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Determination at 1000 Volts

Reflections on the Protest in London

by JAN NEDERVEEN PIETERSE

The turnout in London on Feb 15 was overwhelming. Central London main streets were so crowded with marchers that one could only shuffle. Ken Livingstone from the stage: `As Mayor of London I am proud to welcome you on the largest demonstration in 2000 years of British history’. The police counted 750,000 and Ken Livingstone remarked, experience teaches one must at least double that. As the crowd at the rally in Hyde Park stretched as far as the eye could see people were still shuffling step by step at Embankment and Shaftesbury Avenue. The count announced from the stage climbed to two million. (Estimates are very difficult; my own is that one and a half million is pretty safe.)

From the stage several institutional threats were expressed. Railway workers in north England have laid down work to refuse transporting war materiel. Bill Morris the Unison trade union leader (`We all know what happened with the Vietnam War in the US. Blair needs to be careful’) and another union leader announced industrial action such that if the government persists, the war effort will be sabotaged. (Neutralizing this by calling on emergency war powers would require a parliamentary majority that now does not exist.)

George Galloway, Labour MP from Glasgow, announced that if Blair continues on this path he will break the party that he is supposed to lead, Labour MPs will resign, and `we will rebuild the party!’ (The heading of a Sunday Independent column run: `Mr Blair may end up as a PM without a party’.)

The third threat came from the organizers, the Stop the War Coalition (of 450 organizations from Greenpeace to Scottish Nationalists) and the British Muslim Council: if the British government persists in going to war we will gather evidence and indict the government at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

These threats were expressed not just as options or considerations but with 1000 volt determination and each met with roaring applause and cheers. The general atmosphere from the march to the rally was highly charged, electric and at the same time playful. A group of boys with signs on Piccadilly: `Drop knickers, not bombs.’ A cardboard sign placed in a bush in Hyde Park: `This bush is more intelligent than the one in America’. The atmosphere was charged with collective determination and resolve. The composition of the marchers was quite different from similar occasions. Turning to look back at the crowd from close to the stage one saw a vast sea of, almost a majority, Muslims (many youngsters, many female) and black people. There were people of all ages, classes and backgrounds; businessmen, entire families and groups of youngsters, quite unlike anything I have seen in many, many demonstrations. The street atmosphere was easy. Doorkeepers at fancy hotels (Park Lane) helped marchers by pointing out the way to the toilets. With millions filling the streets there was nil tension with police. (According to Sunday’s Observer: `There were nuns. Toddlers. Women barristers. The Eton George Orwell Society. Archaeologists against War. Walthamstow Catholic Church, the Swaffham Women’s Choir and Notts County Supporters Say Make Love Not War [And a Home Win against Bristol would be Nice].’)

A sample of placards: `Make Tea not War.’ `Stop Mad Cowboy Disease.’ `The only bush I trust is my own.’ `Support whirled peas.’ `Tom and Sally say No.’ `Regime change at home.’ `Clotted cream not ruptured spleen.’ `Don’t attack Chirac.’ `War is cruder than oil’. `War is menstrual envy.’ `Peace not slogans.’

Speakers at the stage (amplified on a huge screen with loudspeakers, donated by the Daily Mirror which has adopted the anti-war cause) included Harold Pinter (`America is a country run by a bunch of criminals with Tony Blair as a hired Christian thug. The planned attack on Iraq is a premeditated act of mass murder’), Bianca Jagger (pointing out the illegality of preventive war in international law and the importance of the UN), a Palestinian speaker (the only Palestinian barrister in the UK), the chairman of the Muslim Council (also calling for solidarity with Palestine), and as the last speaker Jesse Jackson. While in the US he hardly counts any more here he is introduced as America’s greatest human rights leader. His repeat evocations (Mind, not missiles, Mind, not missiles; Time for healing, time for hope, time for healing, time for hope, etc.) are totally lost on me. Ken Livingstone, on the other hand, used his speaking time to share key points: `Let us watch the Security Council like hawks. Some countries are for sale. They can be bought with debt cancellation or grants. We must not win a moral victory here to lose it at the Security Council.’

I missed other speakers who spoke earlier: Tony Benn (`Tony Blair can now either be the leader of the Labour Party or leader of the war party. If there are inspectors in Iraq I want to see inspectors in Israel, inspectors in Britain and inspectors in America’), Tariq Ali, Charles Kennedy, leader of the Liberal Democrats (`This is the riskiest moment for Britain since Suez’), Michael Foot, Mo Mowlam, etc.

