It was very English to call it “the Demo,” and no wonder the pet name stuck, conjuring up a specter of “demos,” the people (sometimes pejorative), but on the other hand “democracy” (good), which withstood the test of the demonstration. Small family-style states are fond of making up diminutives, whose effect is to diminish, domesticate; compare “the telly” to big gross American “TV.” Yet the peculiar fact about the October 27 dual march was that it was organized and directed by aliens in competition with each other: Tariq Ali, a young mustached Pakistani, leading the way to Downing Street, and Abhimanya Manchanda, a middle-aged clean-shaven Indian, to Grosvenor Square.
For the English, these rival pied pipers were difficult to swallow, let alone assimilate. A well-fleshed, plaintive humorist of a police sergeant sought to explain his obscure sense of injury relating to the Demo, which in principle he did not exactly oppose but saw as a conflict of rights: the right to push your pram, undisturbed, down the Strand on Sunday and the right, slightly less hallowed, to march. We were standing in a pub near a central London police station on the eve of the demonstration. What stuck in his craw, he confided, leaning forward and lowering his voice, was “those foreigners.” “It’s the bill you’re paying for Empire,” I replied. He appreciated the point (English fair-mindedness) and laughed. The discussion continued. I made some feeble joke about seeing him tomorrow, in jail. “You don’t mean to say you’re going to march?” “Certainly!” “Stay home and watch it on the television. Take my advice.” He made a face, leaning forward in another burst of confidence and wrinkling up his broad manly nose. It wasn’t the “pushing and shoving” he minded in those demonstrations. “It’s the B. O. Phew!”
Just then, a police siren blew. “That’s my tune,” he said, grinning. Then another. Outside, cops were racing out of the police station, pulling on their coats, clapping on their helmets, and boarding police wagons. The sergeant hastily left his pint of lager on the bar. We left our drinks too and ran. A large force of alarmed bobbies was converging on Westminster Abbey, where some pink-cheeked, tow-headed schoolboys from Manchester, wearing red and white scarves, in town for the football match, had been apprehended on the sidewalk; their average age was maybe fourteen. A flash had come through that some unknown persons were breaking into the Abbey; possibly one or two of the little Manchester rooters had tried to climb the fence. In a minute, the police, embarrassed, were returning to base. In preparation for the Demo, they had been sleeping in at the police station, with a barrel of beer, occupying it, in short, like the students on guard at the London School of Economics. Both sides were nervous; gloomy, and gay. It worried me that with all that beer the police might have hangovers the next day, which would make them irritable. The sergeant complained that the pigeons under the eaves of his “dormitory” had been keeping him awake.
In the LSE, which we had just visited, the only drinks being served were coffee and tea. As at the Sorbonne last May and June, you could buy apples and sandwiches. Some students were already asleep in the corridors, but most were just milling about or reading the posters and slogans on the walls, many of which seemed to be copied from the French slogans. A local touch was a small notice: “PARENTS: Babies and Children Cared for during Demonstration. Please apply,” etc. In the big auditorium movies were being shown of previous demonstrations: the May-June French marches and street fighting and the March 17 Grosvenor Square rally. This made me think of the Marines at Da Nang watching old Hollywood World War II war movies: the hair of the dog. There were fewer jokes here than in the police station—less irony. An infirmary to receive the wounded was being prepared, and the next morning there would be an ambulance standing in the entrance hall—a camouflaged truck from Cardiff. It was plain that they expected casualties.
