Sunday, 13 February 2011

Still Not In Our Name (Part One)

With the "March for the Alternative" just weeks away, I want to share my memories of the last time I joined a protest on a scale that this one promises to reach, back in February 2003, during the build up to the invasion of Iraq, when tens of millions of people thronged the streets of cities around the world to deliver a single clear message to another coalition, the "coalition of the willing" - NOT IN OUR NAME!

The fraudulent election of George W Bush in 2000, and the tragic events of September 2001 had already extinguished any sense of optimism that the start of a new millennium may have heralded. Even people with little or no interest in world events were left with an encroaching sense that the world had taken a new turn towards something dark, dangerous and frightening - with terror alerts, anthrax attacks and patriot acts. The invasion of Afghanistan in 2002 saw the birth of the Stop The War coalition and, even though the perpetrators were known to be of Saudi Arabian origin, and it was quite obvious that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with 9/11, or even with Al Quaida, and that any weapons of mass destruction we might have sold him in the 1980s had been used up or destroyed during the 1990s, it was becoming increasingly clear that Iraq was next.

The Daily Mirror had run a campaign promoting the march in London on Saturday the 15th in a positive light, but by and large the news media was filled with hysteria at the cost of all the police who were being drafted in to control what they called a "rent-a-mob of demonstrators", veiled accusations that our protest was unpatriotic, was unsupportive of "our boys", that it played into the hands of a brutal dictator like Saddam and was an obvious target for a terrorist "dirty bomb" attack. The Murdoch press in particular did everything they could to scare people away, but nevertheless, people were headed in their hundreds of thousands towards the nations capital. My brother Andy and I were even interviewed and photographed (looking distinctly red-eyed) by the Bury Times at a service station on the way down, and a quote from me was used as the headline for the papers coverage of the demo - "It's time to stand up and be counted!"

And stand up we certainly did!

Octogenarian nuns, tiny children in prams, world war two veterans in their wheelchairs, CND, Socialist Worker Party and Trade Union activists, members of the Women's Institute, students, church groups, anarchists, communists, conspiracy theorists, people of all races and denominations, old and young, imams, rabbis and at least one Church of England bishop, hippies, crusties, the people who you always expect to see at that kind of event and many, many thousands of people who had never even thought about their right to protest before, whole families from the middle and working classes alike, doctors, teachers, barristers, numerous politicians and celebrities - it was easier to find a group that wasn't represented that day than list all those that were, we filled the city to capacity, we took over the streets and the atmosphere was absolutely breathtaking!

It was like a politically charged marde gras, jubilant, exuberant, enthusiastically defiant but overwhelmingly positive and peaceful, funny, humane, extremely colourful and above all, deafeningly loud!

It seemed like everyone there was equipped with something that made lots of noise, a whistle, a bell or a drum, turning the protest into the worlds biggest spontaneous guerrilla samba band, clapping hands and united voices, mobile bicycle powered sound-systems toured up and down blasting out music, megaphone powered chants were taken up and passed around gleefully, and periodically drowning out this cacophony there was what can only be described as a Mexican roar. It could be heard approaching from miles away like street thunder, surging back down the massed line of people towards us, voices raising into a deafening crescendo of freedom and resistance, engulfing us as we added our own voices to the uproar then fading off into the distance as it passed us by, only to return half an hour later, just as loud, going the other way back down the line. The entire length of the march was a dense forest of waving flags, banners and placards, a riot of colour and witty improvisation, "No War" and "Bliar" placards were everywhere, others exclaimed "Make Tea Not War" or condemned "The War Against Terror" in cheeky foul mouthed parody of Bush and Blair's modern crusade. A piece of paper stuck to the back of a little girl's coat as she was carried through the demonstration on her fathers back proclaimed "I'm not a terrorist, and neither is my daddy!"

Yes, that was exactly what the newspapers, the Sun in particular, had called us - terrorists and supporters of terror.

The police presence was immense, all leave had been cancelled, reinforcements had been drafted in from across the country and they were out in force, but the day was ours, and it and entirely peaceful with only a handful of minor arrests reported. There were undoubtedly people with extreme views in the crowd, and people who were of course extremely angry, but they were diluted to near homeopathic levels by the overwhelming majority of ordinary people, protesting peacefully against an invasion we all knew would lead inevitably to bloody tragedy for the people of Iraq. It was difficult to visually gauge exactly how many people were there, although the news and police helicopters patrolling the skies above us must have had a pretty clear overview, but although it was impossible to see how many people where there, it was impossible to ignore that the turn out was simply staggering. We may not have been able to see the forest for the trees, but we could feel it all around us and as Hyde Park began to fill for the rally, the procession of people heading there still stretched for miles, snaking back through the packed streets of London.

I believe that the rally was fantastic, with speeches from Tony Benn and George Galloway amongst many others, but we never actually made it there in time. My group, like hundreds of thousands of others, remained embedded in the mass of protesting humanity, most memorably in Piccadilly Circus where the separate strands of the demonstration met like the confluence of two mighty rivers. It wasn't a kettle as such, although some of the exits to the square where certainly blocked by dense lines of police, leaving only the route down Piccadilly open to us, and it took what felt like hours to clear the choke point. The guerrilla samba band went into carnival overdrive and kept us dancing on the spot the whole while, teaching the Met's finest a few lessons in crowd control. It was surreal, like something out of a dream. Overhead, waved by a protester stood on top of one of the booths where tourists normally queued to buy tickets for open-top bus tours, flew an enormous flag depicting a dove made up of the word "peace" repeated over and over, whilst off to one side a group of extremely angry sounding bearded men chanted something in Arabic.

The organisers of the demonstration say that there had been nearly two million people protesting in London. The police claim that there were only 750.000 has been widely derided by anyone who was there, and even if you split the difference between the two, as most of the news agencies appear to have done, there were still something like a million and a half people out on the streets of the capital that day. It was incredible, it was glorious, it was a wonderful day, a day that will always remain fresh in my mind and that I will always be proud to have been a small part of.

And now we have the opportunity to do it again, protesting against a different coalition this time, against a ConDem coalition government who are making the most savage cuts in the history of public spending, for their own ideological reasons and without any electoral mandate for the worst of them, including what amounts to the privatisation of the NHS. We protested against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and we must now protest against this war of the wealthy against the middle and lower classes in our own country.

They will tell us that we are foolish, and that we are somehow criminal for using our legal right to protest, they will tell us that it is dangerous at worst and pointless at best, and I will address each of these criticisms in my next article, but for the time being I will be content to say that if you do not take this opportunity to join something huge, powerful, peaceful and above all for the common good, to walk through the streets of your capital city as if you really do own the place, you may well regret it for the rest of your lives.

Join the March for the Alternative on the 26th March.

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