Sunday, October 09, 2011

October 8th. A hundred and twenty black balloons float in a grey London sky, one for every murderous month of the war in Afghanistan. Stop The War Coalition has organised an assembly of protest against the continuation of this war, and every other imperialist intervention. You might expect our 4-hour gathering to be sombre, but actually it was inspirational: powerful and passionate words from activists including actors, poets, musicians, students, soldiers and families of soldiers.
There were so many highlights, from the poignant 'reading of names' of 120 war victims and Mark Rylance's spine-tingling delivery of I am not yet born by Louis Macniece, to the lively crowd responses in LowKey's rap Long live Palestine and Sanasino al Yemen's poem My name is not Iraq.
It was moving to hear life-long campaigner Hetty Bower, aged 106, tell us “The wars have changed, the lies remain the same” and Joan Humphries whose grandson died in Helmand mourning the 60,000 Afghanis who've been killed too.
Some like Elvis McGonagall in his wonderful anthem Operation Undying Conflict focussed on the hideousness of war itself; others made angry comparisons between the cost of war and our 'austerity programme' - as John Hilary from War on Want put it: "We should invest that 12 million spent on war every day in hospitals, schools, and the welfare state that Cameron is ripping apart". Jeremy Corbyn was one of several who pointed out that as well as bringing poverty and drug-dealing instead of peace, peddling death and destruction has brought 'unbelievable millions' of profit to the arms companies while the weakest and poorest of our own country are asked to 'tighten our belts'.
Lies were another major theme - the pretension that these wars are about bringing democracy and stability to Afghanistan & Libya was repeatedly and powerfully exposed. Jemima Khan crisply listed the horrifying statistics about Afghanistan which combine to make it the worst place in the world to be a woman or a child now. John Pilger challenged the media take on the strikes on Libya that morning: "The media call this town a pro-Gaddafi stronghold... the people of Sirte are ‘unworthy’ victims – not worthy of thought or concern. It's like Pinter says: None of this happened. It didn’t happen even when it was happening. It didn’t matter. Total has negotiated 45% of oil trade in exchange for French involvement and this is what Cameron boasts is a ‘model’ for intervention! We are here today to represent sanity. It’s those who justify these wars who are the extremists."
And Julian Assange in a brilliant short speech insisted "Wars are the result of lies, so who are the war criminals? Not just the politicians, the journalists too. If wars can be started by lies, peace can be started by truth. That is the task for the media now. Go and get your truth."
Another popular rhetorical message was the one to Tony Blair from Andrew Murray “Enjoy your money. There’s not enough water in the river Jordon to wash the blood off your hands.”

George Galloway was on stridently theatrical form with a succinct reminiscence: When the soldiers went in ten years ago, Jack Straw said they’d be home by Christmas. I said, “Not ten Christmases hence!” He laughed. It’s in Hansard. He laughed and he invited his colleagues to laugh with him. Well they’re not laughing now. And the families of the hundreds who have died will never laugh again!

Tony Benn's message was simple: "This is not a protest, it is a demand. End the war in Afghanistan."
Which brought us back to the petition introduced at the start by Joe Glenton, the soldier jailed for 9 months for refusing to fight in Afghanistan, who recalled Seigfried Sassoon's words: “The war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it”. So hundreds more soldiers and thousands more civilians should not have to die in the next three years to save face for NATO, when 70% of the public, and all of the politicians if they're honest, know this war has been a failure and a ghastly mistake from the start.

So what did we achieve, apart from providing substantial overtime for the staggering number of police who greeted us at Downing Street? I'm not under any illusion that anyone in power will wring their hands and have a change of heart because of balloons in Trafalgar Square - they already know their policies are based on strategic control not humanitarian care. I just wanted to stand up and be counted with those who believe - in Jeremy Corbyn's words - War is wrong. All wars are bad wars. There's a tribal feeling of connection, despite all our diversities, and it's exhilarating to be among so many passionate people on a grey October day... and to find one of them is my brother!

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