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Poll Tax riots Poll Tax riots
by The Ovi Team
2019-03-31 09:49:08
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31st March, 1990; the worst violence seen so far in the series of Anti Poll Tax demonstrations erupted in London during the largest rally when nearly 100,000 people take to the streets in protest at the new government levy. More than 400 were arrested and property was damaged with repairs estimated at £400,000 after the demonstration.

poltax01_400The Poll Tax ( Community Charge ) was introduced by Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government in 1989 (Scotland) and 1990 (England and Wales) and was a single flat rate per person tax on every working adult, at a rate set by the local authority. It was designed to replace the rating system of taxes (which was based on valuation and rent value) to fund local government. The tax was believed by many to move the tax burden from the rich to the poor, under earlier local taxes (Rateable Value "Rates”) those who owned the largest and most expensive property paid the most but under "Poll Tax" the tax was moved to the number of people living in the house. The Poll Tax was formally abolished in 1993/1994 with the new The Council Tax which resembled the old rating system that the Poll Tax had replaced.

The UK Poll Tax Riots were a series of mass disturbances, or riots, in British cities during protests against the Community Charge (commonly known as the poll tax), introduced by the Conservative government led by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. By far the largest occurred in central London on Saturday March 31, 1990, shortly before the poll tax was due to come into force in England and Wales. The disorder in London arose from a demonstration which began at 11am. The rioting and looting ended at 3am the next morning. This riot is sometimes called the Battle of Trafalgar, particularly by opponents of the poll tax, because much of the rioting took place in Trafalgar Square.

poltax02_400In November 1989 the All Britain Anti-Poll Tax Federation (The Fed) was set up by the Militant tendency as a national body which included many Anti-Poll Tax Unions. The committee called a demonstration in London for March 31, 1990, the Saturday before Community Charge implementation in England and Wales, its having been introduced in Scotland a year earlier.

Three days before the event the Metropolitan Police realised the march would be larger than the 60,000 capacity of Trafalgar Square. It asked permission from the Metropolitan Police Service and the Department of the Environment to divert the march to Hyde Park. The request was denied. In the days before the demonstration two "feeder" marches had followed the routes of the two mob armies of the Peasants' Revolt of 1381. These arrived at Kennington Park in South London on 31 March.

On March 31, 1990, people began gathering in Kennington Park from 12pm. Turnout was encouraged by fine weather, and between 180,000 and 250,000 arrived. The police report, a year after the riot, suggested close to 200,000. A contribution to the size may have been a decision by the Labour Party to abandon plans to stage their own rally the same day. The march set off from Kennington Park at 1:30pm, moving faster than planned because some protesters had forced open the gates of the park so people were not forced through smaller side-gates. This spilt the march over both sides of the road, and despite police and stewards, stayed that way for much of the route.
By 2:30pm, Trafalgar Square was nearing its capacity. Unable to continue moving easily into Trafalgar Square, at about 3pm the march stopped in Whitehall. The police, worried about a surge towards the new security gates of Downing Street, blocked the top and bottom of Whitehall. The section of the march which stopped opposite Downing Street contained veteran anarchists and a group called Bikers Against The Poll Tax, all of whom became annoyed by several heavy-handed arrests, including one of a man in a wheelchair. Meanwhile, the tail-end had been diverted at the Parliament Square end of Whitehall. A large Class War banner and the anarchists it had attracted were at the head of this diverted and unpoliced march. They led it up Embankment for a few hundred yards, and then turned up Richmond Terrace, bringing the diverted march into Whitehall, opposite Downing Street.

