For some, 15 February 2003 will go down in history as the final moment that Britons demonstrated a touching faith in parliamentary democracy.
Henna Malik, a sixth-former at the time, painted her face with the Stop the War logo and took the train to Waterloo with her friends. She believed the millions chanting "George Bush, terrorist" would persuade their MPs to vote against the war. "It was incredibly empowering at the time," she says. When most MPs and the government ignored this will of the people, Malik became a revolutionary socialist; now she does not support any political party but is training to be a human rights lawyer. "In retrospect we didn't stop the war so I became quite disillusioned but it did shape my political beliefs and how I felt I fit within society," she says.
It was an epic day of protest by people who didn't usually do that sort of thing. "There were nuns. Toddlers. Women barristers. The Eton George Orwell Society. Archaeologists Against War. Walthamstow Catholic Church, the Swaffham Women's Choir and Notts County Supporters Say Make Love Not War (And a Home Win against Bristol would be Nice). They won 2-0, by the way," as Euan Ferguson memorably noted in the Observer the next day. As night fell, Jesse Jackson and Charles Kennedy made rousing speeches and Ms Dynamite sung in Hyde Park.
It was also a global protest – there were three million on the streets of Rome and anything between 10 and 30 million in cities around the world – and it completely failed. The British march, and public opinion (a poll that weekend put opposition to a war at 52% with only 29% in favour) was dismissed by most MPs and Blair's government: 29 days later, the invasion of Iraq began. So does the demo have any historical importance?
"People feel very disappointed by it but the only way you could say it failed is if people now said the Iraq war was right and Tony Blair was right after all," says Lindsey German, convener of the Stop the War Coalition. "OK, we didn't stop that war but we kept that anti-war opinion together." German is convinced the anti-war movement had a lasting impact on what we know about the war (without protest there would have been less of the scrutiny that exposed the sham of WMDs), on British public opinion (more sceptical of other wars) and on politicians. "It makes it much, much harder for them now to do it again. Look at what Cameron says now over Mali or Syria or Libya – 'It's not going to be like Iraq.'"
Channel 4 News provides a video report which includes the reflections of four protesters. We'll do an excerpt noting Sarah Jewell and Henna Malik:
Sarah Jewell (Occupy Activist) : There was a genuine feeling of unease in the west and certainly in Britain and in London. Communities that I were a part of, we had a sense for a long time that something was going to happen.
Henna Malik (Trainee Lawyer): I mean Iraq was a humongous issue. It was everywhere. It permeated every aspect of society. You couldn't walk down the street without seeing an Iraq War poster -- an anti-Iraq War poster.
[. . .]
Henna Malik (Trainee Lawyer): I remember standing behind the student banner surrounded by tens of thousands of students all chanting in unison. It was incredible. It was absolutely incredible. I had my face painted with the Stop the War logo on it. I was surrounded by a lot of my friends and a lot of other students.
Sarah Jewell (Occupy Activist) : [. . .] because we were stuck at Gallow Street for so long, we started singing. And we were singing quite traditional, quite 1960s protest songs that people could join in on. We were singing, "Step-by-step the longest march, can be won, single stones will form an arch [the American Miner's Association Song]. Rich, poor, old, young, right-wing, left-wing, no wing, everybody was on that march.
Henna Malik (Trainee Lawyer): When we reached Hyde Park, there was a great sense of camraderie and optimism. There generally was this air -- and you could feel it -- that there was this air of optimism.
Sarah Jewell (Occupy Activist) : But there was a feeling -- and I remember it well -- of intense frustration that only half-a-million people could get into Hyde Park
Oliver Lauglhand and Bella Mackie (Guardian) note that over 30 million people protested globally in February 2003 and ask for readers to share their stories. The editorial board of the Guardian notes:
Mr Blair once fancied he would be absolved by history, but after years of civil war Iraq eventually fell into the nasty sectarian grip of Nouri al-Maliki. Many accounts of the war remain plausible. Those sceptical Tories who always like to say "it'll never work" about any grand project have seen nothing to prove them wrong. Neither have liberals, who warned that brushing the UN aside would produce a lawless world, and not – as Mr Blair promised – a new order, with justice for Palestine and many other splendid things. Radical leftists who always denounced a "war of imperial aggression" on America's part still have a cogent case; it needs tweaking only to the extent that this proved a case of imperial overstretch. It thus makes sense that the two-to-one anti-war majority uncovered by our Guardian/ICM poll holds right across the spectrum.
