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Day 17

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If I Had a Bell ...

Silencing the Peace Protester of Parliament Square

by MICHAEL DICKINSON

"If I had a bell, I’d ring it in the morning,
I’d ring it in the evening,
All over this land.
I’d ring out danger;
I’d ring out warning…"

So go the words of the old protest song made popular by the likes of Peter, Paul and Mary and Trini Lopez back in the Sixties.

Brian Haw had a bell and he was ringing it out in Parliament Square last week when a trio of police officers took it away from him forcibly, "following orders from the Chief Inspector." When 57 year old Haw complained that they had no right to take his property they said it would be returned to him in six minutes. They took it away in their car as Tony Blair rolled past in his through the gates of Parliament for Prime Minister’s Question Time.

The police explained later when they returned the bell that it had been taken to "prevent it from being used as a potential missile". They apologized for the lack of the clapper and said they didn’t know where it had gone. The bell was silent.

Not so the bells of Westminster Abbey which peal out to celebrate Royal Weddings and the visits of foreign dignities. Neither those of Big Ben which announce every hour from the tower that looms over the House of Commons, Brian Haw’s almost personal alarm clock that has ticked and boomed for him on his one-man peace vigil on traffic island of Parliament Square for the last five years.

The round the clock vigil began in June 2001 to protest against the UN sanctions on Iraq which were causing such suffering to the children; then included the attack on Afganistan, followed by the invasion of Iraq and the bloody war staged by Bush and Blair.

For five years, through foul weather and fair, praise, (on a trip to London last year Cindy Sheehan dropped by to give support), and abuse (his nose broken three times in attacks by indignant opponents), constantly circled by traffic belching out its fumes, Brian Haw has camped there in Parliament Square with a graphic display of posters and banners depicting the terror and suffering caused by British policies, pictures of children maimed and killed and those born deformed as a result of the depleted uranium scattered by allied bombs, calling out through his megaphone to Members of Parliament as they enter and leave to repent and stop the war.

Most politicians find this constant reminder of their complicity in the catastrophe of Iraq embarrassing and irritating, (especially Tony) and over the years they have tried different ways to silence Mr. Haw and the sympathizers who come to join their voices in protest with his.

The Labour government imagined they’d come up with a foolproof method to get rid of him last April when they introduced a law banning any expression of opposition within a kilometer of Parliament.

Aimed particularly at Brian, even nicknamed Haw’s Law’, the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act of 2005′ permits police "to impose conditions on the holding of a demonstration so as to prevent hindrance to any person wishing to enter or leave the Palace of Westminster, hindrance of the proper operation of parliament, serious public disorder, serious damage to property, disruption to the life of the community, a security risk in any part of the designated area, and risk to safety of members of the public".

At first Haw won a high court action to continue his protest, arguing that the law only applied to demonstrations that began after it came into force, but earlier this month the government won an appeal against a high court ruling, and Haw was forced to seek authorization from the police to continue his vigil. Under the new law, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police can dictate the location, timing, period, size, volume and spread of demonstrations. They gave permission for Haw to continue his protest, but on the provision that he limit the sprawling display of his placards facing the Parliament building to 3 metres in width.

Observance of this provision was not carried out speedily enough for the said police, and so in the very early hours of the morning last week, 78 officers arrived on the scene and pulled apart the display of government shame, dumping it, broken, crumpled and ripped in a big dumper container they’d brought for the purpose, along with most of Brian’s belongings, leaving him with just one placard.

On Tuesday May 30, Mr Haw must go to Bow Street magistrates’ court to answer charges that the refusal to remove his signs breached his licence to demonstrate.

To people who used to accuse him of being authoritarian, Tony Blair would say "Go and look at the placards of those camped outside Parliament, "meaning he considered himself a liberal leader, unafraid to face criticism and a supporter of free speech and expression. What do you say to people now, Tony?

Brian Haw mended the silent bell that the police returned to him and had been using it to ring out his warning of danger to the world again before the overkill police swooped and destroyed his peace camp. Perhaps it was even one of the possessions they tossed so casually into their container.

New Labour may win their case against Brian Haw and put a stop to his one-man Parliament Square demonstration, but by their action they only draw more attention to the draconian world of creeping fascism they are creating, and increase the shared sympathy, outrage and solidarity people around the world feel for big-hearted Haw, a hero of our time.

And let’s not forget the final chorus of that catchy old sing-along protest song:

"It’s the hammer of Justice,
It’s the bell of Freedom,
It’s a song about love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this world!"

We will prevail.

STOP PRESS!!! Today Tuesday 30th April Brian Haws entered a not guilty plea at Bow Street Magistrate’s Court in London. As his display of posters is now within the limits imposed by the police, he was granted unconditional bail until his next appearance at Bow Street on July 11. After the ten minute hearing his solicitor said he would fight the case claiming it was a breach of his human rights and an abuse of process.

"We are good people," Haws told reporters outside the court "When you see what is being done to others in other countries because people want to get filthy rich, it is time for people to stand up and join us in Parliament Square."

MICHAEL DICKINSON is an English teacher working in Istanbul. He can be contacted at<http://www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk/yourgallery/artist/details.php?id=499