned off up Richmond Terrace, bringing the diverted march out into Whitehall, directly opposite the entrance of Downing Street.
Mounted riot police were brought up and charged the crowd, ostensibly to clear people out of Whitehall—despite both retreat and advance being blocked by further lines of police. The Whitehall section of the march resisted and eventually fought its way out into Trafalgar Square.
The mounted riot police then charged straight into the packed crowds in Trafalgar Square. Soon thereafter, four riot vans drove directly into the crowd outside the South African Embassy, apparently attempting to force their way through to the entrance to Whitehall where police were re-grouping. The crowd attacked the vans with sticks, scaffolding poles, and other items in order to slow them down and protect the lives of those in their path.
The police then closed all the main Underground stations in the area and sealed the southern exits of Trafalgar Square, making it difficult to disperse. Buses had been parked south of the river, so many people tried to move south. Sections of the crowd, reported to be unemployed coal miners, climbed scaffolding and rained debris on the police below. The builders’ portakabins below the scaffolding were set on fire, followed by a room in the South African Embassy on the other side of the Square. The smoke from the two fires caused near darkness in the Square.
The police finally opened the southern exits of the Square and slowly forced people out. A large section of the crowd was moved back down Northumberland Avenue and eventually allowed over the River Thames to find their way back to their buses. Two other sections were pushed north into the West End, where they commenced wrecking and looting. Police ordered all pubs in the area to close; together with apparently random police assaults on shoppers, spectators, and tourists, this heightened tensions by forcing drunken and disgruntled crowds onto the streets.
Fighting between rioters and police continued until three in the morning. Rioters were selective in their choice of targets: they attacked The Body Shop, McDonalds, Barclays Bank, Tie Rack, Armani, Ratners, National Westminster Bank, and Liberty’s, as well as banks, Stringfellow’s nightclub, and car showrooms. Expensive cars such as Porsches and Jaguars were overturned and set on fire, while other potential targets—such as pubs, small shops, older cars, and the offices of the Irish airline Aer Lingus—were left untouched.
The riot left more than forty-five police injured, and ten times that many human beings. Three-hundred-forty-one people were arrested during it, and another hundred and fifty were arrested in the course of a police inquiry that included dawn raids on the houses of local Anti-Poll Tax activists and tabloids printing photos of police suspects.
Not only the Thatcher government, but also the police, major labor unions, and the Labour Party all blamed the riot on “extremists,” hoping thus to discredit the non-payment movement. But membership in Anti-Poll Tax Unions tripled in the weeks following the riot; it had not alienated the public, but instead catalyzed revolt and shaken the foundations of power.
To handle the legal fallout of the riot, the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign was set up: an independent, defendant-controlled group committed to unconditional support of all defendants and to providing general legal support for all involved in resistance to the poll tax. The front organization through which Militant attempted to control the Anti-Poll Tax movement had initially condemned the rioting and looked to wash its hands of the arrestees. Now it belatedly attempted to set up a competing group of its own, but ultimately was forced to concede defeat and support the Trafalgar Square Defendants’ Campaign.
The Campaign was mysteriously able to acquire more than fifty hours of police video tapes covering the riot. These contributed to the acquittals of a great number of defendants, as they proved that the police had fabricated and inflated many charges. The Campaign also organized a solidarity demonstration and march the following October, which was again violently attacked by police. This time, however, the legal support network was organized well enough that this was a PR disaster for the authorities. In conjunction with the trials of the demonstrators of March 31, this confirmed serious public doubts about the policing methods which had been introduced during the previous decade.
Margaret Thatcher resigned as Prime Minister before the end of the year; in his first parliamentary speech as Prime Minister, her successor John Major announced that the Poll Tax would be abolished. Thatcher’s downfall is largely traced to the debacle surrounding the attempt to introduce the Poll Tax.
The Poll Tax rebellion also called into question the legitimacy of the British left wing. Almost all its parties and organizations had opposed a non-payment campaign, and yet it was exactly such a campaign that defeated the Poll Tax and the politicians who instituted it. Just four months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Poll Tax riot offered a vivid image of what effective political activity looked like, in contrast to the bumbling and obstructing of the Left.
The Moral of the Story
For those of us who cut our teeth in the wave of anti-capitalist activity that reached its peak following the WTO protests in Seattle, the struggle against the Poll Tax is one of the success stories of the previous generation of anarchists. The non-hierarchical, informal organization of the Anti-Poll Tax movement prefigured our own organizational structures.1 The images of people fighting the police and destroying corporate property entered our collective subconscious as punk rock record covers, anarchist poster designs, and television news footage, even if we didn’t know the story behind them. They took flesh once again when we fought the police at the FTAA ministerial in Quebec City and smashed the windows of corporations and police stations after the 2005 Presidential Inauguration.
