What brought 400,000 people onto the streets of London
October 11, 2002 | Page 8
THE DEPTH of opposition to George W. Bush and Tony Blair's war drive was on display in London September 28. In the biggest protest in Britain in 30 years, some 400,000 people turned out to oppose a new war on Iraq.
The impact of the London rally will be felt beyond Britain. It marks the opening chapter for the antiwar movement worldwide--and proves that the questioning of Bush and Blair's war drive can be turned into action.
MIKE MARQUSEE is an activist and author, and one of five national officers of the Stop the War Coalition in Britain, which organized the September 28 demonstration. He talked to Socialist Worker about the protest and where the antiwar movement is headed.
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WHAT DO you see as the importance of the antiwar demonstration in London?
IT'S A historic turning point in the European antiwar movement, and therefore it's something that Bush has to deal with.
We had said that we were confident we could get 100,000. We got 400,000, and that's a genuine estimate--based on measuring the length of the march and things like that. It's not just a figure plucked out of thin air.
Remember, there are only 55 million people in Britain. So it was much bigger than we expected.
It was completely peaceful. On an ordinary afternoon in London, there's more violence. And not only was it peaceful, but the social diversity of it was extraordinary--and this is so important. Trade unionists marching shoulder to shoulder with Muslims, with elderly pensioners, with school kids who are antiglobalization protesters, with middle-class people who are just upset and alarmed for perfectly good reasons, with Black kids from the inner city.
The cynical media had said to us before: "Oh, it's different agendas, it's different groups, it'll all fall apart." The harmony and unity on the day was unblemished among 400,000, and that's something that everyone who went on the demo should be proud of. It's because the cause dominated, and the cause is urgent.
WHY DO you think the turnout was so big?
THERE ARE several factors. First, there's the objective situation itself--which is that we appear to be on the brink of a completely unjustified war, which Britain at least appears to be fighting for one reason only, and that is to please the president of another country. That's how it's perceived by most people in Britain, and the opinion polls confirm that.
In the last two weeks, antiwar feeling has consolidated and hardened because the statements from George Bush and Tony Blair have been so aggressive. Perhaps you could put it this way: Donald Rumsfeld helped us recruit a lot of people for the demonstration. You can't imagine what people think of them. Ordinary people here are scared of these people. They are far more frightened of George Bush than Saddam Hussein, and that is, in fact, a rational calculation.
So there was the objective situation. But, of course, as your readers don't need to be told, it's never just that. There was also the question of political leadership, which the Stop the War Coalition provided.
And I think this is very important to stress. From the beginning--from last year--we have worked tirelessly to build the broadest possible coalition around the simplest demand. The demand on this march was three words: Don't attack Iraq.
We especially worked on two constituencies, without which there can't be an enduring and effective antiwar movement in this country. One was the Muslim communities. And the other was the trade unions.
COULD YOU talk about how the mobilization went for these two groups?
IN THE end, when the march started yesterday, we had secured an endorsement of the march itself by 12 national trade unions, representing more than 3 million organized workers, which is quite a lot in this country.
The march was endorsed--after an open, democratic vote at the union's conference--by UNISON, which is the country's biggest union, kind of the equivalent of the public-sector union AFSCME. The postal workers endorsed it. All the rail unions endorsed it--the rail unions have been engaged in a bitter struggle with the government on their own issues, and this issue overlapped.
The civil service union, which has just elected a new left-wing leader, endorsed it. The firefighters endorsed our demonstration. And in the end, the Transport and General Workers Union, another of the major unions, also endorsed it. Plus a huge array of shop stewards' committees and local branches and so forth.
This was the largest-scale and most enthusiastic participation by the labor movement in any international initiative since the end of apartheid. And I would suggest that this was a harder issue to crack--because with apartheid, you were opposing a government a long way away, and this is about opposing Blair here and now. So the significance of that can't be underestimated.
They were on the march, with their banners, linked arm to arm with the Muslim groups and all kinds of other groups. This is very important for the young Muslims. There are about 2.5 to 3 million Muslims in this country. They have been radicalized over the last year for obvious reasons--and that radicalization can and does go in many different directions.
And this will be the first time that most have seen the British trade union movement stand side to side with them and provide some real muscle for an issue that's important to them. That will have long-term repercussions, all of them good.
The Muslim community has been in ferment since September 11 and really before that, because we had a series of so-called riots in the north of England last year. Young Asian men--whether they're Muslim, Hindu, Sikh or whatever--have been under pressure from the police, and they've been criminalized by the media. They're searching for political answers to the questions raised by the world situation.
And we--and I speak as a socialist--engaged with Muslim communities on various levels in a political dialogue, but most importantly, in joint action--about Iraq, about Palestine and about civil liberties. Because of that, we're building a much bigger movement than we have in the past and having an impact in many different communities.
