Keeping alive this historic opportunity for peace

The protests against the Bush state visit proved the anti-war movement is still massively popular and that the tactics and identity of those involved are as diverse as ever. Here, Red Pepper prints a selection of the views of those who demonstrated in November 2003.
January 2004

Keeping alive this historic opportunity for peace

by Bruce Kent

There are several examples in history of surges of public opinion throwing up opportunities for peace. The latter years of the 19th century provided one such example, when the peace proposals of the Russian tsar Nicholas II became the focus of packed public meetings all over Britain. This mass public pressure provided the momentum for the first inter-governmental peace conference aimed at arms reduction at The Hague in 1899.

The horrors of WWI inspired a similar surge in public pressure for disarmament in the 1920s and 1930s. But the great powers, particularly Britain, clung to out-of-date concepts of security, thus opening the door to Hitler and making the slide to war in 1939 inevitable.

Now we have another chance. The worldwide protests against the war on Iraq have involved millions and millions of people in country after country. If we failed in Britain in our immediate aim of stopping the war it was only because we, and Parliament, were lied to by people who turned themselves into war criminals.

The London demonstration on 20 November 2003 against Bush and the occupation of Iraq showed that public opinion has not changed.

Worldwide public opinion is united as never before. The demands are clear: an end to war and the militarisation of the planet; an end to the economic exploitation of the poor by the rich; an end to the ongoing environmental ruin of the world; an end to the abuse of human rights. On such major issues we can all agree and keep this new wave of public opinion alive and active.

How this new global movement will organise itself no one yet knows. But the task is urgent and there are certain points on which we can be certain.

We don't need to reinvent the wheel. All sorts of international peace, justice, human rights and environmental networks already exist. They need to be brought on board and consulted about where we go from here.

It is vitally important that we win the support of those organisations with charitable status. They have financial and human resources and large constituencies. Many are more radical than in the past, and the charity commissioners have eased some of the restrictions on their activities.

Also, we have to stand together as friends in a spirit of mutual respect. We do not have to be converted to one another's philosophies, faiths or economic theories as long as the whole caravan moves roughly in the right direction. Such respect must involve welcoming constructive criticism and debate.

Finally, we need urgent open discussion of how this movement can gain more adequate political representation. This means seriously taking up the demand for a proportional electoral system and considering what alliances might be necessary around a limited shopping list of policies on which we can all agree.

Bruce Kent is the chair of the Movement for the Abolition of War

Civil rights campaigner Peter Tatchell

The sheer size and exuberant spirit of the London march were exhilarating and uplifting - proof that the anti-war movement remains a strong, vibrant force in British politics.

As to its future: we need a more systematic, ongoing campaign. The only language the US government understands is the language of money, which means we have to hit the US in the pocket by targeting major corporations - especially global brands like McDonald's and Coca-Cola. The time has come for a worldwide boycott: don't buy American.

Student and Hands Up For... member Rowenna Davis

Sitting in my tutor's office in Oxford, I tried to justify missing my tutorial to go on the anti-Bush demo... 'I'm studying politics, philosophy and economics. Travelling to London for the protest should be compulsory.' My tutor raised one eyebrow and told me that the tutorial had already been rescheduled; he was going to London, too.

To me, that demonstrates what was so special about the march - its diversity. People from every background came to protest against a vast range of issues, but they seemed united around a single belief: the US's intention and ability to impose its view on the world have to be checked.

My friends and I were in London on 20 November not because we were anti-American, not because we condone 11 September, but because we are against the actions of the current US administration. The US cannot go on the way it is; the country's moral credibility has been eroded and continues to decay.

Hands Up For... is a project set up by young people to encourage political debate

Nadje Al-Ali, Act Together: Women's Action for Iraq, Exeter

Act Together: Women's Action for Iraq is continuing its protest against the occupation in Iraq by trying to highlight the specific security concerns faced by women, including rape, abduction and exclusion from political processes.

Initially, I felt depressed about not being able to attend the demonstration in London because of my teaching commitments at the University of Exeter. But participating in the demonstration organised by the Exeter anti-war coalition was a very uplifting experience.

More than 500 people marched through the centre of Exeter. Several people, including myself, were asked to give very brief speeches. Being used to the more 'grand' events in Trafalgar Square or Hyde Park, it was a good experience to be in a more 'intimate' protest environment. I was impressed by the commitment, passion and knowledge of local people.

