The battle of Grosvenor Square

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. 

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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!

There are 4 comments

  1. ihbirchall

    It certainly wasn’t “the first organised anti-Vietnam war rally to be held in London”. The first Vietnam demo, I think, was in February 1965, organised by Labour Party students just after Malcolm X visited the LSE very shortly before he was murdered. There were a great many further demos, mainly organised by the British Council for Peace in Vietnam (doinated by the CP and Labour Left). But they just called for peace, not solidarity with the NLF. The Vietnam Solidarity Campaign (which organised the demo referred to above) was set up in 1966 and organised its first major demo in October 1967. I wrote one of the leaflets promoting the demo, and, if I recall aright, used the phrase “we hope this will be the most vigorous demonstration yet” to avoid any charge of incitement. We entered Grosvenor Square at the top corner by the embassy and a group of us, led by Labour Worker editor Roger Protz, broke through the police cordon. (I hope we’re covered by the Statute of Limitations.) I’m told that the police subsequently used film of this to show how not to do it. There is an excellent account of the VSC in the 1960s by Ernie Tate in his autobiography – see my review at http://links.org.au/node/3991

  2. Michael Rosen

    Anarchist breakaway? The main breakaway on one of the marches was led by a bloke called Manchanda. He led breakaways of every march that ever was over a period of about five years. In the end we just reckoned he was working for the secret services. I heard him speak once. He just shouted and wound himself up into a frenzy of crap. He may have just been stupid.

  3. Michael Rosen

    ps I was arrested at the October one, when we tried to get through the cordon round the embassy. That was the main part of the demo. re who organised first – I seem to remember that the yearly Aldermaston March had an Vietnam War component from about 1963 onwards…no?

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