[sixties-l] The urban guerrillas Britain forgot

From: radtimes (resist@best.com)
Date: Tue Aug 28 2001 - 13:59:56 EDT

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    The urban guerrillas Britain forgot


    by Jonathon Green
    Monday 27th August 2001

    In the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Angry Brigade enraged the
    establishment. Jonathon Green on the
    questions that remain unanswered 30 years on.

    "The Angry Brigade is the man or woman sitting next to you. They have guns
    in their pockets and hatred in their minds. We are getting closer. Off the
    system and its property. Power to the People. Communique 9. The Angry
    Brigade" (22 May 1971, following the bombing of Tintagel House)

    Thirty years ago this month, on 20 August 1971, police swooped on a flat at
    359 Amhurst Road in Stoke Newington, north London. Whom and what they found
    there would lead, nine months later, to one of Britain's longest political
    trials, see four young people start ten-year jail sentences and, it was
    believed, end the career of the Angry Brigade - this country's contribution
    to that international phenomenon of the Sixties and early Seventies, the
    student urban guerrilla group.
    Yet for all the excitement it provoked at the time, and the endless
    recycling of that era, this particular episode seems almost to have
    vanished from history. The arrests were made barely weeks after the end of
    another celebrated trial, that of the editors of the underground magazine
    Oz, a tale that has been recreated for the stage, for television and in
    endless memoirs. The Angry Brigade trial, and the bombings that led to it,
    were equally momentous, yet there are no dramas, no memoir. As far as
    history goes, the Angry Brigade is barely a footnote.
    Between 3 March 1968 and 22 May 1971, England suffered a campaign of around
    25 bombings. The targets included senior politicians and policemen,
    captains of industry, a fashionable boutique and the Miss World
    competition, a Territorial Army drill hall in north London and the
    Metropolitan Police computers. There were no fatalities and, at first, no
    identifiable bombers. The latter changed when the first of a series of
    "Communiques" was issued, following a bomb at the home of police
    commissioner Sir John Waldron in August 1970. It was signed by "Butch
    Cussedly and the Sundance Kid".
    The next communique stayed in the Hollywood West, coming from "the Wild
    Bunch". However, on 12 January 1971, when the target was Robert Carr, the
    Tory secretary of state for employment and productivity, and chief advocate
    of the highly controversial anti-union Industrial Relations Bill, the
    signature, stamped with a children's John Bull printing kit, read "The
    Angry Brigade". The name remained thus for every explosion that followed.
    If the earlier attacks had mystified police, and been underplayed in the
    media, the game changed when the target became a government minister. The
    establishment, urged on by the then prime minister, Edward Heath, mounted a
    frenzied, and often desperate, response: the Brigade was to be "smashed".
    There were six more bombings, each followed by ever more intensive police
    activity, before, thanks to tip-offs and investigative work, the police
    made their arrests.
    At the north London flat, they claimed to have found a quantity of guns and
    explosives, and reams of paper covered in lists that seemed to be plans for
    future attacks and notes for political pamphlets. In all, the jury was
    presented with 688 pieces of forensic evidence, from a Beretta sub-machine
    gun to "an unidentified substance from foot of tree in garden rear of
    door"; they included letters, batteries, political literature, a
    vehicle-licensing application, a cache of gelignite, the detonators to
    ignite it, address books, letters, counterfeit US dollars, Angry Brigade
    communiques and much more.
    Perhaps most damning was the discovery of the John Bull stamp, still
    bearing the incriminating words "Angry Brigade". The police also found four
    people: John Barker, Hilary Creek, Jim Greenfield and Anna Mendelson, and
    arrested the lot. Within 48 hours, a further four suspects were in custody:
    Stuart Christie, Christopher Bott, Angela Weir and Kate McLean. Despite
    lengthy interrogations, all maintained their innocence and never abandoned
    that position during the following nine months of investigations. On 30 May
    1972, they pleaded "not guilty" as they stood in the dock of the Old
    Bailey's number one court. What followed was the 20th century's longest
    political trial (however fervently the authorities attempted to deny the
    adjective). A blanket "conspiracy" charge - active participation was
    irrelevant, explained the judge; mere knowledge, even "by a wink or a nod",
    was sufficient proof of guilt - in effect made any direct defence
    On 6 December that year, the trial ended with convictions for Barker (who
    defended himself with great sophistication), Creek, Greenfield and
    Mendelson, and acquittals for the rest. The jury's appeal for clemency
    ensured that the four got ten-year sentences, rather than the possible 15
    years. The women served less than five; the men were out in seven.
    Thus the bare bones. Yet, 30 years on, the Angry Brigade remains the lost
    event of "the Sixties". That the defendants have consistently refused to
    reminisce has not helped. Only John Barker, who has described himself as
    "a guilty man framed up", has ever commented, and then only in a book
    review. The rest are silent, rarely contacted and, when uncovered, adamant
    in main-taining their tight-lipped anonymity. Nor has anyone from their
