This is the full-text of the following article: Rich Cross. 2013. ‘London’s Burning’ [30th anniversary retrospective on ‘Stop the City’], Freedom, September, p11.
THIRTY YEARS AGO this month, the first ground-breaking ‘Stop the City’ (STC) demonstration was held in the financial heartland of London: an anarchist-inspired confrontation with the institutions bankrolling the operation of British and international capitalism.
Called on 29 September 1983, to coincide with the quarterly calculation of the City’s profits, protestors were encouraged to take part in a ‘carnival against war’ and deliver ‘a day of reckoning’ for the warmongers and racketeers of the Square Mile. Around 1500 anarchists, libertarians, punks and radical peace activists descended on the City to occupy buildings, block roads, stage actions and swarm through the streets.
Cumulatively these efforts were designed to snarl up the operation of the capital’s financial hub. In an analogue era, long before the City’s ‘Big Bang’, when files and paperwork still had to be physically couriered between companies, the impact of mobs of unruly demonstrators filling the City’s narrow streets could be dramatic. Estimates differed, but the occupation of corporate space interrupted scores of monetary transactions, and drove down the day’s profits. The cost to those demonstrating was significant too: more than 200 arrests at the first STC; nearly 400 at the March 1984 event; and close to 500 in September 1984.
Support for STC came from two principal directions: from elements within the radical wing of the nuclear disarmament movement (which had been looking for ways to generalise and extend action beyond military bases) and from within the ranks of anarcho-punk (a sub-culture eager to test out its collective political muscle). But the audacity of STC struck a chord with activists and militants from many other movements and campaigns.
The organisational catalyst for Stop the City was provided by a small group of activists associated with London Greenpeace and other independent campaign groups, who initiated a series of open and inclusive planning forums. The broad anarchism of STC was (initially at least) strongly shaped by a commitment to nonviolence predominant amongst the influx of young new anarchist activists. The announcement of the first Stop the City in Freedom (16 July 1983) confirmed that: “The action is intended to be peaceful, not involving violence to people or other animals.”
In the event, the few violent incidents during the first Stop the City were largely those of a frustrated City police force thoroughly outwitted by the actions of disruptive and highly mobile demonstrators. The Evening Standard dismissively reported that the financiers had been subject to “Peace, punks and a little City anarchy”, but amongst that first wave of participants there was a widespread sense that they had taken part in something new and meaningful.
Plans for a far larger STC came to fruition on 29 March 1984, when some 3000 activists gathered for a follow-up event. Freedom (May 1984) reported the organisers’ hopes that comrades would come together “to protest about the things they felt most strongly about and in the way they wanted.” With larger numbers, more actions were possible: militant demonstrators broke bank windows, glued-up the door-locks of companies, burnt flags and opened-up smoke canisters; others arranged musical processions, marched beneath huge puppets, handed out vegan food, or took part in an impromptu blockade of London Bridge.
As revealed in the documentary of the day filmed by members of Crass, STC had become edgier and less instinctively nonviolent: evidence of the shifting centre of political gravity within the wider anarchist milieu. But despite the impressive range of autonomous actions and the growing numbers on the streets, the March 1984 STC was the last time that the initiative truly resided with the demonstrators.
After being out-manoeuvred for a second time, the City of London police were determined to prevent the further growth of Stop the City. A third STC (called at ‘short notice’, in an effort to outwit the authorities, for 31 May) met an equally agile police response. The fourth Stop the City, held on 27 September 1984, was smothered by some aggressively pro-active policing: the assembly point in the City was sealed off and all likely-looking troublemakers were detained as soon as they arrived. Those who had taken up the suggestion to go in disguise (as City workers or maintenance staff) mostly evaded arrest, but then struggled to co-ordinate their actions. A few were able to rally forces in the West End and Trafalgar Square, but the impact had been lost.
Efforts were made to repeat the idea in other cities; and then to revive the approach through spin-off developments such as ‘Stop Business As Usual’, but these initiatives failed to match the scale, or capture the excitement, of the original STC.
In the early 1980s, Stop the City reflected the growing confidence of the reviving British anarchist movement, but the speed with which it stalled also highlighted the movement’s uncertainty about strategy, agency – and politics. In the context of the national 1984-85 miners’ strike, these questions were being debated afresh as new class-struggle anarchist groups advanced to seize the initiative from anarcho-punk.
Although subsequent generations of activists have often overlooked the relevance of Stop the City, its imprint can be seen in such later initiatives as J18 and the activities of Reclaim the Streets. STC was certainly a product of its political times, but its status as the largest and most innovative anarchist-inspired demonstration held in the UK during the early Thatcher years needs to be reaffirmed.