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Letter from London: The Demo

They were angry not just with “the fuzz” (their term) but with the whole demonstration for its idle and frivolous affability. We older people laughed and joked a good deal, greeted friends; some pretty women exchanged fashion notes: “No, it’s not new. I wore it in the last demonstration.” Gravity succeeded as a fair-haired boy, retreating from the police lines, bent double and retched; he had evidently been punched in the stomach. A respectful space was cleared for him, but he staggered off toward the rear of the square. Improvised ambulances drove through, with students riding on the top, from the LSE, to pick up the wounded. An occasional regular ambulance, with a blue light flashing, came to pick up injured bobbies. We were not near enough to the actual fighting to see punches exchanged—only the results. In a little over four hours in Grosvenor Square, we saw ten injured young people carried off, we estimated, including one girl. At one point a stretcher was jammed through a struggling mass of people. “Stand back, stand back. Broken leg here.”

It occurred to me that the more militant students might think of using an ambulance as a Trojan horse (or kamikaze) to penetrate the police barrier, but this did not happen. Respect for the rules of war. On the other hand, quite early, some youths who did not look like demonstrators (more like fascists, someone said) scaled one of the surrounding apartment buildings that was in scaffolding. The police declined the gambit, whereupon the idea caught on; soon agile boys from the march were swarming over the scaffolding, up to the roof, onto the neighboring balcony, pursued eventually by somewhat heavy-footed police. A handsome young black man in a brilliant red sweat shirt who was in the grip of a constable twirled free and leapt from the balcony to the next building; everybody cheered, and the cops gave up the chase. These human-fly acrobatics suggested that the demonstrators might have done well to employ a cat-burglar to enter the Embassy through the roof or a back window, while police attention was focused on the front; despite its grim moat, the Embassy cannot be as impregnable as it looks, and with a little ingenuity plus possibly some inside help, a North Vietnamese or Viet Cong flag or a red-and-black Anarchist banner might have been planted on the roof or in a top-storey window.

What was wanted, clearly, was a symbolic victory of that sort, a miming of the Têt offensive when the Viet Cong briefly occupied a piece of American soil—the ground floor of the Saigon Embassy. It was obvious that the Grosvenor Square assembly was powerless, just as preceding ones had been, to alter the foreign policy represented by that impersonal grey building flying the Stars and Stripes. Powerlessness, frustration, were what the Demo was about. Conceivably, power might have been momentarily outwitted by intelligence and daring, the natural guerrilla weapons of the weaker party. Home-made petrol bombs, even if Black Dwarfs had manufactured them in quantity, could not have blasted a way into the Embassy citadel. In any case, the point is not to imitate the violence of the enemy, which you are reprehending out of the other side of your mouth.

Such a demonstration is a mock war, which should culminate in a mock triumph. Peaceful means—protests, vigils, handing in petitions, letters to the editor—have long ago been exhausted, and everyone feels this. Everyone, that is, who cares about stopping the slaughter in Vietnam. But though English youth, accepting the challenge, has declared all-out war on the US, it does not have the weapons to wage it single-handed. As Mr. Manchanda said, “We are too few.” Yet somewhere in between the old peaceful means and outright street battles or terrorism, there is an area worth study if your object is to harass and embarrass your enemy without scarifying the bulk of your own population, which in principle you are seeking to win over. The photograph which appeared in at least three London newspapers, of a demonstrator’s boot kicking a policeman in the jaw while two other demonstrators held him down, is not really calculated to popularize the anti-war effort. No doubt that is why the newspapers used it with such unanimity, and no doubt too a photo might have been taken of the unique instance of police brutality attested by the National Council for Civil Liberties (reported in The Guardian), when a NCCL observer was kneed in the groin by one constable and then, when he objected and showed his accreditation card, beaten and kneed by “about” eight others…. The fact, however, is that no camera man was around when that happened—only a young woman who gave supporting testimony—and most amateur observers in the square agree that police behavior where they happened to be was impeccable.

It was almost as if the bobbies, the more inactive ones, enjoyed it, were amused by the whole scene, especially since they were under orders not to intervene when they could avoid doing so. Cheerfully lacking authority, they could look on the crowd as equals. This absence of ill feeling, on both sides, among those on the periphery of the sporadic actual fighting, was much commented upon. Example: a young demonstrator, standing with a cigarette between his lips, in the crush of bodies could not get his hands free to light it; a bobby, observing this, reached forward and politely struck flame from his lighter. The famous example, which many people could hardly credit, was the police joining the demonstrators in singing “Auld Lang Syne” as they prepared to call it a night.

The high points of the afternoon were the magical escape of the young black man and the lowering of the Stars and Stripes at sundown. Both drew loud clapping and laughter. The slow hauling down of the US colors was interpreted by the crowd as a symbolic surrender; it was what they wished to bring about, and they laughed as at an inadvertent pun. The low points were, first, the sudden apparition of the wounded, carried or assisted back from the front lines; second, the pushing and shoving and squeezing, which occurred whenever a charge of demonstrators was driven back into the square or into South Audley Street or when the police, having yielded ground, surged forward in a double wedge. At those moments I was conscious of a fear, for us all, of being crushed or trampled, but not, pace the sergeant, at any time of B.O.

