Socialist Worker

Strong roots can feed mass protest

Issue No. 1773

Some 1,700 people marching through Sheffield, 2,000 demonstrating in Glasgow, 500 on a Preston march, around 1,600 at a public meeting in Birmingham. Those are just a few of the anti-war protests that have taken place in the last week.

The national demonstrations last month are feeding into a growing movement that is reaching every corner of Britain. In many areas the meetings and marches are the biggest seen for many years. Reports are coming in of local meetings, workplace groups and a mushrooming of anti-war activities in the colleges.

And new people are being drawn into activity and so helping create a mass movement against the war, with everyone now driving towards ensuring the national demonstrations set for Sunday 18 November are as big as possible. The 1,700-strong march in Sheffield last Saturday was the biggest demonstration in the city since the 1992 pit closure crisis.

A key to mobilising those numbers has been driving the movement into every locality, union and workplace in the region. A big group of people travelled over from nearby Barnsley for the march, for instance. They had publicised the demonstration at an anti-war meeting of 80 people in the local library that took place last week.

Henry Rajch explained, 'At the meeting we launched Barnsley Against the War. We also have a Council Workers Against the War meeting planned and Lecturers Against the War. We are also planning a teach-in at Barnsley College.' Some 2,000 people joined the march through Glasgow city centre last weekend in the latest in a series of impressive protests.

They organised a human peace chain around the Ministry of Defence building in the city. Protesters also held a sit-down in front of the army recruitment offices and blocked the traffic.

Such major mobilisations have been fuelled by anti-war meetings in smaller towns such as Falkirk and Cumbernauld. Other meetings are now planned in Fife, Dumbarton, Paisley, Ayr and elsewhere in the run-up to 18 November. In Preston in Lancashire some 400 to 500 people joined an anti-war march last Saturday.

Jamilah Shah took her eight year old daughter along. 'People think they are just one voice, but things like the demonstration make you realise you are part of a bigger process against the war,' she said. Jamilah was inspired to go along to the demonstration after attending a 50-strong meeting in nearby Blackburn last week.

'The speakers talked about the need to set up coalitions against the war throughout Britain-locally, in workplaces and where we study.'

Time to get in tune with the dynamic of the movement

The key to creating a movement of the scale needed is to build on the big city-wide rallies to drive the agitation into local areas and workplaces. This can then create the basis for even bigger major mobilisations. In south London a 200-strong rally three weeks ago has since unleashed a wave of activity across the area, and fed a spate of more localised meetings.

Street stalls in markets and shopping centres, and leafleting of tube and rail stations, mosques, workplaces and colleges have all begun to transform the movement. The size of meetings in relatively small areas indicates the potential. Over 50 people attended the South Bank Against the War meeting in Waterloo. The group was set up by a handful of people from one block of flats. They have held short weekly meetings to organise leafleting.

A worker at the South Bank arts centre also contacted the group asking them to join the Artists against the War group she has founded. Other meetings across south London include 150 people at a meeting in Clapham. A similar picture is beginning to emerge across the Thames in north London.

'A few of us met up and just decided to go for it.' That's how Sean Wallace sums up how they managed to organise a 100-strong anti-war meeting in Crouch End, north London, at just a few days notice. We leafleted local tube stations, local estates and stuck posters up around the area. There were about five or six people involved,' explained Sean.

'It took just a few days and around 100 came. We signed people up to activity, and we've also set up an email list.' This week a spate of similar anti-war meetings were due to take place across north London.

Pete explained, 'On Wednesday there is a meeting in Edmonton which two or three people have been building, leafleting mosques, local colleges and estates. On Thursday there is a lunchtime meeting of a Council Workers Against the War group in Haringey, as well as a meeting for students at the College of North East London. On Thursday evening there is to be an anti-war meeting at Whittington Hospital, which has been built with a handful of people leafleting the student nurses' halls of residence and shift changes. The same night we have a meeting in Tottenham. There is also a meeting this week to launch a trade unionists' anti-war group in Islington with local firefighters, council workers and postal workers involved.'

Other activities last week included:

  • 150 at the weekly peace vigil in Edinburgh.

    Eight health workers at an anti-war meeting in King's College in London.