I feel ambiguous about the anti-war movement. I feel alienated by the shouting of simplistic slogans. The organisation of major events has not been carried out in a very democratic and inclusive manner. I feel much safer in those feminist environments where process is perceived to be as important as content, and where the world is not painted in black and white. Secular Muslims, especially women, have no space within the official bodies claiming to represent British Muslims.

Act Together is currently organising a fact-finding mission to Iraq, and is working with Women Living Under Muslim Law in trying to identify a potential venue for a women's centre and library in Baghdad

Paul Mackney, general secretary of the lecturers' union Natfhe

Many trade unions have provided political leadership and practical support to the anti-war movement. I used my own opportunities to speak on platforms and at press conferences against the war. It was appropriate to do this in the context of other government policy; there is a clear contradiction in demanding massive student tuition fees while finding billions of pounds for war.

At an early stage in the campaign against war, many Natfhe branches were already active. The Natfhe website was used to encourage anti-war activity; it linked to the Stop The War Coalition (STWC) website and promoted its demos. It also displayed ideas for activity, including tips for successful 'teach-ins' sent by academics and students in the US. Supporting the STWC has been a positive experience for Natfhe. The common decency and caring of teachers comes through during war. The campaign has also opened a valued dialogue between trade unions and Muslims when there had previously been silence.

Anas Altikriti, director of media and public relations, the Muslim Association of Britain

November was always going to be a difficult month. It was a matter of how best we were going to mobilise the Muslim community when Ramadan was in full swing. The initiative of a national fasting day was truly inspired.

We asked the entire British people to observe a fast on 20 November and break it at sunset. I cannot begin to describe the moment of sunset, when the bulk of the march had just arrived at Trafalgar Square and the call for prayer was raised and everyone started passing around food and drink in a show of extraordinary solidarity and compassion. The feeling that we had proven all the doubters wrong, and that the anti-war marchers could come together despite differences in religion, ideology, culture, age and tradition, was overwhelming.

LM Bogad, Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army

The clown army crossed the Thames at 1400 hours. We quick-marched with tight discipline and determined expressions on our brightly painted faces. The sun gleamed off our helmets - inverted colanders with green fuzzy trim.

'Left!'

In motley camouflage and fluorescent-pink fuzzy epaulets and fringes, we bore banners that proclaimed, 'dignity, justice, mirth: Clandestine Insurgent Rebel Clown Army'.

'Left!'

Armed with rainbow-coloured feather dusters and a cannon that fired pretzels, we marched to Sarge's incessant barking: 'Left! Left! Left!'

As our communiqué written by Subcommandante Coco declared, we were celebrating the auspicious news that for the first time in over 500 years, a fool was being allowed back into the Palace on official business. But we were dismayed to find out that the recipient of this great honour was the dreaded 'Dubya', who, given his mendacious and cruel record would surely not honour the dignified role of palace fool.

This was an insult to clowns everywhere, and so we mobilised, mustering from Whitechapel, Leeds, Bristol, Birmingham, Amsterdam and even Chicago to absurdly assault the Palace with radical ridicule.

Our serious play was filled with tension: tension with the police and Beefeaters, who seemed to think we were taking the piss; between our military metaphor and our egalitarian, affinity-group structure; even between us and other demonstrators with different styles (we quietly fell back before a women's silent anti-war vigil in Leicester Square, but considered disrupting a cliched 'die-in').

Our rival fool Bush has fled these shores. The clowns, like any militia, have demobilised and returned to our homes - to tend our crops of squirty flowers, resew our tattered uniforms and, most importantly, recruit. Join the clown column!

Sedgefield resident

George Bush popped into my local the other day for the world's most expensive pub lunch. I was unable to check whether the one-time alcoholic was drowning his Iraqi sorrows, because me and 2,000 other protesters were confined to the village green by armed police.

We had all been put under a curfew the night before with no vehicles beind allowed in or out of the roads around the Dun Cow pub where Blair was entertaining Bush. As marksmen lined the rooftops and helicopters buzzed overhead, Bush's 25-car cavalcade arrived. Sedgefield had become an armed camp, running up £1m police costs in the process.

