As the marchers stood sweltering in Hyde Park, a few people worked the crowd distributing Vodafone-sponsored ice lollies from cool-bags. Whilst it is more likely that Vodafone had spotted a marketing opportunity than that they had suddenly decided to take a stand on the Middle East, the lollies were most welcome all the same.
The irrepressible community poet Tony Hillier was present, talking to the marchers and trying to capture the essence of the day in verse. The result (or at least a draft of it) is at the end of this report.
Whilst there were a large number of placards proclaiming “we are all Hizbollah” and a number of yellow Hizbollah flags to be seen, there was also a significant contingent demanding that both sides stop using violence. Notable amongst these was a group with a banner proclaiming “Christians, Muslims, Jews, united to end war, greed and all forms of humans harming humans”, and a small but very vocal group of Children Against the War chanting
“Do you need a child to tell you?
Enough is enough
Stop the killing on both sides”
As the march progressed along Whitehall past the Cenotaph and the gates of Downing Street, people started throwing children’s shoes over the metal barriers, rather than putting them down at the Cenotaph as the organisers had asked. There was a die-in and sit-down protest blocking half of the road, with sambatistas sitting or lying down whilst playing their instruments, a sit-down protestor urging others to join them and sit down, and orange-jacketed stop-the-war stewards urging people not to join them and sit down. Meanwhile the whole affair was surrounded by a line of yellow-jacketed police officers, and watched with interest by a growing crowd standing on the walls at the edge of the pavement for a better view.
I reached Parliament Square just in time to hear George Galloway make his speech. Regardless of what you think of his Big Brother antics, the man is still a fine orator, and was on top form. “Yesterday, Israel massacred 33 Kurdish agricultural workers in the fields of Syria”, he said. “Those people over there” (meaning presumably the Houses of Parliament) “who cried their crocodile tears for the Kurdish people, in order to justify the massacre and invasion of Iraq.”
“We, all of us, Conservatives, Liberals, Socialists, Muslims, Christians, Jews, we all come together in this coalition with one demand: for an unconditional ceasefire. All of us have a duty to speak the truth as we see it, and that’s why I say to you, as I said two weeks ago, Hizbollah is not now, nor has it ever been, a terrorist organisation”, he said, to rapturous applause.
Never one to avoid being controversial, he concluded by saying “Hasran Nasrallah is the real leader of the Arab people. Marwan Bargouti is the real leader of the Arab people. President Nasser is the real leader of the Arab people. Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro are the real leaders of the Arab people.”
Next up was Bruce Kent of CND and the Movement for the Abolition of War. “The other day, I was in Downing Street”, he told us, “handing in a petition against replacing Trident, and I thought how wonderful it had been if I had taken in a warrant from the International Criminal Court, and I was offering it to Mr Blair and a policeman would arrest him. That’s a dream that will come one day. This is a war crime.”
Asking how we can move forward to a different world, he said “I am not one who bombs and guns and planes and tanks bring peace. I think peace rests on justice and people living together, sharing, living as common human beings.” Calling for no more trade with Israel and no more tourism in Israel, he said “Don’t go on holiday, go and live with the Palestinians and work with them on some of their projects out there.”
Finally, he addressed the issue which is always lurking in the background, ready to derail any discussion of the situation in Israel, Palestine and Lebanon: anti-Semitism. Critics of Israel are regularly denounced as anti-Semitic, and meanwhile Palestine solidarity campaigners must always be vigilant to ensure their cause is not hijacked by fascists who are just looking for an opportunity to bash Jews. “Don’t let anti-Semitism grow in your heart”, he said. “This is not an issue of anti-Semitism. Some of the bravest people in the world are those who refuse to serve in the Israeli Defence Force. They are now in prison. They are brave, brave people. There are Jews for justice in this country; there are Jews against house demolitions. Work with your fellow Jews for peace in this world, with your fellow Christians, with your fellow Muslims.”
Rose Gentle then took the stage and told us that she won’t be satisfied with Blair being kicked out of office, that she and Military Families Against War intended to pursue him until he is brought to justice for his war crimes. “He is responsible for killing thousands and thousands of people”, she said, “including my son. And I promised my son that I’d fight for him.”
