30 March 2010

On the huge anti-Criminal Justice Bill march on October 9th 1994, I had a sense of being in another time zone.


On the huge anti-Criminal Justice Bill march on October 9th 1994, I had a sense of being in another time zone. Sometimes, like when the police helicopter swept low, broadcasting the order to disperse, it felt like I'd been transported to some future techno-totalitarian state, a science fiction landscape out of 2000 AD or Robocop. But when the people with sticks and stones stood their ground under the trees, against charging police armed with stronger sticks and shields and horses, it could have been any time in the last couple of thousand years, a basic technology of power and resistance that hasn't changed much since Roman times.

Hyde Park itself, has seen such scenes before in the 1850's and 1860's, in the 1930's, and doubtless at other times besides. Events of 140 years ago might not seem very relevant today, but in some ways they still have a bearing on the present even at this distance.

Some opponents of the CJA seem to believe that it represents a departure from traditional British liberties. (eg. "Britain has a long tradition of tolerance which the CJB drastically contravenes", David Bennun, Melody Maker, Oct 22 1994) A quick look at history scotches the myth of tolerance of the British state. There was no "right of assembly" at Peterloo, Manchester in 1819 when 11 demonstrators were killed by troops. Nor for Indian people at Amritsar, where British troops opened fire on a peaceful crowd in 1919 killing 379 people, or in Derry in 1972, when 14 unarmed people were shot dead by paratroopers after defying a ban on demonstrations.
Whatever "liberties" we have got today, have not been given willingly. If today we can, within certain limits, demonstrate, form our own organisations, and publish our own papers and magazines, it is because in the past so many people defied the laws that banned them from doing these sorts of things. Today many people take it for granted that thousands of people can demonstrate in Hyde Park, but in the past demos were often banned there. In the 1850's and 1860's people repeatedly ignored bans en masse until the state was forced to back down; the Royal Parks and Gardens Act 1872, allowed public meetings in the park, albeit with some restrictions.

The state likes to present itself as invincible, with laws that can't be broken, enforced by police that can't be beaten. The long battle for Hyde Park, shows that with determination and ingenuity we can successfully resist their laws. The Criminal Justice Bill is now law- but it doesn't have to stay that way.


Hyde Park became royal property when Henry VIII confiscated it off the Church in the 16th Century. It has stayed that way ever since, except for a period in the 1650's when the King was executed and the Park sold off. In 1637 Hyde Park became the first royal park to be opened to the public, and it was to become a favourite playground for the wealthy who came there to parade in their coaches. The royals hunted deer in the park until 1769.

But if the park was a place of leisure for the rich and powerful, it was not always a safe one. In 1799 an attempt was made to assassinate King George III while he was watching a military review in the park. The bullet missed him and injured a spectator (that evening, another shot was fired at the King as he entered his box at Drury Lane Theatre, while outside the crowd hissed him). The park was also famous for robberies, such as those carried out by the highwayman Maclean who robbed Horace Walpole there in 1749 (and was hanged for his troubles in 1750).

The area was also a place of terror for the poor. The Tyburn Gallows stood at Marble Arch from 1571 to 1783, where in the 18th century more than a 1000 people were publicly hanged to teach the poor obedience and respect for the property of the rich.
During the suppression of the Gordon Riots in 1780, Hyde Park was turned into a military camp, and it's importance for the state was recognised in 1848 when fear of revolution again gripped the ruling class. Elaborate military precautions were taken against planned radical Chartist demonstrations in April and June, and the Duke of Wellington argued that "It is in my Opinion absolutely necessary to keep the Parks, that is Hyde Park, the Green Park, St. James Park, clear from Mobs" by having detachments of soldiers guarding the park gates.

By the 1850's, Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square were the only two major open places in central London, and both were the scenes of conflict as the state tried to stop people meeting in them. A series of confrontations in the Square culminated in Bloody Sunday 1887, when several people were killed by police during a mass illegal demonstration. In Hyde Park, the key battles took place in the 1850's and 1860's.
Next issue - Hyde Park in 1855, scene of mass defiance of the authorities.