The piece movement

Medics against war, accountants against war, whores against war...the CND-organised protest against the bombing of Afghanistan on 13 October certainly brought different groups together. But where was the unity?

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

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Topics Politics

‘You are fantastic!’ said Alan Simpson, Labour MP for Nottingham, to the 20,000/50,000/100,000 (depending on which speaker you believed) who had gathered in Trafalgar Square on 13 October at the CND-organised demo to ‘Stop the war’ on Afghanistan.

‘It is this kind of unity that can have a real impact’, said Simpson, to the cheering crowd of peace protesters, left-wing newspaper sellers, anti-capitalists, eco-warriors and ‘just ordinary people who don’t like war’ (as one woman described herself).

Unity? In fact, the protest was made up of disparate groups marching behind disparate banners protesting about different parts of the war and calling for different solutions. ‘Islington against the war’, from the New Labourite capital of London and prime minister Tony Blair’s neck of the woods, were the best behaved, clapping politely when speakers said something agreeable – while ‘Tower Hamlets against the war’, from the less leafy suburbs of east London, were far louder and rowdier, whooping and yelling their approval.

‘Women against the war’ wanted to ‘raise consciousness’ about the dangers of violence; ‘Media workers against the war’ called on Western journalists to cover the conflict more truthfully; ‘Medics against the war’ marched behind a banner calling for ‘Health not hypocrisy’; while ‘Lawyers against the war’ argued for a legal rather than militaristic solution.

One group of women in pink t-shirts wore badges declaring themselves ‘Whores against wars’ – though whether this was postmodern irony or a real delegation from the newly unionised prostitution industry was hard to tell. And I never found out what they had in mind for the beleaguered Afghans as an alternative to bombing raids.

‘It’s a shame my profession is not more coherently represented’, said a thirtysomething chartered accountant, who was ‘out for the day’ with his wife and child. ‘I know a lot of accountants personally who are against this war, and who feel strongly about it because of what happened to the business world in New York.’ What next – ‘Financial advice, not bombs’?

In one corner of Trafalgar Square, Palestinians, Arabs, Afghans and young British Muslims had set up their own mini-protest – much to CND’s consternation. ‘Down down George Bush! Down down Tony Blair! Down down Kofi Annan!’ chanted the Muslims against the war – while at the same time a speaker on the official CND platform congratulated Kofi Annan on winning the Nobel Peace Prize and called for more UN involvement in Afghanistan.

At one point CND officials blocked off the makeshift stairs that led to the Arab protest at the foot of Nelson’s column, claiming it had become ‘too dangerous’. Big mistake. When they let me (white journalist) through to interview protesters, they were set upon by four veiled women brandishing a megaphone who accused them of ‘trying to keep us out’ and ‘shutting Muslims up’. The CND officials – clearly as scared senseless as everybody else of being accused of Islamophobia – capitulated, apologised and let the women through. ‘Stop killing our children!’, chanted the women, as they made their way up the makeshift stairs.

All of the speakers were keen to acknowledge and praise the Muslim presence. CND’s Carol Naughton kicked off by thanking ‘all the mosques throughout the country’, though it was unclear what for. Alan Simpson MP welcomed his ‘Muslim brothers and sisters’ (in English as well as in Arabic), but was half drowned-out by the sound of his Muslim brothers and sisters chanting ‘Shame shame Tony Blair!’.

When a young Arab protester grabbed the microphone from the CND organisers in between speakers and shouted ‘Down with George Bush, down with America!’, nobody knew how to respond. There was an awkward silence, some erring, the protester was thanked quietly and ushered away, before the next official speaker was wheeled on. ‘I would like to welcome all the Muslims here’, said the speaker.

‘It is us who are here to speak up for Muslims’, said Ad, a young British Muslim from Birmingham, in the thick of the Middle Eastern corner of the protest: ‘To say – you are not going to turn Afghanistan into another Palestine. I don’t know what the other protesters are saying, but this is our own protest and we are saying, America, get the fuck out of the Middle East.’

Some of the ‘other protesters’ seemed less certain about why they were there. Roy, a young protester from north London, said he was ‘against all kinds of bombs’, but for ‘an international court to put the shackles on Osama bin Laden’. When I pressed him on whether an international criminal court would be one more way for Western powers to sit in judgement on less powerful states, he said: ‘Oh yeah, that too. I am against that too.’ Another protester held a makeshift banner saying ‘Drop bread not bombs’. When I pointed out that US war planes were already dropping bread, he responded: ‘Yes, but they should just drop bread – and not any bombs, at all.’

