In the world’s largest ever demonstration of public will, more than six million people are estimated to have taken part in a series of rallies calling for a peaceful end to the current US/UK-Iraqi conflict.
In London, where as many as 2,000,000 people took to the streets, the overwhelming mood was sombre but hopeful. Whistles shrilled and cheers were raised, with occasional chants of “no war” and “no blood for oil”, but on the whole the crowd was remarkably subdued for its huge size. Perhaps it was the drab cold winter’s day. Pockets of more raucous behaviour included brazilian-style drummers, who seemed to bring the whole thing to a standstill for hours while their talents were being appreciated by the captive passersby.
Central London was completely shut off to traffic for most of the day. Park Lane, usually eight lanes of smog-choked thoroughfare through the heart of London, was lined on all sides by empty coaches, and completely deserted save a handful of pedestrians and cyclists. [Will London be like this on Monday when the dreaded congestion charge comes into effect? One can only hope so.]
Where were all the people from Aberdare, Abergavenny, Abergwyngregyn and Aberystwyth (not to mention Llangollen, Liverpool, Manchester, Machynlleth, Wrexham, Yatton and York) that I’d read about on the stopthewar site?
Upon arriving at Hyde Park it was apparent that the bussed-in multitudes had already been there for hours. It was nearly four hours since we had set off on foot from Westminster, and it was announced that the human mass was still nearly motionless at the start of the route, over three miles behind us. That’s a lot of people who probably didn’t make it to the park until the rally was well over and I was ensconced with a cup of tea at my sister’s flat not ten minutes from the park, where I could watch the whole thing as reported by CNN, BBC24, ITV and the rest (the joys of telly – I’d nearly forgotten!)
Of the various speakers we heard, the most heartfelt and succinct was probably that by the organiser of stopthewar.org.uk, Lindsey German. Rev. Jesse Jackson failed to make much of an impact with his pep-rally style oratory and his reliance on “shared faith” to make his admittedly very valid points about the relative priorities of war for oil, global poverty and the AIDS pandemic. Mayor Ken Livingstone was more of a hit with crowd, perhaps being helped by an interloper who grabbed the microphone as he began his speech, shouting “No to the congestion charge – we are the comedy terrorists!” Ken made the most of it, remarking how nice it was to be in central London without the usual stench of car fumes. He made the usual points, comparing Bush and Blair to cowboys and felons of the worst order. We loved it.
PLO-sympathising, socialist (and therefore very much “Old Europe”) MP George Galloway scored laughs with his observation that he would rather be eating cheese and reading Sartre on the banks of the Seine than eating popcorn with a bible-bashing mass executioner in Texas (or something to that effect.) “Don’t bomb Chirac” he added.
The speakers I heard made some very good points on the sleazy pro-war antics of Bush and Blair, whose squirming for excuses to attack is on course to greatly embarass the UK PM if he keeps up his blatant disregard for his own integrity (Bush never had any to begin with). But such is the nature of a peace rally that the desired outcome, in itself, is not tangible. The public expression of a desire for peace will not not result in anything that can be bought, sold, or pointed to as a direct outcome of this exercise of a common will. Has anything actually been achieved? In the end, despite having involved 6m people in 600 cities in 60 countries, it’s just one small part of the ongoing process of attempting to civilise this planet we live on.
Let’s not forget that today’s worldwide mobilsation of pro-peace forces would not have happened without that great force for democratic expression: the uncensored, unrestrained Internet that joins us all who share an interest. Will the Chinese rulers, who oppose the war in Iraq, long delay their inevitable downfall, with the tools of mass censorship and oppression rapidly becoming untenable? Will Saddam? More to the point, will George W Bush?
We, the people, are many. They are few. They had better listen to us.
Further reading: bbc, observer, independent, thisislondon, sky, cnn