What do you hope to accomplish by this demonstration?” I had been asking Tariq Ali in the offices of the new New Left magazine, The Black Dwarf, on Carlisle Street, which was placarded with art work of Fidel and Che, previous issues of the magazine, provocative slogans. There were photos of the enemy: Axel Springer, Getty, Howard Hughes. There was a striking photo of US Marines in bristling combat formation resembling a human porcupine ready to throw its quills. There was an art photo involving a discarded condom, and a typed list of first-aid stations by districts. In this window-case of pop politics, like a vision from another world, hung a very big photograph of Trotsky with his clear, intelligent, spectacled, professorial eyes (“What, you here, old friend?”). A new issue of the magazine had just been printed, and young distributors were hurrying out with it. Someone ran in to say that one of the sellers had been arrested in Piccadilly Circus for “causing an obstruction.” (The British guardians of order, off camera, were still up to their old tricks; see “Freedom of the Park” in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell commenting on the arrests for “obstruction” of five people selling Freedom (anarchist), Peace News, and other left-wing papers in Hyde Park. That was in December, 1945, under an earlier Labor Government, and Orwell wondered how it was that you did not hear of newsboys being run in for selling The Daily Telegraph, The Tablet, or The Spectator.) The Dwarf office, temporary staff headquarters for the Vietnam Solidarity campaign (Trotskyist, as opposed to the British Vietnam Solidarity Front, Maoist), suggested a stage set of revolution, with supernumeraries like spear-bearers entering stage right and left, bit players speaking lines of studied rudeness as in some updated Wildean comedy, breathless messengers, and a general atmospheric litter, the floor serving as a communal ash-tray. I could not resist the feeling that I had been cast in the role of audience and ought to have paid an admission. At the pub around the corner, just off-stage, Special Branch men were posing as customers.
The words “What do you hope to accomplish, etc.?” had, I quickly discovered, the effect of a negative password. It virtually invited the bum’s rush. How narrowly I had escaped that, I realized the next morning during a pre-march briefing at the London School of Economics when a middle-aged man in a hat addressed the same question to the chairman. “Get the hell out.” “Infiltrator.” “Spy.” “Fuck you.” “There’s ladies present.” “Give him a chance, for Christ’s sake.” “This bugger didn’t come here to ask a bona fide question. He came here to cause chaos.” In fact, from the sneer in his voice, I too concluded that the man in the hat was there for no good purpose. His hat itself was a provocation. Yet whatever his intention (or mine), the question was a natural one, which the very scale of the preparations on both sides (forty doctors and nurses and four ambulances at the LSE alone) necessarily brought to the mind of the ordinary perplexed Londoner: “What do they expect to gain by it, I ask you?” the sergeant had mused, in the pub.
I had been thinking about the problem myself, in a US context—would it do any good to march again on the Pentagon?—and it seems to me that there is a law of diminishing returns that applies to demonstrations, though nobody can be sure at what point it will begin to operate. But if a demonstration reveals your weakness, rather than your strength, it may not be a good plan to hold it. And built into demonstrations, as into any kind of warfare, there is the tendency to escalate, to make up in increasing violence what you lack in force, till the number of injured on both sides becomes the measure of the success of a march, and this is particularly true when modern means of publicity are focused on the combat. Here—the opposite of regular warfare—each side tends to overestimate its own casualties and to underestimate those of the enemy. Or, as a police inspector said: “We will be trying to minimize arrests. The students hope to maximize them.”
Tariq Ali, though he did not express it so succinctly, was aware of being caught in a dilemma implicit in the war games of the street. Having attacked Grosvenor Square in March, he did not wish to “repeat himself” in October, for the only way of topping the previous performance there would be by a heightening of violence. Hence he spoke of Grosvenor Square as “a death trap,” to which he was unwilling to commit his followers. De-escalation, according to this reasoning, then became inevitable—a change of pace and direction, to Downing Street and Hyde Park, rather than to the US Embassy, and in disciplined, orderly formation, instead of in fighting salients.
