The November 20, 2003 March Against Bush's Visit to London --by Dale Reynolds
Thursday, November 20th began as a grey day with the chill and threat of cold rain that is typical of days in winter, but not in autumn. A British acquaintance of mine on the Internet said this weather was the reason she was not going to the march against George W. Bush's state visit to the UK, although she also felt that certain human elements in the march would cause great violence. As much as she is opposed to Bush, she was not therefore going to demonstrate against him.
I left my home in north London very early and found I had no trouble at all getting to Russell Square, near the designated launching site and where I was to meet up for the first time with ExPats Against Bush. ExPats Against Bush began just days before as an Internet site started by Luke Robinson, a 29-year old gentlemen from South Carolina who's lived here in London for awhile. Already, ExPats Against Bush had a few hundred members and many of us had made it -- we were here to provide the official, start-off contingency for the march.
We'd been given the honor to lead off this march against Bush as we were Americans of all political persuasions. A friend of mine joined ExPats simply on word of it, as if to fill a personal need, and he is a West Point graduate who commanded a company of infantry in the Vietnam war. So we were not all "radicals," or anything of the sort. The banner we all marched under was, "Proud of my country, shamed by my President." There were signs with other slogans, too, protesting Bush's poor record on the environment, his assault on civil rights and the United States Constitution, and the unprecedented level of corruption in his administration, to cite just a few more causes that had gathered now, though it was early still, thousands of British citizens as well as Americans protesting their own government.
Luke and others of us gathered at the front of the procession, which was quickly growing in numbers and noise. There seemed to be hundreds of parade stewards alone, each ribboned with identification that they each belonged to any number of organizations that had so responsibly sponsored this demonstration. Foremost among them were the Coalition Against the War, who had sponsored such demonstrations before this one, notably the march against the war on Iraq that took place before the war on Iraq and which drew 2,000,000 people to these same streets of London and resulted in only one arrest.
At the front of the parade, which was held back from starting by police, some of whom looked more nervous than any of us, I found two of my America for Dean, London Committee people, our chair, Susan Trevelyan-Syke, and our website manager, Jan Davies. We happened to meet Monsignor Bruce Kent, the retired head of the Campaign For Nuclear Disarmament (CND), who were also there is significant numbers. The monsignor told us about his having attended Mayor Ken Livingstone's Alternative Party, held during George W. Bush's bash behind the thick walls of Buckingham Palace with the Queen and Prime Minister Tony Blair. It sounded like the party to have been to, with Mayor Ken, Bruce Kent, and other genuine intellectual humanitarians such as playwright Howard Pinter in attendance.
At the head of the procession we also met an American World War 2 veteran, Phil, who wore his uniform to demonstrate that World War 2 veterans were also against Bush. Also against the war on Iraq in particular is Ron Kovic, and he was there in his wheel chair to be the official lead of the march. Ron is the paraplegic Vietnam veteran featured in Oliver Stone's movie, BORN ON THE 4TH OF JULY, which was based on Ron's autobiographical account of his experiences as a Marine in combat and then an active dissenter against the war in Vietnam. Ron was here to lead us all in the march against the war in Iraq in particular, and against all of Bush's policies. I did not carry a sign on this journey. I carried a notepad, reporting for www.radioleft.com, as I do on these occasions. And I was able to interview Ron Kovic, who turned out to be one of the nicest guys I've ever met. I believe the anecdote is worth the telling, so here it is.
I introduced myself to Ron by saying I'm a Vietnam vet, too, and as a screenwriter, some time ago had a few words -- about him -- with Oliver Stone. His eyes were bright and laughing. "I've had a few words with Oliver Stone, too," Ron said. I had failed to remember that Ron was not too happy with Stone's portrayal of him in the movie, but we agreed the movie has a message which is all too relevant today. Ron's message was just as important. Ron Kovic told me, and the rest of the world that will hear it, that when our governments are on the wrong course and doing the wrong things, we all must find the courage to oppose them until real civilization returns. Since November 20 I've met a number of people who have met Ron Kovic in the various anti-Bush events that were held during Bush's visit to Buckingham Palace. We hold one view in common -- Ron Kovic is an inspiring and very decent individual. We could use more people like him.
