Somewhere, in that melee of placards and optimism and camaraderie, there’s a young politically awakening me, scrabbling out of the 80’s but probably still sporting the last vestiges of New Romanticism. I’d been slapped awake by the Smash Clause 28 campaigns and a suddenly politicised Coming Out and University Course that had veered from pantomime into agit-prop and socialist theatre via Theatre Of The Oppressed, forum theatre and Theatre-In Education. I was writing and researching ‘gay drama’, and we were on the cusp of ‘Queer Politics’ via AIDS activism and direct action.
On 30th March 1990, I joined a whole band of merry mischief makers beguiled by the ‘Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’ campaign against the proposed Community Charge or ‘Poll Tax’ . I’d arranged t meet up with a friend – a veteran of Section 28 marches, and of the Greenham Women’s Peace movement, so a little more radical than this Drama Queen. We’d walked the length of the march, and had been struck by the sheer good-naturedness of the whole thing. We’d chatted with lovely pensioners, and parents with kids in wheelchairs, a few familiar faces from Anti-Section 28 marches, and oddbods we knew from London. I’d moved down the year before to live with a houseful of student friends and friends of friends somewhere in Walthamstow. But the whole thing had been delightfully ‘genial’, empowering and what the media always referred to as good natured.
And it was HUGE. I’d given up relying on crowd number counting, as guesstimates varied from police suggestions of dozens to to breathless activist boats of millions. I knew there were lots. And lots and lots of us.
It has gone so well, so delightfully peacefully, that my friend and I decided we’d go and celebrate in the cafe under St.Martins in Trafalgar Square. The dmo could do without us for a half hour or so and to be honest our feet were aching and our throats were hoarse and yes, we were pretty parched, now you come to mention it. So we went down into the basement, amidst the smell of Earl Grey and Builder’s Brew and Carrot Cake and Scones with jam, and people chattering excitedly and, yes, good naturedly.
Something happened while we were down there. I’ve never really found out what. We decided it was probably time to be going home now, because it would be great to see if the media actually bothered to cover this march, so we went back up the stairs and
FUCK ME. Almost knock over by charging coppers on horseback, racing right into the crowd, as we held on to each other standing on the kerb, mouths agape. It was what I remembered from Planet Of The Apes, when the humans get hunted down by the military Apes on horseback, blowing trumpets and throwing nets to enslave the frightened crowd.
We couldn’t get home. We couldn’t get out. We got herded over to the opposite end of Trafalgar Square. ‘Pretend we’re a couple’, my friend shouted. ‘They’re more likely to after Queers and Lezzies.’ She was right, and we held hands like a courting couple, but the Force was unleashed, and seemed riled at something. The riot police charged into us, helmets and truncheons and shields, pinning us against the wall. And fists. Beating down on us indiscriminately, and catching me in the nuts in a carefully hidden swing between my legs. This really wasn’t cricket, and it really wasn’t terribly British.
The next day, I tried explaining it to work colleagues. All of a sudden I was labelled a renegade troublemaker, and told that we ‘must have done something’ to deserve it. No, no, I kept saying, it was all terribly good natured.
It’s a day that has stayed with me. Both the power and fury of the crowd, the sense of resistance and community. And the attitude of Them and Us and the tools of State being abused and abusing. The naivety and incredulity that I’ve never had since.
And one word has grown in my vocabulary. One word that I really learnt the meaning and power of. And a word that was a stronger force than any of the batons of fists or bricks or charges or kicks and sticks and stones.