For pictures of the demonstration, there are few better than those taken by the elusive Ellis Sharp, here. And I am lucky enough to know Pete Hallward who sent me a selection, including this fabulous picture:
I began the year – and ended the last – very much in the belief that there is no point demonstrating, for two reasons. The first, it seems to achieve very little. Look no further than the Iraq war. The second, our protests are abused by the likes of Condi Rice and Tony Blair etc who insist that our marching just goes to show what marvellous democracies the UK and US are. It is deeply abusive, this sentiment, and leaves me feeling dirty and desiring to scrub my intestines out with bleach and soak my brain in meths for a week. The last ten days or so, though, I began to feel that wasn’t good enough. I’ve got to do something, I thought. A long chat with an ageing neighbour – she, originally from Poland, of Jewish origins, and a loyal reader of the Morning Star – ended with us both concluding that we should really go to Gaza and put our own flesh on the line, prepared to be bombed, if we wish to make any true protest. But that isn’t going to happen this week, Lara, let’s be honest, she said. Indeed. So we agreed to march together. And we did. Or shuffle, anyway.
In a sea of tens of thousands it’s very difficult to march. And as the sub-zero temperatures set in, our ankles freezing and fingers curling in on our palms like red fortune fish, the shuffle turned into a determined limp down Kensington Church Street, left towards Top Shop, the Israeli embassy and Kensington Palace. Soon, we could not move at all being crammed in and unable to move backwards or forwards, only to raise our voices and shout Palestine! to the hoarse screams of the girl behind us, FREE! FREE! Many old and many very young were cramped between shops and iron gates on one side and flourescent riot police on the other. I wondered when Dr who might arrive and wondered whether my brain was losing power, as my mobile phone had hours earlier, its screen phasing in and out in ghostly shadowed slow-motion.
We squeezed our bodies to the right and managed to reach the furthest side of the crowds, next to an alleyway blocked by more riot police. Between us and them, two sets of metal barriers hindered any possible escape from the heaving bodies, growing confusion and increasing fear that there would soon be a very nasty crush. In front of me stood my elderly neighbour, to my left two young children, no older than five or six years. I looked to a large policeman, Please, open the barriers, we are being squashed, we need to get out. Solid cement, his plastic visa pulled firmly down over his face, he said nothing. We might have been from different lands, unable to communicate; he might have been cardboard; or deaf perhaps; or suffering a diabetic hypo. He stared through us saying not a word. The crowd behind heaved, the barriers tipped, the man at my side put one of his chidlren on to his shoulders. Let us through! we cried. Let us through! The shouts for relief continued for many long minutes, the panic grew, tear gas exploded behind us, hoots and hurrahs, shouts and calls. Then the police moved forward, peeled back a barrier and perhaps ten or fifteen of them pushed in to the crowds, forming a line among us and closing the barriers behind them. Again, the crowd heaved and squeezed and I expected my body to be toppling onto my neighbour’s like a wall of bricks that might smother her forever, or the child standing scared at my side.
Again, we called and shouted to the police to open the barriers; again, they ignored us. Until a brave man from the Stop the War coalition came forward, said something to Blank Cop, and began pulling at the barrier and tugging and shaking and growling. J joined in and together they pulled the first barrier apart giving us a foot of space to squeeze through. And through we went, snaking and pushing, relieved and breathing as the space opened up. And then Blank Cop leapt on to the StW man, wrestling him to a wall and yelling at him, Do you want people killed! Do you want people killed! What what? J pulled at the policeman’s hands trying to peel him from the man who’d helped us out. Then we all pushed down the alley, scuffles breaking out behind. My ageing neighbour, fearless and furious, yelled at one policeman, then another. She stood her ground, didn’t move an inch. The copper shouted back at her, a half-terrified roar at her face. Then one of the cops asked us all what we Fucking Expected! and I wondered what he’d expected when tens of thousands protest peacefully about a massacre to which the British hold not some small responsibility.
We shuffled off, less and less able to walk, our ankles frozen, our faces pink and cranky, until we found a café. At last, somewhere to relieve my desperate bladder, punished for four hours with nowhere to pee, and we ordered hot chocolates and teas. But the lady behind the counter was cross: it was two minutes to five, and she wanted to go home. An anaemic lad waited for her at the table next to ours, keen also that she not dig into what she described as My Private Time! So she opened the door, letting the freezing fog of the night remind us that she would be disappearing at five. And my anger finally erupted and I yelled and shouted at her for her fucking private time which seemed such a luxury when you think of the bombing of the people of Gaza. Let alone the reality of the Rest of the World. Sulking but proud we’d made it, we marched down to Gloucester Road tube – close to where I once taught A level politics (extremely badly I should add) – and sipped at the remains of our coffee all the way to Manor House.
I remember now why we should demonstrate: because if we didn’t, this government would take the right away from us in a blink. And I salute those who stayed behind in front of the embassy, refusing to budge and who then became trapped by the police for another five hours in some cases.
Only one thing: Annie Lennox is a silly woman. For some reason, she’d been invited to speak at the rally at Hyde Park Corner. ‘It doesn’t matter which side you’re on,’ she told the crowds, as long as you care about peace. Rubbish! I shouted back at the skies above. Rubbish, Annie! What really really matters is which side you’re on! My friends laughed at me and others in the crowd looked around and stared. Go home Annie! I chanted, alone and furious. Go home! Go shout at your friends Bob and Bono who cry for Africa as you do, and stuff their taxes into havens. I wrote to Stop the War before the rally, begging them to overcome the notion that Chris Martin and Annie L add weight to the petition. They simply do not. Get the poppers off. They haven’t a clue of what they talk. May they go and weep into their pillows and feel guilt. That’s fine. But don’t lecture us about what matters for you don’t have a clue.