But this wasn’t your usual act of terrorism. A local peace and justice group was holding a mock arms exhibition just as Europe’s largest arms fair, the DSEi, was taking place at the same time in London. The suspect package was a dummy “cluster bomb” – a tin of baked beans wrapped in cardboard.
Welcome to the new face of the anti-war movement. Far from disappearing, it has taken root in the most unlikely places. And with the latest national demo drawing tens of thousands compared with the million who marched on 15 February, the local groups have become the movement’s heart and soul.
The continuing bloody occupation of Iraq, the disintegrating road map in Israel and Palestine, the threat of future wars, the lack of WMD and the public’s distrust of the government following the Hutton Inquiry all provide impetus to the local anti-war groups. Dorset Stop the War Coalition (STWC) organiser Lucy Carolan says that while some groups affiliated to the coalition packed up at the beginning of the summer “new ones are starting up as we speak”.
“Now,” says Carolan, “it’s about ending the occupation and addressing issues at home.” During the Labour Party conference Dorset anti-war activists gathered outside the Bournemouth convention centre to heckle unsympathetic delegates. Just before Blair’s big speech, they toppled a Saddam-style statue of the prime minister and performed a funeral march in the street.
Individuals who have met through Dorset STWC have gone on to campaign together against the BNP. Some stood as anti-war candidates against the fascist party in May’s local elections.
What’s happening in Dorset is a telling example of the continuing creativity of the anti-war movement on the ground. The challenges then become: how does the national movement harness this energy, what should its strategy be to prevent future wars and how can it campaign against the ongoing occupation?
From its outset, the STWC has played a major role in galvanising a diverse group of people – many who otherwise would not have been engaged with activism at all – and has brought them together as a united opposition. Along with CND and the Muslim Association of Britain, the STWC organised the largest demonstrations in British history and has made it almost impossible for the UK to remain committed to Bush’s war on terror.
Just Peace, a group that promotes Muslim participation in the social justice movement, was formed immediately following 11 September and became part of the STWC steering committee. Just Peace chair Shahed Saleem says the group benefited from the coalition’s experience and its quick formation: “The achievement of the STWC is that it enabled a stratum of people not previously politicised to channel their new radicalisms. For such groups, like ours, a stable STWC leadership with a clear focus, with resources and with experience in political organisation was essential. If a lack of democracy in the first 18 months was the price of this stability, then I think it was necessary.”
But Saleem says we”re in a different phase now. “It may now be the time to start unpacking the STWC, perhaps because its very success threatens it with institutionalisation and ineffectiveness. If for the anti-war movement to remain meaningful means that it has to be opened up and handed over to a more diverse array of groups, then that should be allowed to happen.”
Saleem has hit on a major dilemma: although the anti-war movement has moved on, the STWC’s national structures and strategies haven”t always kept up. The coalition was successful at mobilising, but what happens now?
There is a debate underway which is of wide significance and needs public airing without weakening the underlying unity of the movement. At the heart of it are questions fundamental to how the left opposition to New Labour pulls itself together as a coherent force. What is the most effective and most democratic relationship between local and national organisation? And how can we build a genuinely pluralist alliance in which everyone restrains their desires to be in control?
The activities of the STWC tend to be largely events-based. Right now, for example, it’s preparing for George W Bush’s stay in Buckingham Palace later this month. Maybe this is the specific job of a national organisation. But then what about the kind of work that needs to be done regularly and is beyond the capacities of any single local group? One resolution at an STWC people’s assembly expressed the need to “disseminate information about the realities of life under the occupation” and to “support and participate in Occupation Watch” (an international organisation based in Baghdad that monitors casualties and the activities of the occupation forces).
These kinds of things are important. At present they tend to fall by the wayside. This is partly because the national coalition is overwhelmed by the work involved in organising national demonstrations (-no one should underestimate the amount of work required,” says STWC officer Jane Shallice), and partly, some would argue, because they do not conform to the approach of the dominant political grouping in the coalition – the Socialist Workers Party.
With direct action, too, it is the local groups that have taken the lead. Critics have charged the STWC with a lack of imagination and variation in its tactics. STWC officer Asad Rehman realises with hindsight that the national coalition should have organised military base demonstrations to try and stop US B52s from flying, or at least given strong support to the local groups who did organise such action.
At present the STWC’s national officers keep in touch with local organisations through the exceptionally high number of meetings they attend (they speak to four or five groups a week) and the hundreds of emails and letters they receive. They largely gauge what action to take through these activities. One of those officers is Andrew Murray, who points out that it’s impossible to act on every single idea that the coalition receives, and that most events are not centrally organised by the coalition. “The coalition will evolve. It’s not a hierarchical thing; we don”t control what local groups do and don”t do.”
