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As I was heading back to my hostel room on Thursday aftenoon after two hours of standing in Westminster Square in front of the Houses of Parliament, a solitary protestor against the complicity of the British Government in the Israeli slaughter going on in Gaza, I was attacked by a trio of uniformed bobbies in Piccadilly Circus and forcibly held while one wrested the placard I was carrying from my hand and broke the stick over his knee, crumpling up the cardboard poster, which read, on one side, along with a picture of the flag, the words ‘FREE PALESTINE – END ISRAELI OCCUPATON’, and on the other ‘JESUS WOULD DAMN ISRAELI ATTACKS ON GAZA’
Flashback to a couple of weeks earier when, after hearing news on the radio of the death toll from the recent arial attacks by Israel on the people of Gaza, and incensed by the lack of criticism from the British government, I scrawled ‘190 KILLED, 1200 WOUNDED – CONDEMN ISRAEL!’ on a large piece of paper, put on my FREE PALESTINE t-shirt, and went down to the Houses of Parliament to display it outside. I stood on the the lawn in the square opposite, visible to the towering building, passing traffic and hundreds of pedestrians (mostly tourists).
I went largely ignored, but I saw people reading it, and as I was rolling up the sign an hour later a passer-by told me my figures needed adjusting. Indeed, when I got back to my hostel I learned from the radio that deaths and casualties had dramatically increased following new Israeli incursions.
Learning of a protest demonstration march on Saturday from Whitehall to the Israeli Embassy in Knightsbridge, I joined the thousands of fellow marchers of all colours and races and congegated in the street outside the embassy, chanting angrily against the heartless violence of Israel. I carried a large poster on which I’d written ‘80% TORY M.P.S ARE C.F.I. – CONSERVATIVE FRIENDS OF ISRAEL’.
After speeches from speakers the rally dispersed, with calls for people to attend another picket there on the following Tuesday. On the way home I picked up one of the thousands of discarded placards. I also found a hard grey plastic worker’s protection helmet. I put it on, with a sticker on the front displaying the Palestinian flag and the words DEFEND PALESTINIAN HUMAN RIGHTS – END THE ISRAELI OCCUPATION.
On Sunday morning I turned on the radio and learned that there was to be a pro-Zionist rally outside the Israeli Embassy, to counteract the pro-Palestine. Shocked, I grabbed my helmet and placard and headed for Knightsbridge. Just as I had feared, not many people had heard news of the Zionist rally, and there were only a hundred or so Palestinian supporters there to show solidarity against the larger group of Israeli fans outside the embassy , many of whom, separated by metal police fences on the other side of the road, jeered insults, pulled faces, and made obscene gestures at us. Flash cars drove past flaunting Israeli flags.
As news of the atrocitious deaths and injuries of innocent Palestinians mounted, so did my anger. My two hour daily standing vigil protesting outside Parliament became an almost duty. I wondered why I was alone, but as a passer-by observed, my solitariness was almost as effective as a group.
In a sudden rainstorm the cardboard on my placard got soaked and fell off, but I retrieved another identical one at the next huge pro-Palestine rally last Saturday, which this time marched from Knightsbridge to London and culminated in Parliament Square before dispersal. A smaller group stayed behind, planning to occupy the square, but it didn’t happen.
Westminster Park officials tried to remove me. First I was approached by one and told that I could not stand protesting on the grass, so I moved to thestone curb of the lawn. Then I was told I couldn’t stand there, as it was still Westminster property. One step down I was on the pavement, where protest is allowed. I felt I had to hold the placard up higher to get attention. Next day I brought a bucket and stood on that in order to be more prominent. Apart from the Palestine Solidarity Campaign placard I held aloft, I held another poster in my other hand saying ‘BRITISH FIRMS SELL ARMS TO ISRAEL – 8 BILLION POUNDS’.
Most of the British media and newspapers, like the Conservatives, seem to be blatantly pro-Israel in their coverage, but they can’t escape the facts of the violent deaths of innocent women and children at their hands. The other day as I was walking down Whitehall I came across a suited balding man standing with microphone in hand in front of a camera and crew outside the Cabinet Office. I held out the placard with the flag and FREE PALESTINE on it. The speaker turned and snarled “Fuck off!” A crew man gestured me aside and said they were filming. When I asked for the name of the man who had told me to fuck off, he denied that he had said it, and no, he wouldn’t give me the man’s name, and told the others not to either.