'I've never been on a demonstration before,' said one of my neighbours. He'd pulled a sickie so he could hurl a few choice words at Bush. Next to me was an elderly man with his WWII medals. I thought it was a counter demo until I spotted a 'stop Bush' badge.

Seventy-five-year-old Joan Smith addressed the crowd. Like many Sedgefield Labour members, she has been an outspoken critic of the war. A Labour member for 60 years, Joan was not invited when Blair celebrated his 50th birthday party with local members.

Fifteen-year-old Rebekah Newton joined the demo with about 15 other students from Sedgefield Comprehensive. 'Loads of other kids stopped off at school and had to make "we love Bush" posters. We wanted to show it was not just adults against this visit.'

I really don't know if I will contribute to the Dun Cow's profits anymore. Perhaps I should put my beer money aside to put towards the £8 that will be added to my council tax for the policing of Tony and George's fish and chip lunch.

Rupert Read, senior lecturer of philosophy at the University of East Anglia

19 November

1.30pm

Myself and a fellow 'peace police' activist called Kathryn were carrying an upside-down US flag (an international distress signal; we were extremely distressed at Bush's being given a state visit to Britain) with 'arrest Bush - war criminal' emblazoned on it. We had just booed Bush and Blair as they sped past in their motorcade to Buckingham Palace.

Our flag had gone down well at the protest, and the majority of Americans we encountered were supportive. The media, too, were very interested: our flag featured live on ITV News, NBC News, Al-Arabia satellite TV, and the main Tunisian TV network.

As we walked down the Mall, however, a couple of passing policemen were less amused. They claimed that our flag violated section five of the 1986 Public Order Act and that it allegedly 'insulted' Americans who were 'likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress' by it. They gave us an official warning and told us that if we returned to the Buckingham Palace area waving the flag again, they would arrest us.

20 November

10am

On Whitehall, opposite Downing Street, awaiting the arrival of Bush for his morning meeting with Blair, several other demonstrators and I were forcibly moved on by police on the grounds that we constituted a 'security risk'.

I offered the police the opportunity to frisk me, to check my bag and, if they discovered nothing troubling, to let me stay. I explained that I believed they were violating my rights to freedom of expression, guaranteed under the European Convention of Human Rights, if they could offer no good reason for disrupting my peaceful protest.

They bundled me down the street. So much for human rights, including the right to dissent.

10.45am

Further up Whitehall. Demonstrators, including a large number of Amnesty International supporters wearing orange Guantanamo Bay outfits, were penned in by police fences some distance from Downing Street.

We unfurled our banners and hung them over the side of the railings so that passing cars and buses on Whitehall could see them. Within a few minutes, however, the police told us we could not do so on the grounds that the banners constituted a 'security risk' Apparently, terrorists or bombs could hide behind them.

The police then forcibly removed one of our banners. I repeatedly asked the officer in charge, inspector Choudary of the Metropolitan Police, to explain what law was being invoked to justify this violation of our right to freedom of expression. He simply said that public safety considerations made our banner into a 'security' risk/threat. I pointed out to him that a legal observer working for civil rights group Liberty had advised us that his claims were without foundation in law, and that our freedom of speech was being arbitrarily curtailed. He came up with nothing further.

If basic human rights are such easy casualties in the 'war against terror', then isn't that war self-defeating, destroying the very democratic freedoms it allegedly seeks to promote?

www.dumpblair.org.uk

Larch Maxey, Department of Geography, University of Wales, Swansea

Across Wales people took to the streets during Bush's visit to express their continued opposition to the illegal war on Iraq. Communities across the country sent busloads of people to the big London demo. There had been a 'Wales against war' action only two weeks before. The level of support far exceeded all expectations.

Gareth Gordon, who attended a march, rally and speeches in Cardiff with over 200 others, commented: 'I was pleasantly surprised at the numbers, especially on a rainy midweek lunchtime. People haven't forgotten the reason for the war and know Bush is responsible. He's where the lies start. People were applauding us as we walked down Queen Street.'

Later in Cardiff over 100 people attended a mock trial of Bush and Blair in an imaginative and effective piece of theatre.

