:: Article

now we are all angry

By Gyorgy Furiosa.

The Angry Brigade, Gordon Carr, PM Press

DATELINE: LONDON, 1971.

A metropolis in peril, a country in civil upheaval, a world on the brink of revolution. Across the globe, universities are occupied and grass-hut villages are napalmed. Governments quake before the insurrection of a generation of young people rejecting the morality and control of their parents. Into this scene, platoons of anonymous heroes and masked villains stage theatrical acts of sabotage, defiance and assault. The squads are colourfully monikered, each nation homegrowing their own: in the US, bands of urban guerillas like the Weather Underground and the Symbionese Liberation Army kidnap a debutante who is next seen as an accomplice in an armed robbery; in West Germany the Red Army Fraktion, later called the Baader-Meinhof Group, sticks up banks and kidnaps politicians; in Sweden, a group of former mental patients form their own autonomous unit and occupy an embassy, demanding the release of their political comrades; in Cataluyna and the Basque region bombs explode claimed by the ETA; in South-East Asia,  a peasant militia called the Viet Cong battle the greatest military machine the world has ever seen.

The characters and their antics could be lifted from the pages of such seminal graphic novels as Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, yet this is the backdrop for Gordon Carr’s conscientious retelling of the exploits and misadventures of a group of idealistic drop-outs at the opening of the 1970s. The stories are often of conflicted, desperate resistance, murky moral ambivalence, and a daring splash of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. It was a time of flawed superheroes and sympathetic villains – more Rorschach and Batman than Spiderman or Captain America. The smell of revolution was in the air, a heady stench of gunpowder, incense and ganja. In the UK, the mantle of urban guerilla was taken up by a group who called themselves the Angry Brigade – the subject of Carr’s considerate and in-depth account, which describes the group’s history from genesis to conviction. It is a journey that follows the protagonists from their radicalization and rejection of society’s values, through the wild underworld of freedom fighters and libertarian politics, to their eventual entrapment and prosecution by the law. Part-history, part-noir detective story, the reader can hardly help but hold their breath as the story relentlessly progresses to its inevitable climax.

For a year at the birth of the 70s, the Angry Brigade were England’s public enemy number one.  Whether they were a violent revolutionary group spouting vehement rhetoric and destroying property with explosive devices, or a crew of well-meaning but alienated pranksters with home-made firecrackers, they caused a transformation in the way police dealt with left-wing libertarian politics in the UK, leading to the use of the first police computer, the formation of the Bomb Squad, and the longest criminal trial in British judicial history at that time.

The Angry Brigade, even in the words of their colourfully named opponents Detective Inspector Mould and “Commander X”, were so dangerous because they were “an idea, not an organization”, and their actions and ideas were trumpeted by supporters and the then-underground Time Out magazine with the slogan “Now We Are All Angry”. Perhaps what was most threatening to the establishment was the origin of the Brigade from within its own ranks. The Brigadiers were Oxbridge students who had torn up their final exams in a gesture of defiance and rejection, which they cite as one of their proudest achievements. The image is reminiscent of Dane McGowan, the protagonist of Grant Morrison’s Say You Want A Revolution, standing over his teacher as the school burns around them, saying: “It was Kropotkin, and you’ll never understand me”. They were educated, highly intelligent, accomplished public speakers, and militantly dedicated to the liberation of the working classes. They were radicalized by their involvement in the student occupations of 1968 in Paris, deported back to the UK with a head full of ideas and the will to enact them. Members of the Angry Brigade set up Claimants’ Unions to defend the rights of those on benefits; they worked closely with the squatter communities of London, helping them prepare legal briefs to take to court, or teaching them how to barricade. They formed a Squatter Defence Squad that would turn up to evictions to resist bailiffs. Two members were instrumental in the founding of Strike! magazine, which runs to this day. They were self-educated and self-organised, and they were scaring the people purportedly in charge.

The threats did not start off so bold – like many things of the time, it started almost as a joke. Initially more Citizen Smith than Citizen Kane, the communiqués are full of now-prosaic and cringe-worthy sloganeering about “power to the people” and “we are the working class”, written often in capitalized hyperbole that reminds you of political internet forums. Later, as they enter the courtrooms, we are gifted with scenes of spectacular verbalization of abstract ideals and a montage of flashbacks akin to Orson Wells’ masterpiece.  In their early days, the group were more prone to prankstering than street-fighting. Early on, they staged a Vietnam theatre protest in the street – yet the image of people re-enacting the firebombing of a village on the high street may have been more “annoying than effective”. They donned suits and entered the bidding at an auction of council housing, driving the prices to astronomical heights before the auction collapsed in disarray. Yet very soon, they had made contact with French anarchists the 1st of May Group, and were involved in the British arena of a pan-European co-ordinated bombing attack.

Capturing a snapshot of the time and its politics, Gordon Carr’s book also discusses the group’s dedication to the destruction of the family unit, the members seeing it as a tool of sexual repression and control. Carr hints at a “sexy revolution”, and just below the surface of this book simmers the erotic release of polyamorous relationships, drugs orgies and free love, yet the author remains chastely focused on a detailed, impartial account.

