Monday, February 26, 2007

Occupation 1973

Or, the day we nearly occupied the Chilean Embassy

In 1973 General Pinochet launched a military coup which overthrew the democratically-elected government of Salvador Allende. The aftermath was terrible, with widespread atrocities, torture and disappearances conducted against the Left.

At the time I was a leading member of the International Marxist Group, and headed the so-called ‘Red Defence Force’ (RDF) which stewarded our demonstrations and did various revolutionary stunts. Under the influence of our French sister organisation, the Ligue Communiste, which had a history of special forces-like operations which they conducted with characteristic élan, we decided to occupy and hold the Chilean Embassy in London just before a major demonstration against the coup, which would pass it.

As leader of the occupying force, it fell to me to reconnoitre the Embassy. I was a student at Furzedown teacher training college at the time, and invented a project about Chilean education as an excuse to get inside and see the cultural attaché. The interior was rather elegant, with broad staircases and large, high-ceiling rooms well-outfitted in a 1920’s style. There were also a disconcertingly large number of big, mean-looking guys with guns. I was reminded that this was Chilean territory, and these were the forces of counter-revolution.

We made our plans and arranged to meet a few streets away from the Embassy at around 8 a.m. that Saturday morning. I turned up early, with a few of my lieutenants and we surveyed the scene in what we took to be a nonchalant and inconspicuous way. Obviously we couldn’t hide our jeans, long hair and sheepskin jackets, but hey, this was the 1970s!

To our increasing concern, there were these strange guys lurking on every corner, screaming Special Branch. Every minute or two a white transit would cruise by, full of overlarge guys belonging to the SPG, the Special Patrol Group, who also wished to emulate their continental compatriots, in their case the CRS (the feared French riot police).

We soon realised that our chances, never very good to begin with, were nigh-on hopeless. They were already prepared for us. It was time to get together in a nearby university hall and call the whole thing off. I spoke to my RDF troops and explained we had been betrayed by a mole in our own ranks. There was relief in the room: those reported guns had led to many a sleepless night!

The RDF team was on the main demonstration that afternoon. We did pass the Chilean Embassy, but we never got anywhere near it. There were massed ranks of police and some very strange guys just behind them.

There’s something missing, the alert reader notes. I understand how you intended to get into the Embassy, but how were you going to escape?

Peter G., an IMG politbureau member had previously explained it to me. “You guys will hold the Embassy until the demonstration arrives” he told me “and then we will surge forwards, break the police lines and you will be able to escape.”

Even at the tender age of 22, I had been a veteran of many aggressive demonstrations, and I had a clear recollection that we almost never succeeded in breaking the police ranks! And given that the world would know we had occupied, how likely was it that the police would even route the demonstration close to the Embassy, let alone let their lines be broken. Hmm.

Yes, I was sure glad about that mole!