A 30 year reunion was held on Saturday, 24th October 1998 for those who were at Essex University during the Academic Years 1967/8 and 1968/9, and who considered it to have been a positive experience worth celebrating. Over 120 people came and shared a wonderful, memorable evening. Friendships were renewed.

Jack Straw quote

My first demo: the Battle of Grosvenor Square

Grosvenor Square

Fifty years ago today on Sunday afternoon, 17 March 1968, I went on my first large demonstration. It was to go down in history as the Battle of Grosvenor Square.

I was 22 and a student at the University of Essex studying Sociology and Politics, and where the political temperature had been rising for some months, especially since the Enoch Powell confrontation of late February.

Around 200 students from the University travelled to London to demonstrate against the war in Vietnam. Eight friends squeezed into my small, second hand Morris Minor van - no windows in the back.

In the days leading up to the demo, we'd had a talk at the University about what we might expect. We were green, and were advised on how to avoid police attempts to break up the demonstration; linking arms was the main strategy. One of those who spoke most passionately about the need to stop US imperialism was David Triesman

The demonstration started in Trafalgar Square where the Essex University banner stood out, along with banners from all over the country. Media estimates of the size of the demo varied, from 10,000 to 20,000. At the very beginning, still in Trafalgar Square I saw a Sussex University student burn the United States flag. Immediately, policed rushed in and pushed the student into a fountain which was by now radiant blood red. However, the crowd moved in and prevented the police from arresting the student who proceeded to hoist a Vietcong flag. A a sign of things to come later.

I thought I was going on a demonstration for peace, to stop the war. Over half a million people were killed in this unnecessary war, including nearly 60,000 from US, mostly conscripts.

Yet as well as slogans such as

Hey, hey LBJ!
How many kids d'you kill today?

There was

Victory to!
The NLF!
(emphasis on the 'to' and the 'F')

The NLF was the National Liberation Front for the liberation of South Vietnam. Clearly, there could be no peace as long as the US continued to occupy, bomb and gas South Vietnam. So I was soon chanting

Ho, Ho!
Ho Chi Minh!
(emphasis on the first and third 'Ho') along with the best of them.

Ho Chi Minh was the leader of communist North Vietnam

The idea was to march to Speakers' Corner in Hyde Park by way of the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square where a note of protest would be handed in. Well, that was the idea.

We marched past the relatively new Centre Point, still empty of course, and then along Oxford Street. "Go back to Russia" was heard several times. We arrived at the edge of Grosvenor Square hoping to get as close to the American Embassy as possible. The police weren't having it. They didn't even want us to get into the Square. Why not? They knew very well that was the route of the demo. Had they let us just make our protest and hand in our note, all could have been very different that Sunday afternoon.

The police formed a line at the edge of Grosvenor Square and started pushing us back but we had nowhere to go. This precipitated a pitched battle. Gradually, the demonstrators got the upper hand and this first police line failed to hold. We all swarmed into the square. It felt like we'd won and it was great to finally be in a much more open and green space.

The police regrouped to protect the Embassy and continued to attack demonstrators, still trying to push us back. The linking arms lesson generally proved useful.

Eventually, the mounted police charged in, and things got even more bloody. The horses' hooves shook the ground. It felt medieval. No-one had expected this. Fighting between police and demonstrators went on all afternoon.

Much of the fighting was because demonstrators were being picked upon, and then we would try, often successfully, to free them. Trees gave some protection from the mounted police. I made a decision to keep back from the front. Physical fighting was never going to be my strong point.

The police were picking people out random, beating them up, kicking them when down, pulling them by their hair, arresting them and making up the charges later. In the end, there were 150 arrests.

According to a diary entry I made at the time, "My shoes were completely ruined and I was thick with sweat, paint bombs, flower and mud." We failed to get near the embassy itself.

The police violence towards demonstrators was unbelievable, unforgivable. But of course that's not how it would be reported. ITV's World in Action described the afternoon as the most violent riot London could remember.

A report by the National Council of Civil Liberties made a number of allegations of police brutality, claiming that ineffective crowd control had bottlenecked the demonstration and sparked the violence.

I'm not quite sure what my attitude towards the police had been prior to this demo. I remember fearing them but deep down I thought when it came to the crunch they would be on the side of the good guys. My attitude completely changed that day.

Mick Jagger, Vanessa Redgrave and Tariq Ali were all there - John Lennon was busy with the Maharishi in northern India. Today, a demo of that size would be lucky to get a mention in the media. But back in 1968, political demonstrations were rare. We'd had the CND demos of the 1950s and early 1960s where people including Bertrand Russell were arrested for sitting down. But the Grosvenor Square demo marked a new departure in political demonstrations. It was front page news and we were roundly condemned for our violence. Our violence?

We went for a meal before getting back in my Morris Minor van and driving back to the University, singing much of the way, especially Country Joe MacDonald's anti-war anthem:

And it's one, two, three, what are we fighting for?
Don't ask me, I don't give a damn, next stop is Vietnam
And it's five, six, seven, open up the pearly gates
Well there ain't no time to wonder why
Whoopee! we're all gonna die.

The war didn't end for another seven years. The Grosvenor Square Demo was organised by the Vietnam Solidarity Committee. Two years later, some of us from Essex became very active members and were instrumental in organising a demo may times larger than the Grosvenor Square one - in May 1970, after Nixon invaded Vietnam's neighbour, Cambodia and the National Guard shot dead 4 students at Kent State University.

And David Triesman? He became a member of the New Labour Government, defending the decision to invade Iraq in 2003. They made him a Lord. But Triesman wasn't typical and I'm pleased to report that many of my Essex comrades who were in Grosvenor Square in March 1968 were also on the biggest demo ever, the one of 15 February, 2003 hoping to stop the war in Iraq.

The Grosvenor Square demo of 17 March 1968 was, in many ways, a turning point. Seeing the violent, vicious behaviour of the police - no more Dixons of Dock Green there - we were emboldened in our conviction that radical change was needed to the very fabric of western societies. Revolution even. Our parents and grandparents had gone through two world wars. We wanted a fairer, juster, more peaceful world. And we still do!

1968 still had a long way yet to go. Within a few weeks, Essex University was occupied and an alternative university was in the making. Many of us hitchhiked to Paris to take part in their May 68 events. More on that in May...

© Written by Chris Ratcliffe


Vietnam demo