January 11, 2009
I started to write this last night – I didn’t get home from the demonstration until around 10.30pm, thanks to some heavy handed policing that meant I got to relive the not-so-joys of collective punishment, only this time UK style. Everything hurt and my ankles, knees, hips and back had all seized up from being forced to stand in the bitter cold for 4 hours.
I was one of the stewards at the London Gaza demonstration. Apart from a very small minority of youths who decided to hijack the event for their own immature and unthinking reasons, the demonstration was peaceful and sent a strong message of support to those in Gaza.
This post is the first of a quick trip through my highlights of the day. I’ll address the violence that ended the demonstration in another post. I have loaded my flickr pics here though there’s not that many and they are not that good, as I had to focus on my job as steward. It didn’t help that it was so cold that the camera battery died pretty quickly and sometimes just point blank refused to work.
The stewards arrived at 10.30 to begin the preparation for the demo. Hyde Park was blanketed in a freezing mist when we arrived and it was a beautiful scene as we wandered through the park to where we were to collect the bundles of placards that needed to be distributed around the entrances for people to carry. Out of the mist came a group of skiers on roller skis. That is one picture I missed as I was carrying a bundle of placards at the time but the sight remains in my minds eye.
As the crowds began to arrive, so did the Hare Krishnas bearing music and free hot food and ginger cake.
The food was most welcome on such a wintry day and certainly helped stave off the hunger when we were trapped by the police outside the Israeli Embassy.
During the stewards briefing we were given fluorescent jackets to wear and for a moment it brought back memories of discussions that I had while in Gaza all those years ago. At that time the aggression by the Israeli military towards the internationals in Gaza was becoming more overt and there was a suggestion that members of the ISM should be wearing fluorescent jackets to ensure the military were aware of who we were. It was hard to know whether they would make us more of an attractive target to the military or would afford us some protection and in the end it was given as an option to those who were participating. The answer possibly came less than two months later when two members of ISM, Rachel Corrie and Tom Hurndall, were killed by the military while wearing the jackets.
Sad thoughts on an otherwise uplifting day – and it was uplifting, I have been to some Gaza demonstrations where it appeared that there were more organisers than supporters. This demo was different, the protesters just kept coming. Even when we began the march, they were still flooding into Hyde Park. Primarily because the buses bringing the protesters in from around the country had been delayed in arriving in London. For the first hour after we set off there were still people rushing from the park to catch us up.
I met people from Wales to Lancashire and all points in between. These people spent more time travelling than they did in London, but it didn’t dampen their enthusiasm or their need to particpate in the protest.
The most remarkable thing about the demonstration was the diversity of people there. Normally protesters are very white, not this time. We had a large contingent of Muslims in the crowd. They have a reputation for being hard to mobilise because they want to keep their heads down and avoid drawing attention to themselves. On Saturday they were out and proud. They were assuming their rightful place as British people supporting Palestine. To feel secure enough in your society to be able to do this is a positive sign of a healthy society.
Yet I confess doubt. There is a part of me that thinks that these people are just so incensed by what is happening that they just had to come to the demonstrations, despite their reservations. Only time will tell I suppose.
The police claim 12,000 people were there. One of the guest speakers before the march, the musican Brian Eno agrees with the organisers who claim over 100,000 people attended:
“Musician Brian Eno condemned the police and BBC for underestimating the size of the protest.
“I know what 20,000 looks like. I’ve played often enough in front of 20,000. The size of the demonstration was at the very least four times that size and 100,000 is an accurate assessment. I have complained to the BBC about their absurd figure of 20,000,” he said.”
Brian Eno should know, he’s seen more large crowds in his musical career than the police and the BBC have seen large demonstrations.
Over the next few days I’ll post the rest of my experiences from the march. It’s been a long day and I’m still feeling very creaky after yesterday’s little adventure. For the first time ever I think I may actually be getting too old for this.