This Could Be the Start of Something Big

It was clear from the start that this was going to be a monumental gathering. At the Cambridge train station we were surprised by the size of the crowd waiting for the 10:45 to King’s Cross (even though we were told that Saturdays are usually busy at that time of day). But there were people who were clearly going to the demo and when the train arrived, the carriages were packed out – evenly divided between assorted day-trippers, tourists and soon-to-be protesters against the impending invasion of Iraq.

On arrival, we decided to head for Waterloo Station as our little group had arranged to meet at the National Film Theatre, across the river from the march’s starting point at the Embankment. Waiting for the others to arrive, we sat on a bench overlooking the river and the gathering crowd on the other side. The weather report had said it would be sunny and I had thought this happy coincidence would give an added boost to the day’s outing. However, it was not to be as the dark clouds began to hover over the Embankment and the swelling crowd, while both to the east and west the skies seemed to remain clear with just a few spots of hazy grey. Later the sky was to brighten, perhaps through the sheer force of all that pent up energy which was released in the course of this gigantic event, but at first it was as if God had given warning again that his favour rests with the lordly classes who were probably basking in the sun upriver drinking vintage champagne after having ravaged the city the week before with their ‘Support the Countryside’ demonstration – which was coded language for ‘We don’t care about your bloody urban problems, just let us kill foxes’.

When the rest of our group finally arrived we walked along the South Bank up to the old Greater London Council building (which now houses a Japanese financed aquarium and a museum devoted to the works of Salvador Dali). We crossed the river there at Westminster Bridge and then merged in with the marchers. I had brought a camera with me and thought it was a good vantage point to take some photos, but, as I discovered, it’s not that easy to compose a shot that captures the feeling of an event like this. It’s nearly impossible to transmit the electrical buzz that comes from being there with several hundred thousand people - some in high spirits, chanting and singing, others marching with a look of grim determination.

Joining the crowd, we became part of what seemed to be an endless stream tailing back forever along the wide boulevards that intermingle with the granite buildings of pomp and power - Parliament, Whitehall and all the various nooks and crannies of forgotten empire. Above, the statues of iron men on horseback wearing sneers of cold command looked down in wonder at the sea of signs and placards shouting ‘Not In My Name!’ and ‘Don’t Bomb Iraq!’

At Trafalgar Square the two branches of the march merged together and it was there for the first time that we had a true sense of the extraordinary number of people involved. But even before the two streams met up, the squash of bodies had forced the demo to creep along at a snail’s pace. Because the march was going so slowly it was a difficult slog and at points one really felt crushed. We passed a cameraman from French television (Channel 2 from the markings on his kit) who had planted himself like a human tree in the midst of the surging procession, filming the forward advance, himself retreating into the eye of the camera as the river of peoples astonishingly flowed around him as easily as waters flow around a rock. No one questioned this blatant act of voyeurism. Indeed, they relished it. For they were there to be seen and this human tree, they knew, was the magical eye of the world.

After Trafalgar we decided to stop for some refreshment. We had a quick bite and chatted for a while before heading off again – this time walking up Regent toward Oxford Street – paralleling what we thought was the route of the march. Through a connecting alleyway we were able to see the lines of people creeping with the pace of oozing treacle and thought that even with our lingering the procession hadn’t moved on much.

Having decided to try reaching the terminus before the rest of the march in order to get a sense of the drama as a quarter million people surged into Hyde Park, we made our way to Oxford Circus and hopped onto a bus going toward Marble Arch. Crushing ourselves aboard and pushing (or being pushed) up the narrow stairs to the deck above, we looked down on the participants of a different type of mad parade, fighting their way along the pavement, totting logo encrusted sacks like self-proclaiming placards, they were marchers like us, except they were marching to a different drummer.

We finally disembarked from the cramped confines of the bus at Marble Arch and made our way through the underground rabbit warren that led like a gigantic maze underneath the maddening jungle of streets where large metal juggernauts were going hell bent for leather, emerging, at last, into the quiet of the green and open fields of Hyde Park that reach out as far as the eye can wander. Surrounded by the busiest and most lucrative part of London, the park is something of a tribute to things past - for nowadays land is too valuable to give up for simple human endeavours like parades and picnics. Hyde Park is as close as Central London gets to a real people’s enclave which is why, I suppose, marches almost always end up there.

We knew we’d come to the right place because in the tunnels people had set up shop – little tables which sold all the paraphernalia and gear that goes along with every demo: books, buttons and badges. But, as we emerged onto the green, there were also tables from the various organisations focused around two other themes of the day – Palestine and Islam. The two, of course, are interconnected, but the manner in which both were expounded made me feel slightly uncomfortable because of the vague but disturbing allusions to fundamentalism.

In fact, as we walked further into the park, toward the massing congregants, we witnessed a curious sight of young Muslims holding aloft great orange banners bearing slogans such as – ‘Reject Western Solutions’ – which seemed innocuous enough until you started thinking about the hidden subtext. What solutions should be accepted then? Eastern ones? And what does that mean? The rule of the burka? These people clearly saw the march as a prime recruiting ground for young Asians who had been drawn here for diverse reasons – who were angry with a government that seemed to be ignoring them, who saw themselves targeted as scapegoats and who were searching for answers to fundamental questions regarding their future in a country that looked upon them as potential, if not actual, terrorists. The young Muslim recruiters who met them with smiles and slickly produced leaflets as they broke ranks from the march and filed into the park were sharp and articulate. They reminded me of the smooth talking Black Panthers during the 70s who so easily seduced the incoherent youths happening to connect with them. They were seen as tough, fearless, willing to fight and, most importantly, ready to take up arms – something that appealed to masses of hungry street kids looking for quick and easy answers, swept up by the cult of the gun. The Muslim recruiters were far less daunting and spoke nothing about arming themselves even in self-defence. But the essential message was the same: ‘You’re either part of the solution or part of the problem,’ the Panthers said. There was no middle ground. Maybe there wasn’t then. And maybe the middle ground is slipping away quickly again.

