27 Years ago yesterday…
On 31 March 1990, people began gathering in Kennington Park from noon. Turnout was encouraged by fine weather, and between 180,000 and 250,000 arrived. The police report, a year after the riot, estimated the crowd at 200,000. An abandoned rally by the Labour Party may also have contributed to the number of protesters. The march began at Kennington Park at 1:30pm, moving faster than planned because some of the crowd had forced open the gates of the park, presumably in order to avoid being forced through smaller gates. This split the march over both sides of the road, and protesters continued in much the same way for the rest 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, and lined the pavement refusing to let people leave the road. Additional Police units were dispatched to reinforce the officers manning the barrier blocking the Downing street side of Whitehall. The section of the march which stopped opposite Downing Street reportedly contained veteran anarchists and a group called “Bikers Against The Poll Tax”, some of whom became aggravated by reportedly heavy-handed arrests, including one of a man in a wheelchair.
Mounted riot police were brought in, behind this immobilised section of the march, in theory to clear the protesters from Whitehall, despite both retreat and advance being blocked by further lines of police. Meanwhile, the tail-end had been diverted at the Parliament Square end of Whitehall, and the anarchists it had attracted were at the head of an unpoliced portion of the march. These people walked to Richmond Terrace, bringing the diverted march into Whitehall, opposite Downing Street and behind the police lines on that side of Whitehall. The protesters at the rear of the stationary group, being faced by Mounted police seemingly preparing to charge, sat down on for safety. Despite black-clothed and scarf-masked people running through seemingly from behind the police lines and urging them up, they remained seated until physically dragged away and arrested for “Obstructing Whitehall”. The Mounted Police then advanced at speed, forcing the Whitehall section of the march to fight its way into Trafalgar Square.
Poll Tax Riot 31 March 1990 Trafalgar Square – Horse Charge
From 4pm, with the rally nearly officially over, contradictory reports began to arise. According to some sources, mounted riot police (officially used in an attempt to clear Whitehall of protesters) charged out of a side street into the crowd in Trafalgar Square. Whether intentional or not, this was interpreted by the mob as a provocation, fueling anger in the Square where the police had already been pushing sections of crowd back into corners leaving no way out except through the police. 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 Embassy, 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. Soon after, rioting began to escalate.
Protesters stand firm
Police pinned down
By 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 marchers tried to move south. At this point, Militant Fed stewards were withdrawn on police orders. Sections of the crowd, including unemployed coal miners, climbed scaffolding and rained debris on the police below. At 5pm, builders’ cabins below the scaffolding caught fire, followed by a room in the South African Embassy on the other side of the Square. The smoke from the fires caused near darkness in the Square and produced a 20-minute lull in rioting.
Between 6 and 7pm, the police opened the southern exits of the Square and slowly moved people out of Trafalgar Square. A large section of the crowd was moved back down Northumberland Avenue and allowed over the River Thames in order to return to their organised transport. Two other sections of demonstrators, now very angry and aggravated, were pushed north into the wealthy shopping streets of West End, which suffered reported theft and vandalism. Published accounts detail 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 mixed in with the general public. By midnight, released figures claimed 113 were injured, mostly members of the public, but also police officers; and 339 people had been arrested. Scuffles between rioters and police continued until 3am. Rioters attacked numerous shops, most notably Stringfellow’s nightclub, and car showrooms; and Covent Garden cafés and wine bars were set ablaze, along with motor vehicles.