There are some salient differences between the so-called Anti-Globalization movement in the US and the Anti-Poll Tax movement in Britain. In its favor, the Anti-Poll Tax movement was more widespread throughout the UK than the Anti-Globalization movement ever was in the US, in all likelihood because it was immediately relevant to the needs of the greater part of the population. It’s interesting to note that its central focus was a lifestyle choice—non-payment, essentially a form of “dropping out”—that cut across subcultural lines. The radical core of the Anti-Globalization movement, by contrast, generally failed to get beyond abstract expressions of solidarity with struggles elsewhere in the world to provide concrete ways for people in the US to solve the problems of their own lives. When Anti-Globalization activists did attempt to do so, it was often by attempting to help others according to the charity model, not finding common cause with them on an equal footing. To profit from the example of the Poll Tax rebellion, radicals in the US must demonstrate and publicize effective strategies for self-liberation and set up infrastructures like the Anti-Poll Tax Unions that enable massive numbers of people to make use of them.
Unlike the Anti-Globalization movement, on the other hand, the Anti-Poll Tax movement was essentially a single-issue campaign, and such campaigns have inherent limitations. Though they can mobilize massive numbers of people, they often fail to connect the participants beyond the specific matter in question or address other forms of injustice; likewise, they provide few points of departure for broader struggle or perspective and they tend to subsume larger revolutionary projects to their own ends. In contrast to most single-issue campaigns, the Anti-Poll Tax campaign addressed an issue that affected just about everyone, so it was ideal for building a nationwide mass movement; but once the Poll Tax was called off, the movement addressing it passed on as well, and its momentum was only partially salvaged by subsequent movements. It is important to accomplish concrete goals; if we don’t, we’ll never build up the momentum for revolution. But in struggling to do so, we shouldn’t suppress or postpone the greater project of building the communities and consciousness necessary to go beyond mere piecemeal defensive actions to a full-scale assault on hierarchy itself.
Appendix: Two Testimonials
The following are taken from the ACAB Press “Poll Tax Riot” pamphlet, which includes several more such accounts. For further reading, start with Danny Burns’ excellent Poll Tax Rebellion, an insightful and thorough recounting of the campaign; other primary materials from the time include the first issue of the newsletter Subversion.
I Booked a Babysitter
It was only the second demonstration that I’d been to and I didn’t really know what to expect, but I decided that I was not going to miss it, so I booked a babysitter for the weekend and got a train down to London. The atmosphere on arriving at Kennington Park was like a carnival. Bands were playing, the sun was hot, thousands of people were out to demonstrate their united opposition to the Poll Tax. It looked like it was going to be a good day!
The sound of a band of drummers drew me like a moth to light—a stick and an old discarded beer can to mark the rhythm and we were off. It was a joyful experience, dancing and shouting through the streets virtually all the way to Trafalgar Square. When we reached the Parliament end of Whitehall, a line of police had blocked the road and the crowd was diverted towards the Embankment. We could see behind the police lines rows of mounted police, ominously still and waiting. That’s when I felt my first pangs of fear and anger. I remember thinking that they had some nasty plans for us, visions of being fodder for exercises in crowd control. The police in the lines looked incredibly smug.
I continued with the crowd, marching up Northumberland Avenue, the excitement and tension increasing as the band came to a standstill as we entered Trafalgar Square. The energy became warlike, the beating of the drums and the chanting seeming to get louder and louder and the crowd more and more dense as thousands more swept up Northumberland Avenue. I pushed my way through to the Whitehall junction where it became apparent that something had already started. A man was fighting his way back through the crowd—a real sense of panic hit me as I heard him shouting, “Get any kids out of the way, they’re going to charge.” Images sped through my mind of the mothers with young kids, old people, disabled people that I had seen on the march. They were all here in the Square, the bastards were going to charge us and there was no way out! Bloodbath! Severe panic.
I pushed my way towards the junction with the Strand, shouting the warning for those more vulnerable to try to get out. There was another police line across St. Martins Lane and the only road free for exit was the Strand. As I looked up the length of the road, I saw a police van speeding towards us. I got out of the road and watched in horror as it sped in towards the crowd and screeched to a halt as an unsuspecting body flew through the air on impact and landed in a heap on the side of the road. This was too much! My anger exploded and I ran towards the van screaming and shouting and pulled open the door on the driver’s side, screaming blue murder as the terrified officer inside wrenched the door closed. I spat, banged on the windows, thought of broken glass, didn’t want to cut my hands, looking for something to throw, something to hit with.