So what did the demonstration accomplish, besides giving Whitehall the jitters? Any side-effects, such as heightening English national pride or training demonstrators in fall field maneuvers with the police, are beside the point, which is, did it give the US a push toward withdrawal from Vietnam? I do not think it can be claimed with any assurance that it did. But there is another way of looking at the question. Try turning it upside down. What would not demonstrating have accomplished? And the answer is clear: nothing. So, given the choice between a problematical nothing and a certain nothing, maybe it was best to demonstrate after all.

It might also be asked whether the demonstration was counter-productive. That is, did it gain adherents for Harold Wilson’s policy of loyal support to the US State Department? Surely not, for people who were repelled by the march, by the rhythmic chants of “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh” (the Fee-Fie-Of-Fum of the Youth ogre), by the slogans (“Smash the System,” “We Are All Foreign Scum”), by the flags, beards, and strange dress, do not make a connection between these phenomena and foreign policy. The fact that the main issue, Vietnam, was obscured by local issues, above all those of propriety and decorum (“Is this the right way to make your protest? Why don’t you write a letter to The Times?”), has its compensations. Nobody who shuddered at the demonstration from his luxury-flat balcony would be moved to demand that the British immediately send troops to Vietnam or issue a statement of full confidence in the Pentagon. People like that might be moved in other ways, to demand a ban on all such marches or the exclusion of foreign trouble-makers from the country or even to subscribe, out of curiosity, to The Black Dwarf, which they would not read after the first issue. One of their chief aims in life is to appear knowledgeable, like the party I listened to in the diningroom of my hotel the night after the march: an Englishman was explaining to a silvery blonde American woman that the “moderate” demonstrators who went to Downing Street and Hyde Park were OK, in the best British tradition, whether you agreed with them or not, but that those who went to Grosvenor Square were quite another pair of gloves: “The thugs went to Grosvenor Square. Only the thugs.” “I see,” she said, thoughtfully nodding. “I see.”

He spoke in tones of vindictive triumph. Yet the model behavior of the English police was not really a triumph for law and order. If anything, the reverse. The English bobby and his superiors rose to the occasion by disregarding the law. I do not know how many infractions were committed under my eyes—dozens, maybe a hundred—while the police stood by. Normally they would have reacted with the utmost severity to the least of those infractions. Indeed there were times when the crowd, more alert to public safety than the See-No-Evil, Hear-No-Evil guardians of order, began to protest. When a heavy object—a stone, I think—was thrown: “That’s enough. What do you think you’re doing, in a crowd like this? Somebody will get hurt.” The crowd, in short, when authority did not move, within itself spontaneously created its own police force. In my opinion, the official policy was right and justified by the outcome. Nevertheless, it ought to be realized that the police, quite simply, were not enforcing the law. If they had started doing so, there would have been trouble.

This suggests two things. First, that in a tense situation leniency is a good idea—something everybody knows from private life while generally following the opposite principle in public affairs, as though our corporate persona were more “uptight” than our private natures. Second, that October 27 was a unique, improbable event, something to cherish in our memory book, for, short of utopia, we shall not see it again. The police were submitted to a test and they passed it. They proved their endurance. But supposing, which seems likely, another and bigger demonstration is organized for Grosvenor Square, do you think they will stand by and again watch the law broken—a thing that is against their whole nature as policemen? A policeman unable to say “Move along, there. Step lively. Move along,” as he sees a crowd collecting is a broken man, whatever society he lives in and is employed by. Still more if he turns his back on an act of flagrant vandalism committed on private or state property. And what about danger to life and limb?

If there is anything more sinister than Mayor Daley’s police, it is the police that stands by (as they did in pre-Hitler Germany, in Fascist Italy, in right-wing Karamanlis Greece, as they do in the American South) while Jews, Communists, Socialists, liberals, Negroes, are roughed up, intimidated, killed, by hoodlums. A policeman is not a political expert; his job is to enforce the law impartially and not to be an accomplice in crime.

Granted that he does not always exercise even-handed justice. In even the best capitalist countries, he is rougher on the poor than on the rich. Is it a coincidence or an illustration of this general rule that among those arrested during the Demo, there were one student, and one “free-lance fashion model and writer”? The rest are listed as unemployed or belonging to the poorest category of workers—a bricklayer and a warehouseman, though as anybody present can affirm many students were fighting (in one instance under their university banner), and I myself was carrying an umbrella, just as much of a weapon as a walking-stick or “a piece of wood.”

A remedy for this regular diurnal injustice might be to reverse the practice and have a harsher code for the rich than for the poor—a quite reasonable idea when you come to think of it. But of course that will not happen under Harold Wilson’s government. On the other hand, a permanent October 27 is unthinkable under any government; storefronts boarded up, horses rearing, broken glass and sticks and pennies flying, youths charging “the fuzz” while other fuzz stands by watching with folded arms. Such a policy would lead to the total demoralization of the police and its replacement by private bands of armed braves. The American Embassy would be defended by the Marines, the Russian Embassy by the Red Army, and so on. In short, before reaching the future, we would detour via the Middle Ages, or through a state of universal civil war. It is possible that this is what is coming. In any case, it is clear that we witnessed in the Demo something like a medieval carnival in a modern setting, with everybody changing places, the fool becoming king for a day, Tariq Ali as Lord of Misrule, the police merging with the populace and even putting on false beards. But no more than a carnival did it “solve” anything. The sense of impotence felt most acutely by youth is still there, the system is still there, the war in Vietnam is still there, the cops have moved out of their dormitories, and the students have gone back to their classes.

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