The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Stop Bush
Colin Gregory Palmer • 23.11.03

George Bush made me do it.

Politically apathetic all my life, I barely followed the issues, never voted, and never much cared to.

After September 11th, the United States had the sympathy of the world. There was so much potential. But, in a few short years, Bush and his foreign policy turned that sympathy into hatred.

Bush forced me to get up, get out, and take to the streets.

Day 1

At 11:00AM on November 19th, I joined the anti-war coalition at the London Eye for a protest march against Bush. It was the first political action of my life.

Whenever foreign leaders are invited for a state visit to London, it is tradition that they travel around the streets in a golden carriage with the Queen. Bush turned this down for security reasons. The anti-war coalition organized a fake state procession for the president. They hired a horse and carriage to carry a masked Bush and queen through the streets of London. I arrived to find several hundred people brandishing the "Stop Bush" posters I'd seen plastered around London since the summer.

Black horses pulled a carriage with the fake president and queen inside. Behind them marched a group of weapons inspectors carrying a nuclear missile with the letters USA on the side. 'We've found the weapons of mass destruction' read one sign. I joined in behind them with the rest of the protesters.

We rounded the first street corner, and there was the media. Dozens of video cameras were carefully aligned an the same side of the street so as not to film each other. I'm used to watching events unfold on television - not being part of them.

Jumping into the throng of the march were many people I assumed to be with the independent media. The amateur journalists came with hand-held video cameras and MP3s recorders to interview the crowd. I think it is a positive step for democracy that with a minimal financial investement and average technical skills, anyone can report an event, and make their particular side and spin available on the internet.

The march started at the London Eye, and ended in Trafalgar Square. Abruptly. I didn't know what I expected to happen at the end, an appearance by the real president, a regime change, a riot, a pro-bush protest waiting for us, but I expected something to happen. Instead, the organizer told us when the next protest would meet, and thanked everyone for coming.

And then we dispersed.

I wandered off, and noticed that the fountains at Trafalgar Square were turning a deep, blood red. I went over to investigate. When I reached the edge of the pools it seemed that someone dumped a large amount of red powder in the water. I got some of it on my hands.

Without thinking, I tried to wash it off in the clear part of the water. Immediately, my hands went from having a small amount of powder on them to being completely red. I also realized this didn't look good for me. I was one of the first to notice the water, and now, to someone else, it would seem that I was the purpotrator of this vandalism.

In my head I heard the words my mother spoke to me many times: "I support you and hope you enjoy the protest, but please, please don't get arrested."

I walked quickly and (I hoped) unsuspiciously, to the bathroom. Inside, I filled my hands with soap, and washed furiously. It was no use. Cleaning my hands was unsuccessful, but I did manage to dye the stainless-steel sink red. Behind me, several Trafalgar Square workers came into the bathroom.

"I can't believe what happened to the fountains," one said.

"Yeah, I hope we catch the guy," said another.

With red hands in a red sink, it wasn't looking good for me. Luckily, I remembered I brought gloves in my backpack. I quickly dried my hands, put on the gloves, and got the hell out of there.

I half ran to Buckingham palace. The British police sealed most of the area off from pedestrians. There was no place convenient to sit, or for protesters to organize.

But an enterprising group realized that motor vehicle traffic was still allowed in the circular driveway in front of the palace. They organized bicyclists to go around endlessly, blowing whistles and yelling 'Not in my name!'

I walked back to Trafalgar Square and discovered that protesters covered it in chalk drawings and slogans while I was gone. I walked around, and read most of them. Bread crumbs covered a large drawing of a peace dove in the center, inviting the ousted pigeons of the square to join in the festivities. As I perused the ground, a man in a wheelchair offered me a piece of chalk.

I had to use it.

But I didn't know what to write.

I remembered my hands.

I picked out a clean spot on the ground and scrawled in large, capital letters: "I am American. Bush has covered my hands with blood." I removed my gloves and sat behind the words in had written.

For three and a half hours.

I wanted Europeans to know that not all Americans support Bush. I also did feel guilt at having lived my life a-politically until now. I talked to many people during my time in the square and had my photograph taken hundreds of times. (As a side note, if you are one of the people who took a photograph, I would deeply appreciate it if you would contact me. I'd love to get a copy.) Nothing is a conversation starter like upturned bloody hands. Most supported me, but some didn't. One man asked if I would prefer that the Iraqi people were still under the dictatorship of Saddam. I explained to him my thoughts as best I could.

