Stop the War Coalition Demo 10-Jan-09

I went along as a casual observer. Having had the point of view of Israel in the media seeping into my stratosphere since I can remember, I felt it was about time I saw the situation from the ‘other angle’:  Palestine.

As I entered the tube and started to ride the rails I looked around, wondering who else was going to the demo. I didn’t have to wonder long as I caught the eye of my next-seat-neighbour who then asked me if I was going to the demo. It turned out nearly the whole carriage was! We ranged from early 20s to middle aged with a mixture of moods. Some excited, some nervous, some calm, as if they had done this thousands of times before (they probably had) and we laughed and joked about ‘The Man’ as the nearest tube station was shut “due to over-crowding” and the tube had to carry us all on to the next stop. “They won’t get rid of us that easily” joked one rapscallion. As we passed through the oh-so-over-crowded station onto the next, the fact that it was a lot more busy in rush hour made most of us more indignant to attend.

I walked across a misty Hyde-Park towards Speaker’s Corner – the assembly point. The whole park was laden with Police officers and the luminous vests of Stewards pointing us in the direction of the huge crowd. And the crowd was huge. Being 5ft2″ makes it hard to see exactly how big a crowd is, but my trusty camera elevated by my less than gangly arm showed a magnitude of people that looked so great it faded into the mist after about 50 meters. Word on the street was there was over 100,000 people in the park that day.

Then followed speaker after speaker: Tony Benn, Bianca Jagger, Tariq Ali, Annie Lennox were amongst the well known and then several others all of whom brought a different angle to the debate including education (Israel had stopped ships leaving Gaza taking the most promising Palestinian students to safety) to aid (Israel have blocked the route to Gaza to halt any medical and humanitarian aid coming into the territory) to media (Israel have banned any international journalists from entering the area, which results in a very slanted tale of Gaza and its inhabitants) to government (Tony Benn, Bianca Jagger imploring Gordon Brown to commit to aid and refuse preference to Israel in any trade deals).

The short break in between each speaker was littered by the chant of the day “Free, free: Palestine”. The park kept on filling, people called out and the crowd rallied. There were signs everywhere, stickers being passed around, toddlers on the shoulders of their parents and with the final group of speakers came an unexpected silence. A group of five young children who each read out the names of ten of their Palestinian counterparts who had been killed in the recent fighting. I can only assume the silence attributed to the crowd was a result of reflecting upon their own childhood in comparison with the horrors that these children have had to face. I remembered hearing stories about the children of the Gaza strip who had to be escorted to school by their parents who could do little but offer moral support against the gunfire which attempted to dissuade them. Just as the clouds could no longer hold back the snowflakes that had been threatening to fall all morning, it was all I could do to stop the tears from freezing my cheeks as the final child struggled to read out the names of the poor, tiny soldiers.

As we all made our way to the starting point for the march I took a look around and noticed what appeared to be a cross section of society. There were the young, the old, (the really young and the really old!) men, women, children, groups, individuals, pairs, organizations, clubs, brown, white, yummy mummies, chavs… We all led such different lives on any normal days but today our paths had crossed to unite in our distaste for the violence.

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I started near the back and walked quickly so that I could take in as much as possible. I passed the marching band, giving their music to pass the time and to beat out a rhythm for the chanting; the young communists with their megaphone leading the surrounding protesters in a call for immediate justice; the choir who had written their own lyrics to the tunes of hymns voicing their disgust and asking us all to pray. I saw tiny children holding up signs and banners enjoying the hustle and bustle and the noise; groups such as ‘Jews against Israel’ and The National Islamic Association all marching side by side chanting together. We walked from Hyde Park towards High Street Kensington in the freezing cold. I saw and met some interesting people on the way.

A young hippy couples held hands and shouted, letting off steam left over from teenage angst, no doubt. Parents with their kids in tow who didn’t know what to make of the situation but joined in none-the-less making extra noise. A group of mid-teenage Muslim girls who had such passion and fire shouting “Israel: terrorists!” as they pushed their way to the front of the tight crowd and threw their shoes at the Israeli embassy. One couple had traveled all the way from Liverpool.

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As the crowd gathered outside the embassy everyone pushed forwards to express their anger at the Embassy. Shoes were thrown in their hundreds, signs broken and the pieces lobbed up at the armed police surveying from the next building. The tension in the air was mounting as the day grew darker and fireworks made their way over the wall from the crowd. Up past the embassy the dull echo of more speakers started up at the end point of the march. Having not thought to bring extra shoes to throw myself, I pushed on and made my way to the end of the route. All of a sudden, calm descended and many of the Muslims on the march reached into their bags. They pulled out mats. They got on their knees facing east and began to pray. Where one had started more would come and join and soon the streets were clustered with groups of people fulfilling one of their obligations to Allah.

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I felt something there that day: a sense of community – people uniting for a common purpose, flexing their right to protest about the evils in the world. Time will tell whether the violence stops – history will judge who was right and who was wrong. But joining the demonstration stopped me feeling powerless, it changed the despair into anger into defiance, which is more likely to result in action.

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