`Stop Bush` placards.
Sunday 17th October saw a large demonstration against the continued occupation of Iraq. The assembly point was Russell Square in Bloomsbury and people started gathering from around 11.00am. The crowd included around 30,000 people who had attended the European Social Forum, which finished on Sunday at noon.
Placards and banners read `No War - Green Party`, `No blood for oil`, `CND - no war, no nukes`, `Vote Respect`, `Blair must go`, `No more wars` (written in Czech), `Blame Blair not refugees`, `Freedom for Palestine` and `Stop Bush`. Nearly all European nations were represented with many Italians, Czechs, French, Irish, Polish, Catalans and Germans. Very prominent were the many Belgians with their distinctive green jackets and their habit of having short sit-downs followed by sudden bursts of speed to catch up the rest.
Blowing whistles and chanting “Hey Bush, Hey Blair, we will fight you everywhere!” and “Tony, Tony, Tony, out, out, out!” the march started at just after 2.00pm and went along Bedford Place and Southampton Row. Banners from around Britain read `Leeds Trade Union Council`, `UNISON Camden` (North London), `National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers`, `Leicester Highfields against the War` and `Bradford against the War`. There were numerous orange `Globalise Resistance` flags and chants of `Intifada, Intifada, Intifada! ` and `Resist, Resist, Bush and Blair are terrorists! `. Mobile sound systems played dance music as some campaigners dressed in carnival-style costumes and pushed floats.
Moving past Holborn tube station a banner in French could be seen reading `Retrait des troupes D’Irak`. Progressing along Kingsway into Aldwych past the London School of Economics the police presence became more pronounced. Turning into the Strand the march passed the statue of Gladstone at about 2.25pm. Passing Somerset House some demonstrators attempted to give the police leaflets with one young constable actually obliging! The procession went over the River Thames at Waterloo Bridge with the London Eye (a giant Ferris Wheel) to the right and the distant outline of Canary Wharf to the left. Going by Waterloo Station to Westminster Bridge the loud noise of a police helicopter became more noticeable. The many Belgians did their usual little sit down and run; they had the letters ACV on their green jackets, which are the initials of their trade union in Flemish. Moving along Bridge Street the postcodes changed from SE1 to SW1 meaning we had crossed the river. Passing down Parliament Street the sealed off Parliament Square was visible. Brian Haw who has been on a one-man protest for over three years against the sanctions and war on Iraq was observable with his huge display. The procession moved along Whitehall past the sealed entrance to Downing Street and the Cabinet War Rooms and past statues of Field Marshalls Earl Haig and Alan Brooke. Chants at this stage included `Victory to the Intifada` and ` Labour Party, terrorists! `. Reaching Trafalgar Square at about 3.20pm the vast open space was soon filled to overflowing to listen to a number of invited speakers. Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn who said “all should work together for justice” was followed by speakers from the MAB (Muslim Association of Britain) and from the Welsh assembly. Andrew Murray the chair of the Stop the War coalition said that it was a pleasure to have so many people present from Europe for the European Social Forum. As at the anti-Bush demo in November last year there was a giant screen in the square which showed pictures of the speakers alternating with scenes of the carnage of the war and images of Blair and the infamous `dodgy dossier` of September 2002. With the noisy clatter of the police helicopter overhead a number of speakers argued against racism, the colossal waste of money spent on the war and the whole idea of `Fortress Europe`.
It was announced to loud approval that the numbers marching were at least 75,000. Long time peace campaigner and former chair of CND Bruce Kent spoke next thanking all those from around Europe who had come and referring to the accommodation of many people at the Millennium Dome he said: “Next time perhaps we won’t have the dome we’ll give you Buckingham Palace! Why not? Everybody seems to be able to come over the wall, why not us?” He went on to say that as someone who had served in the Army and paid his taxes he was ashamed of what had been done to the people of Diego Garcia and the people of Iraq. He also said that he wanted to see Tony Blair seated behind Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague. Security, he said, comes from justice and not from weapons. Refugees should not be treated like criminals. He finished by asking the crowd to join him in a chant of: “Another world is possible!”
Chair Kate Hudson of CND then announced the next orator, environmental activist Jenny Jones. She said that Britain had signed up to the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and should abide by it. She pointed out that poverty was not just a third world issue as many in Britain lived in poverty. The din of the helicopter was rather intimidating at this juncture making it difficult to hear what was being said.
Loud cheers greeted a trio of Scottish speakers, Rose and Maxine Gentle and leader of the Scottish Socialist Party, Tommy Sheridan. Rose Gentle, whose soldier son Gordon was killed in Iraq, said: "It's time for Tony Blair to pull the troops out, innocent people are getting killed."