One placard called for ‘Imagination not annihilation’, another for Bush and Blair to ‘Use brains not bombs’, while a grungy green protester rode around on an eco-friendly bike with a placard encouraging us all to ‘Love your mum’. ‘It’s great to see such diversity’, said Shala, a 22-year-old student from Dorset. Fine – but where was the ‘unity’ heralded by the speakers?

There was one thing that tied the disparate elements together – they were all pro-intervention. The anti-war coalition may be anti-bombing, anti-missiles and anti-violence, but it supports the right of Western governments to intervene in Afghanistan, and elsewhere, to eradicate terrorism and resolve people’s problems.

CND’s Carol Naughton pointed out that CND is fully behind attempts to ‘bring those responsible for 11 September terrorist attacks to justice’ – but wanted it done through ‘political, diplomatic and economic means’, rather than through military action. Alan Simpson MP said he was ‘all for intervention’ (which got a huge round of applause), but that it should be ‘diplomatic and legal intervention, not military intervention’.

With her comments about bringing the war ‘to an elegant end as quickly as possible’ and ‘the real endgame [being] a new inclusive government for Afghanistan’, UK international development secretary Clare Short, fully paid-up member of Tony Blair’s war cabinet (though she’d rather we call it ‘the special cabinet’), would not have sounded out of place on CND’s platform.

Listening to the speakers and talking to protesters, it soon became clear that the anti-war movement might well be anti-war – but it is all in favour of Western powers telling the people of Afghanistan how best to run their affairs. The demo was less about demanding freedom and democracy in the Middle East than about calling for a different way to catch the terrorists and, as one protester put it, to ‘secure a better government for Afghans’. Small wonder that the demo was summed up in some media reports as calling for ‘non-military opposition to terrorism’ – a soft line that could easily have come from the ‘doves’ at the Pentagon.

There was one thing that the organisers were most keen to flag up – how the media had finally stopped ‘ignoring the anti-war movement’ and was now giving it ‘prime-time space’. An elated Carol Naughton told the cheering crowd how she had been ‘doing interviews since 7.30 this morning’ and said it was great to see so many journalists at the demo – while another speaker pointed to ‘the welcome attention of the media’.

News vans were dotted in prime positions around Trafalgar Square, while photographers and news reporters went wild for the Arab protest at the foot of Nelson’s column. And this must have been the first anti-war demo I’ve been on that featured on a TV news report before I left my house, never mind by the time I got home. ‘Thousands are gathering for an anti-war march in London’s Hyde Park’, reported BBC News 24, an hour before the march was due to start.

But was the media coverage a result of the huge numbers who attended, as some claimed (‘This is massive, un-ignorable’, said one of the organisers)? Hardly – the estimated number of 20,000 attendees might have been more than expected, but in the 1980s CND demos sometimes attracted 250,000 or more. In comparison to protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s, Saturday’s demo was small.

So was the coverage a consequence of the anti-war movement putting forward a clear line and successfully setting the agenda? At times, there seemed to be little to distinguish between the demands of the anti-war movement and the demands of some politicians.

The media now seem to reflect the authorities’ own caution and trepidation about the war on terrorism – and consequently are more likely to give coverage to those who raise questions about aspects of the war. It was telling that on 14 October, the day after the protest, much of the media coverage of the anti-war movement focused on its claim that the war in Afghanistan would increase the threat of terrorism and make us here in the West even more vulnerable to attack – which slotted in perfectly with stories about the threat of anthrax, bin Laden’s warnings to avoid flying, and other fears gripping the UK and the USA.

The celebrated media coverage was less a sign that the anti-war movement is making a decisive impact – but more that its caution sits well with the caution of politicians and the media.

As the demo was coming to a close, one CND worker summed up what the protesters wanted: ‘It’s very simple’, he said, ‘We want an end to war’. I fully agree with that. But I couldn’t help wondering – what then?

Brendan O’Neill is coordinating the spiked-conference Panic attack: Interrogating our obsession with risk, on Friday 9 May 2003, at the Royal Institution in London.

Read on:

More to it than anti-war, by Brendan O’Neill

No politics please, we’re peace campaigners, by Brendan O’Neill

Anti-globalisation, anti-war, anti-everything, by Josie Appleton

What’s anti-war?, by Josie Appleton

Judging the war, by Sandy Starr

spiked-issue: After 11 September

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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