He was thinking, clearly, in terms of showmanship, and in these terms he may have been right, except that the London police stole the show on him. Moreover, in his concentration on the manner of the demonstration, he lost sight of the matter: the US war in Vietnam. Indeed, the Demo, which might have been a tragedy, turned into a comedy of manners. He did not foresee that, of course, on the eve of the march, nor perceive it later by hindsight. What the demonstration had already accomplished, he told me, was that all over England, in pubs tonight, people were talking about Vietnam, which had been practically forgotten since March. Did he really believe this? According to my guess, people in pubs were talking about the Demo all right and about him, but not about Vietnam, and this could not be blamed exclusively on the press. The oncoming confrontation between the police and the marchers was viewed as a domestic sporting event in which you chose sides and took bets, also, if you were fearful, as a sort of invasion from Mars or D-day, D standing for doom. With a tense contest like that right on their doorstep or scheduled, live, on video, how could people be expected to turn their attention to a war in a remote country and to which the sole active British contribution was training police dogs to track down Viet Cong? Like many fiery and histrionic persons, Tariq Ali seemed to have no sense of the impact of the drama he was mounting on the ordinary clowns in the gallery. In short, no common sense. “What do you hope to accomplish, etc.?” is a commonsensical question, which was why it was an unwelcome interruption in a theater of revolution.
In his bed-sitter in Hampstead, Mr. Manchanda, the leader of the Maoist group, accepted the question as perfectly legitimate. “I do not know, he said, and then added, with a mischievous giggle, “But I know we are giving the Government the jitters.” This was incontestably true. The effect of the march, he went on, more formally, would be to call the Vietnamese question to public attention, which was the same as what Tariq Ali had said and yet quite different. Indeed, to my pleased surprise (for on the basis of rumor and press reports I had been expecting a frightening super-left irrealist in comparison to whom the burning-eyed Tariq Ali would look like a board meeting of the Fabian Society), Mr. Manchanda, small and rather merry, had his feet very much on the ground. When we telephoned on that Saturday night to check up on the address, we were told that he was out, which was a blow, because we had an appointment with him for an interview. “Oh, he’ll be right back,” an American girl’s voice said. “He’s just gone to the Laundromat.” In the entry-hall of the two-storey house, not far from where Karl Marx had lived, there was an empty baby-carriage and outside on the steps were some milk bottles. The baby evidently belonged to the family upstairs, perhaps his disciples; we met two American girls and a young Canadian man in the small bed-sitting room whose chief article of furniture was a large duplicator. These young people, unlike the supernumeraries at The Black Dwarf, were not wearing the costumes, hair styles, and fashion accessories of the pace-setting New Left. They were dressed in plain ordinary clothes; one of the girls was in pants. The furniture was old and losing some of its stuffing, but the room was neat and there were ash-trays. Mr. Manchanda went out to make us some coffee in the kitchen. Behind me, above the Regency-style sofa on which I was sitting, was a sight familiar to me from North Vietnam: Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Stalin. Above them was a big colored photograph of Mao and on the opposite wall a nice one of Ho. No slogans, no poster art. The girls were bending over a tract they had just taken out of the duplicator.
Mr. Manchanda, a former teacher, was an old-fashioned classical Marxist. Like many of these men, he had a witty mind, referring to Tariq Ali (the son of rich parents) as a “revisionist playboy,” and remarking, after the march was over, that he had not cared to join Tariq Ali’s “guided tour of the West End.” He explained with patience the doctrinal differences between them. It was a question of correct slogans about the Vietnamese war. For a long time, the Trotskyists of the Vietnamese Solidarity Campaign had refused the slogan “Victory for the NLF,” on the ground that the NLF, a coalition of a number of class elements, had a bourgeois nationalist complexion; their slogan was “Support for the Vietnamese Revolution,” i.e., for a non-existent phenomenon. Similarly with the Maoist slogan, “Long Live Ho Chi Minh,” rejected by the Trotskyists on the ground that Ho had betrayed the revolution at Geneva in 1954, also that he exemplified the cult of personality and was a “bureaucrat.” “If Ho is a bureaucrat,” observed Mr. Manchanda, with glee, “I wish we had more bureaucrats in this country.”