“People say to me, do you not blame the Iraqi person who put the bomb there that killed your son? But the way I look at it, what would we do if people came in and started taking bits out of our country?”
Conscious of the time at this point, and of my less-than-perfect grasp of London geography, I started making my way to the meeting point to catch the bus back to Swindon. This took me along Whitehall again, and past the gates of Downing Street, where the formerly sitting-down sambatistas and other protestors were making their way slowly, and with a huge police escort, to Parliament Square.
As the rest of the Swindon group gradually arrived at the meeting point, we compared notes, related our experiences to each other, and showed each other the photos we’d taken. I learned that I’d arrived in Parliament Square just too late to hear Tony Benn speaking, which is a shame because this seems to happen every time I attend rallies where he speaks. I also learned that Brian Haw had made a speech after I’d left. Fortunately another member of the group had recorded it, so I hope to be able to publish this just as soon as we can work out how to transfer it from her fancy new phone to a PC.
Two members of the group related the story of what could have turned into a rather heated incident, were it not for the finely-tuned customer service skills of one of the protestors. They were accosted by an elderly Jewish couple who apparently had relatives in Israel, and who had taken exception to the placard which said “Hands off Lebanon”. “We don’t want Lebanon”, this person had said, before launching into the mantra of “Israel has the right to defend itself” etc etc etc. My friends weren’t in the mood for an argument, having fallen behind the rest of the group, wanting to catch up and get to the rally, so they managed to placate the situation by saying that they only wanted an end to all violence, and thus they managed to extricate themselves from the encounter. The lesson I’d draw from this incident is that one should be careful when carrying mass-produced placards. Rather than just carrying the first one someone hands to you, select one carefully. Read what it says, and ask yourself “is this the message I want to put across by joining this demo?” If it isn’t then pick another one. Or better still, make your own. I find that two sheets of A3 card, a deep-throated stapler, a thick marker pen and a convenient stick do the job quite nicely.
With the Swindon group rounded up, and all present and correct, we set off to find our bus, only to be diverted by an impromptu piece of street theatre outside Downing Street. Two protestors, wearing fancy-dress police helmets, announced to anyone who was listening, that the high-visibility police officers guarding the gates had the dangerous terrorist Tony Blair completely surrounded and were coming in to arrest him. They praised the police force for their bravery in protecting the public from this dangerous man, to cheers from the onlookers.
Whilst I was filming this performance, I was mindful of the scenes Rikki has filmed recently from the very same spot, of Steve and Barbara being violently arrested for the Serious Organised Crime of holding up banners in a designated area without prior authorisation  . Fortunately on this occasion the police took it all in good humour, merely asking the protestors to move onto the pavement, and once the short performance was done, the protestors dispersed without incident.
Curiously, Steve and Barbara seem to have been arrested once again at the same spot, shortly before I was there , although this time not under SOCPA laws . Just what the hell is going on there?
UK Indymedia feature on the day, including links to other reports and background information: http://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/2006/08/346936.html
BBC News - Demo brings ceasefire calls to UK: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/5248916.stm
Obsolete - Uh, yeah, there was sort of a demonstration...: http://www.septicisle.info/2006/08/uh-yeah-there-was-sort-of.html
Blairwatch - A Day Out With A Maths Addict (estimates 88 to 110 thousand on the march): http://www.blairwatch.co.uk/node/1271
Lenin’s Tomb - At Least 100,000 March Against US-Israeli Aggression: http://leninology.blogspot.com/2006/08/at-least-100000-march-against-us.html
they were ready for us
Downing Street double lined barriers
triple lines of viz-jacket police
a pair of shoes flew
and another pair too
wellingtons, slippers, trainers,
sandals, jelly shoes, flip flops
and a silver shoe
a smell rose
from those children’s shoes
a bad smell
the smell of war rose
rose up Blair’s nose
braving the barrier
tears flowed too
Swindon’s Community Poet, Tony Hillier, participates in the “Ceasefire Now” March when many of the 100,000 marchers laid down children’s shoes at Downing Street to symbolise the war-torn children in the current Israeli/Lebanese hostilities. 5 August 2006