Nine Protests That Rocked London

By Maire Rose Connor Last edited 54 months ago

Last Updated 13 January 2020

Nine Protests That Rocked London
Image: Shutterstock

From rotten veggies chucked out of windows by outraged homemakers to a big pink boat glued to the city's biggest shopping street, London has a rich and varied history of protest. Here are nine from the last century or so that stood out.

Black Friday (1910)

Front page of The Daily Mirror on 19 November 1910. Image: Creative Commons

When did it take place? Friday 18 November 1910

What was it all about? The failure of Parliament to pass the Conciliation Bill — which would have given some women the right to vote — into law. Prime Minister H. H. Asquith had pledged to introduce the bill during his electoral campaign, but failed to grant it the necessary parliamentary time before calling another election.

What happened at the protest? A peaceful demonstration to the House of Commons had previously been planned by Women's Social and Political Union (WSPU). However, the mood changed when news of the impending election reached the WSPU rally at Caxton Hall, and 300 suffragettes marched on Parliament. Black Friday owes its grim moniker to the brutal response from the police and general public alike. Many demonstrators gave accounts of sexual assault, and 119 protestors were arrested.

What happened next? While some WSPU members were put off protesting due to the state violence they experienced — then-Home Secretary Winston Churchill refused calls to launch a public inquiry into the treatment of Protestors on Black Friday — it made others more militant. Deputations were cast aside in favour of direct action, including window smashing and stone-throwing. The first UK women won the vote in 1918.

Battle of Cable Street

Detail of Cable Street mural depicting the Battle of Cable Street. Image: London Mural Preservation Society.

When did it take place? Sunday 4 November 1936

What was it all about? The British Union of Fascists (BUF) had become increasingly explicit in its anti-semitism during the 1930s and organised a march through the East End, which at the time had a large Jewish population. Despite opposition to the march from some 100,000 locals and the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the march wall allowed to proceed with a police escort. However, 20,000 anti-fascists — including socialists, communists, Jewish groups, anarchists and (apparently) Jeremy Corbyn's mum — weren't so easily deterred.

What went down? Counter-demonstrators resisted police efforts to clear the road using sticks, chair legs and other sorts of makeshift weaponry, while local women reportedly chucked rotten vegetables and human waste out of their windows and onto police. BUF leader Oswald Mosley eventually agreed to abandon the march to avoid further bloodshed and the counter-protest became a street party.

What happened next? Despite the march being abandoned, the BUF enjoyed a boost in membership, with Metropolitan Police estimating that 2,000 new recruits joined shortly thereafter. That said, the march helped unlock the potential of grassroots mobilisation and its brutal aftermath led to the 1936 Public Order Act, which helped stymie the rise of fascism.

Rock Against Racism Carnival (Victoria Park)

When did it happen? Sunday 30 April 1978

What was it all about? The Rock Against Racism movement responded to the rise in racist attacks and increasing support for the neo-Nazi National Front across the UK. Another catalyst was Eric Clapton's drunken declaration of support for Enoch Powell during a 1976 concert. Rock Against Racism gigs, which sought to unite  people through a shared love of music, began to crop up all over the country.

What went down? With performances from The Clash, Steel Pulse, and X-Ray Spex — to name but a few — this is one protest that quite literally rocked. The day started with a 100,000 person-strong march from Trafalgar Square to Hackney (which was then a National Front hotspot) and finished with a star-studded open air concert in Victoria Park.

What happened next? The National Front failed to pick up any seats in the following week's local elections, and got a meagre 0.6% vote share in the 1979 general election. A second carnival followed in Brixton, September 1978, with a third and final taking place in Leeds in 1981. The legacy of Rock Against Racism lives on in groups like Love Music Hate Racism.

Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners

When did it happen? It all began at London Pride, 1984

What was it all about? During the miners' strike of 1984-1985, a collective of London-based lesbian and gay activists started fundraising in order to provide financial support for striking miners, beginning at the London Pride Parade — an event also born out of protest.

What went down? Lesbian and Gays Support the Miners  (LGSM) raised the single biggest donation to the cause, and an alliance was born. In 1985, a group of Welsh miners supported the LGBT community in turn, by joining that year's Pride parade.

What happened next? Thanks to block voting support from the National Union of Mineworkers, the Labour Party passed a resolution committing to support LGBT rights. The alliance between miners and the LGBT community continued long after the pit closures, and though LGSM ceased campaigning in 2015,  it still exists as a legacy group. A film based on the events, Pride, was released in 2014.

