Monday, March 20, 2023

Opposing the Iraq War in South London

The Iraq War started on 20 March 2003 with a massive American-led 'shock and awe' bombing campaign, followed by a land invasion of US, British and other troops. Over the next eight years more than 100,000 civilians were killed.

Early protests

There was a long build up to the war, with sanctions against Iraq dating back to the previous Iraq war in 1990/91 causing long term hardship to people living there. As a new war became increasingly likely, protests began to start. On December 14 2002 for instance, Lewisham and Greenwich CND and Lewisham Stop the War Coalition held a march and candlelit vigil in the centre of Lewisham, with about 100 people braving the cold wet weather.

The February 15th 'Don't Attack Iraq' demonstration

As the start of the war became imminent there was massive opposition across the world including the largest ever demonstration in London when on Saturday 15 February 2003 more than a million people took to the streets in a march from Embankment to  Hyde Park. I was there... who wasn't?

My son's 'peace not war' placard adorns a statue in Trafalgar Square. At his school - Edmund Waller Primary School - a group of around 20 older pupils staged an anti-war demonstration in the playground on 22 January 2003.

School students walk out

Between that day and the war actually starting there were many other protests, some of the most inspiring being led by students walking out of schools. I believe the first big schools walk out was on March 5th. The South London Press (7/3/2003) reported 'Pupils Walk Out Against War:  Hundreds of passionate anti-war teenagers abandoned their school books and disobeyed teachers to march through Sydenham on Wednesday. Eyewitnesses reported seeing about 250 girls from Sydenham School snake through the streets to Forest Hill Boys School in protest against war in Iraq. The gates there were locked but it seems some boys managed to escape to join the protest. Marchers then moved on to Sedgehill School where the gates were again locked but students apparently joined in with chanting from inside'.

Two weeks later on 19th March with war looming there was another schools strike with marchers converging on Whitehall to stage a demonstration. Some of them were interviewed in The Times (20 March 2003):

'A clutch of 14-year-old girls from Haberdashers’ Aske’s in New Cross, South London, said that teachers had refused to let them stage a protest outside the school, even though they had parental permission. “They threatened us with suspensions and detentions. Someone set off a fire alarm and the fire brigade arrived. We distracted the teachers, legged it and got the train here,” Naomi Benjamin said. “It’s important that we show Tony Blair we are against war. Our opinion matters as much as anyone’s... Sam Kinloch, 14, was one of of about 70 pupils who ran out of lessons at Langley Park School for Boys in Bromley, South London, and caught the train into town. He said: “It’s my first time on a protest, but I’ll be back when war is declared. It’s a brilliant atmosphere and there’s so many people from school here so we shouldn’t get into trouble.”'

A few of the Haberdashers students from the tie have shared memories of this with me. Alex, then aged 16, recalled: 'I remember we flyered the school to get people to walk out. I don't think people needed much encouragement. The head of sixth form implored us  to stop the younger kids from leaving, we refused and a bunch of them walked out too. It seemed like hundreds went down to catch the train at New Cross Gate into town. I think there were two walk outs around the time and on one of them we blocked the road outside parliament for a bit before being dragged off'. According to Fran and Debbie, who were in the Sixth Form:  'I remember wearing our old uniform, even though we were in sixth form, to stress the point we were students… and because of the uniforms (and being in the paper) then getting dragged into Dr Sidwell’s office' (head of school).

Haberdashers students pictured in The Times

I remember that on that night before the war started there was a protest on the (now gone) traffic island in New Cross Road by the White Hart. Between 50 and 100 of us gathered there with placards and candles.

The 185 Bus incident

The next day when the war started school students were again in the front line of the protests. But some didn't make it as far as central London as they were stopped by police in Catford.  The South London Press (21/3/2003) reported:

'Just hours after the first bombs landed on Baghdad, there was chaos across south London as protesters took to the streets. Thousands of young people walked out from schools and protesters gathered across the area to send an anti-war message to the government. 

