On 29 September 1983 the first Stop The City action took place in the City of London, timed to coincide with the quarterly calculation of the City’s profits. A leaflet handed out on the day said: “Welcome to everyone from far or near to the “City” of London, the major centre of finance for the world arms trade and war. Today we will come together to show that human life is more important than money.”
There were three assembly points “providing information, legal support and first aid” at the steps of St Pauls, Tower Hill and Finsbury Square” and the aims were: occupying the streets to create a car-free zone; to leaflet and talk with people working there; picketing banks “and other suitable places’; and “to create a festive and communicative” atmosphere.
The idea of fun and spontaneity was important – an antidote to the “serious business’”of moneymaking – and a carnival was organised where people could “Make noises, chant, clap, sing – the City is boring, let’s liven it up. While you’re having a good time, why keep it to yourself? Enourage others to share it with you. Help to make it a beautiful day.”
Stop the City kicked off early at 6am on the steps of Saint Paul’s Cathedral. By 10 am, hundreds of anarchists, libertarians, radical peace activists and punks descended on the “Square Mile” to occupy buildings, block roads, stage actions and “swarm through the streets.” Penny Rimbaud of Crass described what happened:
Royal exchange messengers had been prevented from operating. British Telecom workers had refused to work in the City. Restaurants and cafés had been stink-bombed; fur shops had been attacked; people had spent the whole day jamming telephone lines to banks and offices; there had been lie-ins and sit-downs, street theatre and music…acts of individual subversion from lock glueing to flying anarchist banners from the various statues that decorate the City.
There was also “a lot of standing around drinking tea”. Some businessmen made it to work, others didn’t – profits suffered. About two hundred demonstrators were arrested and press coverage was predictably hostile.
In context: Stop the City was the culmination of the resurgent anarchist and peace movements of the early 1980s. London Greenpeace, issued a call out in spring 1983 for “a blockade of the City of London”, recorded in the London Anarchist Federation minutes of 2 April. By May the date 29 September was proposed for “Occupy the city” and the plans were to “get enough people together to bring the City of London to a standstill”. Planning meetings began in July with up to 100 people getting involved.
By 1983 London Greenpeace had been around for 10 years and well-respected in anti-nuclear and anti-militarist circles. The group had inititiated a number of high-profile campaigns, such as those against Windscale’s nuclear reactor and Capenhurst uranium enrichment plant and helped set up a protest camp against the construction of Torness nuclear power station, which occupied the site for six months. Vociferously libertarian, with it held weekly non-hierarchical meetings to which anyone was welcome.
The early eighties was a time of enormous resistance to nulcear weapons and power with CND marches drawing up to 200,000 people and blockades and peace camps at Greenham, Aldermason, and Upper Heyford bases and elsewhere. There would sometimes be hundreds of arrests during these actions as activists saw nonviolent direct action as essential to the struggle for peace.
The animal rights movement was undergoing similar expansion with direct action playing a major role. The Animal Liberation Front proved extremely successful in rescuing animals and damaging property used to abuse them (economic sabotage) whilst conforming to nonviolent principles. The links between animal rights and anti-militarism were highlighted by the protest against Porton Down military research base, in April 1982, when 5,000 people marched, tore down the fences and ran onto MOD land.
As well as anti-war, anti-nuclear, animal rights and older anarchist campaigners, new to the scene were anarcho-punks. The anarchist movment had been reborn in the late seventies as punk bands like Crass, Poison Girls and Flux of Pink Indians released records calling for nonviolent direct action, vegetarianism and resistance to state oppresion and capitalism. These bands and their supporters were a key ingredient to the success of mass actions like Stop the City.
What happened next: Although 200 arrests were made, the impact was huge. As the leaflet produced for the next StC put it: “The success of that day in terms of communicating to workers, disrupting business, and creating a determined and festive event encouraged many others to join in preparations for another protest — on the day profits for the whole year were symbolically to be counted up – March 29th 1984.”
The week before, on 22 March, there were local protests in financial centres of seven or eight towns with pickets, occupations, leafleting, graffiti, processions and music. Those involved in organising said: “As the network grew, Everyone encouraged each other to create the kind of day they wished, to protest about the things they felt most strongly about and in the way they wanted. A truly decentralised yet well co-ordinated attempt to Stop the City and reclaim it for people.”
That day proved even bigger and better with double the number of protesters -at least 3000 – and far more actions and disruption, with many different groups doing their own thing. During just one hour (11.00-12.00) all the following happened:
American, Russian and British flags burned at Bank. 3-400 march around fur trade area. 100 people break out of police cordon at Royal Exchange and attack windows of financial institutions — Barclays, Navigation House, Nat West and 30 other places. Car overturned as barricade and constant moving means police unable to stop action. Smoke flares, paint thrown etc. Rolls Royce, which tries to run someone over, was wrecked. Hundreds at St Paul’s, and others running around excitedly (for fun!). Leafleting at Bank tube station continues.
There were also anti-apartheid demos at Barclays, protests at Boots against the “tampon tax”, a blockade of London Bridge, a “God is dead!” charge into St Paul’s Cathedral, an anti-nuclear die-in, cyclists disrupting traffic, gluing of locks, hundreds of cars “quietly immobilised” in car parks, a 150-strong picket at Leadenhall Meat Market and the decoration of statues – especially military ones – with paint.
Nearly 400 arrests were made but the anarchist publication Freedom praised: “The fact that there were no leaders or formal structures, just so many people with initiative, energy and determination to do their best…There was lots of music and noise, clowning, puppets and banners, painted faces, joking and openly expressing our energy and humanity. There was a great deal of solidarity, warmth and respect amongst ourselves despite being strangers and of many differing ideas and groups.”
29 March was the high point of Stop the City. The third, on 31 May, went ahead outside pre-exisiting networks to sidestep the authorities but the small numbers were easily contained by police. At the final event, on 27 September 1984,the assembly point in the City was sealed off and anyone resembling a “troublemaker” was detained on arrival. Those who went in disguise, for instance as City workers, mostly avoided arrest, but had difficulty co-ordinating their actions. A few were able to rally forces in the West End and Trafalgar Square, but the impact had been lost.
There were attempts to repeat the idea in other cities and to revive the idea through spin-offs such as Stop Business As Usual, but these initiatives failed to match the scale, or capture the excitement, of the original STC.
The nature of the movement was changing too. 1984-85 saw the miner’s strike and many anarchists began moving in a class-struggle direction. The most popular group of this era was Class War. Although there was this element to STC, it wasn’t central to its ethos and Freedom regretted the failure to involve “those who went on strike on the same day to defend public services and the GLC, and also striking miners.”
Nevertheless, Stop the City can be seen as a precursor to later campaigns and actions. The nineties saw groups like Reclaim the Streets wanting to occupy public spaces again and towards the end of the decade came the J18 – Carnival Against Capitalism in 1999 and the Mayday events of the early noughties, all of which owed a lot to STC. An article in Freedom on the 30th anniversary of the first STC said it 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.”
Stop The City 83-84 video by Mick Duffield and Andy Palmer (Crass): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ByS9wv8mOFo