Poll Tax Protest

When did it happen? 31 March 1990

What was it all about? A reaction against the introduction of the hugely controversial Poll Tax, which was widely criticised as disproportionately affecting poorer people.

What went down? An estimated 200,000 marched from Kennington Park to Whitehall. The march grew violent at Trafalgar Square, and mounted police charged at the crowd. With lootings, widespread vandalism and a fire at the South African Embassy, the protest erupted into the biggest riots the city had experienced in over a century.

What happened next? For many, the Poll Tax riots have become synonymous with the decline of Thatcherism. John Major, Thatcher's replacement, used his first parliamentary address to announce the abolition of the poll tax, which was eventually replaced by council tax in 1992.

March against war in Iraq

A 2002 Stop the War protest. Image: Wikimedia Commons

When did it happen? Public protests began around the globe in 2002, but it was on 15 February 2003 that millions of protesters around the world — including in London — joined the movement and took to the streets.

What was it all about? Opposition to the prospect war with Iraq. The imminent invasion by the United States was seen by many as a breach of international law, with activists sceptical as to the validity of stated motivations — including the claim that Iraq possessed nuclear weapons — and worried about further destabilising the Middle East.

What went down? An estimated two million people marched through central London to Hyde Park in what would become known as the largest ever political demonstration in UK history. Then-London mayor Ken Livingstone joined the rally, as did playwright Harold Pinter, Kate Moss, and Ms Dynamite. In spite of its monumental scale, the march was peaceful, with Scotland Yard commenting that it passed almost without incident.

What happened next? 29 days after the protest, the invasion of Iraq began. The war lasted for more than eight years, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians, and millions more displaced. In 2016, the Chilcot Inquiry found that the case for war was "deficient", its legal basis "far from satisfactory", and preparation for the conflict "wholly inadequate".

Occupy London

Image: Wikimedia Commons

When did it happen? 15 October 2011-14 June 2012

What was it all about? Occupy London was part of the wider international global Occupy movement against capitalist greed, income inequality, and corporate influence on governance.

What went down? The protests began in autumn 2011 in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. A small group of activists set up camps in around the City — London's financial nerve centre — including outside St Paul's Cathedral. At Occupy London's peak, the encampments attracted just a few thousand protestors, yet plenty of media attention, largely due to their perseverance (campers stuck around for five whole months).

What happened next? After an injunction banning the protest was granted, the campsites were cleared by bailiffs. The Occupy movement was met with criticism for a lack of clarity in terms of its aims, yet reflected a growing appetite for direct action. Arguably it brought the significance of regulation (or lack thereof) in the financial sector more firmly into the public consciousness, a central issue oft the annual Million Mask March.

2018 Protest against Trump's UK visit

Image: Shutterstock

When did it happen? 13 July 2018

What was it all about? Vociferous public opposition to the 45th president of the United States, during his first official visit to the UK since taking office.

What went down? An estimated 100,000 Londoners took to the streets of central London to voice their opposition to the highly divisive president, and their sign game was on point. A giant balloon depicting a snarling baby Trump clutching a mobile phone was launched outside parliament and despite threats that it could be shot down, the blimp lived to fly many more days in the UK, Europe, and across the US.

What happened next? Trump returned to the UK for a state visit in the summer of 2019. Though there were fewer protestors than in 2018, they still took to the streets in their thousands, along with the baby blimp, but Trump dismissed the protests as "fake news". The president is currently awaiting an impeachment trial in the US and continues to tweet prolifically.

Extinction Rebellion

When did it happen? Protests first began in October 2018, with sit-ins and demonstrations taking place in London throughout 2019.

What was it all about? A global environmental movement to compel governments to take action on climate change in respect of the worsening ecological crisis.

What went down? In November 2018, Extinction Rebellion activists set up blockades on five bridges across the Thames for their 'Day of Rebellion'. The following April, the group organised 11 days of demonstrations across central London, which including plonking a boat in the middle of Oxford Street and activists glueing themselves to various bits of infrastructure. A two week 'International Rebellion' followed in October 2019, resulting in over 1000 arrests and disruption to public transport.

What happened next? Since the group's inception, several London boroughs — along with UK parliament — declared a climate emergency. The police controversially banned Extinction Rebellion from protesting anywhere in London during the International Rebellion, and public perception of the activists soured somewhat after their decision to occupy public transport in working class communities. But scientists warn that time to prevent ecological collapse is rapidly running out, and Extinction Rebellion remains vigilant.