Everything was happening at once, the man in the road with people bending over him, people crying, me shouting, spitting, furious at the police. A woman gently rocking her baby, rhythmically, protectively as she made her way across the road away from the violence. I shouted at a policewoman in the lines to let her through with her baby, realizing as I did so that it was the same policewoman I had just been screaming and spitting at when the van had hit its victim. I swallowed my fear as I walked with the woman right up to the police line, stopping just long enough to see that she got through to safety, then racing back to where the van was, thanking my fate they hadn’t grabbed me.
There was a frustrating lack of anything to smash the van windows with; I pulled at something at the side of a building, it wouldn’t come loose. Wires attached, a light of some kind, leave it! Hands banging the glass again, feet kicking, not enough people! Things being thrown, we need more people, shit why wouldn’t the fucking glass break! Break away for a minute, I want a good hard brick. Nothing around. I see a woman sobbing on the curb, uncontrolled sobbing helplessly. I had to get her out of the crowd, she’d be trampled. I remembered being in a similar state on the tube once and home seeming like a million miles away. I managed to get her to her feet and then some other people with her took over and led her down the edge of the crowded road away from the battle zone.
I was at the back of the crowd now and couldn’t get back near the van. I pushed my way through. The mounted police had already charged and the police now had some measure of control and were moving people out of Trafalgar Square down the Strand, telling everyone “Go home, go home.” A young black boy, about twelve or thirteen years old, yelled back at them “We ain’t got homes to go to mate!” I didn’t want to go home either. I managed to get down a side street and back onto Northumberland Avenue. At the back of the crowd again, a crowd buzzing with its own energy. Occasional bursts of electricity as the riot cops charged at the front and the whole crowd swarmed back in a panic then closed up again. I was terrified of being trampled and made my way towards the side of the road where the crush was less intense when the panic-stricken running broke out.
Next thing I was up against the wall and riot cops were charging straight at us. I couldn’t move anywhere and was terrified as they came within a few feet, truncheons raised, manic frenzied looks on their faces. A moment later they were gone, swallowed from my view as the crowd stood its ground and surged forward again. That was my first view of riot cops in action and I realized how frightened I was. No questions asked before the truncheon came down on your head. I started looking for missiles to hand to those who were taller, could see where they were aiming, and were better shots.
Another rush from the crowd, running madly. Somebody grabbed me from behind. I spun around. “It’s all right, it’s only me.” A friend, thank god. Hands held. “Don’t run, that’s what they want.” I’m running because I don’t want to get trampled. We get out of the crowd for a breather, talking excitedly, then look down the road to see smoke billowing out, something’s on fire. The news spread quickly down to us: “What’s burning?” “South Africa House,” “South Africa House has gone up in flames.” Sheer ecstasy. The joy on people’s faces as this news spread.
After this, we made our way back up Northumberland Avenue and tried to break through the police lines. I got thrown back, separated and stayed on the outskirts ‘til I spotted some friends again. We decided to go and have drink ‘cause we all needed a break.
We made our way to Covent Garden and were amazed to see, as we ordered our tea, hundreds of coppers swarming through the place. We thought we’d just left the riot! “Look through there, broken windows.” We crossed over and couldn’t believe our eyes, the whole street had been wrecked. Glass everywhere, police everywhere, the banks smashed, the shops smashed. We’d arrived in the wake of a frenzy of ecstatic smashing and looting. It was the perfect scene to end the day with, as exhaustion overtook us and we headed home to watch the news on the telly.
“Nice Weather for It!”
Hang around in Kensington Park watching the march go by. After a few thousand have passed we see some friends and join them. Excited talk: “Have you seen the route?”
“Yeah. Goes past Downing Street!”
“Nice weather for it!”
Five minutes into the march we hear a loud crash. “Ladbrokes’ windows have gone through,” somebody says. Christ, already! I think, but it turns out to be the sound of the cops’ traffic markers being tipped over. For about twenty minutes every marker is pushed over. Lots of noise. Cheering and stuff. The cops lose control and people march on both sides of the road. A cop chases our mate for knocking another cone over. The cop gives up. Just past Lambeth railway bridge, the cops try to take an anarchist flag from the march. A few scuffles. I think someone got arrested. Couldn’t see clearly though. Keep on marching.
