Continuing our series of refections from different types of activism over the years, Mitch Mitchell discusses the battle of Grosvenor Square in 1968, which took place during protests against the Vietnam war.
On 17 March 1968, I, along with several thousand others gathered in Trafalgar Square for the first organised anti-Vietnam war rally to be held in London. Amongst the marchers were Vanessa Redgrave, Tariq Ali, and, in his role as president of the NUS, Jack Straw.
We listened to speeches from the ‘great and the good’ and set off to march through London’s West End. I was not a member of any political group at the time, but I was a member of Hell’s Angels, and wore my colours.
Probably because of this, I was approached by some young anarchists and told me that there would be a breakaway to get to the US Embassy and “liven things up a little”. So, I joined this breakaway faction. Unfortunately, the cops had been tipped off and were already there in some numbers.
We were armed with smoke bombs and I grabbed a bunch of marbles from a bag being passed around to roll in the street and bring down police horses. The police, for their part, waded into us, and several of our side got whacked (me included!) by angry pigs.
I understand that over 300 were arrested, several people needed hospital treatment (including some of the cops) and the Met made statements that such a thing would never happen again in the capital. Similarities were made in the press between this and The Battle of Cable Street in 1936.
In October 1968, a much larger march against the war took place in London. This time, there were over 250,000 marchers, but the day ended peacefully.
For my own part, I made some good, lasting friendships which carried over to my taking part with them in other demos, culminating in the NF march through Lewisham in 1977.
Some years later, I was told by a person who worked at the Embassy at the time, that a detachment of armed US Marines were deployed inside the building’s front door to “deal with anyone who managed to break in”.
As with many of these events over the years, there are effectively two demonstrations. Those who want to march, stick with the celebs who take part and go home again, and those who want to take more direct action.
The breakaway group I was with was young, angry and not afraid to vent that anger. The famous ‘marbles under horses hooves’ manoeuvre was not done with the intention of hurting animals, just to slow down (and hinder) the police. The police’s gloves came off at that point and many people felt that we had not helped the situation.
I saw it differently. As always, the police were there to protect the establishment. It has to be remembered also that we were part of a worldwide movement and, as such, our actions got the day much more publicity than it would otherwise have had which let people in other countries, especially in the USA, know that they had support.
Our methods were at times violent, but it did leave a lot of cops with bloody noses!