In Aberystwyth the local CND group and others held a 'blood on his hands' event in which interested passersby were invited to sign their names in fake blood on a large white canvas. There were dozens of activists assembled with coffins and gags. One participant explained: 'We have been denied our voice and we are not being listened to.'

In Cardigan, besides the banners and petitions in evidence elsewhere, more than 30 people helped run the 'peace machine', a dynamic display showing slogans, statistics and ideas.

Highly successful events were also held in Lampeter and Abergevenny. But the most imaginative and shocking protest took place in Swansea, where over 300 people helped topple a statue of Bush. Only it wasn't a mannequin, but a real person.

Anna T, Global Women's Strike

It was hectic and exhilarating to be on such a huge and high-spirited demo. But it was a lot of work. We handed out Strike Journals and a press release about a parliamentary resolution defending our picket and peace campaigner Brian Haw's two-year, 24-hour protest outside the Houses of Parliament. (They can budget £10m to protect an unwanted dead or alive non-president, but Brian can't get police protection from physical assault.)

We join Brian for a community anti-war picket and open mic every Wednesday and Thursday evening. We're all old hands at the mic now, and grassroots people also get a rare chance to speak, including those who pay the highest price of war: women and men from Iraq, Africa, Asia and Latin America, Palestine, asylum seekers, soldiers and conscientious objectors.

We marched in a women's contingent with the Eritrean Women's Group and the Iraqi Women's League. The atmosphere was lively, noisy and the placards imaginative. It was great to know that at the front were veterans, including Vietnam vet Ron Kovic.

We'll continue protesting outside Parliament and reporting on anti-war activities of our international network.

Melanie Alfonso, NGO Workers Against War

The NGO Workers Against War network grew out of anger and frustration at the government's involvement in the war on Iraq and the weak response of many NGOs in opposing this war. A group of us wanted a space to use our collective knowledge, skills and experience to actively oppose the war with a focus on direct action.

At November's European Social Forum in Paris NGO Workers Against War aimed to highlight the importance of active resistance in the anti-war movement. We co-organised a seminar along with the British organisation Day-Mer Turkish and Kurdish Community Solidarity Centre and the European group Revolution. Palestinian activist Saif Abu Keshek spoke passionately about his own experiences and emphasised that civil disobedience for the Palestinian people is not a matter of choice (they have no choices), but it is all that they have left to resist with. Iraqi novelist Haifa Zangana spoke of the struggles of women in Iraq in their everyday lives during war and occupation, of how simple day-to-day tasks are in themselves acts of resistance.

We also held a workshop to discuss possible joint initiatives with direct action groups and activists across Europe. The 4 July 'independence from America' day (see www.caab.org.uk) as a Europe-wide day of action at US military bases was discussed, and regular actions targeting companies profiteering from the war in Iraq and the occupation of Palestine were planned.

Personally, I felt compelled to engage in anti-Bush actions out of sheer outrage. It's bad enough that we put up with an archaic parasitic institution like the monarchy anyway; inviting mass murdering war criminals for banquets at our expense only makes it worse.

Now that Bush has gone back to his lair, how do we move forward in the anti-war movement? We have tried all so-called 'legitimate' avenues, and our government has made it clear that it does not represent the majority of people in this country. We took to the streets in amazing numbers to say 'no', but that was not enough. To have any chance of ending the occupations and preventing the next war, we should capture the spirit and momentum of the anti-Bush protests. Mass civil disobedience and direct action is what we have left. Isn't it about time we chose to use them?

ngowaw@hotmail.com; www.ngoworkersagainstwar.org

Resist Bush participant, Jesse Schust

Resist Bush was formed in October as an umbrella group of activists to help individuals and groups ensure that Bush's visit was memorable for its protests. Resist Bush specifically provided accommodation, non-violence training, listings of actions, and generated a non-violent civil disobedience action outside Buckingham Palace on 19 November.

The action at the Palace employed the novel format of a tea party (or 'tea-in'). We had a jolly time sitting in the roadway and serving up proper tea and cakes to cheerful activists. Unfortunately, the police had no intention on permitting the tea party, and they clearly outnumbered us.

On the day of the tea party action, we made the cover of The Times. The paper's reporter Laura Peek went undercover to find out what we had to hide. She attended a public training session on the techniques of non-violent protest that reflected the values of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. This must have proved a dull experience, so she crafted the article 'how I infiltrated hard core of the protest movement' which made us sound like a secretive group of dangerous, riot-prone yobs. Not once did she mention non-violence training. That's like trying to write about a football match without mentioning the game.