We cross Lambeth Bridge and go towards Parliament. Nothing much going on. A few angry chants. Take a quick rest on the grass before Whitehall. Going down towards Downing Street was slow as the crowd was thick. We decide to rest again as we get to the Ministry of Defense [MOD] opposite Downing Street. Nice bit of greenery to sit down and see if anything happens. By the line of coppers protecting Downing Street is a group of about two hundred people who are shouting and occasionally throwing cans and bits of placard. This goes on for about thirty minutes. More people stood by the MOD Eventually the cops block off Whitehall and divert the march. A friend and I piss off a Sky TV crew who are trying to film the trouble by shouting rude things about Rupert Murdoch over each attempt they make to film their reports. They fuck off to Trafalgar Square.
The trouble is getting heavier and more people are either stopping or getting involved. The police bring in some riot cops—some mounted, others in little snatch squads. The next twenty minutes are pretty confusing. There’s some hand-to-hand fighting and some missile throwing. A few charges by the cops. A big cheer goes up when a massive Class War banner arrives. Our lot get split up a few times. The horses charge the crowd and push us behind the MOD building. Immediately a small barricade is built out of building rubbish from skips [dumpsters] in the yard. A roll of barbed wire (!) is dragged across the top of the barricade. The mounted cops don’t charge again. By this time, the adrenalin is flowing pretty neatly. I pick up a piece of masonry from out of a skip and smash it smaller. A cop sees me doing this but I don’t care. The MOD windows start to get trashed. I love it. The MOD!
My first shot hits a window frame then the second one hits the wall. Oh well. More windows get done. My friends regroup and I moan at them to find some food. Convinced that we won’t miss much due to the likelihood of it getting much harder, we wander off. At Charing Cross Road, we lose one of our group when she heads off to go to the toilet. We walk into the punch-up that’s happening down by the South African Embassy. I throw a bottle at a passing riot van and miss. Shit. I hope my luck gets better. When we reach the Strand entrance to Trafalgar Square it’s just a fucking riot. The cops have driven two vans into the crowd and have been surrounded. Very brave people are right next to the van bricking the windows and shoving metal barriers underneath the wheels to stop it from moving. A snatch squad charges us and we scatter in all directions. I lose contact with everyone. Walk around for a bit. Shit! Lost ’em.
Trundle back to the fighting and see that the Army Careers’ shop has had its window smashed. So nice. I want to do something now. Chaos everywhere. I get a rock and wait by Midland Bank for the crowd to clear a path and then turn around and chuck the rock into the plate glass. Bang. The rock splinters everywhere and the window isn’t even dented. I apologize to a woman who had jumped at the unexpected noise. Walking off, I see the need for keeping my head in the next few hours. About a hundred yards down the Strand is a large group of spectators. One woman says to me after I chuck a stone at a riot van, “That was pointless.” I don’t argue. I suppose I’d rather do what I can than just watch. At the South African Embassy some people pick up a crash barrier. I take hold of one end and we push it through an Embassy window. I shout at them to do the next one but they walk away. A punk guy tells me “Just attack the cops, not property.” I ask him why. “Because I said so!” he tells me.
At Trafalgar Square, someone I recognize tells me that one of the group has been injured by a badly aimed rock. I walk around the crowd and find him. Luckily he’s not seriously injured. Just a bit dazed and pissed off at having to miss the rest of the fun. After chatting for ten minutes we see black smoke in the air. Hum! What’s on fire? I say goodbye and walk back to Trafalgar Square. Jesus! The portakabins on Grand Buildings have been set ablaze. Massive fires climb up the side of this office development. I wonder how much more mental it’s gonna go. I still can’t see any of my friends in the area but over on the left I can see that somebody’s set light to the South African Embassy. I love the person who did that!
Spend an hour looking all over the Square for someone I know. I must have walked past all the serious hand-to-hand fighting down by St. Martin’s in the Fields, completely oblivious to what was happening. I see a police coach leave its post at the South Africa Embassy and immediately a group of twenty people rush over and attack the embassy with sticks and rocks. Still can’t find any friends. I leave the area to get some food as I’m really hungry and knackered. Couldn’t get back from Charing Cross Road to the National Gallery so I have to take the long way round. Eventually, I rest up on the grass opposite Canada House. Watching the policing while eating my grub reveals that the police are like headless chickens. They are attempting to clear the area but instead of pushing us south to the Thames, they are pushing people into the West End. After about ten minutes, the police send mounted cops into the crowd in front of Pall Mall. Really stupid. The crowd is incensed. Some people drag metal crash barriers into the road to barricade it off. A few gaps are left to let people get through. I drag another barrier into the road and hang around. Someone then pulls all the barriers back to the side of the road. Anyway, the horses don’t charge again.
