Taking to the streets
At the time I moved to London, my awareness of politics was very low. Unable to vote, I had never been asked to make any political choices. But in this momentous year, 1968, history was on the move.
Trafalgar Square 17 March 1968
On Sunday 17 March I took the Piccadilly Line and made my way to Trafalgar Square. I was attending my first demonstration, against the war in Vietnam. I had never been in such a large crowd before; even going to see the Blues at St Andrew’s could not match this crowd. Reports said there were over 80,000 people.
Most of those on the demonstration appeared to be in their twenties or younger; students, hippies, many too young to vote. Much like myself. There were a few older people who were identifiable as pacifists, including the occasional priest, nun or Buddhist. CND members were prominent, identified by their duffle coats.
The destructive liberation of Hue by South Vietnamese and US troops 1968
The war in Vietnam had lasted for years. The USA decided it had to ‘stop the spread of communism’ by sending hundreds of thousands of troops and billions of dollars’ worth of equipment. 1968 was to be the crucial watershed year of the war. The North Vietnamese Army launched its Tet Offensive in January 1968, their attempt to end the war. In response, the US poured in more and more men and equipment. By the end of 1968 there were 820,000 troops in the South Vietnamese Army and 536,000 US troops.
My Lai 16 March 1968
The people on the demonstration, including myself, had seen all this in colour on television and in magazines We had witnessed forests sprayed with defoliants, napalm fire bombs ripping across the treeline, terrified Vietnamese farmers and their children, angry and desperate American troops slogging through jungles. The demonstrators would have been even angrier if they knew what had happened at My Lai on the previous day.
Tariq Ali, Vanessa Redgrave and Stephen Hawking (left) on the demonstration
Two of the leaders of the demonstration, Tariq Ali and Vanessa Redgrave, made their way to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square to present a letter of protest. They were allowed through a cordon while the rest of the protesters were held at bay by hundreds of policemen.
Grosvenor Square 17 March 1968
Ordered to leave, many protesters refused and tried to break though the cordon. In response, the Police broke up the demonstration using horses; over 200 demonstrators were reported injured. This was before the Police had special riot units and protective gear; nevertheless, these ‘bobbies’ with their pointed helmets and big boots demonstrated what they could do.
I left as the trouble flared up; being on my own I thought it wiser to go back to my digs in Acton. This was the first of many demonstrations that I would attend over the next few decades. I learned a lot from this one. Here was a place where I could express my opinions and be part of a group of like-minded people. I began to learn that there was a possibility that we might change the future. I could now identify at least some of the enemy. This was one spark of many that would turn 1968 into an inferno.
Copyright Derek Perry 2018.
For newsreels of the day:
 In 1968, the voting age was 21. Already seen as anachronistic, the voting age in the UK would be reduced to 18 in 1969, just in time for my 21st birthday when I would have got the vote anyway.
 The My Lai Massacre was the mass murder of unarmed Vietnamese civilians by US troops in South Vietnam on 16 March 1968. Between 347 and 504 unarmed people were massacred by the US Army soldiers from Company C, 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade, 23rd Infantry Division. Victims included men, women, children, and infants. Some of the women were gang-raped and their bodies mutilated. It would take a year and eight months for details to emerge.
 Tariq Ali has long been associated with the New Left Review. Ali was involved with The Black Dwarf newspaper and joined the International Marxist Group (IMG) in 1968. He continues to be a writer and political activist. In 1961, Vanessa Redgrave was an active member of the Committee of 100. Redgrave and her brother Corin joined the Workers Revolutionary Party in the 1970s. Since then she has maintained an acclaimed acting career and remains a political activist.
 Riot shields and helmets were developed in the early 1970s. The Special Patrol Group (SPG) was set up to control public order in the 1960s but was unarmed and had no special equipment. One of the SPG’s most controversial incidents came in 1979, while officers were policing a protest by the Anti-Nazi League in Southall. During a running battle, demonstrator Blair Peach was struck on the head and died as a result of his injuries; a report later stated that it was an action of the SPG. In the inquiries which followed, a variety of unauthorised weapons were found in the possession of SPG officers, including baseball bats, crowbars and sledgehammers .