Chris Strafford reports on last weekend’s demonstrations. Additional reporting from around the country by Tony Greenstein and Mohsen Sabbagh
With over 1,000 now dead in Gaza, demonstrations have been taking place across the world in protest against the massacre. On Saturday January 10 more than 100,000 marched from Hyde Park, past the Israeli embassy, to Kensington Palace Gardens. The police and media systematically downplayed the numbers – the first police ‘estimate’ was a patently absurd 12,000.
The demonstration was vibrant and angry, with perhaps a majority consisting of young people from schools, colleges and universities across the country. They included many thousands of young Muslims who chanted anti-war and pro-Palestinian slogans. There was a sizeable contingent of anti-Zionist Jews, as well as the 57 varieties of the British left selling their papers. CPGB comrades sold books, T shirts, badges and other material, including over 100 Weekly Workers, and helped distribute a Hands Off the People of Iran leaflet condemning the Israeli attacks and linking them to the situation in Iran and the Middle East as a whole.
Saturday saw the rejuvenation of the anti-war movement in a big way – and new generation of youth coming into militant politics.
Outside the road that led to the Israeli embassy a small but growing body of demonstrators, not least those committed to, or influenced by, militant Islam, stopped and began burning American and Israeli flags. Sticks, fireworks and red paint were thrown. Others hurled shoes in the now famous gesture of contempt. The riot police lashed out with batons causing many injuries. Demonstrators fought back. For a time the police seemed to have lost control. But it was a set piece and they were bound to win. Police cameramen took pictures in order to single out those who were to be later arrested.
The police must surely have known exactly what was going to happen and they meticulously planned accordingly. And they got the TV and newspaper pictures the British state wanted. In the subsequent fighting, one copper was knocked unconscious, whilst two received facial injuries.
On our side STWC stewards valiantly tried to keep the vast demonstration moving despite the growing bottleneck which took up half the width of Kensington High Street. The sheer crush of people led to several marchers having to be taken to hospital, including a 10-year-old child. But why exactly did the STWC leadership push for this route? In effect they were courting the danger of a small minority triggering a full-scale police riot. As it was, there was a police trap.
As the demonstration finished and people started making their way back to buses and the tube, the police completely cordoned off those remaining outside the embassy. They had to endure sub-zero temperatures as the police only allowed out a trickle of people after taking their details. All were said to be suspected of “public order offences” and “criminal damage”.
We are all Palestinians
A relatively large number of people on the demonstration carried Hamas or other Islamist placards and banners. There was some shouting of Allahu akbar, but from what I can gather there were no anti-semitic slogans shouted. Though Weyman Bennett of the SWP’s central committee was heard demanding that Israeli Jews “should go back to where they came from … New York or wherever”.
Of course, identifying with Hamas or any section of the resistance movement is understandable – in Gaza they are virtually the only people offering some kind of defence against the Zionists. The people of Palestine elected Hamas because of its military prowess and refusal to submit to a life under the Israeli jackboot. However, Hamas is a vile, anti-democratic and reactionary force that has no positive solution for the Palestinian or Israeli people. Communists must explain clearly why Hamas cannot bring freedom to Palestine. We should be working to win the new layers of youth, which are untainted by the defeats of the last anti-war upsurge, to become working class fighters.
The fact that a popular chant was not ‘We are all Hamas’ (it was the Socialist Workers Party which had led the chanting of ‘We are all Hezbollah’ at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 2006), but ‘We are all Palestinians’, was positive. This was a slogan that expressed solidarity, not with some reactionary grouping, but with an oppressed people.
Unfortunately, when those from the left, including Lindsey German (SWP) and Andrew Murray (Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain), took to the platform at the beginning and end of the demonstration, they did not put forward a working class analysis and solution, and instead essentially parroted the liberal left.
The speeches as a whole were as predictable as ever. George Galloway called on demonstrators to move into action against those who sell Israeli products (boycotts were a common theme from the platform) and proclaimed ‘Victory to the resistance!’ He also urged people to force their MPs to “turn parliament into a battleground”. Fellow Respect member Yvonne Ridley – like Galloway a regular on the Tehran mouthpiece, Press TV – declared that she would have “voted Hamas back into power” if she were in Palestine. There was, however, criticism of reactionary arab regimes, not least Egypt.
Other speakers included Lauren Booth (Tony Blair’s sister-in-law), Jeremy Corbyn MP, Tariq Ali, Craig Murray (former ambassador to Uzbekistan), Seamus Milne and Bianca Jagger. There were many calls for boycotts, war crime tribunals, respect for international law and an immediate ceasefire, as the lords, liberals and pop stars easily outnumbered the left. As in 2003, there was a Liberal Democrat speaker too.