In Pall Mall, the crowd is drifting off. I watch groups of people make their way out of the riot area. The cops are still pushing them along. Suddenly a group of about five hundred people are forced together at the bottom of Haymarket and my imagination is on overtime. Why are the police pushing us into the heart of the West End? We are a stone’s throw away from the capital’s most luxurious stores! We weave in and out of the traffic and reach Piccadilly Circus. All the time the chanting continues: “No Poll Tax… No Poll Tax.” This is so good. Some people sit down but such protest isn’t really in many people’s minds. One step, two steps and we walk into Regent Street. This is unbelievable. More chanting, traffic still flowing. We are three hundred yards into Regent Street. Someone says “A chance to do some real shopping.” I don’t know anyone here but exchange a few smiles with a group of casuals.
Smash! The first window goes in. So excellent. The cops are at the back of us. They charge, but this just pushes us further and faster. More plate glass goes through. I must do some. I run down a side road to a skip and put some large bits of masonry in a carrier bag. Back to Regent Street and I dump them in the road. Take one for myself and pull my hood up and scarf over my face. Take aim. I can’t miss this time. Whack! A big hole appears in the fancy shop window. Keep on going. Up to the traffic lights at Oxford Circus. Pick up a paving stone and break it up in front of the cars parked at the lights. I don’t care. Turn around and crack… plate glass windows. Keep on moving. I look in a skip for more rocks but it’s full of plastic and wood. A man comes down the road and sees me all masked up and frantically looking for rocks in black sacks. He says something but I can’t understand his accent. He turns into Regent Street to witness the trashing.
Further… a cop van drives round to the top of the crowd and passes. It stops, then reverses and retreats. The sound of breaking glass continues. At Portland Place, after the BBC and the BBC Shop are smashed up, we run out of shops to trash. I mill about and am amazed by how most of the crowd have disappeared down side roads. It’s like the riot popped up, did its stuff, then became invisible at the click of a thumb. I take a side road to head for the West End again. Even here a bank has been attacked. I sit for a while but get a cramp in my leg. About twenty cops walk past. I’m hopping on one leg trying to unlock the cramp and appear as normal as possible. They walk past towards Regent Street. Round the corner in Goodge Street, someone attacks the Iran Airlines shop with a rubbish bin but the windows don’t smash. I catch a tube to Charing Cross but the police have sealed off three stations and I have to get off at Tottenham Court Road. One stop down the line! As I walk into Cambridge Circus, I find the riot again. I thought that Regent Street was the only thing happening but the cops are using horses up here. Tourists and theater-goers are confused… and interested. I sit by a totally trashed bank and talk to someone who is loving it also. Smiles all around. Talk to a tourist who is lost. Explain about the Poll Tax and the riot. She’s really excellent about it.
Stroll to Charing Cross Road. Fuck, some serious looting is going on here. Loads of shops attacked. At a music shop, I join a group of people pulling stuff from the window. I pull the shutter up a bit and see what’s left. Very little. Where are the cops? I talk to an Irish bloke who’s had his foot stepped on by a cop horse. Talk a bit more then I leave the area as I’ve hung around for too long and feel conspicuous. Up to Tottenham Court Road where the police are chasing people around. They push the crowd into Oxford Street to give them new shops to smash and loot. A small fire is burning by the tube entrance. More cops arrive. It’s obvious that the police have lost all control. Their numbers are small and the cops that have been on duty since this morning have yet to be replaced. They’ve lost.
Really tired now and my leg still hurts. I go down Charing Cross Road again. Past the fucked up shops. Past the wrecked TransAm sports car. Must get a train. Get back to see the news.
That night I am out drinking and dancing, but it’s only a few days later—when no one I know has been nicked yet—that I realize what a good mood I’ve been in. This lasts a couple of weeks, and during that time I have several “political” conversations of a kind I thought I’d given up. Maybe it’s coming back into fashion.
One might trace a direct lineage from the anarchists who participated in the Anti-Poll Tax campaign to the activists of the British anti-roads movement of the following years, which blossomed into the Reclaim the Streets phenomenon—the immediate predecessor to the explosion of the Anti-Globalization movement at the Seattle protests. ↩