Many people feel that there would be even less hierarchy if more was known about what was decided at meetings and who attended them, and if there was more support given to local groups attempting to organise with each other. Some STWC affiliates and other individuals, for example, are currently setting up Grassroots Opposition to War (Grow). The impetus for Grow came from the perceived need for bottom-up structures through which local activists could meet up and share ideas that they could then take back to their respective communities. Grow organiser Jesse Schust says: “It’s a way for local activists to speak with each other so it’s not the same people talking.”
Schust argues that Grow complements the STWC. At an inaugural conference to discuss Grow’s future there were workshops on subjects like “anti-war campaigning in the dead times” and “anti-war electoral action”. Collectively decided actions will be posted on the network’s website. The conference would have been better attended if the central STWC had publicised it as a supplement to the national demo that happened the same weekend and circulated the details to its extensive email list. Grow’s organisers insist that no matter how difficult it is to practise democracy, it’s critical to have a group that supports what its members are doing, gets them together on a regular basis face-to-face, enables them to build relationships and share ideas, and provides a means for them to feel that they are part of the movement. Only then can the movement go forward.
Bush’s visit will be an important test for the anti-war movement. Much has been achieved, but the movement needs to build in the democracy it so yearns for and demands from other institutions. Otherwise, it will lose an extraordinary opportunity to shape the political landscape and 15 February will become a distant reminder of what could have been.
Grassroots posters giving an alternative take on the general election
Hundreds of people surrounded the fences this weekend. Hera Lorandos spoke to women who have suffered inside.
Laying out the case for Labour's leadership of a Progressive Alliance, Jeremy Gilbert argues that far from posing a threat to the Left, the Progressive Alliance offers a golden opportunity to end Tory rule and build a 21st century government committed to social justice
The Greens have stood down in Brighton Kemptown to clear the way for Labour, and the Lib Dems won’t stand in Brighton’s other seat, Green-held Pavilion. Davy Jones, who would have been the Green candidate in Kemptown, says this shows the way forward
The snap general election represents a unique opportunity to defeat this terrible government. We believe that visual artists have a crucial role to play!
Drax is the UK's biggest source of CO2 emissions – and we're paying for it, writes Almuth Ernsting
For the past 3 years, Barby Asante and members of London-based artists' collective, sorryyoufeeluncomfortable, have been responding directly to the vision of James Baldwin. Ahead of the nationwide release of a new film about the American activist and author, they reflect on the enduring relevance of Baldwin in Britain today.
Housing campaigners' gains in Bristol are spurring on a national movement to build a renters' union, writes Stuart Melvin
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
Greece’s heavy load
While the UK left is divided over how to respond to Brexit, the people of Greece continue to groan under the burden of EU-backed austerity. Jane Shallice reports
On the narcissism of small differences
In an interview with the TNI's Nick Buxton, social scientist and activist Susan George reflects on the French Presidential Elections.
Why Corbyn’s ‘unpopularity’ is exaggerated: Polls show he’s more popular than most other parties’ leaders – and on the up
Headlines about Jeremy Corbyn’s poor approval ratings in polls don’t tell the whole story, writes Alex Nunns
The media wants to demoralise Corbyn’s supporters – don’t let them succeed
Michael Calderbank looks at the results of yesterday's local elections
In light of Dunkirk: What have we learned from the (lack of) response in Calais?
Amy Corcoran and Sam Walton ask who helps refugees when it matters – and who stands on the sidelines
Osborne’s first day at work – activists to pulp Evening Standards for renewable energy
This isn’t just a stunt. A new worker’s cooperative is set to employ people on a real living wage in a recycling scheme that is heavily trolling George Osborne. Jenny Nelson writes
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 24 May
On May 24th, we’ll be holding the third of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Our activism will be intersectional, or it will be bullshit…
Reflecting on a year in the environmental and anti-racist movements, Plane Stupid activist, Ali Tamlit, calls for a renewed focus on the dangers of power and privilege and the means to overcome them.
West Yorkshire calls for devolution of politics
When communities feel that power is exercised by a remote elite, anger and alienation will grow. But genuine regional democracy offers a positive alternative, argue the Same Skies Collective
How to resist the exploitation of digital gig workers
For the first time in history, we have a mass migration of labour without an actual migration of workers. Mark Graham and Alex Wood explore the consequences
The Digital Liberties cross-party campaign
Access to the internet should be considered as vital as access to power and water writes Sophia Drakopoulou
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part III: a discussion of power and privilege
In the final article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr gives a few pointers on how to be a good ally
Event: Take Back Control Croydon
Ken Loach, Dawn Foster & Soweto Kinch to speak in Croydon at the first event of a UK-wide series organised by The World Transformed and local activists
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 19 April
On April 19th, we’ll be holding the second of Red Pepper’s Race Section Open Editorial Meetings.
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill