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Angry Brigade

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The Angry Brigade were the less successful, British example of the wave of radical-left terrorists that swept through the western world in the late 1960s and early 70s, with international counterparts like the Red Army Faction in West Germany and the Symbionese Liberation Army and Weather Underground in the US.

Bombing campaign[edit]

The group's original four members, John Barker, Hilary Creek, Anna Mendelson and Jim Greenfield, were inspired by the near-revolution of Paris in May 1968, and spent a while as activists in squats, working with the Claimants' Union which assisted those on benefits. In the first year of Edward Heath's prime-ministership they launched a bombing campaign, from August 1970 to August 1971.[1] Their targets included the homes of ministers in Heath's Conservative government including home secretary Robert Carr, as well as the head of the Metropolitan Police, and a senior figure at Ford's Dagenham plant. They also targeted offices of the government and large corporations.

From all their attacks only one person was even slightly injured; the Angry Brigade used small devices to cause minor property damage rather than death. But they liked to send claims of responsibility and denunciations of Heath's government to the media. The language of their communiqués was recognised and traced to two other members, Ian Purdie and Jake Prescott; this led the police to the rest. At the home of four of the gang the newly formed police Bomb Squad found a cache of weapons, 33 sticks of gelignite, and printing equipment used for the group's messages to the world.[1] Their capture was in retrospect perhaps lucky because the IRA were just about to show the UK what a bombing campaign really meant, and the Angry Brigade would have been much worse off if arrested in the midst of some really murderous attacks and brutal police reprisals.

There were two trials. Firstly Ian Purdie and Jake Prescott were tried for conspiracy to cause explosions, and Prescott was convicted and sentenced to 15 years (later reduced to 10 years). The second trial, where the so-called Stoke Newington Eight were charged with conspiracy and causing explosions, was at the time the longest in British criminal history; most of the police's evidence was demolished by the defendants, some conducting their own defences (Barker's rhetorical skills were highly praised). John Barker, Hilary Creek, Anna Mendelson, and Jim Greenfield were convicted by majority verdict of conspiracy but acquitted of the other charges and sentenced to between 4 and 10 years; Barker suggested the police fabricated evidence, saying "they framed a guilty man"[2]. The other four of the Eight, Kate McLean, Angela Weir, Stuart Christie, and Chris Bott, were acquitted of all charges.[3]

Members and associates[edit]

  • John Barker, convicted at the second trial, has continued to write about the Angry Brigade and other topics, and also did time for smuggling cannabis[2]
  • James Greenfield, a student with Barker at Cambridge University, they tore up their exam papers to protest the Vietnam War; he was also later convicted of drugs offences[1]
  • Anna Mendleson, formerly a student at Essex university, later a member of London squat scene, also convicted; after her release she studied English at Cambridge University under another name and became a poet
  • Hilary Creek, daughter of a City worker and formerly a student at Essex university with Mendleson, also convicted
  • Kate McLean, an art student, acquitted of all charges
  • Angela Weir later Angela Mason, acquitted at the Newington Eight trial, became director of gay rights charity Stonewall and was awarded an OBE
  • Stuart Christie, an anti-Franco activist who had earlier attacked targets connected with the Spanish government, also acquitted, and later wrote an acclaimed autobiography
  • Chris Bott, involved in the May 1968 protests in Paris, and then briefly attended Essex university; after his acquittal he worked in the newspaper industry and then possibly moved to France[1]
  • Jake Prescott, the only working-class member, he was in care from seven, a burglar and heroin addict, radicalised in prison he became involved with the squatting movement and reportedly addressed some letters for the Angry Brigade and was convicted at the earlier trial: he was first into jail and last out[1]

Media circus[edit]

Right from their capture, the media was fascinated by these mostly middle-class drop-outs who seemed perfect examples of the madness of the plague of crazed hippies sweeping Britain. Because Creek and Mendleson were (reportedly) attractive young women, the press was particularly fascinated with them and the Sun published an exposé with the title "Sex Orgies at the Cottage of Blood". The women had pictures of themselves taken during the trial and gave them to friends to sell.[1]

Until their capture, the group was viewed with contempt by many on the radical left who thought they were doing nothing constructive; but the trial became a cause celebre and anybody of alternative politics was more or less required to support them. As a result the group gained a considerable following in the counter-culture (even though the nascent squat movement had been almost destroyed by police raids in pursuit of them). Thousands of "I'm in the Angry Brigade" badges were sold to disaffected youths.[1]

Cultural influence[edit]

Because the British are much better at mythologising even the recent past than creating a worthwhile present or future, and because they didn't actually kill anybody, the Angry Brigade have been a regular presence in British pop culture ever since, sometimes in fictionalised form:

  • BBC TV show Our Friends in the North featured a fictionalised version
  • Granny Made me an Anarchist: General Franco, The Angry Brigade and Me, autobiography by Stuart Christie[3]
  • Tom Vague wrote a widely-criticised history, Anarchy in the UK
  • Jake Arnott's novel Johnny Come Home[4]
  • Dennis Potter was commissioned to write a play called The Angrier Brigade, but was unable to complete it due to illness
  • Gordon Carr's The Angry Brigade: The Cause and the Case was a 1975 non-fiction book
  • There was a 2003 drama-doc on British TV[3]

References[edit]

  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Look back in anger, Martin Bright, Observer, 2002
  2. 2.0 2.1 The Angry Brigade's John Barker, 40 years on: 'I feel angrier than I ever felt then', The Guardian, 2014
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Vindicated, David Edgar, LRB, vol 26, no 24
  4. Johnny Come Home, The Guardian, 2006