Mounted riot police were brought up, and from about 3:30pm tried to clear people out of Whitehall, despite both retreat and advance being blocked by further lines of police. Fighting and scuffles broke out and the Whitehall section of the march fought its way into Trafalgar Square. From 4pm, with the rally nearly officially over, reports become contradictory. It seems the mounted riot police (who had attempted to clear Whitehall) charged out of a side street into the crowd in Trafalgar Square. Whether intentional or not, this was interpreted as provocation, fuelling anger in the Square. At 4:30pm, four shielded police riot vans drove into the crowd (a tactic in dealing with mass demonstrations at the time) outside the South African High Commission, attempting to force through to the entrance to Whitehall where police were re-grouping. The crowd attacked the vans with wooden staves and scaffolding poles. The rioting escalated.

poltax03_400By 4:30pm police had closed the main Underground stations in the area and southern exits of Trafalgar Square, making it difficult for people to disperse. Coaches had been parked south of the river, so many tried to move south. At this point, Militant Fed stewards were withdrawn on police orders. Sections of the crowd, apparently unemployed coal miners, climbed scaffolding and rained debris on the police below. Then, at 5pm builders' cabins below the scaffolding caught fire, followed by a room in the South African High Commission on the other side of the Square. The smoke from the fires caused near darkness in the Square and there followed a 20-minute lull in rioting.

Between 6 and 7pm the police opened the southern exits of the Square and slowly managed people out of Trafalgar Square. A large section was moved back down Northumberland Avenue and allowed over the River Thames to find their way back to their coaches. Two other sections were pushed north into the West End, where looting and vandalism of shops and cars took place. Published accounts mention shop windows being broken, goods looted, and cars being overturned in Piccadilly Circus, Oxford Street, Regent Street, Charing Cross Road, and Covent Garden. Police ordered pubs to close.

The demonstrators became mixed with the public. By midnight, nearly 5,000, mostly members of the public but also police officers, were injured, and 339 had been arrested. Scuffles between rioters and police continued until 3am. Rioters attacked The Body Shop, McDonalds, Barclays Bank, Tie Rack, Armani, Ratners, National Westminster Bank, and Liberty. Stringfellow's nightclub, car showrooms, Covent Garden cafés and wine bars were set on fire. Porsches and Jaguars were set on fire. Other potential targets were untouched: pubs, small shops, older cars and the offices of the Irish airline Aer Lingus. UK Government documents released in 2006 under freedom of information legislation reveal the police believed they had lost control and the degree to which they were prepared to act. Documented police radio communications and surveillance reports indicate that the police called for armed response teams, despite no reports of firearms among protesters.

The response of the London police, the government, the Labour Party and the labour movement and most of the Marxist and Trotskyist left, including Militant, was to condemn the riot as senseless and to blame anarchists. Some anarchists, especially the high-profile Class War organisation, were happy to defend the actions of the crowd in response to the police, and were joined by other sections of the libertarian left in condoning the riot as legitimate self-defence against police attack. According to Danny Burns: "Often attack is the only effective form of defence and, as a movement, we should not be ashamed or defensive about these actions, we should be proud of those who did fight back."
The Trotskyist Socialist Workers' Party (SWP), which was blamed for the violence by some in the media and by Labour MP George Galloway, refused to condemn protesters calling the events a "police riot". SWP central committee member, Pat Stack told the Times "We did not go on the demonstration with any intention of fighting with the police, but we understand why people are angry and we will not condemn that anger."
In contradiction to what was said at the time by the London police, the government, the Labour Party and the labour movement and most of the Marxist and Trotskyist left, the 1991 police report concluded there was "no evidence that the trouble was orchestrated by left-wing anarchist groups". Afterwards, the non-aligned Trafalgar Square Defendants Campaign was set up, committed to unconditional support for the defendants, and to accountability to the defendants. The Campaign acquired more than 50 hours of police video and these were influential in acquitting many of the 491 defendants, suggesting the police had fabricated or inflated charges.
In March 1991, the police report suggested additional contributing internal police factors: squeezed overtime budgets which led to the initial deployment of only 2,000 men; a lack of riot shields (400 "short" riot shields were available); and erratic or poor-quality radio, with a lag of up to five minutes in the computerised switching of radio messages during the evening West End rioting. Prime Minister Thatcher was at a conference of the Conservative Party Council in Cheltenham. The Community Charge was the focus of the conference; as coverage of the demonstrations unfolded, speculation developed for the first time about Thatcher's position as leader.

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Chris Elliott2016-03-20 10:45:30
I am the Police Officer shown in the top right photograph being hit with a scaffold Poll by Lorraine Vivien. I would love to get a copy of this photograph, cn you please put me in touch with the photographer.

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