Anyway, the tea party began with people meeting up at Victoria Station only to find that the police intended to create a cordon around the 300 protesters and prevent all people from moving freely in any direction. It took an hour and a half for the group to reach the Palace, and it soon became clear that roadway-tea-drinking-activist-bliss was not even a remote possibility.

The tea party strengthened all the afternoon/evening protests that were taking place outside the Palace. And the numbers swelled to probably 2,000 at points. This clearly hampered many photo opportunities for Bush on the evening of a major state dinner given by the Queen. Crucially, it maintained an unrelenting pressure on the president during his visit, and ensured that visible protest reached the UK and US public.

Jesse Schust is writing in a purely personal capacity

Mundher Adhami, Iraqi-born research worker at Kings College, University of London

For many years now I have found myself becoming deeply despondent politically. There is much to be despondent about, with the famines and massacres that ravage Africa, the genocidal sanctions against Iraq, the Israeli settlements, 11 September, the ensuing wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, the incredible lies about the imminent terrorist threat.

I'd wondered if most people in this country really cared about any of this. I suspected they just cynically averted their eyes waiting for the crumbs of the pillage to fall their way. They didn't accept the domination of other nations and themselves, but they complied because they had no inner core.

Inexplicably, the main way to cure this depression is a peace march. Analyses on the crisis of capitalism, reports on struggle and gains elsewhere and opinion surveys are inadequate. Perhaps it is the seeming lack of organisation and the rag-taggedness of it all that sets marching apart.

20 November was an unforgettable day. There was a white rapper on a tricycle with hilarious placards at the corner of Malet St, an old communist Iraqi Kurdish family hugging friends as they passed by, the 'Jews Against War' people - one of whom I recognised from some work we did together in 1968 on the 'one democratic state in Palestine', a young Iraqi group, attacking Islamists through megaphones for muddled reasons, but not Christian and Jewish fundamentalism, Muslim scarves, ancient people of the CND, children in trolleys, boys in Eminem hoods and girls with pierced belly buttons, and the friends you had from long, long ago.

No confrontation with anyone. No deliberate attempt to own the streets or proselytise. It works for me, and I don't exactly know why.

Anti-Bush demonstrations in Glasgow and Edinburgh

Roz Paterson, Scottish Socialist Voice

Thousands of Scots made the journey down to London to ensure the self-styled president of the US got a real heated welcome. But for those who couldn't make the mid-week journey, there were significant outlets for their disaffection in Glasgow and Edinburgh.

In Glasgow, on one of the coldest nights of the year, over 2000 converged on George Square after work and school, before moving through the city centre streets bearing placards and banners. The demographic spread was wide. School students arrived in waves, as did workers from city offices and shops, old aged pensioners and parents with children.

Even a young British soldier who'd recently seen 'action' in Iraq showed up. David Mills was less than enthused by Blair's commitment to Bush's great American adventure in the Gulf. 'There is no need for war,' he said, angrily. 'I lost my best friend because of that man.'

While the events in Trafalgar Square were rolled out on CNN news in the US, the events in George Square made it onto the BBC Scotland news - which, in the grand scheme of things, is almost as noteworthy a breakthrough.

Over in Edinburgh, more than 8,000 people headed by an inanely grinning puppet of Britain's most expensive guest, wound its way from the Mound to the US Consulate.

Predictably, the consulate proved to be barriered up to the nines, with a huge police presence. There had been ominous rumblings from the police that a May Day-type scenario might ensue and doubtless the officers who should have been home for their tea were haunted by visions of mohican anarchists running riot in Princes Street Gardens.

No such mayhem transpired, and instead the crowd listened to speeches, mostly short, to the point and heartfelt, from Kurds, Afghans, Chileans and yep, Americans. All expressed their abhorrence of the US's state-sponsored violence and the oppression of peoples, but stressed their solidarity with peaceniks and socialists in the US.

The protests disrupted the rush-hour traffic but, other than a few frustrated drivers, no one was seriously put out.

The overriding message to America was clear; we don't hate you, just that asshole currently squatting in the White House.


 

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