Mass movement erupts
Simon Wells, Dave Isaacson, Sachin Sharma, Steve Cooke, Jamie Tedford, James Turley and Anne McShane report on the local protests
Tens of thousands have shown their solidarity with the people of Gaza. From Birmingham to St Albans and from Oxford to Newport there have been spirited local protests. As our reports show, one of the features almost everywhere is the influx of young people, especially young Muslims, into the anti-war movement
Like elsewhere the London demonstration was called at very short notice. It was also not very well publicised - in part because the Stop the War Coalition website had been hacked into, and was therefore down for the preceding week.
In such circumstances the fact that 10,000 people turned up in Trafalgar Square - just a week after the huge January 10 national mobilisation - was very pleasing, as were our sales of the Weekly Worker. Despite attempts by police, media and establishment to play it down, there is mass revulsion against Israel’s terror attacks and solidarity with the population of Palestine.
The rally featured a range of platform speakers, Tony Benn and Lindsey German being particularly well received. Among those attending were large numbers of young people, not least school students. Young Muslims appear to have taken the lead and bought their school friends along - a feature of all the demonstrations since Israel launched its assault. The non-aligned left accounted for a good proportion of the rest.
At the end of the rally, a group of about 500 militant young people, mainly Muslims, carrying whatever placards they happened to have picked up, marched out of Trafalgar Square. Apparently the aim was to head for the Israeli embassy in Kensington.
They were eventually stopped by the police in Piccadilly and were dispersed. Some anarchists pulled down roadside scaffolding and bollards along the way while a police helicopter hovered overhead.
There is a big danger that, in the absence of any viable leftwing force, the new layers of youth being attracted will simply dissipate.
The local demonstration in the Calder Valley, organised by the Halifax Friends of Palestine group, was held on Friday January 16. Its size was impressive, with around 400-500 present in total.
At least 90% of those on the march were Muslim - overwhelmingly mobilised by the Madni mosque, in front of which the demonstration assembled. Unfortunately almost all of the white people, except for some teenagers that joined in on route, were recognisable as old hands at this sort of thing.
Before the march set off, speakers included Christine McCafferty (MP for Calder Valley) and Linda Riordan, Halifax MP and Labour Representation Committee member. There was also religious chanting. The march went from the mosque, which is situated in an ethnically diverse working class area of Halifax, into the town centre.
There were a number of chants of “Allahu akbar” led by those controlling the PA in the van heading the march. Most of the slogans, though, consisted of “Free, free Palestine - down, down Israel” and “Gordon Brown, shame on you”.
Unfortunately at one point I overheard a couple of individuals amongst a small group of young Muslim men trying to start a chant of “Kill all the Jews”. They seemed to think this was a bit of a laugh - however, this simply is not funny: quite the opposite.
After seeing that nobody else was challenging them, I went over to object. Such chants are not only despicably racist, but also completely counterproductive - there are plenty of anti-Zionist Jews who support the Palestinians and have every right to join demonstrations like this without feeling threatened. They pretended not to know what I was talking about, but nevertheless switched to other slogans.
We held a rally at the end of the march outside the library at the Northgate which was addressed by a local Muslim leader and a young Palestinian man, who read out some moving messages from his relatives in Gaza. All in all, this was an impressive demonstration, but the left clearly needs to make its presence more felt - though it cannot do this effectively until it gets its own house in order.
Later in the day I attended a vigil in the nearby town of Hebden Bridge, where around 30 people waved flags and held up placards at a road junction. Lots of passing drivers tooted in support and I helped another comrade from Hands Off the People of Iran distribute leaflets. A healthy number of Weekly Workers were sold during the day.
Many Leeds people had joined the big national demo in London the previous week, and so a bigger turnout was expected on January 17 for the march organised by Leeds Coalition Against the War. However, although Socialist Workers Party comrades in particular were out in force, there was actually a decrease - down from around 700 at the final rally on January 10 to about 550.
One might have thought that, with activists on the ground agitating through the week, we would have seen a marked increase, but unfortunately this was just not the case.
The fact that the revolutionary groups were more in evidence on the 17th, though, did mean that this week’s event was more obviously leftwing and more militant. An ex-SWPer sat down at the front of the march outside M&S and succeeded in halting the whole police-led march for a short time.
The venting of anger was taken out on the pro-Zionist owners of the store and it seemed for a moment that M&S might be stormed. But, as the volume of chanting increased, so did the number of police officers defending the store front. LCAW stewards pushed on to the final rally.
The LCAW steering committee will meet on January 24 and decide whether to hold another rally later in the day.
The north-east hosted two main demonstra-tions last Saturday - one in Newcastle and another in Middlesbrough.
The demo in Newcastle was attended by 200-300 people, but had a less high-profile line-up of speakers than the Middlesbrough rally, which attracted well over 2,000 supporters - a significant proportion of Asian descent, including many young people.
Frank Cook, deselected Labour MP for Stockton North, and Stephen Hughes MEP were among the speakers, but they were unable to match the oratorical skills of Respect Renewal member Yvonne Ridley and the SWP’s Yunus Bakhsh.