That thought brings me back to Luke Robinson. Luke wanted all of us to agree, as we did, that ExPats Against Bush was a lawful assembly who sought to protest the Bush administration without disrespect of any kind to the law or to the civil interests of others. This we all agreed to, for this is the kind of people we are. However, I have to say, apart from some dirty ditties made up by a few school kids once the march did get well underway, we were all a completely respectful, and respectable, lot. And though I won't repeat them here, the ditties did bring a laugh from all the adults who heard them.
As the crowds for the march gathered behind us, they also gathered on both sides of us. The police looked a little more nervous, and as if they might not get the march organized in good order. Chaos might soon come to be, though there was no pushing and shoving or complaining, even as toes were stepped on and positions nearer the front lost. Behind we who were fortunate to lead the procession (although now a few more people were ahead of me, Susan, Jan, Bruce Kent and others), were those from the CND, with a parade-wide banner, and behind them, a forest of signs. I imagined the banner, as yet not raised as high as it would go, to be a sea wall. Behind it the weight of humanity was palpable.
My son was there somewhere. He and some of his friends, all around the age of 16, walked out of their school to join the protest against Bush. In my son's particular school, I heard one or two of the teachers had walked out, too. In other schools, boys and girls were marked truant when they left. But they left. And here they were, a big part of the force that wanted to push all ahead.
People of all nations were there, too. France. Switzerland. Turkey. I talked with a young woman from Syria, who carried her nation's flag. The media were there, too -- all the major London papers, BBC TV and radio, the other London TV news channels; and there were TV reporters from all the countries of Europe.
As far as I know, only NBC were there from the media-loving USA. I know that only because Nick, one of the first members of ExPats Against Bush, was interviewed by NBC.
We don't know if anyone saw Nick, or any of us, on any TV in the United States. Back where all this was happening, though, not one of us who were at the front of the march -- not one, not even the tallest of us, could see how far the protest went back. But it was reported to us that it went all the way back to Euston Square to the north, some three-quarters of a mile from our start-off point on the south of Malet Street. I asked some people around me -- a nice lady from somewhere in the American midwest and a gentleman from Alaska -- how many people can you fit on a broad street with broad sidewalks in three-quarters of a mile. Nobody knew for sure.
There was some to-and-froing at the front rank of the march as the "Mexican wave," in the form of a happy human roar, came from way back in Euston to us, wave after wave. The rumor was going around that Tony Blair's police were delaying the march (we were now an hour and a half overdue) because they thought it might rain, at last, and we'd all go home discouraged. But even the English weather seemed to be in protest of George W. Bush, for the sky cleared and the dampness in the air lifted and even the sun broke out from time to time. It felt, outdoors, to be 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit; at least the amount of people who had made it here made an actual difference in the temperature of the air. We made the atmosphere itself.
It couldn't be long from now, could it? we wondered. Maybe not. And in the huge windows of the building dead ahead we noticed men is suits with some very serious camera equipment. Movies cameras and still cameras on tripods were taking our faces. "CIA," I suggested. One in our party said very clearly her name -- so that her lips could be read. Then, we all did it.
And then, as if on cue, the police let us go. And for what seemed a very long time -- probably a quarter of a mile -- the brave stewards, many of them young teenagers, formed human chains amongst our various groups so that there would be no one hurt from a fall and going underfoot.
Everyone was trying to pace, or set a pace, and keep a place, or get a place, and without any one of us falling. It was a strange sort of cacophonous choreography, with only one direction and purpose -- to get to Trafalgar Square, three miles ahead by the route we were going, in part to see the toppling of George W. Bush in effigy.