"The world is not as black and white as protest slogans portray it. I will not sit here and say that nothing good has come of this war. But, I believe that far more evil has been done than good."

Day 2

At 12:00 I went to Russell Square to meet with the American expatriates against Bush. I went for two reasons: I didn't want to be the only American in what I anticipated would be a vast crowd of people; and, I heard that we were to be one of the groups leading the protest. I figured, if I'm going to do this, I might as well go all the way and be front and center.

The group leader brought out the protest signs for us to carry during the march. This was the beginning of the internal politics of the protest: there were about five different signs, and people started trading to get the one they felt best suited them. We all wanted to be part of a group, but still maintain our individuality. I traded a "Proud of my Country, Shamed of my President" for a "Shamed by your stance on Civil Liberties" and was happy with the deal.

With signs in hand, we went to Mallet Street where the main protest gathered.

The Stop the War Coalition had a plan for crowd control. A group of about 40 people in fluorescent jackets who, with their arms linked, formed a box in the front of the parade. This, I was told, was to contain representative members of all the groups participating in the coalition.

I was lucky and got to go in with about 10 other Americans. Among us was as US World War II veteran in full uniform. In his old, knobby hand, he strongly held a sign denouncing the war. We stood ready to march with the London Muslim Organization, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and many others.

While this representative box was a good plan, the crowd control fell apart as soon as the march started. An over enthusiastic group went ahead of the front of the parade and the box was submerged in the crowd. The box of organizers stretched and broke. Arms can only reach so far and hold fast against the strain of 100,000 people. When the box burst, the representative members dissolved into the crowd.

I marched with the other Americans that I could find after the initial chaos. On television, marches look like a single, cohesive unit. They aren't. While all the participating groups may agree on ending the war, they don't necessarily agree with each other.

For example, the American Expatriates didn't want to be near the neo-communists. We thought it wouldn't help our 'we aren't anti-American' image if we were photographed with hammer and sickle flags in the background. As we moved away, the socialist workers filled the gap. But the neo-communists and the socialist workers didn't like each other either. Each group tried to get as far away from the other, while still moving forward. It was like pushing the same poles of a magnet together.

There seemed to be less media coverage of this march than of yesterday's procession with the fake heads of state. I couldn't help but think of what one man at Speakers' Corner always says: "If the media didn't cover it, it didn't happen"

At this point, the dreaded hippy-mobile came up behind the American expatriates. The hippy-mobile was a psychedelic construction. Bicycles, wagons, and carts connected together in a train, painted green, with a windmill on top and lots of speakers blaring music. Hippies with fairy wings and dressed in animal costumes maneuvered it through the crowed.

It was the physical incarnation of everything I hate about hippies.

While I appreciate their anti-war/pro-peace sentiments, I'd rather be photographed with the anarchists than the hippies. I know they want to help, but they only succeeded in making the rest of us look foolish, and they played into the anti-war stereotype. They were leaning into a punch the anti-anti-war people were waiting to deliver. My only comfort was that the rest of the crowd didn't seem happy to see them either.

I suggested to a no-nonsence-take-charge woman with the Wesley Clark 2004 campaign that we should make a break for the front and get away from the hippies. She agreed. We then led a mad dash through the crowd, dodging and weaving around hundreds of protesters and police. The rest of the Americans followed as best they could.

We approached Parliament. There were so many police in fluorescent uniforms that dusk turned yellow from the reflection. All the police in London had their leave removed for the three days Bush was in town, so all the cops, from the grizzled veterans to the guys who just got their billyclub issued yesterday, were out in force. Faced with a wall of stern faces, I tried to get the young girl cops to smile back at me, but was not very successful.

Then, I saw the riot police in full gear on mounted horses. In a strange, am-I-really-seeing-this moment, I realized that the horses were also in riot gear. Their legs and body were padded and they had faceplates that matched the riders.

Large amounts of police, especially in full riot gear, make me feel very, very unsafe.

I was especially uncomfortable when we stopped in front of Whitehall, and I looked to the top of the building and into the eyes of a police sniper scanning the crowd. This was not a time for sudden movements. My life was within a twitchy finger of ending. I know that my chances of being killed crossing the street in my everyday life are many orders of magnitude greater than being killed a sniper. But the street is so mundane, I cross it all the time. Being in the sights of a sniper was a new experience for me. At least, I think it was.