I must say that on these issues, which had no direct bearing on the march, I considered the Maoists to be completely right. As for the march itself, here too I found myself agreeing with Mr. Manchanda: the main enemy is in Grosvenor Square; march on him there; never mind if you are repeating yourself. On the issue of violence vs. non-violence, there did not seem to be a real theoretical difference. The Manchanda group had been described in the newspapers as favoring violence, and the Tariq Ali group not, but actually Tariq Ali was organizing dramatically for violence—that list of first-aid stations, the instructions published in The Black Dwarf on what to do when gassed—on the supposition, amounting to prophecy, that the police would start or “provoke” it, whereas Mr. Manchanda, when I asked him whether it was true that he planned to storm the US Embassy, shrugged and said simply, “We are too few.” In Grosvenor Square, the next day, a lilting voice I thought I recognized as his could be heard urging restraint on the crowd, though possibly this was merely pro forma.
In fairness to the sincerity of Tariq Ali’s position, it should be added that the sheer fact of marching on Grosvenor Square contained a potential of violence, which handing in a petition at Downing Street did not. Grosvenor Square, if not a death-trap, is a box in which pressures build up almost by themselves. Once you have marched into it, you find yourself waiting for something to happen, and the next stage is to wish for something to happen; you cannot just stand there all afternoon, looking at the police while they look back at you. That wish, incidentally, was shared by TV-viewers and by the press at large; the contemptuous descriptions of the march as a “fizzle,” the “non-event of the year,” and so on, by people who opposed it, reveal an acute disappointment with the relative peacefulness of the encounter. Instead, one might take heart from just that. The fact that so little did happen in the interior of that box is probably a lesson in the effectiveness of Gandhian techniques. For the first time perhaps in history a massed police force practiced “passive” resistance, and it worked. Thus if the police are brutal, as in Mayor Daley’s Chicago, it is not from necessity, as they insist, but from choice.
What came out of our meeting with Mr. Manchanda, following on our meeting with Tariq Ali, was a series of paradoxes. The Trotskyites, in slogans and stance to the “left” of the Maoists, in practice were to the right of them. The Maoists, generally thought of as inflexible revolutionary extremists, showed pragmatic wisdom and adaptability. The style of Tariq Ali was radical; the style of Mr. Manchanda was modest petty bourgeois, recalling the home lives of Marx, Lenin, and Trotsky himself. Maoist China, they say, is hermetic, suspicious, hostile to foreigners, yet the Maoist cell in Hampstead was as open as the laundromat where Mr. Manchanda had been doing his smalls. Though we came from the bourgeois press, we were not treated as trespassers but simply as guests—the reverse of what had happened in Carlisle Street. It was even possible to take exception, as I did, to the icon of Stalin; “We can continue that discussion another time,” said Mr. Manchanda after a few words defending Stalin’s place in the history of revolution.
This too was perhaps a lesson in the persuasiveness of non-violent techniques on the plane of ordinary human relations, for the next afternoon, marching up from the Embankment, when we came to the crossroads of choice at Trafalgar Square, whether to turn left with the Trotskyists down to Whitehall and Downing Street or right with the Maoists to Grosvenor Square, I had no real hesitation in making up my mind, and what slight hesitation I had was purely journalistic, for the police had told us the previous night that Grosvenor Square might be a “decoy,” to draw Her Majesty’s forces off from the real site of battle. Innocent of the sectarian character of left-wing politics, they seemed to think that Mr. Manchanda could be in cahoots with Tariq Ali to execute a master-coup.
