The Stop the War Iraq demonstration took place ten years ago today. With such a big anniversary it’s naturally been in the media a lot already, as well as on people’s Facebook statuses and in our collective thoughts.
For many it was a historical moment that, whilst a failure in the sense that the war went ahead, was also a political awakening for a whole generation; an indelible reminder, seared into our collective memory, that mobilising the masses, the millions is an eminent possibility.
Where were you on February 15th, 2003? Here at Pluto we thought we’d share some of our own experiences
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Chris Browne, Marketing Executive
I was only 13 in 2003, which definitely makes me the youngest person at Pluto. A nascent political awareness (flashes of stones being thrown at Catholic school children in Ulster, aerial attacks in Kosovo, war in Sierra Leone…) was nurtured in the late ’90s from CBBC’s Newsround and fragments of my parents’ dinnertime conversation. I’d catch a few minutes of the 6 o’clock (and later the 10 o’clock) news before trudging up to bed. In 2001, 9/11 tore down the screen that kept ‘politics’ translucent – if no longer completely opaque.
In the months that followed the collapse of the Twin Towers I saw Tony Blair go from fresh-faced saviour of the British Left to a haggard old war criminal – that silver tongue of his started to tarnish, though it remained as beguiling as ever. Overnight, his hair had gone from brown to a steely grey, and the lines turned to trenches on his face. You can pretty much chart my political awakening against this utter collapse of optimism and youth.
As 2002 drew to a close war in Iraq looked increasingly likely. I remember very well the day of the big march in February 2003. Living in West Dorset meant that going up to London for the demo wasn’t an option. Though the train line permitted it, my age did not. So I sat in year nine French class, with my mind a hundred miles away from the vocab I was meant to be learning.
Then a couple of members of our school Sixth Form knocked on the classroom door. They said that everyone was leaving school to mobilise at the top of town. We were having our own demonstration, and we should leave now if we wanted to come along. Our French teacher had clearly been prepared for this, and so she told us that if anyone wanted to head out to the demo they had to sign a piece of paper drawn up by the school saying that that’s what we were doing. As a very nerdy, straight-laced school kid, the idea of skipping school mid lesson was terrifying. Doubly so the idea of notifying the formidable headmaster, Dr Melvin, that that was what I was doing. I conferred with my friend Hugh, and we decided that on balance it was worth it – no matter what the consequences at school, or the shouting we’d likely receive from our parents at home.
We headed down to the top of town, where a large group of students were gleefully chanting “1, 2, 3, 4, we don’t want no fucking war!” The unexpected, exhilarating freedom of the event had moved some kids to take their ties off and wear them round their heads like in Lord of the Flies… Pedestrians and shoppers looked on in sympathetic interest, though some complained about the language. Probably my first exposure to the screwed-up morality that finds the word ‘fuck’ more offensive than the butchering of innocent people.
After a while Dr Melvin pulled up in his beemer. He addressed us all with the reasoned language that I’ve come to loathe from politicians – “you’ve had your protest, you’ve had your say; now it’s time to come back to school, quietly and calmly.” We did, obviously. There’s only so much rebellion the nervous system can take – though we were jubilant to learn later that Dr Melvin had got a ticket for parking on a yellow while he dispersed our protest.
I got home later and tentatively told my parents what I’d done that day. Much to my surprise they were very proud of me; especially pleasing because my older brother hadn’t gone, and grumbled about it afterwards…
Ten years on and I’d say this was the start of my political life. It lives up to all the hyperbole that will doubtless be written today. It was a massive failure, a massive moment, a massive catalyst.
Jon Wheatley, Publicity Manager
This was one of the very first large protests I’d taken part in since moving to London for university and the thing that really took me back was the sheer scale of it. I’ve never seen that many people in one place in my life. Every street was flooded with all people from all walks of life, completely disparate but united in their opposition to the Iraq War.
One particular moment I remember very clearly was the moment our section of the march reached Shaftsbury Avenue. We were marching (shuffling!) alongside the Sheffield Samba Band who at that point were taking a rest from playing. Suddenly they struck up a fierce samba beat. The sound was immense; the high surrounding buildings echoing and amplifying the drums and whistles and turning the protest into a carnival. Watching the wave of dancing spread through the crowd is a sight that I don’t think I’ll ever forget.
I suppose the other thing I remember was the sense of optimism that we all felt. People felt so strongly that we could make a difference. Throughout the day, you’d hear disbelief at the scale of the march .There were so many of us. Surely the government would listen. Surely they couldn’t still go to war when so many of the electorate had registered their opposition so vocally. It really felt like things were going to change.
Sadly, future events would prove us all wrong.
Joana Ramiro, Office Manager and Editorial Assistant
Ten years ago I convinced my mum it was ok for me to go on the anti-war demo by telling her my history teacher was going too (which was true). I dressed in white (I was a bit of a pacifist as a 14 year old) and took to the streets on my very first demonstration.
Lisbon was rather warm for this time of the year and I never felt so alive walking through town amongst what Wikipedia tells me were 80,000 people, reclaiming peace, justice and our say in what turned out to be the grossest complicity of the Portuguese government with the US and British ones. I established myself as a Marxist that day and despite the bullying at school and many family arguments that followed I never looked back. Ten years and the rage is still here.
February 2003 was the first time I’d participated in a demonstration. The most striking thing about the day, for a 16 year old, was the almost palpable sense of excitement, solidarity and unity – as everyone must have said, I’d never seen so many people in one place. However in the flurry of nostalgic musings it is important to look at what these worldwide demonstrations achieved and what they could- or did not.
In 2007 Slavoj Zizek wrote a piece in LRB entitled ‘Resistance is Surrender’ which argued with typically counter-intuitive flair that the anti-War marches were an instance of what Simon Critchley calls an ’Infinite Demand’, the idea that a politics of resistance should be propelled by infinite ethical demands too large . For Zizek the demonstration revealed the problem with this approach, in particular the ‘strange symbiotic relationship between power and resistance’ by which both sides ended up in a position of congratulatory self satisfaction. George Bush’s reaction to the protests was to use them as another reason for war. We wage war on Iraq so that the people in Iraq can also have the right to ineffectual pleas for state disarmament.
By celebrating the march in isolation, we risk confirming the self congratulatory satisfaction that Bush felt at the sight of seeing people able to ‘express themselves’ through this type of resistance. To go beyond this way of thinking firstly it is crucial to recall the increasingly stringent attempts by police and state to discipline protest within the last ten years or so. Students, disaffected rioters, environmental activists, squatters and traveller groups are among those that have suffered the most from the crackdown. Secondly, we must ask what options are there beyond the fairly inconsequential form of A-B marches to other mass actions such as strikes and occupations.
Thirdly, the danger in this type of celebration is it makes February 2003 an isolated emblem, kept sheltered from ongoing multiplicity of struggles against both neo-imperialism and the rule of capital.
The Human Costs of Carnage
Michael Otterman, Richard Hil and Paul Wilson. Foreword by Dahr Jamail
Reveals the true human costs of war in Iraq, an unfolding tragedy that has yielded millions of dead and displaced Iraqis since the first Gulf War.
“If I could only recommend one book that provides a comprehensive
“Lindsey German links two major forms of women’s involvement in war: as activists opposing conflict and as workers during it. Seen through the prism of women’s experience, German tells a fascinating and important story.” – Nina Power, Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at Roehampton University and the author of One-Dimensional Woman (2009)