Without doubt, this was the biggest-ever multiracial demonstration in the history of Western Europe. I've been very intensely involved in the antiracist movement here for many years, and none of us have ever seen anything like this. And that in itself means that there is a new voice on the scene in Europe.
IN THE U.S., opponents of the war disagree on some important political questions--like, for instance, whether we should call for United Nations (UN) participation. How have you taken up these questions, and what was the result at the march?
THAT'S REALLY important. The first thing I should say is that the opinion polls here are paradoxical in one respect--if you say to people, "Will you support a war against Saddam Hussein to remove his weapons of mass destruction if it has the UN sanction," then 60 percent of the people say, "Yes, in that case, I would."
The same people, though, say at the moment that they don't support the war. And I think this is an argument that can be won. Because when you go further with people and say that this is just a UN Security Council resolution that the United States gets by bribing the Russians, then they say, "Oh no, that's rubbish."
What they're basically concerned about isn't about the formality of the UN participating, which is the way that the media construct that question. What they're opposed to is superpower arrogance and imperial prerogatives--although they may not use those words. That's what bubbling up from underneath--that this is empire building, and there's no excuse for it.
So I would say that what was clear on the march on Saturday is the emergence--and I don't want to put it too strongly, because things can go the other way--of a new broad-based anti-imperialist consciousness. Which may not call itself that and may find that the jargon of the Marxist left--and I include myself in that--is alien. But that is their insight--that this is an attempt by a small elite to rule the world through military force, and all the rest is a fig leaf.
On the Stop the War Coalition itself, I was talking about providing political leadership, and this is a good example. At our steering committee--which is a very diverse group, including trade unions, Muslim organizations and virtually every political party to the left of the Tories--we had a long discussion two weeks ago about what our view on the UN was, because it was obvious what was going on. And every single person said, "It's just an attempt to justify the unjustifiable." We don't buy it.
So prior to the march, we had a very clear perspective that the war is wrong, and you can wrap it up in any flag you like, and it'll still be wrong. And I want to stress that the Muslim Association of Britain, which organized the demonstration with us, agreed with us.
But I want to put it another way. We wouldn't have won this agreement, though, if we had gone around using formulas--for example, if we had simply said, the UN is always a tool of U.S. imperialism. That argument assumes a lot. I believe it to be true, but that's not the point.
We won it because we asked people whether the deaths of 100,000 Iraqis would be justified because Vladimir Putin voted for it. And he ain't too popular here--or anywhere else. Because that's what we're being asked to accept. That's the equation. And we are winning that argument as well, although it could go either way.
Without question, Blair is determined to follow Bush into the jaws of hell on this. And that's an interesting question--why a man would be prepared to give up being prime minister of Britain over this, because that could well happen.
Obviously, if they win the war in two months and everything works out the way they want, then they'll get away with it. I don't think that's going to happen, though.
WHERE DOES the antiwar movement go from here?
THE SIMPLE answer is that on October 31, we've called for a Don't Attack Iraq Day of Action. That will be a localized thing. We're asking people in every town, city, workplace and college to do something that day.
We're hoping to build nonviolent civil disobedience actions into that, because the pressure from below is indicating it. I've done scores of meetings over the last fortnight, and at every meeting, what people say to me is: "We've got to stop this war, if we have to use our bodies to stop it, we will." So I don't doubt that there is the desire and support for mass civil disobedience.
But of course, to be effective, it needs to be very carefully organized, and it needs to be done in such a way that it isn't just a small group. We need to bring the trade unions and the Muslim communities into this--or otherwise, it won't work.
In the long term, the question is what they're going to do. If they give up on this war, then we'll go back to doing what we were doing before. I think that's unlikely. I think this is too big a prize for the elite. And that's scary.
But when and if they start this war, we will engage in massive nonviolent resistance of any kind we can. Above all, we'll seek to push the trade union movement into using its weight. And remember, 30 percent of all workers in this country are in trade unions. That's important--it's a much more weighty movement in that respect. We want the trade unions to use their weight to stop this thing--whatever it takes.
On another level, what we have to do is consolidate the huge and diverse coalition that appeared on the streets of London on Saturday--and provide basic things like an improved infrastructure to the campaign and that kind of thing.
We need to do a lot of that, because we may well be in this for the long haul. But we're prepared for the long haul, and I would say that the great advantage that the British antiwar movement has at the moment over virtually any antiwar movement anywhere else that I know of is that we're united in one body--the Stop the War Coalition.
That's a tremendous achievement for those who worked hard to do it, and it happened because we ensured at each stage the most pluralistic and activist orientation.