Scotland Yard was alert, almost comically so, to all contingencies. They gave themselves full credit for the elaborate precautions they took, to screen buses of demonstrators arriving from the country and make sure there were no hidden marbles or other weapons aboard, to screen airports and other points of entry for agitators arriving from the Continent, to screen the universities and uncover the identities of potential “troublemakers.” An inspector told us there were Special Branch men assigned to every campus as a matter of course—a piece of news, casually delivered, which as an American I found disturbing and unpleasant, for if we have FBI men on all our campuses, it is kept dark, and, if known, could cause a national uproar. I am against police spies on campuses. Despite appearances, the English are tougher than the Americans, more pragmatic and cool-headed—the result probably of having a seasoned ruling class trained in the public school system. There was nothing crude or inefficient in the handling of that march, and the punishment that followed, like the advance precautions, was swift and almost silent. On Monday, five youths, three of them unemployed, were given sentences of up to three months’ imprisonment for “possessing offensive weapons”: one had allegedly thrown a bottle, one was carrying a flagstick, one a walking-stick, one admitted possessing three bags of marbles, and one, who got two months, was accused of having “a piece of wood” and assaulting a constable, which he denied. This summary justice (the other side of the coin or, let us say, of the shiny merit badge) rated a tiny inconspicuous item in The London Times, about an inch high; no details were supplied, not even names or ages. The above information comes from The Guardian, which, like The Telegraph, printed a fuller story but gave it no undue prominence. Several other persons received suspended sentences, and two “men,” aged eighteen, were remanded in custody till the following week for using “an electronic device” to interfere with police radios.
It is true that at certain moments flagsticks were flying about “like spears,” the press said; if they had said “like toy spears,” it would have been more to the point, for the flagsticks I saw launched into the air were so thin and light they almost floated. Some firecrackers were thrown, causing the police horses to rear. Pennies were hurled at windows of flats, but no window I saw was broken except a big plate-glass one on South Audley Street, which looked as if it had been smashed in a charge. Once there was an incident that for a moment looked like trouble: when a fat short middle-aged woman wearing a bright-green embroidered mandarin coat began prowling along her balcony, somebody threw an object at her which proved to be a cardboard disk; a middle-aged man, probably her husband, came out from the flat and twice inspected it with a concerned, moral air. It was impossible to feel sympathy for people like that, who were making a parade of looking down in a figurative and literal sense on the crowd of protestors below, nor for the spectators in the windows of the American Embassy, out of range of any missiles. One man in a left Embassy window was busy photographing throughout; even when night came, his lens, evidently infra-red, was pointed at us—impossible to guess whether he was an Embassy Security Officer duly identifying the “trouble-makers,” or just a camera nut, like the G. I.’s in Vietnam who are said to go into combat snapping pictures to send home as souvenirs.
But it was not hard to sympathize with the police and their frightened rearing horses. It was Sunday, their day off, and it is not pleasant to have things thrown at you, harmless or not, and to have your helmet knocked off and tossed about as a trophy, when you are only doing your duty. Guarding an Embassy is not a wicked action per se but just routine in all countries when circumstances call for it, and if the demonstrators had broken through the police cordons, they might have met something decidedly worse inside: a chief inspector from Scotland Yard assured us that the Marine guards were armed with Mace and machine guns—a recurrent rumor strongly denied by the Embassy, which can point out that even in Moscow, when the Embassy has been besieged by stone-throwing crowds, the Marine guards did not have machine guns. Only the regulation pistols.
There is no doubt that the British police behaved with amazing self-control and good humor, under a certain amount of provocation. It is stupid to deny this and to assign the credit to the order and “discipline” of the demonstrators, who, at least in Grosvenor Square, were not especially orderly, even in terms of their own aims. They could probably have broken through the police lines if they had had better organization and leadership. The majority plainly did not wish to or only half-heartedly, but they would have followed if a breach had been made. As it was, only the Anarchists were serious about mounting charges, from the direction of South Audley Street, one of which was nearly successful. The Anarchists that afternoon were the best fighters, and among them must have been some of the young unemployed workmen who got sentenced in Magistrates Court; they were fairly easy to pick out in the crowd, which was mainly middle-class or upper middle and student, by the Rocker-style leather jackets they wore and by their expressions of intent, concentrated fury. “If you’re just here to look, push off,” one of them said to me.
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.
December 19, 1968