24 September 2005 was a sunny day – like most have been as we’ve marched on London. It was probably my sixth or seventh Stop the War demonstration.
So why are we still here?
To me today felt immensely important, and quite different from others, as this was our first demonstration since those bombings shook our great city. Not that buildings had fallen, but us, we all felt it. I’m not sure how many felt the intense anger I did; that this had happened after we campaigned so hard to stop the war. It had been ordinary people, on their way to work, as is usually the case, who reaped the consequences.
We marched for Peace and Liberty. Peace, in terms of the occupation of Iraq, and the right to self-determination for oppressed peoples, and also for us, that we may have peace at home, and not suffer attacks as a result of our government’s foreign policy. Liberty, in terms of the anti-terror laws, that have been used to restrict protest, and imprison people without trial in Britain’s Guantanamo, Bellmarsh. New proposals, for further anti-terror laws, on indirect incitement (a subjective concept at best), and for the proscribing of some Muslim groups, are of additional concern.
The journey up was rather confused. My friend and I were running rather late. On the Victoria Line tube we bundled out at Warren Street as we were informed the next stop, Victoria, had been closed for a ‘security alert’. How convenient – ‘they’ were probably doing it on purpose, we half joked to one another.
We took the Northern line to Charing Cross instead, and walked past Trafalgar Square to Whitehall. Here we caught the front of the march on its way towards us.
“Peace and Liberty” donned the railings, and we had arrived.
It seemed the natural thing once we had caught up with friends to stop for a quick drink in the pub. It had been a long journey, and it was a hot day, after all. We sat there self-satisfied that streams of people were filing past outside. What wonderful streams of people they were, those concerned and dedicated enough to come out today and add their weight to our common cause.
We were deep in conversation when all heads in the public house turned to the open door. A passing protestor was tunefully belting out a rather loud rendition of the classic chant ‘power to the people’. As our heads turned back I felt that rather surreal feeling I only get on the day of demonstrations. We are all out here, so passionate, so committed, so desperate to reign in the drastic attacks on our civil liberties, and there are people in the pub who have just popped out for an afternoon drink.
It’s not that this drastically offends me, rather that it emphasises what seem to be our parallel lives. Our parallel lives that occupy the same city, the same country, the same world. Our gang, that pounded the streets building the biggest demonstration in British history not on 15 February 2003, and their gang, the bystanders. I voiced this sentiment to the table at which I sat. A friend remarked that you couldn’t generalise, that a lot of these people probably agree with us, are glad at what we are doing. But still, I mused to myself, we are in another sphere. I feel almost, when I’m in the ‘sphere’ of the protest, that any sphere outside is quite perverse, and that we seem perverse to them also. As do the police officers. I always wonder what they are thinking as we strut past.
We stepped back out into the air as the tail of the march went past Trafalgar Square. An ultra-efficient clean-up operation was immediately kicking in. It seemed as though they sought to immediately remove all trace of our dissent. The machines whirred and police walked past them in the opposite direction, as if checking that not a single leaflet with a single idea could leave the ranks of the demonstrators, and somehow make its way to the gaze of an unsuspecting tourist.
The clean-up was so quick to come into force that straggling demonstrators like ourselves had to weave in and out of the cleaning vehicles to join the back of the march.
We caught back up and passed one of the famous glittering neon trademarks of London.
We were on a mission by that time to get to Hyde Park without missing the speeches. But we were sidetracked again first by stumbling upon old friends, and then by a rather interesting array of artwork attached to the fence.
As we finally re-joined the march I heard someone looking wistfully back at the path down which we had just walked. Half had been cordoned off for the demonstration. It was full on the ‘big day’, he said. I had never heard 15 February 2003 referred to in that way, almost like a wedding. But I knew instinctively what he was talking about. If there was to be a wedding, or big day, for British protest, it had to be that. Now we forever walked in the shadow of 15 February. It both drove us on and mocked us from every corner. It had placed a seed of hope in our hearts that will perhaps never be equalled. On that day, on the way to London, it seemed every train, every route, was people on their way. Everyone was with us. We have had to set out every time after that knowing it would never be like that again. Yet we know from it we are part of a great movement, and that it is up to us to sustain the momentum, and not fall away in its wake.
Hyde Park was pretty busy when we got there. But there wasn’t the usual conversation about numbers. It didn’t seem to matter anymore. After ‘the big day’ playing the numbers game was pretty futile anyway. No amount of creative multiplication could place anything since in the same league. We also knew that our efforts were likely to be largely ignored by the media, and that we were here for us. For peace, for liberty, for justice, but also for us. Today as much as it was about learning and protesting, we were here for each other on the movement.
Most people obediently assisted with the theme of immediate clean-up and followed the shouted command to ‘leave your placards here before you enter the park’. How very civilised.
I laughed at one that had been left all alone for those passing to read.
I saw a rare Union Jack and snapped the poignant illustration of the price paid by British soldiers for this war.