“Well, you’re going to have to start filming soon, so I’ll just wait around and see,” said I. And wait we did, for almost five minutes.
I had the placard to shade myself, but they were all under the merciless midday glare of the London heatwave, especially the balding reporter, whose head was being scorched while they silently waited for the cameraman to stop his mysterious faffing. I began to wonder whether to carry on or wait.
Then the reporter spoke. It was about the Ebola outbreak in Africa andthe alarms of the British Government. It was recommended that people should wash their hands more often with soap and water. I went on my way to the Square, thinking of Israel as a kind of Ebola virus infecting Palestine. And the chances of recovery?
The worker’s helmet is good protection for my head against the rays of the sun, but my neck was getting burned. I remedied this by wearing a Palestinian black-and-white scarf under the helmet, and I have also now added a black cotton scarf which covers my whole head and face, but through which I can see and breathe easily. So what you see now it this guy in black with a blacked-out face under a Palestinian scarf and helmet, standing on a bucket with a loud and clear placard in his hand, getting attention for the cause.
As for the reporter’s verbal abuse, I’ve been getting that on my protest vigil. Plenty of ‘”fuck offs” and “free israels”, and even being told that I’m a “certifiable idiot”, but much more words of encouragement from other passers-by, which fuel my hope for humanity.
Yesterday I decided to be a bit more vocal. Whenever I saw suited politicians entering or exiting the gates with their little attache cases, I let roar the chant: “C.F.I! C.F.I! HOW MANY CHILDREN HAVE TO DIE?” Plus an occasional “BOYCOTT ISRAEL! SANCTIONS NOW!”
After taking a break for a can of soup and a smoke in the shade of the trees next to the statue of Nelson Mandela, when I returned to my spot there were two guys in yellow luminous jackets taking pictures of passing buses.
“Have you got a permit for that?” one asked, without approaching me. I ignored the question.
“You’re going to get arrested!” hissed the other. I balanced myself on the bucket.
“You’re going to get arrested!” Again. It was a threat. I stayed silent for the next standing stint, not wanting to give them the chance. Funny, isn’t, it? Protesting for peace can get you arrested for disturbing it. They hung around for a while, but by the time I’d called it a day after another hour and a half, they’d gone.
And so it was, that after a rest on a bench in Green Park, I found myself in Piccadilly Circus on my way to my hostel in Covent Garden. With my rucksack on my back, I put the plastic bag with the bucket in it down and leaned the placard against a wall in order to hitch up my trousers more comfortably. Suddenly a policeman was beside me.
“I m sorry sir. You can’t protest here. It’s against the law.”
I told him I wasn’t protesting. I was merely on my way home, and carrying the placard with me.
“You can’t carry it in the street. Give it to me.”
I refused. A couple of other police arrived, one of them a woman. She asked if I had seen the rally for Palestine last Saturday. I told her I had been on it.
“Those people had permission to demonstrate. You do not. You have to apply for a police permit.”
I told her it was ridiculous and I picked up the placard, saying I was leaving. She grabbed my arm and held it hard. I told her not to touch me, to let me go, but she held firm. I called to the bewildered looking tourists sitting on the steps of the Eros foundtain to observe this attack on liberty.
“Free Palestıne!” I shouted
Another policeman grabbed my other arm and twisted it behind my back. He pulled the placard out of my grasp and broke it over his knee, scrunching up the cardboard message. They then told me I could retrieve it from the Westminster police station. Outraged, I took down their names, and said that I could charge them with assault.
“When a police officer tells you to do something, then it is adviseable to do it,” advised the steely blue-eyed policewoman.
“No, I won’t if it’s unreasonable!” I replied. “I’ve had enough! ENOUGH!” And I walked away.
Now without my placard, I plan my next move in Parliament Square. As far as I can see, it is still possible to protest in that area with impunity, and I’ll be going back there this afternoon…
Michael Dickinson can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org