What drove a middle-aged protest virgin to march against the Iraq War?
This piece was originally a blog entry published on March 8, 2003
My placard is a piece of cardboard rescued from the bin in my sister’s house. I haven’t written anything profound on it, just ANGRY, BETRAYED … which is how I feel. Only ANGRY doesn’t do justice to this gnawing pain in my gut. INCENSED, would perhaps have been better.
A nice young man helps me to stick my homemade banner with brown parcel tape to a Socialist Worker banner saying STOP THE WAR. Though of course it can’t be stopped now it’s started, can it? Still it’s important to stand up and be counted, to send the message around the world that there is opposition. (And what a joy it is to hear a BBC newscaster say later a propos of the march: “This is still a country deeply divided”; it’s the biggest wartime demonstration in this country – ever.)
I buy a whistle and a pocket full of badges to give away to my sister’s kids later: NOT IN MY NAME they say. Left wing newspapers and flyers are thrust into my hand.
This is my first demonstration. Ever. I’m a middle-aged protest virgin and I’m self-conscious as I take my place behind the other marchers. But there’s a real cross section of people in this march. Many marchers are elderly; some are kids with their parents. There’s a real feeling of camaraderie, but the mood is sombre rather than defiant.
Helicopters from the television stations hover overhead. Reporters push among the crowd looking for photo opportunities. The chanting picks up, and I gingerly join in as I manage to catch the words.
What do we want? Peace. When do we want it? Now. Peace now peace now peace now peacenowpeacenowpeacenow.
We start off late from Gower Street, move slowly down Shaftesbury Avenue, police lining the route. At Picadilly, another river of protesters joins us, moving from the South of the city.
Bush Blair USA. How many kids have you killed today?
It’s a glorious spring day. I feel so blessed to be walking through this magnificent city in the sunshine. I’m proud to be among others who care enough about the state of the world to come from all over the country and march. And we’re free to do so without the fear of being arrested for dissent against the government. (Believe me, you value this when you live in a country like Malaysia.)
Who let the dogs out? Bush Bush and Blair.
I start up a conversation with a woman named Roz who tells me that she is a veteran of all the marches. She’s around my age, and so diminutive that I have to bend sideways to hear her over the noise of the whistles, sirens and chanting, not so easy with my unwieldy banner which has the wind billowing behind it. But I learn that Roz been protesting at Westminster all week, sitting in the road to stop the traffic. She fills me in on all the other protests and demonstrations around the country, and tells me about the thousands arrested in San Fransisco, and about a man who fell, or was pushed, from the Golden Gate bridge.
1-2-3-4 we don’t want your bloody war.
Roz seems to think I’m doing quite well as a protester. Maybe I’ll take it up more seriously.
5-6-7-8 Stop the killing, stop the hate.
We flood into Hyde Park. Thank goodness there are toilets and food stalls set up. I have an improvised picnic of fish cake and soggy chips on the grass and then join the crowd again to listen to speeches. One Welsh Labour MP who voted against Blair gives an eloquent speech about the dangers of American Imperialism. There’s a moment’s silence and the Moslems in the crowd are asked to say the Al-Fateha prayer. Some of the speeches are shallow sloganeering though, and I’m unhappy about the Palestinian issue being linked to this protest about war with Iraq because it muddies the issue so I decide not to stay till the end.
As I leave, I see a field of hands made by children from all over the country. Tiny banners made by drawing around their fingers and cutting the shapes out, then decorating them with peace messages. The sight of all those tiny hands and the heartfelt words on them has the tears pricking my eyes.
I trudge up to Bond Street to take the tube home. My feet hurt like hell by now, but my heart is so much lightened.