Leicester has a proud history of mobilising popular anger against war. For example, since December last year, “Leicester Against War” has been holding weekly peace protests by the Clock Tower in the city centre (on Friday nights from 5.30pm – 6-30pm). This group has also organised a vibrant protest outside the office of Keith Vaz (Labour Party MP, Leicester East) to highlight his unswerving support for war over the past quarter of century.
But stepping back in time, it is important to remember and celebrate the recent roots of anti-war activism in Leicester.
Thus in September 2001 the umbrella group “Leicester Campaign to Stop the War” was created, encompassing a broad cross-section of local people, trade Unionists, community and political groups and campaigns based in Leicester. This campaigning group helped organise a series of massive protests through Leicester city, the first on November 10, which rallied together some 2,000 people in a march against the war in Afghanistan.
On November 2, 2002, another protest against the threatened war on Iraq mobilsed hundreds of people on a march through Leicester in the pouring rain. The march however had been proscribed by the Police, who had banned the anti-war protesters from marching through Highfields — an area with a high Muslim population. As was reported by the campaigners at the time:
“This is the third time the Leicester Campaign the Stop the War has been affected by police bans. The same happened a year ago when we organised a march against the war in Afghanistan, despite the fact that 2,000 people turned out on that one, overwhelmingly Muslims from the very area the police stopped us marching through!
“This march had been postponed from its original date because of a 30-day blanket ban on all demonstrations in Leicester, imposed in response to a threat from the National Front to march. Yet again the point that state bans work against the workers movement has been illustrated…
“Out of frustration, the organisers of Saturday’s demo against the war withdrew formal co-operation with the police, refusing to discuss details or even give the name of the official march organiser. We felt that we would not comply with our own repression.”
Other protests organised in Leicester included a successful blockade of the BP petrol station on a very busy Narborough Road. That protest in particular aimed to “highlight the links between Blair and BP, and the oil companies and the war.”
This was then followed by the historic demonstration against war that took place in London (on February 15). Leicester Campaign to Stop the War outdid themselves organising 14 coaches from Leicester; although thousands more went by car, bus and train as well.
On the morning of March 7 “schools in Leicester were in ferment in response to the call for walk-outs against the war”:
“In some cases teachers and even heads were sympathetic to the school students’ cause, even if they felt unable to publicly endorse walkouts. In other cases heads did their best to stop it. In one school a cordon of teachers was placed across the front entrance, so students just jumped over the back fence en masse!
“There were feeder marches from a number of schools down to the city centre rally, which was meant to start at 2pm. But when we got there at 1.30, there were already hundreds of school students waiting.
“We think, based on reports we have had, that as a minimum 1,000 walked out that day, from maybe 10 schools around the county. No doubt more supported it but were unable to get out. At least 500, maybe more, made it to the City Centre protests.”
“The rally at the end, held in a busy pedestrian thoroughfare, was chaired by Steve Score of the Socialist Party, who received a huge cheer for saying: “The best way to support ‘our’ troops is to bring them home!”
“A wide range of speakers included Labour councillor Pete Soulsby, a former leader of the City Council. However, he was booed by a large section of the crowd, despite his anti war speech, because of his association with Labour. Other speeches, including from Josie Nicholls of the Socialist Party were cheered and clapped.
“Although the march was totally peaceful, and there were no incidents, the police were very nervous and were there in large numbers including all the video cameras and “evidence gatherers”. The feature of anti war protests in Leicester over the last couple of weeks has been police heavy-handedness. For example, eight school students were arrested on the March 7th strike.
“Despite this protest being a legal one, and discussed with the police in advance, they read out “section 14” to the whole crowd at the beginning of the rally claiming they had reason to believe the protest could “result in serious public disorder”. This did not go down well! They imposed conditions, such as a time limit, which if breached would lead to arrests. The officer in charge was virtually pushing Steve off the stage as he summed up the rally! So unlike Iraq, we do have freedom of speech, but only as much as the police allow!”
Although the Iraq war was not ultimately prevented, important lessons can be learned from this historic mass movement against war, not least the fact that the national anti-war movement should not have just limited itself to organising sporadic mass rallies.
If the war was truly to be stopped then it would have been necessary to have a means of escalating resistance to the war, and one of the best ways this could have been achieved would have been to organise a national strike of all workers (for more on why this tactic was not promoted by the most vocal organisers of the Stop the War Coalition see the discussion in “Mass Action needed to stop War”).