The following day, Zionists and their supporters came out onto the streets of London and Manchester. Around 4,000 demonstrated in London and 700 in Manchester – a tiny fraction of the numbers demonstrating for Gaza, although you would not know it from media reports.
The pressure is now on to build and sustain the movement. This coming weekend will see local actions up and down the UK, as well as a long string of public meetings. Emerging from this movement are solidarity groups which are planning and organising actions – this may revitalise local STWC branches.
Saturday January 10 showed that many tens of thousands of people are ready to come out onto the streets against war and imperialism. The strength and militancy of the demonstrations is to be welcomed and encouraged. But this movement must not be dissipated again either by the SWP’s grand old Duke of York ‘strategy’ or attempts to channel it into a dead-end, ‘all things to all people’, Respect-type party.
The left must consistently promote a working class programme for extreme democracy to challenge the UK state – the most reliable ally of the US warmongers and shamefaced supporter of Zionist slaughter.
Brighton: Wonderful day
Saturday January 10 saw the largest demonstration I have ever witnessed in Brighton – apart from the mobilisation against the Iraq war on the day it started – and I have lived here for 34 years. At one point I counted 1,350 people, not including those on the sidewalk, those who joined later or those who left early.
In total well over one and a half thousand people in Brighton and Hove came to demonstrate against the genocide that is taking place in Gaza. And they were not just Palestinians, Arabs or leftists, but ordinary people disgusted at the bombing of schools and clinics. It was a rare and wonderful day. Even the weather was on our side! The demonstration had been organised in less than five days and it is a tribute to the organisers that so many turned out to express their feelings.
Unlike the Lebanon demonstration three years ago, when the police tried to intimidate us, there was no trouble of any kind. At the opening rally a Palestinian student and Palestine Solidarity Campaign member was the first speaker and then I spoke on behalf of Jews for Boycotting Israeli Goods. The demonstration wound its way slowly – it took about two hours – down the Western Road, past the main Churchill Square shopping centre to the sea front by the Palace Pier. There were more speeches, including one from former Labour councillor Francis Tonks, who despite being over 80 walked the length of the march. At the very end George Galloway MP spoke to those remaining.
One thing is clear – despite all the propaganda, the Israeli hasbarah and the BBC’s repetition of the case for Israel 24 hours a day, people have not been taken in. Firecrackers which have killed a score of people in eight years cannot be compared to modern F16 jets that target residential areas and kill hundreds. Using phosphorus to burn people alive in order to provide a ‘smokescreen’ is unacceptable in modern civilised society. Ordinary people can see that Israel is a state run by racist barbarians.
Manchester: Standing against Zionism
Over 200 people attended a counter-demonstration on January 11 against a Zionist rally in support of the Israeli slaughter. Around 700 Zionist supporters attended the rally, but they were drowned out by the chanting of an angry and militant counter-demonstration.
The Zionist rally lasted for just over an hour and appeared to have been cut short by our action. Several Zionists tried to intimidate and antagonise the counter-demonstrators, with one stupid group even running behind our lines and waving Israel flags, only to have to run away again when some of the pro-Gaza protesters gave chase.
The counter-demonstration was made up of the organised left in Manchester, the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Action Palestine, Jews for Justice and young Muslims. The SWP was completely absent from the counter-demonstration; in fact, SWP members had been working hard the previous week to encourage people to not attend. For this they came under sustained and severe criticism at the Gaza Solidarity Campaign meeting on Tuesday 13. After two successful demonstrations, Manchester activists have shown that they can bring out hundreds of people at very short notice, and have also managed to sustain a daily vigil numbering over a hundred outside the BBC building on Oxford Road from 5.30pm.
Sheffield: Gaza solidarity
Sheffield Palestine Solidarity Campaign organised a local demonstration on January 10 to show solidarity with our brothers and sisters in Palestine.
Even though the Stop the War Coalition had organised five coaches for the London demo, there was still a healthy turnout of approximately 500 outside the town hall. Communist Students members and supporters of Hands Off the People of Iran organised a stall arguing against any aggression from the imperialists or their clients and in solidarity with the Palestinian people. We also publicised the February 5 launch of Hopi in Sheffield.
The most interesting incident was the attempted expulsion from the demo of Alliance for Workers’ Liberty supporters by the PSC organisers – for their ‘No to the IDF, No to Hamas’ banner. While undoubtedly the AWL delights in pro-Zionist provocations, the response highlights another problem – a worrying tendency among the PSC and the left to adopt an uncritical attitude towards Hamas.
On Saturday January 17 there is another demonstration outside Sheffield town hall – Hopi and CS urge all those in the area to come along, show your support for the Palestinian people and opposition to Israeli aggression.