Striking in virtually every speech and the audience reaction was Palestine as a keynote. There is a great tide of demand for justice for Palestine, as if close to boiling point, that jumps out at this occasion and is not at all reflected in the media. Speakers point out the absurdity of accusing Iraq of violating UN resolutions while Israel keeps on violating one resolution after another. Speakers point at the US possession of weapons of mass destruction. Vive la France, of course, was another keynote. Unprecedented was to hear `Allah Akbar’ shouted from the stage and echoed by tens of thousands in the middle of London.

From the stage other mass demos were mentioned, some already over-New Zealand, Australia; some ongoing-on the continent; or just starting-in New York. There was telephone contact with Baghdad and New York. Add other demos mentioned in the press and this is the largest expression of collective will in human history, and besides, a self-conscious, reflexive demonstration of collective will.

A brief press count, from Tasmania to Iceland, includes Auckland; Sydney (500,000), Adelaide, Brisbane (100,000 each), Darwin, Melbourne (150,000), Canberra, Hobart, Perth; Tokyo (6000), Hong Kong, Seoul, Taipei, Manila (6000), Dhaka, Bangkok (2000), Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, Jakarta, Dili, Colombo, Madras, Kashmir, Islamabad, Baghdad, Oman (200 all female), Tel Aviv (1500), Algiers, Damascus (200,000), Moscow (1000), Kiev, Sarajevo (500), Mostar, Budapest, Bulgaria, Istanbul, Ankara, Athens, Rome (with estimates from 650,000 to 3 million), Berlin (500,000), Paris (200,000) and 60 other French towns including Lyons (15,000), Toulouse (7000), Rennes, Marseille, Strasbourg; Madrid (1.3 million), Barcelona (1 million), Bilbao (100,000) and 55 other Spanish towns; Amsterdam (`Schr?der for President’), Brussels, Copenhagen, Glasgow (90,000), Belfast, Dublin (80,000), Johannesburg, Cape Town, Havana, Vancouver, Mexico City; New York (100,000 to 400,000), Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, Miami, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and 300 US towns and cities. [Sources are Sunday's Independent, Telegraph, Observer, Irish Independent, and Monday's Guardian, International Herald Tribune and New York Times, by correspondents and citing police estimates.] The world total is well over 10 million.

The UK media reporting was powerful. The Sunday papers came with huge photographs almost covering their front pages. The Independent headline read: `Millions march for peace. Biggest political protest in British history on a day when ordinary citizens stood up to be counted across the world’. The conservative Telegraph juxtaposes a demo photo with a headline of Blair’s speech in Glasgow claiming that marchers have `blood on their hands’ (of the Iraqi people).

Blair’s approval rating is down to 9 percent. Compare this with reactions in the US. First of all, traveling back to the US from the UK (I did on Monday) feels like traveling back in time some thirty years. In the US everything is staid, conservative, unbelievably old fashioned. The media are run by the same sixty or seventy year olds who have been doing this for three, four decades. Watching CNN at O’Hare airport, there is Larry King interviewing Bob Simons of CBS, totally out of synch with social reality. This conservatism reflects a status quo society indulging in no-risk repeat performances, endless sequels, and, no doubt, fear of another 1960s. Youth culture is carefully controlled, kept in late-night margins or alternative media. Adolescent and muscular entertainment combines with grown men pushing for war day after day, month after month, ever repeating the same arguments. Corporations, political parties, cultural institutions are run by the same dusty types. This is Zombie country entirely and deliberately devoid of life and vivacity, an `excuse me’ culture, short of humour, long on prisons. Bush’s approval rating remains high because no prime time media or channels exist to adequately monitor or communicate reality. The New York Times report shows a wee picture of the London demo accompanied by the usual droning report.

In this opinion climate the Blair government can only go to war with a second UN resolution. 170 MPs require a new resolution. 119 MPs oppose war even with a new resolution. This count is growing since Saturday’s marches. The Italian government (though with less clarity) now also requires a new resolution. So far (20 February) signs are there will be no second resolution. This may mean that the US can proceed only with the backing of Spain and Bulgaria, a reluctant and skeletal NATO and a few deeply divided satellites in the region. In other words, a very costly operation, morally, politically and economically. Take a wild guess: as the war buildup continues, units in State and Defense Departments are now discreetly charged with formulating exit strategies (retreating forces while claiming some kind of victory).

International Women’s Day March 8, held in more than 70 countries each year, has been dedicated to the anti-war movement this year. This will be the next day of action. Meanwhile civil disobedience takes shape. American materiel in Germany, its transit through Austria blocked, now is to transit via Rotterdam. There the Greenpeace Rainbow Warrior has just begun blocking the first ship (today’s news).

JAN NEDERVEEN PIETERSE is a Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois. He can be reached at: jnp@uiuc.edu