Hizb-ut-Tahrir had many activists handing out leaflets. This was clearly a political organisation afraid for its survival, and one with plenty of able-bodied men prepared to work to prevent its demise.
I got near the stage in time to hear Anthony Walker’s uncle Shyla, make a speech and sing a song. Today the speakers and the crowd quite easily illustrated the links between the racist murder in Liverpool, to the failures in New Orleans, to the occupation of Iraq, to the desperate poverty in the global south to the London bombings.
Many speakers referred to the multiracial nature of the crowd. Some referred to Trevor Phillips assertion about Britain, and its divisions, and invited the establishment to take a look at the faces of us, the crowd as we assembled. And we were of all backgrounds and all faiths, and many of none. I believe that in our many colours, we looked quite beautiful.
Tariq Ali spoke with passion and conviction. And he finished by answering the question as to what we achieve by all this. I feel this is something we know in our hearts but often find difficult to articulate to the cynical. He said something along the lines of ‘we were here to fill a public space’, and I recall from memory here, ‘with the speech and the ideas of the majority of people in this country’. It mattered that someone said that.
Tom Hayden the veteran US peace activist made a compelling plea for a special relationship. The crowd roared with delight. A special relationship, he said, not between our leaders, but between the people of the US and Britain, in opposing this injustice. His case for convoluting the malevolent alliance of our governments on the ground got particular applause. We all cast our mind to our allies in Washington, who would be beginning their march in a couple of hours.
I caught site of a woman in Muslim dress crying at one point. I wonder if she was overcome with the emotion of the event, after how difficult things have become after the London attacks. I’ll never know. I was torn between feeling glad she would be so moved by our common movement, and sadness that this chain of events, of which the London bombings are a part, have impacted so deeply on the lives of ordinary people, who have no control over them whatsoever.
John Pilger was wonderful and very encouraging – but he strongly highlighted the danger of the authoritarian streak being exhibited by ‘the little Mussolini in Downing Street’. I share his fear and anger; I think the clampdown on freedoms so many have fought and died for is the biggest and most powerful threat in my lifetime. Surely even the poll tax never got this serious. Hearing John Pilger speaking on this so vociferously in the centre of Hyde Park sent my mind whirring once again, to how we can help steer our government towards sanity, and what place in that process today was.
The most saddening speech was that of the young Iraqi doctor who told us with passion the problems faced by medics in Iraq with poor resources. He spoke also of the impossibility of reaching patients caught up in restricted areas. One celebrity speaker, Brian Eno, was the only I heard mention a slight dilemma, he suggested UN, and Arab troops, should enter Iraq instead. I didn’t hear any heckling, I think people saw it as a legitimate point to raise, and even counter, as a later speaker did (all foreign troops out), but one which was made from the perspective of someone who genuinely cared about the complete chaos Iraq has been made. Nonetheless all protestors and speakers agreed that coalition forces were the cause of, not a solution, to the problems in Iraq.
The feeling I got from the speakers today was that it was all coming home to us. We had drawn stronger links between the issues until they lay like a spiders web around us. We had all known Iraq would be an international disaster but now, after the London bombings, and the new laws, our fears had come home to roost. None of us were jubilantly patting ourselves on the back as ‘we told them so’. Rather I felt we were at a terrible, troubled, moment in history, with nowhere to turn. Some of us sat and took out this sense of powerlessness by pulling at the green, green grass of London.
I read the leaflets I had gathered on the train home. The most interesting and informative was probably the one by Iraq Occupation Focus, detailing the ‘The Corporate Invasion of Iraq’. I also learnt the reasons to join the SWP, who were arguably the most organised presence on the day. I read with relish the controversially titled ‘No to Imposition of a Nationalist-Fascist Constitution’ by the Worker-Communist Party of Iraq.
I looked with interest at the broad range of NGOs and protest groups supporting the forthcoming Climate March in London, from Greenpeace to The Islamic Foundation For Ecology and Environmental Sciences, to the Christian Ecology Link. Wherever our political experience had been before the recent anti-war movement, I had no doubt it had been enriched and diversified by the recent continuous sharing of our respective expertise and knowledge. Most importantly, stringent political ideologues had come to realise the vast benefits to be had by working together.
I had the sense today that the desperate dilemmas in occupied Iraq, the new breed of terrorism, and indeed globalisation with all its questions and potential answers was flying around in the air in Hyde Park. I knew we had all taken a little of that home with us.
Eventually I felt myself nodding off. My head lulled back against the seat. It’s like how this whole thing is going. I was scared if I nodded off, I might wake up and suddenly find myself in some place from where it is very difficult to get back. The assault on British civil liberties, the talk of extending police powers and proscribing groups, has been referred to as some as a new era of McCarthyism. So we can’t afford to close our eyes for a second, however much it feels as though we are on a journey we have so little power over. For whatever we can do, as we speak, write, work, learn, doing a little, is surely better than doing nothing at all. It is surely better than waking up one day realising the world has gone a stop too far, and it’s too late to get off.