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Power to the People

Resistance to the war in Iraq shows signs of becoming a genuine 'peoples' movement'

The Ecologist, April 2003

It's not often you get hugged by a policeman you expected to arrest you, but when it happens it usually means that something very odd, and perhaps very wonderful, is happening. This happened to me recently, during an anti-war demonstration at the US Air Force Base in Fairford, Gloucestershire. Fairford has the biggest military runway in Europe: apparently built in the UK because it was felt that building it in any other European country might elicit opposition. The Americans had apparently calculated that the Brits loved them so much that we wouldn't dream of complaining when they used our soil to launch a war for cheap petrol. Either that, or we were judged to be the least likely people in the EU to get up off our arses and do something about it.

Wrong on both counts, it seems. Over 1000 people turned up that Sunday, and it wasn't long before somebody produced a pair of bolt cutters and merrily set to work on the perimeter fence. One thing led to another, and before we knew it about fifty of us were inside, running full-tilt to avoid police dog handlers who kept promising to release their hounds in our direction if we didn't come back this instant.

I was in there for about twenty minutes before I was finally run to ground by a large policeman who cornered me in his van. I slouched towards him, expecting retribution. Instead, what I got was a smile, a squeeze, and a slap on the back.
'Well done mate,' says the cop, 'you gave us a good run there. Now, I'm taking you back to the fence and you can get out the way you came in.'
'What, you're not going to arrest me?' I ask, disappointed.
'No one's going to arrest you', says the cop. 'We're all on your side. Bloody disgrace this Iraq business is. I was at Greenham Common in the 80s, you know - outside the fence. You won't find many lads here who don't agree with you. Bloody Blair's gone bloody bonkers.'
'Couldn't you let us all run about for a bit longer then?' I ask, hopefully.
'Love to,' he says, 'but there's times you can get away with turning your back and times you can't. Come on then, I've got others to round up.'

I've been on quite a few marches, demonstrations, protests and direct actions in my time, and every one is different. There is one way, though, in which many are similar: the same people - or at least the same sort of people - always turn up. Often I know a lot of them by name. I suppose I'm one of them; a professional 'activist', the sort of mildly weird human being who's always off protesting about something or other. Whatever the government, whatever the issue, from GM crops to foreign wars, these people will be out on the streets complaining about it. As a rule, governments ignore them, because as a rule they can afford to.

But there are other types of protest too; those in which the usual suspects are joined by vast swathes of 'real people' - the sort who normally wouldn't be seen dead with placards in their hands. The last time I saw this on any scale was during the road protests of the 1990s, when vegan hippies stood arm in arm with local teenagers, and second world war veterans gave their medals to dreadlocked young men living in tunnels because, they said, they were fighting the same battle. Working mothers would bake cakes and bring them up to the treehouses, and cops would turn up at the fireside of an evening to drink tea out of cracked mugs, listen to guitars and tin whistles and turn a blind eye to the large joints doing the rounds.

That was a genuine 'peoples movement'. They are far rarer than some activists would have you believe, at least in this country. But the protests against the war show every sign of becoming one of these. At Fairford I joined grey-haired Quakers, Japanese monks, well-dressed middle-aged men and women, posing student anarchists, Greenham common veterans and, in spirit at least, a good few police officers. Whatever happens in Iraq now, these people have been politicised; and there's no going back. For any government, that's very bad news.

After we'd all been thrown back out of the base that Sunday, we reassembled at the main gate. There, a sensible-looking Middle English man and his sensible-looking Middle English wife had set up a tea stall of the sort you see at any village fete, to dole out free tea to the activists. It was good, I said to him, to see local people here; otherwise it would just be those of who had come from elsewhere in the country, turning up and invading your streets.
'Well,' he said, straight-faced. 'The fact is that you are invading our streets. But if you hadn't invaded them we would have had to invade them ourselves. So the least we can do is make you some tea.' And he smiled.