Higher Education at Grunwick
THE sad death of Mrs. Jayaben Desai, whose funeral took place on Friday, has brought forth more reminiscences and reflections on the Grunwick strike in northwest London, of which she was the best known face, and which was an important episode in the lives of many more besides the workers directly involved in fighting for their union rights.
There were more than five hundred arrests at Grunwick, and of course not all were as famous as then cabinet minister Shirley Williams, or miners' leader Arthur Scargill. Some magistrates boasted of handing out stiffer punishment to those arrested for activity around the strike. Sometimes the consequences lasted well after any fines or custody. A south London friend of mine suspected years afterwards that he was being unfairly kept out of certain jobs, or overlooked when it came to promotion. He thought his troubles seemed to have started after his arrest at Grunwick. But it was not until after he went to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg some two decades after that he obtained confirmation that he was on a civil service blacklist.
Another friend of mine, who had been a student at the time of the strike, recalls how, coming from a fairly sheltered, respectable middle class home, he got educated about the police by something he witnessed in connection with the battles at Grunwick. 'This fellow was arguing with the landlord of a pub nearby, I think he just wanted him to let him in to use the toilets. A policeman came up and arrested him, and the guy appealed to any of us to be witnesses. When it came to court I was amazed by some of the police evidence'. According to the arresting officer, the accused had been leading a mob down Dudden Hill Lane, chanting 'Kill the Pigs' and similar exhortations.
Although we have talked before about how other trades unionists rallied to the cause of the Grunwick workers, we should not forget the students who saw this as a battle for decency and justice, and found themselves getting a crash course in the nature of the state and injustice. A report in a student paper at the time says 'The police Special Patrol Group were there, carrying out their standard 'snatch squad' technique to soften up the crowd by swooping in to make random and brutal arrests'.
The student reporter saw them swoop on a person standing next to a fellow student, Chris, who in common with others, instinctively put out his arm to try and protect the person being attacked. Next thing was Chris himself was grabbed, and punched and kicked by several coppers as he was dragged away.
As it happens, I've contacted this Chris, who recalls:
'On one occasion I was pulled out of the crowd and surrounded by police who were kicking me before I was led off to a waiting van and taken to Willesden Green Police Station I think it was. I first appeared at Barnet magistrates court charged with – I think – a breach of the peace. Despite ridiculously contradictory evidence from the police I was found guilty and fined £50 with £20 costs. Due to the police evidence I was advised to appeal and appeared at Knightsbridge Crown Court. At this hearing it was suggested that I “fought my way through lines of police six deep and must have assaulted 3 dozen policemen” !!!!!
My conviction was upheld and my sentence was increased to 21 days imprisonment which I served at HMP Pentonville.'
Apparently, the arresting officer who gave evidence at Barnet said he had seen Chris with fist raised in the air, shouting 'Scabs', Scabs', 'Kill the Scabs' 'Get the bastards off the bus'. A second officer testified that the accused had fought his way through lines of police and been too violent for them to stop him, while at the appeal hearing a fresh police witness, a commander, said Chris had assaulted between two and three dozen police before he was arrested. No wonder this young man was described as one of the most violent figures at Grunwick.
Fortunately, his prison sentence, criminal record and violent reputation does not seem to have badly affected Chris's subsequent career in the real world, where he has continued caring for others, as he did at Grunwick. '. I continued with my studies including a placement as a Probation Officer. I subsequently worked with young offenders in alternatives to custody before going overseas with Save the Children for 10 years working in Uganda and Rwanda, Bosnia and Kosovo'. After further work for Save the Children and VSO, he now has a senior post in an important children's health charity.
As for his experience all those years ago at Grunwick:
'I had been a great believer in the great British justice system – but my own experience gave me first hand experience of how corrupt it actually is. I do believe that most policemen and women are decent human beings and do a very valuable job. However in those situations they seem to change completely and their tactics seem designed to provoke conflict. I think they need to do some marketing and some cultural change needs to happen within. The police should be there to protect and help the demonstrators legal rights to protest.
'In my work I have to have CRB checks and recently when mine came back clear I rang them and said did they know I had a conviction – they replied that it was so long ago and not relevant.
'I was pleased to see some student activism recently although not the more violent aspects. I hope that such experience will politicize them and they will engage in other political activity – and not just for themselves'.