She added: "I believe that the government is to blame for my son's death for sending him to Iraq without enough training - he had only done six months." She added that Tony Blair was a liar and finished by shouting: “Bring the troops home!”
Maxine Gentle, 14 year-old sister of Gordon, said that her big brother Gordon had meant the World to her and that she missed him terribly.
The crowd also heard from Reginald Keys, the father of Richard Keys, who died in Basra in June 2003. He was applauded for calling Mr Blair and US President George Bush "war criminals". He went on: "I thank (the crowds) for their support to try and get troops brought home and end this illegal war."
Tommy Sheridan, the charismatic leader of the SSP (Scottish Socialist Party), was the following speaker. He told the crowd that he brought the solidarity of the Scottish Coalition for Justice not War. Competing with the deafening racket from above he informed us of the breaking news that a Hollywood film about the Iraq war was being made. Tony Blair, George Bush and Donald Rumsfeld are to be the main characters and because of the Lion King they have decided to ask Elton John to write the music. They were going to call it the Lion King 2 but now they are going to call it more appropriately `The Lying Bastards`!
“Brothers and Sisters, how can the evidence of the 24th of September 2002 be described as `extensive and detailed and authoritative` but only last week it was described as `patchy and sporadic`?”
He went on to say the war was all about oil. The blood of young Gordon Gentle was not spilled for WMD or for democracy but for oil. He asked why didn’t Tony Blair send his sons to war. He argued that a New World should be based on peace and solidarity and not for war. The only war worth fighting was against poverty and inequality.
There were speakers from trade unions and Muslim organisations who argued against the Apartheid wall being built by Israel and that the Iraqis had a right to resist the occupation of their country.
George Galloway MP, the founder of the Respect coalition, began his speech with `peace be with you` in both English and Arabic. He spoke of the legend on the wall at the BBC `Nation shall speak unto nation` which is what the campaigners at the ESF have been doing and the conclusion is no to war and no to occupation. He asked the crowd to remember just one word over the coming weeks and that word is Fallujah. He predicted that the city of 350,000 would be the new Stalingrad as Bush is gearing up for a massive attack.
The skies threatened rain and spots did fall but it stayed dry till the rally finished.
Paul Bigley, brother of Liverpool engineer Ken who was beheaded in Iraq, did not attend the demonstration but said in support: "The more people raise their voices, the safer we will all be."
Another speaker from the Muslim Association of Britain spoke of the lies used to justify the illegal war.
Veteran politician and peace activist Tony Benn who was introduced to huge cheers said: "The Iraqi war is an act of criminal aggression which America launched and Britain supported - it's illegal and immoral and it will not succeed." He said that the people present represented the overwhelming majority of the world’s population. He described the war as an aggressive and imperialistic war and demanded an end to the occupation. He described how Bush’s statement that God wanted him to be President was enough to turn anyone into an Atheist! He warned of the dangers of other countries being attacked, namely Cuba, Syria, Iran and North Korea. When Tony Benn finished it was announced that a few anarchists had tried to enter the stage area but were rebuffed, also there were a few arrests at King’s Cross. The march and rally however was largely peaceful.
Next was Elena Guevara who spoke through an interpreter, she spoke of the 40 year plus blockade against Cuba and on behalf of the Cuban people she said No to war! The United States had no right to invade and occupy another country. She mentioned her meeting with Rose Gentle and her sorrow at the loss of Rose’s son Gordon.
The final speaker was Chris Nineham who stated that everything the anti-war movement had said was true. There were no WMD, there are no WMD and there were no links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda. Bush and Blair lied and lied and lied and if there was any justice they would be in the dock for war crimes. Yet another lie was the idea that Tony Blair was somehow a moderating influence on George Bush. Yet Blair is sending British Troops to the front line in Baghdad. He said that Globalisation and war are two sides of the same coin, ruthlessly putting profit before people. He reminded the assembly how the demos of 15th February 2003 had frightened the establishment. There will be a series of anti-occupation demonstrations across Europe on the weekend of March 19th and March 20th next year.
Kate Hudson of CND wound up the rally calling it a great success and finished at a quarter to five with the four words: “Another world is possible.”
The crowd slowly melted away with some attempting a mini march down Whitehall, which was blocked off by police. Banners were seen from Hungary and from `War resisters international`.
The rain which had threatened all afternoon finally came down heavily around five o’clock.
Although he did not take part in the march one protester who hugely deserves a mention is Brian Haw. Brian, a father in his 50’s from Gloucester, has been on a one-man protest against the sanctions and war on Iraq since June 2001. Sunday 17th October was day 1,230 of sleeping in Parliament Square 24 hours a day. He has been threatened with removal on numerous occasions and is due to appear in court again next month. He is still there and jokingly says that his office hours are `0700 to 0700`!