The orange banners which fluttered like sinister echoes around the periphery were mainly ignored by the mass of protesters (including most of the Asians) who were quickly filling the empty space beyond the great speaker’s platform with its enormous overhead screen which projected the image of those on stage in eerie phosphorescence as if they were rock stars instead of rebel Labour MPs and marginalized artists and intellectuals – ‘the usual suspects’ as the media loves to brand them – suddenly given a lease on life by their rise to prominence. No longer voices in the wilderness they now articulate popular sentiments and the media that formerly vilified them is showing unusual respect since opposition to a war in Iraq has gone far beyond the fringes of CND and tiny local peace groups into the mainstream of the body politic.

The strange image of giant talking heads above the stage was made even more surreal by the helicopter which hovered malevolently above nearly drowning out the high powered sound system used on other days for heavy metal bands. Still we managed to make out the announcement that the organizers had come up with an estimate of 400,000 people (though later the police claimed there were only 150,000 – so the true number is probably somewhere in between) and that the end of the march had only now reached Trafalgar Square and, thus, had a long way still to come.

As we watched the people swarming in through the thicket of trees, emerging from the harshness of the concrete streets into the welcoming meadowland, triumphant, banners held aloft, wearing the weary smiles of marathon runners who have happily reached their gruelling destination, I thought how different this march had been to others I had witnessed before. The people filtering through onto the green were those you might have met on Oxford Street after all, I thought. On any High Street, in fact. They didn’t have that look of professional peace demonstrators. They were different and they came from everywhere – Birmingham, Brighton, Manchester, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Bradford, Carlisle. They held a melange of banners, some ancient, some new, with a variety of slogans that had only one thing in common – for whatever reason, war was something they didn’t want.

Many of them had never been on a demonstration before - it showed in their faces. They had that quality of awe and wonder, not the tired look of the long committed who felt duty bound to suffer another gruesome slog. These were fresh souls, young and old, middle-class and working poor. Black, white and tan, unionists and self-employed, they came, pouring from the street in twos and threes and fours, releasing themselves to the euphoria that results from collective bonding at its best – when the fear of isolation and the dread of disconnection transform into strength of purpose and buttressing of will, fuelled with the knowledge that millions of others feel the same and are willing to stand up in public and say it together, loudly and in unison.

The sign most held aloft declared, ‘Not in my name!’ That one slogan summed up the day as if to say, ‘We know you might do the unthinkable but I refuse to acquiesce. You might have the power to unleash your bombs but we aren’t as impotent as we once thought when you confounded us with your deceitful rhetoric and all we could do was curse the television screen. As Tony Benn, the heart and soul of True Labour, who has seen it happen many times, but never like this, finally exclaimed: ‘I've never said this before. Non-violent resistance to the government will show they cannot claim to do this in our name. We should stop the buses, stop the schools, stop the trains...’

Later, thinking back, I realised that this demonstration was a watershed. Somehow, in some way, a point had been reached that became a dividing line. A few weeks before the 27th of September there was a feeling in the air that something was shifting. It started with the German election when Schroeder said that not one German soldier would die in Iraq. It continued with the TUC conference where the opposition, feeble as it was, rose another notch. And then Parliament was at last recalled to hold their long awaited debate, and one by one, backbenchers from all the parties rose to speak, some quietly, some forcefully, some passionate in their almost touching innocence (‘I wasn’t planning to speak but I couldn’t have lived with myself if I didn’t…’). It was then the penny dropped. Something had happened. Something had changed. And then one began to feel it on the streets - people were begining to speak the unspeakable. It was no longer ‘If we have to we must.’ Rather, ‘Why must we do it?’

Those who came on this demonstration realised that something had shifted as well. They, too, had felt it in the air. Suddenly, Blair was no longer ascendant. People began to speak of him in the past tense. It wasn’t that anyone expected him to change his path, to renounce his blunder, to apologise in any way. No, it was just that suddenly people felt empowered. They could say, ‘Not in my name!’ And they could even consider what could happen next if the government pursued their course of criminal insanity. The question had been broached. It was stated loud and clear: ‘Civil Disobedience!’ Four hundred thousand people? One hundred and fifty thousand? Even ten thousand people – that’s a lot of boots to jam up the machinery.

I thought of this as we ran to catch our train back to Cambridge. Every carriage on the 5:45 was full, every seat was taken. But we were feeling Bolshie and a group of us, imbued with the spirit of the march, resolved to declassify the First Class compartment. Two little girls who had been without a seat decided to join us and feeling in a buoyant mood we began to chat with them. They had gone with their family to ride on the great Ferris wheel - The London Eye – and had seen the march from above. ‘It looked like fun. We really wanted to go on it,’ one of the girls said. Then, tilting her head questioningly, she asked, ‘What was it about?’ We told her that all those people marching were there to oppose the bombing of Iraq. ‘That’s good,’ she said. ‘Bombing people is childish.’ ‘No,’ said my wife, ‘children wouldn’t do that.’

4 October 2002