As we marched along, a group of 16-year-old teenage girls were singing "George Bush is a prick, Tony Blair sucks his dick!" I couldn't help but laugh. However, an older woman in front of them didn't find it funny. I didn't hear what she said, but a yelling match ensued between her and the girls.

In my five months in London, I never heard a British person raise their voice in anger. I never want to again. They British girls, whoes voices are delicious when then sing or speak, are poison when they yell. All that is good, and beautiful about the accent is inverted in anger. The foreign vowel sounds, different word stresses, and speaking rhythm, all of which are so perfect for communicating class and intelligence, are also surprisingly ideal for transmitting pure rancor.

I edged away from the tangle of women and made a mental note: If I am ever lucky enough to marry a woman with a British accent, never, ever, ever, make her so angry that she yells. Ever.

About two and a half hours after we started the march, we arrived at our destination: Trafalgar Square. A twenty-foot-tall statue of George Bush holding a missile awaited us. A large television screen was erected so everyone in the square could hear the speakers and watch the event.

I've never seen so many people in one place. The whole square was filled, and all the streets leading into it were clogged with people. As I angled for a good spot (very difficult in the tightly packed area) an announcement came over the speakers "We estimate there are 200,000 to 400,000 protesters in the streets of London today. We shut the city down."

A cheer went up. The guest speakers starting their talks. There was a Vietnam veteran against the war, and many local and foreign politicians and anti-war activists.

One of my legs suddenly gave out from under me, and I hit the ground. I had been on my feet, standing and marching, for seven hours straight - something I don't think I have ever done in my life - and reached a point of physical exhaustion. I stayed on the ground for quite a bit and listened to the speakers, who now sounded oddly muted from below the crowd. I felt like a kid hiding under the dinner table during his parents' party.

The vice president of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament recounted that this was the 7th time in the year he had spoken to groups larger than 100,000. "It's becoming a habit," he said with a warm, grandfatherly voice.

Another speaker encouraged the crowed to yell "Go home Bush" loudly so the president could hear us at Buckingham which is less than a mile away. I think we succeeded, even though I only half heartily participated. As an American, sending Bush home didn't solve my problems.

George Galloway gave a rousing speech. He had been kicked out by the Labour party for speaking out against the war.

He ended with "I want you to know that this is not an anti-American rally. God bless the people of the United States, and GOD DAMN GEORGE BUSH!" The loudest cheer when up, my voice was among them.

The statue of George Bush toppled, and the march finished.

Because my unintended, red-hand protest yesterday was such a success, I had planned ahead this time - a tube of crimson paint waited in my backpack. I flipped my 'shamed of your stance on civil liberties' poster over, and wrote with my fingers in red paint: "I am American. Bush covered my hands with blood." I then smeared the paint over my hands. I held the poster in front of me and walked around the square with what I hoped was an appropriately sad-but-serious look on my face, while at the same time trying to smile back at everyone who gave me an encouraging look or wanted to shake my bloody hand.

So many people came to congratulate me on my poster and take my photograph, I was really surprised. Several British asked me what it was like in the United States, and I did my best to answer. (Once again, if anyone has a photograph of me on that night, please contact me.)

Now that the leaders of the rally were no longer in charge, things got a little scary. Huge bonfires lit the square. Smoke filled the air, and it was difficult to breath, but I wanted to stay and see what happened.

There was an uncertain moment as we wondered what would happen now that control of the crowd had been relinquished. It felt like violence was going to spill over, but it never did. It became like a concert. Music played and people were just happy at the success of the day.

By the National Gallery, two people were passionately kissing on top of a platform. 'Kissing against the war.' A little sign said. '18 hours straight. Bring a partner and take a shift.' Now that's a protest.

Eventually, the crowd began to thin, and I remembered I hadn't eaten anything since breakfast. It was time to go, and I headed to a Chinese take-out in Leicester Square to get food.

I stepped out of Trafalgar Square, and stepped back into the everyday world. In Leicester Square, I was suddenly out of place with my painted hands and poster. The chinese girl gave a screech when I handed her the money.

"What's wrong with your hands?" she asked, and I explained where I had been.

"It's pointless," she commented. "You won't change anything."

"Perhaps not." I replied, "But, I think I'd rather try and fail, than do nothing."


Colin Gregory Palmer is an American living in London. If you liked this article, you can read more of his journal here.





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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



All censorships exist to prevent any one from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions. All progress is initiated by challenging current conceptions, and executed by supplanting existing institutions. Consequently the first condition of progress is the removal of censorships.
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23 November 2003


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