  • Over 100 people at a vigil in Swindon.
  • Some 150 people demonstrated against the war in the small south coast town of Chichester.
  • Around 45 people joined a debate in the small Kent town of Whitstable.
  • In Plymouth anti-war campaigner Tony Staunton explained, 'All the British forces going into Afghanistan come from Plymouth bases. The barracks are here. Their families are here. But our group held an anti-war meeting of 40 people last week. We also have stalls in the town centre, and a young soldier going to Afghanistan signed our petition. He didn't want to go to war.'

Arguments shift people

'IT'S TOO close to call.' That was the verdict of TV presenter Jon Snow who presented Channel 4's War on Trial debate last Saturday.

The programme presented arguments around the war to an audience picked by the NOP polling organisation to reflect the pro-war majorities they report. But after an hour of listening to debate, and arguments put forward by people like anti-war MP George Galloway, many people were clearly won to change their stance.

Galloway, speaking the next day at an anti-war conference, reported the final vote of the Channel 4 audience was only 51 percent for the war, with 49 percent against.

The moral is clear. Where people hear the arguments a growing number can be won to oppose the war.

Students tell of radical new mood

Colleges are seeing a wave of anti-war protests, meetings and activities. Students at an anti-war conference in London last weekend spoke of their experiences. Damian King from Warwick reported, 'We wanted to bring some of the spirit of the 13 October demo to Warwick, and also use it to build the anti-war movement here. 'We gathered in the university and built up to around 65 people. Some people started playing the drums on a bin to help the chants, and others staged a noisy 'die-in'. Many people wanted to go further and protest around the university. The bar manager was furious when we headed for the student union and tried to stop us, but we marched through anyway. We are now organising for transport to the next London demonstration on 18 November.'

Viren Swami, a student from UCL in London, explained 'We have had an anti-war meeting every fortnight. There have been around 100 people to all three of them. Our group, like many others, is short of money, so we use the meetings to collect donations. I also make a two-minute speech at my lectures and pass a bucket around. I've been getting around £50 a time, and there are around 80 students in the lectures. I've done this at ten lectures.'

Maya, one of the 15 students from York at the conference, spoke about their recent teach-in. 'There were around 200 at the teach-in, and students had to sit on the floor because there weren't enough seats. There was also a union meeting last week of around 300 people where we debated the war. The vote was only narrowly lost on the anti-war motion. But some 40 percent voted for it.'

Other students gave a flavour of the activities their groups were organising.

Carrie from Newcastle spoke about the two teach-ins they had held at the university that had each attracted 60 to 70 people. South Bank University student Gareth Beniston added that eight lecturers at the university had agreed to speak at a teach-in. Some 200 to 250 students attended a debate about the war in Hull University last week.

'It was built by many groups publicising it and putting leaflets round lecture halls. There was also a politics lecture cancelled last week and turned into a meeting against the war that some 70 students attended,' explained one Hull student.

Some 150 students packed into a teach-in at Glasgow University last week, and 200 students attended an anti-war meeting in Sussex University. SOAS in London has already seen some enormous meetings against the war, and last week some 700 students attended the latest anti-war meeting in the college.

Labour Against the War launched

Ten Labour MPs turned up to the launch of Labour Against the War in a meeting room in parliament last week. Shrewsbury MP Paul Marsden spoke at the meeting: 'For four years I kept my mouth shut despite having certain misgivings because I thought it was the best thing to do. I've had 400 emails in the last 48 hours. All but four or five are supportive. The bombing must stop. I'm 100 percent behind the campaign. It's time people spoke out. We need a mass explosion on the streets in a peaceful way.'

'I've never received a postbag so wildly biased in my favour,' added MP Bob Marshall-Andrews. MP George Galloway agreed, saying, 'I too have never been aware of such a disconnection between the Parliamentary Labour Party and parliament itself, and the general public. On Monday at 10am after I wrote an article against the war in Saturday's Guardian I received 1,320 emails. They were 20 to one in favour of the stand I'm taking.'

The other MPs included Jeremy Corbyn, Alice Mahon, Alan Simpson and John McDonnell, as well as figures such as Christine Shawcroft from Labour's national executive. They and the 60 people, mainly Labour members, who attended the meeting, agreed to bring the Labour Against the War banner to the demo on 18 November and to affiliate to the Stop the War Coalition.

George Galloway and Jeremy Corbyn introduced the national Stop the War Coalition conference on Sunday. It voted to build the strongest possible broad campaign around the slogan of stopping the war. A steering committee was elected to carry that aim forward.

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Sat 3 Nov 2001, 00:00 GMT
Issue No. 1773
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