    support group - among whom, it was believed, might be further Brigade
    "members" - broken cover. As they have all made clear: that was then, this
    is now. There is no desire to revisit the past.
    Such reticence, seemingly precious in this self-aggrandising age, doubtless
    springs from many sources, among them the dislike of being lumped into the
    cliched images of the Sixties. But the Brigade was as essential a part of
    that loved and loathed era as the "swinging" Biba boutique it bombed. Along
    with the period's giddy aspirational triumvirate - "dope, rock'n'roll and
    fucking in the streets" - came the symbiotic, if inchoate, "revolution".
    This took many forms, whether articulated by the severe apparatchiks of the
    New Left or on the wilder shores of freaked-out hippie fantasy. At its
    extreme came the urban guerrillas, as international a phenomenon as more
    hedonistic excitements. America offered the Weathermen, Italy the Red
    Brigades, Japan the Red Army Fraction, Germany the Baader-Meinhof gang. At
    home, we had the Angry Brigade. Like their international cousins, they were
    alienated children of the bourgeoisie, seeking to create a new world not
    through easy yet ultimately ineffective words, but through hard,
    destructive action.
    Their roots lay in such groups as the French Situationists, who ranted
    against "the society of the spectacle" (or what the New Left's guru,
    Herbert Marcuse, termed "repressive tolerance"), and London's anarchist
    King Mob group, which at demonstrations countered chants of "Ho, Ho, Ho Chi
    Minh!" with the derisive "Hot Chocolate, Drinking Chocolate!". The Angry
    Brigade professed no easily identifiable ideology. As with today's
    anti-globalisation protesters, "membership" of the Brigade depended as much
    on a state of mind as on any party card. If you agreed with them, noted one
    of the more perceptive policemen, you were a member.
    Indeed, for all the "forensic", for all the millions of words given in
    evidence, the trial, while it satisfied a need for closure, was ultimately
    unsatisfactory. There were, for instance, no fingerprint links to the
    weapons or explosives, which led to vehement suggestions of police
    "planting". Nor did any of those arrested test positive for traces of
    explosive. And the bombings had not stopped with the arrests: there were
    two more, including that of the then GPO Tower, even as the defendants sat
    in jail. To believe that just four people conducted the whole campaign was
    surely the most wishful of thinking. As the Observer put it at the time,
    "far more questions [were] raised during the . . . trial than were ever
    answered"; and, as the defence counsel Ian Macdonald noted, until the four
    write their memoirs, the truth will remain obscure.
    Hindsight makes it easy to dismiss the effect of the Brigade. For some,
    its "adventurism" was simply one more futile way station on track to
    Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair. The Brigade's hopes for change proved as
    empty as the hippies' nirvana and the New Left's Marxist pieties. Others
    have suggested that in its restraint - its European peers left corpses -
    the Angry Brigade was overly "English". Barker himself has suggested that
    "we were not that serious" (his emphasis) and that, as romantic young
    people, they believed "nothing very terrible could happen to us". But, like
    the Oz editors before them, the Brigade underestimated the ruthlessness of
    an establishment under threat and suffered for their ignorance.
    But they were serious: that they moved from rhetoric to action, with all
    that followed, is undeniable. And to explode non-lethal "infernal devices"
    (as the forensic experts apparently still termed the bombs) is perhaps even
    more sophisticated than simply blasting indiscriminately.
    We live in an era of celebrations and anniversaries. Yet the silence of the
    participants and their supporters, and the amnesia of the media, have left
    this bit of Sixties/Seventies memorabilia gathering dust in the attic. None
    the less, once upon a time, a band of urban guerrillas turned Britain
    upside down.
    As another Four from that era put it: "It was 30 years ago today . . ." --
    Will Self, page 37
    Jonathon Green, the author of two books on the Sixties, is preparing a
    radio programme on the Angry Brigade

    Countdown to conviction

    August: Home of Duncan Sandys, Tory MP, firebombed
    October 15: Firebomb damages Imperial War Museum, London
    August: Home of Sir John Waldron, Metropolitan Police commissioner, damaged
    by bomb blast
    November: BBC van bombed outside Albert Hall after covering Miss World contest
    December: Bomb at Department of Employment and Productivity claimed by
    Angry Brigade
    January: Home of government minister Robert Carr bombed April: Times
    receives letter bomb and message from Angry Brigade May: Biba boutique in
    Kensington bombed, claimed by Angry Brigade June: Times receives letter
    from Angry Brigade threatening prime minister Ted Heath with bullet August:
    Intensive police raids on activists' houses; explosion at army recruiting
    centre in north London, claimed by Angry Brigade August 21: Police raid at
    Amhurst Road. Four arrested; four more (later acquitted) are arrested
    throughout day August 23: "Stoke Newington Eight" charged and held.
    May 30: Trial begins
    December 6: Barker, Creek, Greenfield and Mendelson are sentenced to ten
    years for "conspiracy to cause
    explosions". Jake Prescott had earlier been sentenced to 15 years for
    conspiracy to cause bombings

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