By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
The level of security was unprecedented and, in places — particularly royal places — worthy of Inspector Clouseau. Fourteen thousand police officers were deployed in London, along with rooftop snipers, special surveillance teams, marines patrolling the Thames and searching bridges and boats for bombs. Then on Wednesday it was revealed that Ryan Parry, an undercover reporter for the tabloid Daily Mirror, had managed to get a job as a footman at Buckingham Palace two months ago. Had he not resigned his position the day before Bush’s arrival, he would have been serving George and Laura Bush breakfast. The palace staff had been vetted by the CIA, among other agencies.
Until Thursday, almost all the action was in the media. Wednesday’s main event was a widely advertised “alternative state procession” starting off at Jubilee Gardens under the giant, slow-motion Ferris wheel known as the London Eye. The alterna-procession included a horse-drawn carriage, look-alikes of Bush and the Queen, an 18-foot inflatable nuclear missile, a pink tank and mock Secret Service agents in suits and sunglasses. But only a few hundred people showed up, once you subtracted all the reporters. And of the six or seven I interviewed, three turned out to be from the U.S.
One American, Fred, was sitting off to the side of the
crowd by himself. He had crewcut hair, an intelligent but intensely gloomy expression, and exuded a slightly worrying
Taxi Driver–ish vibe. He said he’d been living in England for 20 years.
“What is it that upsets you about Bush so much?” I asked.
“Everything,” he replied.
“Well, what specifically?”
“He’s a warmonger, I think he’s ecologically dangerous, I think he’s building a police state in America. Everything about him and everything I can think about him.”
“Did you feel at all similarly about Clinton?”
“I didn’t like Clinton either. I haven’t liked any American president for a long time. But no, Bush seems to be worse.”
During the first two days of Bush’s visit, the anti-war protesters in London were like members of the world’s most pampered special interest group. Tiny in number, they had only to show up on a street corner for the media to descend on them, slavishly recording their opinions on everything from the state of the planet’s ecology to the disease eating away at the American soul.
But on Thursday, as promised, the coalition of groups protesting Bush’s presence in the nation’s capital put on an impressively large show. Scotland Yard estimated the crowd of demonstrators at 100,000; anti-war groups said it was 300,000. One police officer I spoke with said he thought it was about 200,000. Whatever it was, it was a large number, especially when you consider that the march took place on a weekday. There was no doubt that the organizers — Stop the War, the Muslim Association of Britain and the Campaign Against Nuclear Disarmament — considered the turnout a triumph.
At about 3 p.m. the first protesters filed past where I was standing, a short distance from Waterloo station. Thousands of them wore referee’s whistles around their necks and blew on them continually. Others banged drums and blew horns. There were chants and cheers and sudden deafening roars. Various groups passed by in their own contingents: the Green Party, Grad Students Against Bush, Palestine Solidarity, the National Union of Journalists, the London School of Economics. There were small knots of Muslims, young men in robes and skullcaps jumping up and down and pumping their fists, girls in jeans and head scarves. There was even a Jamaican group, with a Rasta carriage and a sign saying HERBS NOT WARS. There were a lot of peace flags and Palestinian flags and thousands of placards with the word BUSH printed in black over a splatter of red. A large banner urging people to BOYCOTT TERRORIST USA was draped from a pedestrian overpass.
Lots of Americans, including Ron Kovic, took part in the march. Still, it was an unsettling day to be a Yank in London. The president was like a ghost, rumored to exist but almost entirely unwitnessed. And as soon as he broke cover to lay a wreath at the Grave of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey, a massive car bomb exploded in Istanbul, killing tens of Britons, including the consul general. Taking a sympathetic approach, a columnist in the Evening Standardwrote that “bad news seems to follow [Bush] like a faithful dog.”
The demonstration’s big photo-op came when the mass of protesters had filled Trafalgar Square and, in a deliberate imitation of the toppling of the Saddam Hussein statue in Baghdad, a 40-foot effigy of the president was pulled down in front of Nelson’s Column to raucous cheers and the blowing of thousands of whistles. There was little to no violence, and most people were polite. But the demonstration itself was a form of elaborate scapegoating: All the world’s ills could be pinned on one man, leaving everyone else feeling pleased with themselves. Later, the entire square rocked like a soccer stadium to the chant
“Bush Go Home.”