The Young and the Restless – Youth protest and the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign

Throughout the history of political protest in London in the 20th century, a familiar name appears again and again – Bertrand Russell. As mentioned in an earlier post, Russell was heavily involved with the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) and then the Committee of 100. He had also taken part in pacifist and anti-war demonstrations in the early 20th century, even being imprisoned for it in 1917. It is no surprise then, that he was enthusiastically involved in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (VSC) in 1966, despite his advanced age.

It is age that is of importance here. Russell was one of the few older protestors of the war, as these protests are now seen historically as representative of the beginning of major youth protest in Britain, and the creation of a generation that would worldwide be defined by their opposition to the state. Perhaps the levels of protest involvement did not reach those of the U.S. or France, but they were still significant considering Britain’s comparable lack of a vested interest in the Vietnam War.

However, the argument that youth involvement in protests in the second half of the 20th century was down to a generational desire to rebel rather than an interest in the actual issues does a disservice to the protestors. There is no doubt that there was a counter-cultural strain running through the British youth, a desire to engage in contentious politics and a deep dissatisfaction with the state. Yes, the protests against the Vietnam War were used partially as a way to oppose the Labour government and Prime Minister Harold Wilson, as the VSC hit hard against what they called ‘British complicity’ in the war. But that does not mean that people did not feel strongly about the war, or that they only used it as a screen to fight other issues.

The sheer numbers of people involved demonstrates that people must have cared about these issues to some degree at least. The October 27th 1968 protest, when 100,000 people marched peacefully in London, demonstrates certain aspects of Charles Tilly’s W.U.N.C: their peacefulness is equitable with a sober demeanour, although they lacked elder members in the crowd; they wore matching badges and held banners with the same symbols to express unity and make their cause clear; they had physical presence and numbers, causing major disruptive damage in the city centre (even if they were considerably more peaceful, unlike on more militant marches); and given the frequency of their protests (4 major protests in less than 14 months) their commitment seems clear. However, Tilly’s theories are more appropriate for early protests, so perhaps they are not a clear assessment of protests of this period.

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(VSC-sponsored protest on October 27th, 1968)

Let’s consider the minutiae of the protest instead. The movement had a very well-defined protest culture, which the images above and below both demonstrate. Given that this was a protest for the freedom of Vietnam from American involvement in war, you see the repeated use of the Vietnamese gold star and red background. The badge below makes that clear, as does the large banner above.

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(VSC pin, circa 1968)

The sheer numbers of protestors demonstrate their use of space and particularly their ability to cause disruptive damage to central London and hijack spaces of informal encounter, social exchange and collective belonging for their own ends. The earlier protests also brought the activists into conflict against police – the March 17th 1968 protest is the best example of this, as there were a notorious number of arrests for an ostensibly peaceful protest, as the activists linked arms to break through police lines.

The success of these protests is difficult to determine, seeing as Britain was not directly involved in the war and the VSC, by definition, stood for solidarity rather than a specific tangible goal besides the end of the war. British support for Vietnam did not stop after 1968, and the war itself would not end until 1975. But these protests do show us that British youth had the potential to fight against injustices in huge numbers, and that their methods of doing so were sophisticated and well-organised. Considering the amount of time and work that went into these protests, it seems fair to determine that there was some genuine belief in this movement, that went beyond youthful rebellion.

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The death of Altab Ali

As we’ve seen from the death of Alfred Linnell and Emily Wilding Davidson, deaths of activists or deaths that demonstrate social prejudice/police brutality have been rallying points for social movements in London since well into the 19th century. One such example from 1978 was the death of Bangladeshi migrant, Altab Ali.

Altab Ali was 25 years old when he was murdered by 3 teenagers on the way home from his work at a textile factory in Brick Lane on the 4th of May, 1978. Two of his killers were white and one was mixed race (black and white), and although the third was himself a person of colour, Ali’s race was recognised as the motivation for the attack. One of the killers was quoted as saying: ‘if we saw a Paki we used to have a go at them. We would ask for money and beat them up. I’ve beaten up Pakis on at least five occasions’.

At this point, there had been ongoing racialised agitation in London for some years. The racist National Front had held active and aggressive events and demonstrations, the Battle of Lewisham had occurred the year before, the Grunwick workers dispute was ongoing (primarily featuring female South Asian workers), and Gurdip Singh Chaggar had been killed 2 years before. Tensions were high and only getting higher.

The fury over Ali’s death led to a march of 7000 people following his coffin from the spot he had died (Alder Street in the East End) to Downing Street on the 14th of May. The march had galvanised the Bengali community in a way nothing had before, and their protest was not only for police protection for their own community, but against wider issues like the National Front and widespread racism in Britain at that time.

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(Protestors following Ali’s coffin to Downing Street, 14th May 1978)

The above image shows the ‘worthiness’ of this demonstration – the activists look sober and serious, and there is clearly a mix of younger and older activists. They are show unity through the use of their placards featuring the same image and slogan, and a few of them appear to be wearing the same badge. Their numbers are undeniable, they utterly fill the photograph and must have created an extraordinary presence as they marched. Their commitment is harder to determine but given the solemnity of the march, it is clear that this was important to them all.

