North Americans thinking back to the turmoil of the 1960s can easily forget that there was other turmoil elsewhere. One spot that has gone down in in the history of protest is Grosvenor Square, London. The year was 1968. This was the local manifestation of Russia invading Czechoslovakia, student protests in Paris, political protests in Chicago, assassinations in the US, the Vietnam war, and more.
Adding to the confrontational atmosphere of the time was Enoch Powell’s April speech to a conservative meeting in Birmingham. It criticized immigration and anti-discrimination legislation. Powell, a sitting MP lost his position in the shadow cabinet because of the intolerance of the speech. He did not use the term “Rivers of Blood” but alluded to Virgil’s Aeneid—“I seem to see the River Tiber foaming with much blood.”
So, history cannot 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.
Trafalgar Square was the staging ground for the protesters. The estimate of their numbers ranges from 10-50,000. 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 US in Vietnam. A few thousand Britain-Vietnam Solidarity Front members, said to be Maoists, broke away from the main group to attack the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square. There were 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. What they brought was 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 choose this tactic. About 86 people were hurt and 200 arrested. It’s often hard to tell for sure, but it may be that more police officers required hospital treatment than did protesters.
The last minute change of route caused confusion and a bottleneck—dangerous in cities. Like a pressure-cooker, you don’t want to pack or isolate crowds—even ones which aren’t angry. They’ll get angry or scared.
This was early days for such protests, and requires the benefit of hindsight to understand. Peter Joyce ad Neil Wain—British academics—have done just that in their Palgrave Dictionary of Public Order Policing, Protest and Political Violence. They note that protesting UK support for the Vietnam War provided a nebulous enemy or target for the crowd. What was the subject of that protest—the ineffectual International Control Commission (ICC) doing studies and reports on Vietnam, of which the UK was a member? The ICC was either lifeless or dead by 1968, and little known before that. Was it phone calls among diplomats, speeches by politicians, trade in military supplies? You might get a dozen answers from the crowd. But when the US Embassy became a hard target, there was focus. Protesters would use ‘focus’ at many later events.
Meanwhile the police learned as well. Despite searching busses loaded with protesters coming into London, they didn’t find many weapons. Perhaps they should have also seen and removed debris from the square, which had become a weapon for protesters. The violence took police by surprise. It is said they responded with gratuitous violence of their own, including toward non-violent protestors.
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?