I have said much about having been honored, with Ron Kovic and others, at the head of the march. That soon became an arguable point, in reality. Crowds of protesters pushed their way in to the front of the march from the side streets. Soon, the very front of the march was way ahead, and no one knew exactly how far ahead. But we were all happy, and determined. Crowds gathered on all sides of all the streets we went on, and urged us on, cheered us loudly, from hundreds of yards up some of the side streets.
There were signs of all kinds, one for almost every person marching. Some were from oganizations, but many were home made. One young man I walked behind marched with, "Beware -- Americans working overhead." For sure they were. Helicopters were following us all the long way. I noticed the first hovering helicopter back at Russell Square, hours before, when the ExPats Against Bush were assembling round Luke Robinson, and his friend and co-founder, Nick, a young advertising creative originating from San Diego; and around Angelique Fernandez, an actress hailing from New York City; and others who were being spied on, such as another American, a woman who described herself as a "banker against Bush!"
But I was talking of signs. "I Want My Country Back." That one, carried by another American, struck a particular chord with me.
I was also grateful for where I was: London, and England. I was with tens of thousands of people, many of them fellow Americans, who were marching against the visit, against the policies, of George W. Bush, a man whom many people realize is the illegitimate President of the United States; and who through his actions subsequent to the 2000 election has done little but confirm his image as something less than the democratic leader of the free world. With chants such as, "George Bush, go back home," we like a flood poured down Southampton Row with all its banks and offices; over Kingsway, our nearest point to "The City" -- the square mile of stock exchanges and brokering houses; continued on toward The River Thames, taking a right on the arch of a road called Aldwych, and then right across Waterloo Bridge we marched, in the freshening and slightly damp breeze that blew along the river. On the other side, we went right down York Road, where the Grand Old Duke of York and his 10,000 men he marched up and down wastefully in the song were not to be seen; but we did see, somewhere along these hundreds of stone mansions and other giant buildings, an archway between two schools that crossed the broad street, and on it were all the students from both schools, waiting for us, after their school day had ended, to wave to us all, as we did to them. It was a moment that told us there is a future that will be unlike this present time. A wonderful calm came over all of us. Until the cheers resumed. And after York Road we went right back over the Thames, over Westminster Bridge, to confront Tony Blair's government. Along Parliament Square, along Whitehall, and very near the Prime Minister's residence at 10 Downing Street, we stopped, and told Blair and Bush what we all thought of them. No one can deny the authority of tens of thousands of voices. Bureaucrats in the tall windows of the huge buildings of the ministries stopped their work and stood to watch us, all stone silent and still, perhaps as if a fate they'd never expected would fall upon them, now. We simply moved on -- showing authority we stood for change, but change by peaceful means. And at last, there we were, at Trafalgar Square, the 18-foot plastic effigy of Bush all set up to be taken down, speakers from various organizations already on the base of Nelson's Column, giving their thoughts on this occasion and on the days ahead, to the crowd that was already there -- the queue jumpers, as they were, who got there ahead of us.
Susan Trevelyan-Syke, and Jan Davies and I were still together at this point. We joked about finding other members from our Dean group in this thick crowd, but knew they were here somewhere, as was my son, and his friends. Susan told us it took 45,000 people to fill Trafalgar Square. Judging from the overspill of people that reached as far as Leicester Square and other places in other directions as far as the eye could see, there were at least three times than many people in number. Including all the thousands that cheered us on from windows and doorways and side streets along our 3-mile journey, many more people than the 150,000 the British government officially admitted to had appeared, united against George W. Bush.
Jan found a high spot to stand on to see the whole crowd. Susan went on ahead, weaving her way into the swarming crowd to get closer to the speakers. I did not hear from her again until the next day. But I knew she was among friends.
I moved around myself, but only a short distance, though I found Jan again only because she was as high up as she was. I said good-bye to her. I thought to get up higher myself, and away from so many people, fun as that had been, all day long, it seemed. It was growing dark and lights were on the effigy and what was to happen next was predictable. The toppling of Bush.
I left, thinking of how it will be done in real life at the next election.
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