Their use of space is important, as they specifically started from the place Ali was first killed. Brick Lane and the East End had been the site of many protests at the time, but by taking his coffin to where he died turned a site of social exchange and informal encounter into a memorial to Ali and a reminder of what he represented. The fact that they protested for police protection in their community shows how people were increasingly aware that the police were failing to protect non-white people in London. The police had been accused of defencing or at least showing leniency towards movements like the National Front, so by demanding that the police care for the Bengali community the activists were making it clear that the police had been failing them and other Black or Asian people in London.

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(Protestors following the hearse containing Ali’s coffin, 14th May 1978)

Altab Ali became a symbol of Bengali resistance in Britain, and this march encouraged many Bengali migrants to take a more active part in social movements and activism generally, even though they began as ad hoc activists focused only on their specific community. Various groups were formed in the East End to help and protect the Bengali community, and the Altab Ali Foundation (which is still operating) was formed to commemorate his death.

References:

Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp

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Another high point of the People Power exhibition was their array of memorabilia from the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, which was formed in 1981 and officially disbanded in 2000. It was founded at RAF Greenham Common to protest nuclear weapons on site there, but remained for the next 19 years as both a peace camp and as a women’s-only space (which they decided it would be in 1982). Although it was not the first peace camp to be established, it was certainly the most famous of its kind. There were many similar peace camps formed in the 1980s following the popularity of Greenham Common, most of which were also set up outside military bases to protest war.

The Camp began in September 1981 when a Welsh group called ‘Women for Life on Earth’ marched from Cardiff to the RAF base in Berkshire. 36 women then chained themselves to the fence of the base in protest against nuclear weapons, one of whom was Thalia Campbell, the wearer of the jumpsuit below.

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What’s wonderful to note about this jumpsuit and the ribbons attached to it, is that the outfit was intentionally made to link ‘Women for Life on Earth’ with the Suffragette movement. The white/purple/green mix was first used by the Women’s Social and Political union in 1908, the claim being that purple symbolises dignity, white = purity, and green = hope. The WSPU was the largest group involved in the militant movement for women’s suffrage, making them the Suffragettes rather than the Suffragists (the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies). It’s curious that the Greenham women chose to use colours associated with a militant and at times violent movement, when they were a peace group who engaged in non-violent protest (much like the Committee of 100).

Here you see a connection made between first wave feminism and second wave feminism. Rather than taking their movement culture from the dominant culture, the Greenham women chose to align themselves with a famous movement from over 60 years beforehand. The colours would have been recognisable to people outside the movement, and it is possible that they may even have made people wary of the Greenham women, as the Suffragettes were known to create public disturbances and inflict material damage. Going by the ideas in Raymond Williams’s ‘Marsixm and Literature’, the Greenham women accessed the ‘cultural reservoir’ by incorporating these colours for their own movement culture.

The use of the Suffragette colours can also be seen in the poster and on the mug below. The poster, which dates back to July 1983, promotes a blockade of the Greenham Common air base. Like the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament posters in my previous post, this one uses an image from the aftermath of the atomic bomb attack on Hiroshima in 1945. Like CND, the Greenham women are using a famous and evocative example of the horror that nuclear weaponry can inflict.

 

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The mug was designed by Lou Kenton, who created commemorative pottery for both the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp and the CND. The women holding hands depicted on the mug reference the peace chain and ‘Embrace the Base’ events organised by the Greenham women.

Although it can be difficult to assess the entirety of the camp’s ‘movement culture’ as it was in operation for 19 years, you get a good impression of the culture during the anti-nuclear period of the early 1980s. Alongside the use of Suffragette colours, you see the use of the ‘peace’ symbol, originally designed for CND. At times this sign was adapted to include the women’s symbol as well, since Greenham continued to be a women’s camp. Although their events and demonstrations in the 1980s were primarily focused on peace and nuclear disarmament, they remained a womens-only camp until 2000. Peace protests and pacifism had been a major focus for women’s rights groups and movements in the early 20th century as well, to the point where pacifism was seen as a ‘women’s cause’. Although this was no longer the case in the 1980s, the use of Suffragette colours and the female symbol shows that the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp was happy to continue in their predecessor’s legacy.

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(Photograph from the Imperial War Museum, taken by Ed Barber in February 1982)

References:

People Power: Fighting for Peace at the Imperial War Museum

On the 23rd of March I decided to head to the Imperial War Museum and see their new exhibition, ‘People Power: Fighting for Peace‘. I had never been to this museum, but I knew enough about it to be very surprised that such an exhibit had been created in the first place. The staff member who sold me my ticket echoed my confusion when I asked him if (as it was the first day of opening) he had seen the exhibit yet. He replied that he had, but that he did not understand why it was there.