Yesterday morning Lewisham police stopped a bus in Catford and arrested and handcuffed six kids who had walked out of school to protest outside Parliament. One 14-year-old girl from Sydenham Girls School spoke to the South London Press from the bus which reportedly had 50 kids on it. She said 'the police took all our names and will not let us off. People are getting claustrophobic'. A police spokeswoman said 'police attended a demo outside Catford Town Hall where about one hundred people, mainly children aged 15 to 16 were demonstrating. After the demonstration many of them attempted to join a bus headed for central London. As they did so they caused a disturbance. Six children were arrested for public order offences and taken into custody"

One of those arrested was charged with assaulting a police officer, though he was acquitted at trial eight months later. He recalled:  'We boarded the 185 bus but before the driver could set off the police had ordered him to wait. They proceeded to take the names and telephone numbers of all school students present. When I questioned them about it they insisted on taking my name and asked me how they where supposed to know if I wasn’t a convicted criminal or paedophile...  All around students were arguing the case against the war, while the police kept accusing them of skiving off school and being truants... the order came to physically remove them. In the course of this the police used force against myself and others and arrested us... The Magistrate dismissed the case because he was not satisfied with the police evidence. The prosecution had failed to produce any proof, apart from the statements of the police themselves, that I had kicked PC Ashdown in the "groin area". No independent witnesses, no statement from the bus drivers, no records from the hospital. The police testimony was grossly overstated and in some cases entirely made up'. 

Day X

Elsewhere on that day, the South London Press (21/3/2003) reported 'Anti-war protests spread across south London yesterday including demonstrations in Peckham and Brixton... Shoppers and students joined a group of anti-war protesters outside Peckham library. Protesters from Unison handed out leaflets to passers-by and made rallying speeches in the street. Joining the walk out were staff in the library and council offices around the borough. One library worker who did not wish to be named said "as far as I'm concerned this war is just about oil. I accept Saddam Hussein is an evil dictator but I don't think this is the answer". He said most of the library staff felt the same. Southwark Unison branch secretary John Mulrenan said protesters would gather at Camberwell Green and Elephant and Castle later in the day before marching to Parliament. And outside the town hall in Brixton peace campaigners held a rally against the war.' A multifaith service for peace was held at South London Liberal Synagogue in Streatham with Jewish, Christian and Muslim representatives.

People had been planning in advance to take action on 'Day X' - whenever the war started. Like many others I headed up to Whitehall, where it was pretty chaotic, people pulling crowd control barriers across the street etc. The Guardian (21/3/2003) reported:

'Tens of thousands of anti-war protesters filled streets and squares, blocked roads, walked out of school and universities and temporarily stopped work yesterday. Trade unionists, students, hospital staff, civil servants and students joined hundreds of noisy, spontaneous demonstrations across the country.

More than 5000 gathered in Parliament Square London festooning statues with posters and stringing up a 'stop the war' banner in Whitehall. Police cordoned off the area immediately in front of Westminster but demonstrators blocked streets around Parliament. Whistles, drums, megaphones and chants penetrated the soundproofing of MPs offices. Police drew their batons to turn back a crowd of demonstrators who tried to force their way into Whitehall. Officers were pelted with bottles and sticks from banners. 20 people arrested for public order offences'.

The following Saturday there was another big demonstration in central London, with up to 500,000 marching to Hyde Park again (along with millions protesting across the world). I remember I bribed my young daughter to come with me by taking her to Hamleys toy shop on the way. 

On Saturday 29 March 2003 there were more local protests. Around 300 people marched from Lewisham shopping centre to Greenwich, and around 700 on various local feeder marchers met up for a rally in Brixton, including a contingent of Graveney School students who marched there from Clapham South (hundreds of pupils had protested at that Tooting school when the war started). After the Brixton rally some set off to try and protest at Foreign Secretary Jack Straw's house (ironically near the Imperial War Museum).

A large part of the population took part in those protests, including a lot of children who grew up through 20 years of more or less permanent war involving British forces in Afghanistan and Iraq. If the peace movement failed to stop the wars, the wars certainly failed to bring peace.

Any memories of these events? Please leave a comment.

No comments: