Over 1,500 delegates packed into an inspiring 'People's Assembly for Peace' in Westminster Central Hall last week. It centred around unprecedented demands about what to do when the war starts. Delegates called for a campaign of mass civil disobedience, strikes and direct action to stop the war.
Unlike the politicians in the Houses of Parliament the assembly reflected the huge anti-war feeling of the majority of the population. Delegates came from as far as Aberdeen and Plymouth.
They came from stop the war groups, trade unions, workplace groups, community organisations, pensioners groups, students from schools, colleges and universities, religious groups and peace organisations. Trade union leaders urged their members to take to the streets against the war.
Groups of school students inspired all the delegates with their determination and energy to do everything to stop the war. Tony Benn said, 'Tony Blair is ignoring parliament, ignoring the people and behaving like some sort of medieval king, and we will not accept it. This is not the moment we give up. This is the moment we really start.'
Katy Bannon from Wimbledon School of Art summed up the spirit of the day when she said, 'Tony Blair is one. We are millions. We can stop him.' Chris Bambery from the Socialist Workers Party was given a standing ovation when he said, 'The time for talking is over. It is now time for action. The school students are right to ask their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, that if they can strike against war, why can't you? If we take action people will follow. We should not just say 'Not in my name' but 'In my name we're going to stop Blair'.'
Labour MPs who oppose the war, George Galloway, Alice Mahon, Jeremy Corbyn, Alan Simpson and John McDonnell, also spoke.
'Tony Blair can be leader of a country that goes to war behind George Bush or e can be leader of the Labour Party. He can't be both,' said John McDonnell. This assembly is speaking for Britain while the other parliament of which I am a member is speaking for George W Bush,' said George Galloway. This assembly should call on British forces to refuse to fight and invade Iraq.'
John Rees from the Stop the War Coalition said, 'There is one very important message to take back from this meeting. This is the beginning of the end of the Blair administration. We have a mass international movement. The day they begin bombing we will try to bring towns and cities to a halt. And the following Saturday we will have demonstrations in every capital city around the world.' The assembly unanimously agreed 'a declaration for peace'.
The declaration, moved by Salma Yakoob from the Stop the War Coalition in Birmingham, urges people to 'take whatever action may be required to ensure its adoption as the policy of our country'. The Stop the War Coalition is urging people to place the declaration as an advertisement in their local paper, deliver it to their MPs, invite local authorities to endorse it, reproduce it as a leaflet and to use it as a basis for a petition.
Take to streets, say trade unions
Key trade union leaders urged their members to take action to stop the war. Billy Hayes, general secretary of the communication workers' CWU union, said, 'When war breaks out we want to see as many CWU members as possible out on the streets protesting against this war. If we're told it's illegal to protest, we say there is a bigger illegality in an attack on Iraq. The only thing this government knows is force, and we have to force our opinion on this government. If this means we get involved in some small legal niceties, we'll worry about that when it happens. Isn't it about time the TUC said trade unionists should get out on the streets and fight against this war?'
Bob Crow, leader of the rail workers' RMT union, also issued a rallying cry for action, saying, 'We've got to pile the pressure on. We've got local elections coming up in May. We should ask every single councillor, do you support the war? If they do, then we should support candidates standing who are against the war. If Tony Blair is going to take illegal action then we should also take illegal action in the form of civil disobedience. We need non-violent demonstrations. If that means sitting on motorways stopping the traffic, sitting in the streets, occupying our factories, then so be it.'
Mick Blackburn, assistant general secretary of train drivers' Aslef union, said, 'Some train drivers have already taken action to stop war materials. This assembly will call for such action and some of our members will support it. They could be putting their jobs or their union at risk but that is not the same as the risk faced by the Iraqi people.'
Paul Embury, a London delegate from the firefighters' FBU union, said, 'There is no moral justification for this war. It also makes no economic sense. Many firefighters are asking, how is it that the government can spend three and a half billion to kill people in Iraq but can't find a fraction of that for the firefighters? It's possible that the government may try to impose a strike ban in the course of the war. That is an unjustified attack on our civil liberties and, quite frankly, we shall continue with our strikes.'
Unjum Mirza, an RMT union rep on London Underground, said: 'In London the RMT has agreed that we will support every member who protests, up to and including industrial action, in the event of war. We will twin our branches in London with local Stop the War groups to coordinate local protests. I work at Mile End station in east London. I know a demonstration is due to come past Mile End in the event of war, from local schools, colleges and civil servants' workplaces. My members hope to walk out as that demo approaches.'
Lessons from schools
Students from Pimlico School in central London walked out of school to attend the assembly. Nine of them took it in turns to give their reasons why the war is wrong. (1) 'War is killing loads of people for no reason.' (2) 'The US is only doing this for Iraq's oil, to protect its own financial interests.' (3) 'The US wants to re-establish itself as the world's biggest superpower.' (4) 'The US thinks it's the world's moral police, despite the corruption in its own country.' (5) 'This war is immoral and no one wants it.' (6) 'Blair is ignoring everyone. We should keep shouting so Blair can't ignore us.' (7) 'War under any circumstances is always wrong.' (8) 'This is breaking the rules of human rights and war by attacking Iraq when they haven't been attacked themselves.' (9) 'We're children and it's our future Blair is destroying.' Lara and Amber from Mark Rutherford School in Bedford added, 'We heard about the school strike the day before. We decided to get our school involved and began to spread the word. We expected 100 people to join in. We got 600. It was amazing. At 16 you can drink and smoke. Why can't we voice our opinions too at an early age?'
Katrina, aged 14, from Queensbridge School in Birmingham, said, 'When we had our strike we were told we were truanting. We weren't. We were youth standing up for our political ideals in the world we're growing up in.'