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Birmingham stop the Gaza massacre protest

IMCistas | 07.01.2009 05:08 | Palestine | Birmingham

During the days following the Israeli ground assault on Gaza, the people of Birmingham angrily spoke out about the atrocities being committed by the Israeli state. However what was an unprecedented protest in both numbers and emotions was policed and contained by Birmingham Stop the War.

The beginning..

People gathered in the city centre at 5.00pm, and soon a large crowd of around 500 gathered, mostly young people. The crowd were carrying Palestinian flags, effigies of dead children, and placards with slogans stating “stop the genocide”, “end the siege”, and also the obligatory “join the SWP”. The crowd angrily shouted “Free Free Palestine!” and a white flag was set on fire, signifying that the Palestinian people would not surrender to the genocidal aggression of the Israeli state. At the time of the protest the deaths of 523 Palestinians and over 2500 injuries had been reported, whilst 4 Israelis had been killed by Hamas rocket attacks. These are sobering statistics which highlight the racist nature of the Israeli state which views Palestinian lives as cheaper than those of Israelis. However, this completely disproportionate use of modern weapons on a civilian population is not obvious due to the absurdly biased reporting exhibited by corporate news agencies. A Norwegian doctor today reported that he had treated civilians who had been bombed with a new type of explosive which has a carcinogenic effects on it’s victims, shortly before 35 people including children sheltering from mortars in a UN school were killed in an explosion.

Crowd control..

After about half an hour, the crowd had become increasingly fired up, and some people at the front of the crowd began to move off in the direction of New Street. Between 25 and 30 police attempted to block the protest, but they were outnumbered and pushed back by the crowd who were determined not to let the police prevent them from exercising their democratic right to protest. Eyewitness reports state that younger Muslim members of the crowd were targeted by the police, culminating in two youths being dragged off and harassed although they had not committed any offence. The protest continued to march up New Street, and at various points the police tried to stop the crowd again, but were repeatedly pushed out the way. Meanwhile, the protest numbers had swelled to around 1000 people as passers-by joined in. At the top of New Street an additional police phalanx was waiting for the protestors in an attempt to funnel the crowd towards the Council House where a pre-planned Stop The War Coalition meeting was to be held; earlier STWC organisers were seen liaising with the police. As the crowd approached the police phalanx there were shouts of “Whose Streets? Our Streets!”. The crowd surged towards the doors of the Council House and emotions were running high. As people were about to rush the doors, Salma Yaqoob and Ger Francis (Respect party councillor and organiser) blocked the entrance, raised their hands, and urged people not to enter. People were shouting “Free Free Palestine!”, then Salma Yaqoob shouted over a megaphone for people to be calm and quiet so a ‘dignified’ discussion could take place. The crowd booed as most people had not come to the protest to sit down and listen to a panel of opportunistic politicians. Salma continued to shout that people should be ‘quiet, orderly, and disciplined’, so that ‘all the councillors can know what people feel about Palestine’, in case they did not know already. She then asked for one minute’s silence for the victims of Palestine, despite the mood of the crowd clearly not wanting to be quiet! Many people in the crowd shouted “Allāhu Akbar” which translates as “God is great” in Arabic. When the crowd continued to shout, Salma told everyone off for being ‘selfish’ and that some people were ‘spoiling it’, an irony seemingly lost on her as she attempted to control what she saw as an ‘unruly mob’ for the ends of the membership recruitment drive of the STWC/Respect axis. She asked everyone to proceed into the Council House in an ‘orderly and disciplined way’, and to “not crush each other for goodness sake”. At this point I recall the lyrics of an Asian Dub Foundation song where they warned of “lightning conductors” in political activism; opportunists who try to subdue people’s outrage and pacify people into apathy, conducting their energy into the ground. Many of the people who attended were not activists, and I could not think of a worse introduction to the world of fighting for social change than the disempowering practice of pleading with powerless council politicians to fulfil our demands, although it benefitted those with party political agendas. Soon the Council House was full, and several hundred people were left outside, the mood of the protest killed.

Long live diversity of tactics..

Within any movement for social change a diversity of tactics is necessary, and both direct action and lobbying should play a key role, however one should not be at the expense of the other. It was perfectly possible for the meeting to take place and for the protest not to be extinguished. There is a palpable tension between the vanguardist self-policing of state-sanctioned marches and the will of the majority of protestors to go beyond symbolic protest as was demonstrated during the Gaza protest in London a week ago. Inside the Council House, demands were made for the Council to pass a motion to demand an immediate ceasefire, the re-opening of the borders to allow the passage of aid, to twin Birmingham with Ramallah, and for the Council to cease from acquiring any Israeli goods or services. These are honourable aims but there is scepticism whether any of these demands will be met; most councillors have little power or inclination to affect anything outside of local functional matters. They will make the right noises and hope that we will go away and vote for them. State-sanctioned political groups like STWC are preoccupied with ‘respectability’, this idea that anyone actually being outraged and disruptive in times of crisis is ‘uncivilised’, and will be frowned upon by those they hope to influence, the powers-that-be and the corporate media. Would Palestinians be concerned with ‘respectability’? Throughout the history of social change, the liberation of India from colonial British rule, the Suffragettes, and the ongoing fight against Apartheid in South Africa, these struggles were not won by pleading with those in power, but by taking the power back.

This is a time of absolute crisis for the Palestinian people; whilst the protest was taking place, and as I am writing this article Palestinians are being murdered. If there is ever a time for direct action, the time is now.

See you on the streets.



Photos from the protest

07.01.2009 12:17

The meeting point..
The meeting point..

The outraged crowd moves off..
The outraged crowd moves off..

At the council house..
At the council house..

See below...


deja vue

08.01.2009 13:03

Unfortunately we've been here many times before in Birmingham; a diverse city of working people with plenty of radical history and potential. This radicalism has been contained and misdirected for some time, either by politicians for their own myopic ends or by middle aged 'radicals' who have been co-opted by the system. They may have been radical in their youth and their participation in struggles back in the day was admirable but they don't appear to possess a gramme of integrity nowadays.

When the US started it's bombing of Iraq, another unprecedented series of protests occurred, but we stood firm and didn't cave in to the likes of the SWP. The intersection of New Street and Corporation Street was blocked by sit down protests and people made themselves heard on the streets without the mediation of opportunist politicians. This was before Salma Yaqoub and Ger Francis had secured well paid jobs as state lackeys, but they had made moves to take over our Stop the War Coalition. I remember vividly how during one of the sit down protests on the New Street cross-roads that lasted for hours, the police approached a part-time employee of the Socialist Workers Party with a megaphone, asking her to move people on otherwise they wouldn't give permission for the SWP to hold another demo in the city again. She promptly held the megaphone up and barked at us to move on. We didn't, we held firm and continued our protest. Unfortunately this didn't happen at the Council House, although Yaqoob was booed, people sheepishly followed her into the council chamber and the protest was extinguished.

see through the opportunist rhetoric