The exhibition, I was pleased to see, was full of objects and documents related to the exact movements and groups we had encountered at university – pacifism and pacificism during the first and second world wars, the anti-Vietnam war movement, anti-nuclear movements (particularly the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Committee of 100), and groups such as the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. I even saw footage from Threads, Protect and Survive, and other public information released in preparation for nuclear war.

Although the letters and pamphlets from the first half of the 20th century were very interesting, the highlight of the exhibition was the nuclear disarmament section.

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The above image showcases some of my favourite posters in the exhibit. These were produced by the CND in the 1950s/1960s, during the first wave of anti-nuclear campaigns in Britain. They all reference the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, intending to provoke horror at those attacks so that people would understand the necessity to prevent such things ever happening again. They use bold images and text over black backgrounds to catch the eye and hammer their message in, relying on simplicity and distinctiveness rather than overcomplicating their posters. To a degree these posters echo the pop art style which was popular in this period, which is an example of the movement taking aspects of the dominant culture to make their message more palatable and recognisable to their audience.

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The CND famously held annual marches between London and the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment at Aldermaston (the first march being from London to Aldermaston, and all the following marches being the other way around). These marches were great examples of Charles Tilly’s W.U.N.C. – their worthiness demonstrated by the solemnity of the marchers and the presence of many older members, their unity presented by their large banners and the repetition of the ‘peace symbol’ (as it is now known) which had been designed specifically for their movement, while the power of their numbers was enhanced by the commitment of the activists, because even though there weren’t always as many people marching as were seen in other movement events, the fact that a reasonably large number of people were marching in inclement weather for 52 miles was incredibly impressive.

It would appear that the CND was made up of ad hoc and communitarian activists, rather than professional. This is because the movement waned between the 1960s and the 1980s when a large number of its supporters became focused on the Vietnam War instead of nuclear disarmament. Therefore, some of their former members may have just disappeared when the Vietnam War took precedence as their focus was specifically anti-nuclear war (the ad hoc activists), whilst the others (communitarian) changed movements in this period, before returning to the CND in the 1980s.

 

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But back to the exhibition. The above images show posters and fliers from the Committee of 100, the group that broke away from CND as they preferred active non-violent protest and civil disobedience to achieve their ends. The repertoire of the Committee of 100 was made up entirely of non-violent protests, which were episodic. They held a number of sit-downs and marches to cause disruptive damage rather than violent damage, by obstructing important areas and causing traffic (an example being their demonstration on September 17th 1961, when they blocked approaches to Trafalgar Square by sitting in the road). In breaking away from the majority of the CND and forming the Committee, these activists specifically sought to take their threshold of participation in their movement from direct action to more illegal non-violent activities, making sure never to proceed to violence on principle. By doing so they were changing the nature of the spaces which they occupied, as their protests were taking place in social spaces intended as sites of collective belonging (such as Trafalgar Square) or informal encounter (the streets) which were then unable to be used in their traditional ways. Occupying these spaces was symbolic (as Trafalgar was the emblem of British nationalism), performative, and disruptive.

One particularly recognisable face in images from the Committee of 100 protests is that of philosopher/mathematician/writer Bertrand Russell. Bertrand Russell had been prominent in pacifist and anti-war movements since the First World War, during which time he was charged under the Defence of the Realm Act 1914 in 1916, dismissed from Trinity College, Cambridge the same year, attended the famous Leeds Convention in 1917 (a gathering of ‘anti-war socialists’) and was even imprisoned in 1918. He is perhaps an example of something in between a professional and a communitarian activist, as he was consistently involved in anti-war movements for upwards of 50 years (and would likely have been active during the second wave of the CND had he not died in 1970) but did not remain with the same specific groups throughout that time.

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This final image shows my favourite poster from the exhibition, ‘Protect and Survive’ (1980) by Peter Kennard. This piece took the government pamphlet sent to the public in the event of nuclear attack and exposed it as the fallacy it was. This pamphlet was essentially useless, as none of the suggested actions would actually be of much protection at all, and people who tried them would be left as dead as the skeleton in the artwork. Kennard took a popular image from the dominant culture and exploited it for the sake of the movement.

References:

  • Hudson, Kate, CND – now more than ever: the story of a peace movement (London: Vision Paperbacks, 2005)

  • Lefebvre, Henri, Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith, The Production of Space (Oxford: Blackwell, 1974)
  • Reiss, Matthias, ed., The street as stage: protest marches and public rallies since the nineteenth century (Oxford, 2007)

  • Taylor, Richard & Pritchard, Colin, The protest makers: the British nuclear disarmament movement of 1958-1965 twenty years on (Oxford, 1980)
  • Tilly, Charles, ‘Social movements as historically specific clusters of political performances’, Berkeley Journal of Sociology (1993), 1–30
  • Tonkiss, Fran, ‘The Politics of Space: Social Movements and Public Space’ in Space, the City and Social Theory (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005)