Unprecedented numbers for Palestine
Ryan Frost gives his impressions of the demonstrations and why it is vital to go beyond the essentially circular politics of protest
It was a great success in terms of bringing masses of people out onto the streets of London to express their solidarity with the besieged population of Gaza. Indeed according to one of the main organisers, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, October 21 was the biggest pro-Palestine march in British history, with 300,000 people attending - inevitably the BBC and the police claimed that there were only 100,000.
Based on my own observation, I am inclined to lean towards the PSC claim - it certainly seemed more like a quarter of a million to me. It took well over an hour for the wide and fast moving human column to pass me by and still people kept coming. Once in Whitehall the whole thing banked up to Trafalgar Square. We were packed in like sardines making it almost impossible to keep in touch with other CPGB comrades (not helped by the blocking of mobile phone calls, presumably deliberate state policy).
Whatever the exact figure, it struck me immediately how this march dwarfed any previous demonstration I had attended (unlike some of my other comrades, I am no veteran of the Iraq war protests).
The general demographic contained a good percentage of those from a Muslim background, but included a wide range of others too - from anti-Zionist Jews to Christian west Africans. All shades of people were present in fact. The large turnout of Muslims was only to be expected - London alone has a Muslim population of about 1.3 million, according to the 2021 census. The Muslim Association of Britain was another of the main organisers and the Palestinian cause is widely supported among British Muslims for religious as well as basic humanitarian reasons. Inevitably, apart from unity against Israel’s bombardment of Gaza, people expressed all manner of different political viewpoints.
Home-made placards - and there were many of them - carried all sorts of contradictory messages. One that I saw, held up by someone who was clearly not Muslim, stated his support for Hamas, while another denounced both Hamas and the Israeli state. Despite the heterogeneous politics, people were receptive to the Weekly Worker and we were able to get out large numbers. Naturally, every campaign, group and ‘party’ was doing the same thing. People were also eager to carry Stop the War, MAB, PSC, SWP and SPEW placards and buy Palestine badges.
Then there was the rain. Pretty wet to begin with, then dry and then the heavens opened. Storm Babet hit central London and soaked us to our skins. Despite that, the atmosphere remained militant and enthusiastic. I saw people clambering up scaffolding, railings or onto ministerial windowsills to wave the Palestinian flag. Everyone chanted pro-Palestine slogans - a popular one being ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!’ - a call for a one-state solution once upheld by the PLO and Fatah - which, according to home secretary Suella Braverman, means the destruction of Israel and is therefore anti-Semitic! Presumably ANC calls for the destruction of apartheid South Africa were anti-white. Presumably Nelson Mandella deserved his prison sentence on Robben Island.
Braverman is clearly out to silence, close down, delegitimise solidarity with Palestinians. She has after all been urging the police to treat the chant for ‘jihad’ as a “racially aggravated” offence. Despite that, I am glad to say, I did not see any police snatch squads barging into the packed crowd to arrest anyone for making the jihad call for a militant, an armed struggle, against the Zionist state. But who knows what will happen next time?
Braverman’s very public summoning of Met police chief, Sir Mark Rowley, and her demand for still further restrictions on our already severely limited right to free speech, is now the norm though. Causing offence, upsetting someone, voicing an honest opinion is increasingly problematic.
Just before the demonstration got going from Marble Arch a Central Line tube driver, who was unable to book the day off to attend himself, led a carriage-to-carriage ‘Free Palestine’ chant, using the train’s tannoy. Brilliant. He finished by saying: “Hope you all have a blessed day today and look after yourselves” and urging everyone to keep the Palestinian people “in your prayers.” The driver has been subsequently suspended and is now “under investigation” (rightly, he has been defended by Diane Abbott, to the feigned horror of the frothing rightwing press and media).
Attempts to smother Palestine solidarity are not just confined to the Tory government: Labour general secretary David Evans sent out an email warning elected Labour representatives not to attend pro-Palestine demonstrations. There is a clear pro-Zionist consensus between Rishi Sunak’s Conservative Party and Keir Starmer’s Labour Party.
However, despite Evans’ warning, former Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was present and gave a standard social-pacifist speech denouncing the government’s lack of action over a ceasefire and letting aid through into Gaza. Of course, he hasn’t got anything to lose. His career as a Labour MP is over (like Diane Abbott’s). Apart from Apsana Begum, no member of the Parliamentary Labour Party spoke (nor, according to my knowledge, marched). The Socialist Campaign Group is evidently useless, evidently spineless.
According to Socialist Worker, “The demonstration last week opened up new possibilities for solidarity with Palestine - and wider resistance against the government. This week’s larger demonstration opens up even greater potential.”1 Yes, October 21 was a great day for Palestine solidarity, with hundreds of thousands proclaiming that the government’s and the whole establishment’s support for the Israeli regime is not in their name.
However, the limits of this and other demonstrations must be borne in mind. People come together for the afternoon and then they go home. They are not organised. Therefore their anger, their militancy, their energy is dissipated, not contained, not harnessed, not directed. Perhaps some will join the SWP, others SPEW, the CPB or even Socialist Appeal. The PSC has certainly seen a flood of new supporters. That is no bad thing, far from it. But we have to go beyond the confessional sects and the essentially circular politics of protest.
We need to challenge for power and for that there is no substitute. We need a mass party, not just any mass party though, but a mass Communist Party,