The 1990 Poll Tax riot was one of the best days I have ever spent taking pictures.
I had been working full time as a photographer documenting protest and social change for fourteen years with my work being published nationally and internationally in newspapers and magazines. This demonstration was shaping up to be one of the biggest and most politically significant of my lifetime and I was determined to make sure that the events of the day would be as widely published as possible.
Before the march even reached Trafalgar Square a PC with an old grudge had run across Whitehall to smash his shield into my neck and no sooner did I reach the square than I was flattened a couple more times by testerical coppers. Nonetheless I was motoring well by mid afternoon when Grand Buildings (background) was torched by the anarchists. The Poll Tax had been a festering sore for what felt like an age and after a few earlier demos that had been crushed by police this one had really kicked off.
Margaret Thatcher had been in power for eleven long years. Backed by a determined cabinet of wealthy anti union politicians her regime had openly set out to break the power of the trade unions. She had begun a carefully planned campaign explicitly aimed at forcing the unions and their supporters into confrontation with the police.
The final year of Thatcher’s regime, 1990, saw a series of protests against the newly introduced and desperately unfair Poll Tax. These demos were heavily and aggressively policed with each one getting more angry with Thatcher and with the increasingly oppressive policing.
Random truncheonings, mass charges by riot cops and the brutally aggressive policing had only redoubled people’s determination to force some democracy down Thatcher’s throat. The air was crackling with energy.
There were five major demonstrations against the Poll Tax in London. In each case the police had the crowd contained and had the opportunity to disperse the protesters into open spaces nearby. Instead they chased them violently towards high value shopping areas. There seemed to be a deliberate plan to ensure that there would be photos of looting and smashed shops for the next day’s papers. Once or twice might have been explained as poor decision making by the police but this happened in a controlled way and at every single one of those five protests.
Around 200,000 people gathered in central London to protest against the Poll Tax. After repeated police charges on foot, horseback and with vans driven at speed into the crowd riots erupted; shops were looted, police vehicles and government property were attacked, buildings were burned. The total cost ran into hundreds of millions of pounds.
Laurence and Nidge were smouldering with the passion and excitement of the day when I came across them locked together in this kiss with the flames behind them. There were no other photographers near and they were oblivious as I took this photograph. Moments later, other photographers started to home in on the scene and I moved on, the freshness and joy had become a spectacle. Soon after, Nidge was arrested but this photograph showed that he was nowhere near the place the police claimed and that the police had falsified their evidence. The case collapsed. They married a few months after this photo was taken. Laurence is three months pregnant here.
By the time I left I’d had the hair on one side of my head burnt off by an exploding motor bike, my knee mashed by a scaffold clamp hurled from the top of the burning offices and had been tumbled a dozen times by cops, horses, rioters and vans. I’d never been happier.