The book gives an overview of the countercultural scene in Europe at the time through the prism of the activities of the police and the revolutionaries. It must have really felt like revolution was just a bomb-throw away. London is awash with radical communes – the Agitprop house in Bethnal Green Road is repeatedly raided for its silk-screen machines and stock of militant propaganda, reminding us of a time before cheap electronic printing, before blogging, before Banksy’s politics were commodified and castrated. The Brigade rails against recuperation – the process by which social workers and outsiders moderate and defuse agitation rather than acting in solidarity with the wretched and oppressed. The name itself emerges from a “drunken Christmas party”, a joke on the City workers who attacked striking tube workers with umbrellas and earned the name “the brolly brigade”. By their own admission, the members of the group were smoking a lot of pot, talking politics, and in love with the ideas of revolution, liberty and anarchy. The journey they embark on takes them along the drift of repression, like clouds darkening a blue sky, as they move from the giddy thrill of liberty to inevitable illegality. For a time, they can’t believe they are getting away with it, as nothing seemed to be happening to them.

As urban guerillas, the Angry Brigade are not comparable to groups such as the Weather Underground or the Baader-Meinhof Group. Their rhetoric was fiery but their bombing campaigns often failed to ignite. It was the revolutionary equivalent of throwing firecrackers at tanks. Where they came into their own was in court. The courtroom battle plays out over six months, before a battered jury, where the Brigade explain every facet and detail of their politics, their personalities, trapped in the dilemma of refuting the very system they were arguing within. To acknowledge their acceptance of the authority of the court, of the government, would be acquiescing to the power of everything they despise. They refused to confess, and their refutation of the legitimacy of the charges leveled against them reaches the heights of legal brilliance.

Yet in a post-script, the members of the Brigade state that they should not be lionized, that the whole affair is closer to farce than insurrection. It was a time way before 9/11, before even the IRA bombing campaign across the UK that changed the way the judiciary and the public thought about terrorists – perhaps a more innocent time. The idealism of the Stoke Newington 8, as they became known, shines through in their impassioned defence of their politics and their actions. The longest trial in British history was not a political trial, as the Judge said: “we do not have them in this country”. Yet the conviction of four of them on charges of “conspiracy” leads right to the door of Orwell’s thought police: because the jury believed they had thought about the bombings, and even silently acquiesced to them, then they were guilty, regardless of whether they detonated the explosives themselves.

In the words of one Brigadier, “the police framed a guilty man, and the frame had holes in it”. When the Amherst Road terrace where three of the Brigade lived together incognito is raided by police, those inside are reported as laughing in disbelief when a cache of guns is found in their kitchen. The suggestion is, although refuted by the jury, that the police found them elsewhere and planted them in the house. This tactic was common at the time, especially when the police were being pressured to find the Angry Brigade and bring them to justice by any means necessary. This is only a few years before the Guildford Four were similarly set up. The book also mentions, lightly it must be said, accusations by two of the accused of torture whilst under arrest.

Most thrillingly represented is the clash between the conservative police of the old order and the new blood of the post-war generation. During one raid on a commune, the police are bewildered to see a toilet completely uncovered by walls in the middle of a room, on to which one defiant hippie girl climbs during the search and “begins to crap”. The free-loving radical youths of the UK were an alien breed to those who joined the Met Police, and part of the reason for the extensive investigation into the left-wing organizations of the day was to collate a huge amount of data on what threat they might pose.

The overall story harks back to a time before interconnectivity and the web, when police relied on finger-printing and house raids to catch their suspects, but the seed of a decentralized resistance movement akin to Anonymous or Occupy is there. Like the former, and with sections of the latter especially in Oakland, the Brigade also resisted the pacifist defenestration of the use of violence. They were clear in the communiqués, sent at those times to print publications whereas now they would be posted online, that they only attacked property and did not kill people, unlike their opponents. Indeed, in all the attacks, only one person was injured, and then accidentally.

Though those convicted seem to want to distance themselves from their youthful folly, what the Angry Brigade represented continues to this day: the rage, the indignation, and the violent resistance are all still bubbling undercurrents of our present society. These are themes forced to the fringe, but have still found voice in graphic novel culture and online. Yet most shockingly of all, what was the fuss about? All the Brigade managed to do was disrupt the Miss World competition, burn some doorways, put a bullet hole through some glass at an embassy (discovered by the cleaner two days later) and cut a housekeeper’s leg. Yet for a time, they represented all the frustrated youth and idealism of an age, and threatened to be the spark that ignited an inferno that would incinerate the status quo. This was why they were dangerous, despite their cartoonish appearance, and why those convicted were to spend the rest of that decade in prison.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Gyorgy Furiosa is a writer, performance poet and natural farmer who has travelled extensively across Europe and Asia working with socially excluded groups ranging from the homeless in London to heroin addicts and street kids in Kuala Lumpur. His debut non-fiction narrative Total Shambles, about evictions, riots and barricades in occupied buildings in the UK capital, is being published in November by Influx Press. You can read more of his articles and interviews at www.thelifeanarchic.com.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Monday, June 16th, 2014.