Britain: 25,000-plus protesters march to rally in Trafalgar Square
our reporting team
22 March 2004
As demonstrators assembled at Hyde Park in London on Saturday, a representative of the Guantanamo Bay detainees appealed for support for Moazamm Begg, the Birmingham man still held in the US military prison in Cuba.
“I just want everyone to know that Moazamm Begg from Birmingham was not captured in Afghanistan. He was asleep in his bed in the country next door when he was kidnapped by the FBI. He was bundled into a car and taken across the border from Pakistan,” the speaker said.
According to police estimates, some 25,000 participated in the march through the capital, but organisers claim more than double that figure.
The demonstration had been called by the Stop the War Coalition, made up of the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), the Muslim Association of Great Britain and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
The march was delayed, awaiting the arrival of George Galloway, the MP who was expelled from the Labour Party for calling on British soldiers to refuse to obey illegal orders in the war against Iraq.
The final rally, held at London’s Trafalgar Square, provided a platform for various trade union leaders, politicians—including the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats—religious leaders and representatives of the “Respect” electoral alliance, formed by Galloway and the Stop the War Coalition as an electoral alternative to New Labour.
In the first of many references to the events in Spain, where the electorate threw out the right-wing Popular Party government of Jose Marie Aznar that had supported the US war against Iraq, Keith Sonnet, deputy general secretary of the public sector union UNISON, said, “I salute the Spanish people who voted for regime change in kicking out Aznar.”
“Let’s hope the American people show the same courage and vote for regime change in the US and kick out Bush,” Sonnet told the crowd.
A speaker from the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru said, “We were offered some hope with the election of an antiwar prime minister in Spain.”
Speakers from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Green Party claimed that a “democratic” United Nations would be able to prevent wars.
Billed in advance as a speaker, London Mayor Ken Livingstone sent a message of support that was read out to the rally. Following his recent readmission to the Labour Party and adoption as the party’s official candidate for mayor in the upcoming elections, his words were suitably bland, and avoided any direct criticism of Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union—the union was recently suspended by the Labour Party for supporting non-Labour candidates—said, “Our union is very clear. If Labour doesn’t support working people then we will go the ballot box and support those that do.”
Yvonne Ridley, a British journalist captured by the Taliban in Afghanistan, was introduced as a recent convert to Islam, and spoke for the Muslim Association of Britain. “I was the lucky one,” she said. “I was captured by the Taliban. If I’d been captured by the US I would have been shaved, shackled and flown half way round the world to be caged in an orange suit.”
George Galloway told the audience that the people of Spain had drawn two essential lessons: “They rejected the dichotomy between terrorism and war—terrorism is war” and they “showed that after you march, you vote.” Galloway called for the June 10 European Elections to be a “referendum on Blair” and the war, announcing that he would be standing as a candidate in London for “Respect.”
While there was no shortage of calls from the platform for the removal of Blair, absent was any discussion of an alternative, outside of an appeal for a protest vote for “Respect” in the European elections.
The World Socialist Web Site interviewed a number of those in attendance.
Callum Mercer, 13, from Sheffield said, “I think it’s good to see all the people here today. Labour’s policies have betrayed everything. They’ve become more right-wing than the Tories. Thatcher in the 1980s never dreamed of touching the students, but this government is doing these things.
“We are confronting more lies and propaganda. I think that everybody’s lying to everybody else. People are pissed off with Blair and Bush and they don’t know where to go. The situation is chaotic.
“The wall in Palestine is the final straw. Young people are split from their schools. The Palestinians are treated like cheap labour.”
Sean Aston said, “I’m impressed that so many people haven’t forgotten what happened in Iraq. It has sparked off a wave of dissatisfaction. We needed something like that for people to notice what is going on. It showed people what happens when they walk all over international laws. The US does whatever it likes regardless of what has happened in the past. The US is the biggest threat to world freedom that exists.
“Blair is a disgrace to the name socialism. It shows that the electoral system is a joke. Those in power are a bunch of people from public schools, the ruling class under a different name. One year later, there is still no evidence to back their claims of WMD.”
Tamar Beigat said, “I think all people from different countries should get together. When are they going to listen? What are the politicians going to do? Are they going to ignore us, like the US government? The imperialist politicians are driving Arab people to terrorism, to the situation where some people don’t care what happens to themselves. There can be no more lies. The media should inform the people of the truth. They don’t tell the truth to the people. The headlines are trying to smother people with the threat of terrorism.”
Birnan from Reykjavik, Iceland, said, “We have been to demonstrations in Iceland during the war, and also when NATO had its conference there. Bush’s policy is a crime. He is a war criminal and we want him out. Iceland has good conditions but the young people don’t agree with the way things are run in Iceland. The government is conservative; they take decisions like that on the war. Iceland has no army. We don’t want to be targeted for supporting America.”
Charlie from London said, “I think it is interesting how the upcoming US presidential elections are uniting the left. Even anarchists like Chomsky are calling for a vote for Kerry.
“I’m really impressed with your web site and the work that you do, especially the coverage you give to Venezuela, a subject not many people know about. Your web site is consistently direct and accurate about what is going on in that country.”
Zante Gonzalez from Mexico said, “This war affects us all. Many people in Mexico did not want the war, and our president voted in the United Nations against the war.
“Al Qaeda is playing with the US, not against it. I do not believe the American version of the ‘fight against terrorism.’ Since Al Qaeda appeared, the US has had the pretext to go into all the countries it wants.”
Tom Laws from Bristol said, “I came here to show that I haven’t forgotten, one year on. I didn’t support the war, even when they might have had weapons of mass destruction. I am against the very concept of pre-emptive war.”