Protests took place around the world. That needs to be noted. British community members are shocked by the lack of attention from so-called left and 'independent' media in this country. E-mails are specifically citing The Nation and Democracy Now! and it's true that they are ignoring the anniversary -- they're not the only ones. But it's shameful.
Amy Goodman's a little whiner who plays last journalist standing -- and plays it badly. Remember her whining -- that's all it is when you fail to use your own power -- about how the media wasn't taking the protests seriously. Yet the 10th anniversary of the largest protests ever and she can't devote segments this week to it on her show?
Again, it's whining.
And it's indicative of the worst problem among the US left. Call us chickens with our heads cut off, if you'd like. I prefer to think we mistake ourselves for some sort of activist Red Cross and feel we have to rush from disaster to disaster never staying long enough to make a difference anywhere, dropping the ball over and over.
In England, for the last two weeks, they've been exploring the meaning of the protests. In the US, we don't get that. In the US, we will be lucky to get superficial observations on the anniversary of the invasion -- superficial observations that could have been made three years ago, four, five, six, seven . . .
Equally true, in the US it was really an anti-Bush effort. It wasn't about peace. It wasn't even about Iraq. MoveOn and the cowards of Win Without War and United for Peace and Justice never gave a damn about Iraq. That's why they fled the topic as soon as they could.
Andrew Murray (Guardian) argues a good case for what the protests did with regards to England:
There is a broader issue, of course. Is marching and protesting a waste of time? If 2 million people can be disregarded like this, then what price democratic politics? In fact, the enormous strength of the anti-war movement of 2003 and beyond has shaped politics in many ways.
First, British troops pulled out of Iraq in 2009 with their tails between their legs, militarily and politically humiliated. That was surely due to the reluctance of the Iraqi people to offer them the exuberant welcome Blair had banked on – but it also owes something to the sustained opposition of the British people to the war and Gordon Brown's reluctance to go to the electorate with British soldiers still dying in a war that millions had opposed from the outset.
Second, the bar has been raised for further wars of aggression. Not high enough, as David Cameron's scratching of the imperialist itch in Libya and now Mali shows. But the fact that the prime minister has to pledge "this is not like Iraq" every time, and the reluctance to move to overt war in Syria or Iran, shows that a lesson has been learned. It will surely be a long time before British boots are put on the ground to secure US foreign policy aims again.
Third, the New Labour warmongers have in some measure been held to account. Blair was bundled out of office by an eventually exasperated party ahead of his desired schedule, largely as a result of his unrepentant neoconservatism and Bushophilia. And the Chilcot inquiry, meandering as it may be, owes something to that march. It is not the war criminals' dock at The Hague, which would surely be more appropriate – but it is a start.
Finally, 15 February 2003 established a political coalition that cut across almost every political, social, ethnic or cultural category in society. It only divided imperialists from the rest. In particular, it united hundreds of thousands of British Muslims with their neighbours in a joint project of peace. Years later a senior police officer told me that the anti-war movement had done more for community relations than any government initiative. This alliance will endure, much as it continues to frighten neoconservative pundits to this day.
I don't believe the same case can be made for the US, however. In part because look at our pathetic Panhandle Media and it's refusal to note the Iraq War. Today, yesterday, the last four years. Pathetic. Applause for the British who took to the streets ten years ago and are smart enough to realize that (a) it was news, (b) it had impact then and (c) for it to have impact now, it needs to be covered now.
The following community sites -- plus Cindy Sheehan, Pacifica Evening News, Antiwar.com and C-SPAN -- updated last night and this morning:
The e-mail address for this site is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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