15 August 2017

HOW TO DRESS FOR A DEMONSTRATION

Greenham Common demonstrators, 1985

The Imperial War Museum, whose remit has changed in the last decade to make it a museum of war and peace, now has an exhibition, "People Power: Fighting for Peace", about protest and pacifism from the first world war to the Syria conflict.  It displays rare archive material, including the diaries of conscientious objectors, banners and even the bolt cutters used by the Greenham women in the 1980s. Closes 28 August.

The obvious answer to the question, “How do you dress for a demonstration?” is, “Wear something comfortable that you don’t mind getting dirty in. It may rain, you may have to sleep on the floor and you may be beaten up by jingoes." But that’s not the right answer because even on demos there is fashion.

The pacifists of the first world war, as Hugh pointed out to me, were vulnerable to attack because they looked like librarians in their baggy suits and horn-rimmed spectacles. The Greenham women, who besieged the RAF base at Greenham Common in Berkshire from 1981 to 2000, (above) were wonderfully colourful adverts for Kaffe Fassett knitwear. The Ban the Bomb protesters of the 1960s appropriated naval duffel coats and beards.

The Wethersfield Six, 1961

But the group in this photo (above) defy expectation. They are the Wethersfield Six, a group of anti-nuclear protestors about to go to court, where they will be sentenced to imprisonment.  They are Anne Randle (not one of the accused), Michael Randle, Pat Pottle, Trevor Hatton, Helen Allegranza, Ian Dixon and Terence Chandler.

They were leaders of the Committee of 100, who broke away from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament for a campaign of civil disobedience. Their figurehead was the philosopher Bertrand Russell, 89, who joined sit-down protests and was also sent to prison. The first sit-downs mobilized tens of thousands of people and emboldened the Committee’s anarchist leaders in the winter of 1961 to plan a break in at the Wethersfield military airbase  and a sit-down in front of the planes. Up to that point the authorities had been fairly relaxed about the demos, though there had been some rough handling in the arrests. Now they sat up and brought the serious charge of conspiracy and incitement to breach the Official Secrets Act against the Six. The walk-on was a failure and alienated public opinion. The imprisonment of the organisers ended the campaign as a serious force. Eighteen months later Russell quietly resigned.

Here, dressed for the judge, the Six have eschewed duffel coats for ties and polished shoes. But Helen Allegranza stands out from the others with her court shoes, clutch bag, hat and white gloves. The chaps got eighteen months, Allegranza got twelve.

Randle and Pottle helped to spring the Soviet spy George Blake from jail during a later sentence. Allegranza committed suicide in prison. In the late sixties, I shared a flat with Ian Dixon, a neat, respectable, high-minded man. When I bought my first house, Terry Chandler rewired it for me. He was scruffy and disorganised, didn’t drive and dragged his tools by public transport.

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