Ridley described Israel as “the real face of America” and argued that its actions in Gaza were designed to show what sort of treatment would be given to anyone who messed with it. A ceasefire was desirable, but “not at any price”. The siege had to be ended too.
She praised Hamas’s resistance and said they should not give up until they “get the ceasefire they want”. She also condemned the Arab governments who were servile to the US, particularly the Saudi regime and Egyptian “pharaoh”, Hosni Mubarak. He was “the biggest Zionist”, she said, and the Egyptian people should “rise up and tear him down.”
Citing the example of Birmingham city council, Ridley called on the demonstrators to “put their councillors on the spot and get Middlesbrough to become the first north-east council to ban Israeli goods”.
Yunus Bakhsh gave a typically powerful speech, highlighting the media’s misrepresentation of the conflict and how it had ignored the 100,000-strong demo in London the previous weekend. He ended on a disappointing note, however, when he too called for “victory to Hamas”, echoing the approach we have seen the SWP and its allies take towards the Iranian clerical regime - ie, that of supporting whichever force it sees as opposing US imperialist interests, no matter what they may do to oppress workers and democrats within their own country.
For the second consecutive Saturday there was a demo in Sheffield city centre, called once again primarily by Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign. Numbers were slightly down on the previous week, but, with no demo in London to attend, the left groups were out in force.
Amongst these were the SWP and Socialist Party, who, along with the PCS, provided speakers for the rally which took place before a short march around the centre. They highlighted the plight of the Palestinian people - the death toll had risen to around 1,500, a third of whom are children. It was rightly pointed out that Israel is blatantly targeting buildings containing civilians trying to escape the onslaught in its supposed war on Hamas.
Although both the SWP and SP linked the current war to wider imperialist aims, they were less vocal about the necessary response - independent working class organisation guided by principled Marxist politics. Still we don’t want to risk alienating and confusing the audience with the only viable road to freeing the working class globally.
The Alliance for Workers’ Liberty provided controversy once again with their “No to IDF, no to Hamas” banner. This time it was pulled down and destroyed. Apparently rejecting both the Israeli armed forces and Hamas is also too confusing an argument for people to cope with. Ignoring for a moment the soft Zionist politics of the AWL, I would defend the right of demonstrators to bring criticism of Hamas to pro-Gaza events - something which has too often been absent.
However, an organisation whose leading theoretician recently asked in the name of what alternative Israel should be condemned if it launched an attack on Iran, is now widely regarded as suspect. Incredibly one of its comrades wondered why he was forcibly removed from a recent picket of the Israeli embassy in London for waving an Israeli flag alongside a Palestinian one. In the name of what alternative does the AWL condemn Hamas?
With another national demo organised for next week, it is time for the left to critically analyse its role at a time when so many people have taken to the streets to oppose the latest Zionist outrage and imperialist complicity.
The most obvious, and heartening, feature of the Gaza protest in Exeter was its size - local media reported 800 marchers, which seemed to me a relatively fair estimate, if a little conservative. Not bad for a town of 80,000 people.
It dwarfed the previous week’s demo, where there were at most 150. Most of the increase is probably due to the return of Exeter’s student population in the interim, but the demo was by no means limited to students - school kids, families as well as the ‘unusual suspects’ were in attendance too. I’m sure I heard an infant gurgling in between the chants (led by Mike Gurney of the SWP)!
Even the students were not simply the activists of Socialist Students, Friends of Palestine and so on - I came across many friends who I had not thought even basically politically aware, but who felt compelled to turn out in disgust at the imperialist-backed massacre.
To their credit, the SP comrades openly called for no confidence in capitalist governments - unfortunately, they did not get a platform speech, despite a hefty contingent on the demo.
The political level was unsurprisingly very low, with platform speakers at the rally featuring SWP members, Palestinian students and Christian peaceniks alike. No attempt was made to tackle the thorny questions of whether the UN and international law can be relied upon to deliver peace, for example.
There have been demonstrations across Ireland in the last few weeks. The sense of outrage at the collective punishment of the Palestinian people has been evident in the large numbers turning out for marches and meetings.
The protestors are mainly drawn from the existing left and sections of the working class radicalised by the events of the last three weeks in Gaza. The Muslim population in Ireland is relatively small, but it has had a visible presence. New committees have sprung up and the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC) - recently in reality confined to Dublin - stands to grow qualitatively.
Bus workers in Cork organised a convoy of medical supplies and other materials donated by the working class in the city. Similar initiatives have been taken in other parts of the country. I would not dismiss these efforts as charity, but as working class solidarity with the people of Gaza in their struggle.
But we need to go much further and build our class as a real political force, able to provide answers to the barbarity of capitalism, rather than be limited to protests and picking up the pieces.
The IPSC puts great emphasis on the boycott of Israeli goods as a protest tactic. Demonstrations have been held at major supermarkets and customers leafleted. But, while useful in raising awareness, a consumer boycott is by its nature individualised and usually ineffective.
Also at present it is highly unlikely to have much effect on the heavily subsidised Israeli economy. The boycott of South African goods in the 1980s was notable particularly for the refusal of Dunnes Stores workers to handle Cape fruit. We should learn lessons from this and have an orientation to the organised workers’ movement.
Demonstrations and other events are planned again for this coming Saturday.