|Photo by Sang Tan/AP|
LONDON — The real news on the first day of President Bush’s three-day state visit to London was to be found on the front page of the liberal Guardian. Under a photograph of an anti-war protester pinning an upside-down U.S. flag on the gates of Buckingham Palace — a mere black eye for the security services, compared with what was to follow — last Tuesday’s lead article began, “A majority of Labor voters welcome President George Bush’s state visit to Britain which starts today, according to November’s Guardian/ICM opinion poll.”
The article went on to say that an “overwhelming majority” of Britons — 62 percent — believe that the U.S. is “generally speaking a force for good, not evil, in the world.” But it was the minority that made itself felt in London.
Now cut to a patch of muddy lawn across from Euston station in central London. It’s 7:30 that evening, and an overflow crowd estimated at 1,200 people has been forced out of the Friends Meeting House, an old Quaker hall, to hear Vietnam veteran Ron Kovic, playwright Harold Pinter, actor Colin Redgrave (brother of Vanessa), former Scottish MP George Galloway, lefty aristocrat Tony Benn, and various representatives of the Stop the War Coalition, the Muslim Association of Britain, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, the Green Party and other groups inveigh against the president, his war in Iraq, his poodle in Downing Street, and his visit to London.
With Kovic a featured attraction (the paraplegic Vietnam vet had delivered a petition to Downing Street earlier in the day), several speakers were careful to differentiate their anti-war, anti-Bush positions from any trace of reflexive anti-Americanism. “Millions and millions of Americans share our ideals,” said Tony Benn, which was indisputably true. “Make no mistake, Bush wants to tear up the charter of the U.N.,” he said later, which was not. For a veteran politician, Benn had a pretty poor grasp of microphone technology, and much of his speech was unintelligible. “Did you hear what he said?” a voice behind me asked. “Not at all,” someone else replied, and then cheered loudly anyway.
The Queen and the Duke of Dumb
(Photo by Charles Dharapak/AP)
Galloway, a mustachioed Scotsman who was recently kicked out of the Labor party amid accusations (which he denied) that he had secretly been in the pay of Saddam Hussein, did better. He pressed the microphone to his lips like a crooner, and by this elementary trick projected his voice to every corner of the lawn. “Brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, salaam aleikum,” he bellowed, and the effect, coupled with the light Scottish accent, was mildly electrifying. Islamic salutation aside, listening to him was like being transported back in time to a communist rally in the 1930s. For a moment I could imagine that I stood in a crowd of working-class men wearing cloth caps, with filterless cigarette stubs clamped between their lips. In reality, the woman next to me was a well-dressed professional, and the guy blocking my view was wearing a New York Yankees jacket.
Despite the accusations of having received secret payments from Saddam’s government, Galloway was awarded a huge cheer. He got an even bigger one when he called Bush “the least welcome foreign visitor to these shores since William the Conqueror.” Given some of the people who’ve dropped by since William paid his visit — Idi Amin, anyone? — this was quite a statement, though hardly exceptional. “Red” Ken Livingstone, London’s mayor, officially marked the day of Bush’s arrival by calling him “the greatest threat to life on this planet.” He also threatened to charge the presidential motorcade with the same “congestion charge” paid by all motorists entering the city. Welcome to Londongrad, George.
Ron Kovic got a massive round of applause when he was wheeled, or wheeled himself, onstage. “We the people of Great Britain and the U.S. are going to stop this war and create a beautiful world,” he said, waving at the crowd, but I doubt if anyone believed him. I left before Pinter spoke, but then I’d already read his open letter to Bush in the Guardian. It invited him, along with his “fellow war criminal” Tony Blair, to “wash the cucumber sandwiches down with a glass of blood, with my compliments.” He does have a way with words.
ESSENTIALLY, THE ANTI-WAR PROTESTERS had won their war against the president long before Air Force One touched down in a remote corner of Heathrow airport on Tuesday, November 18. For fear of hecklers, protesters and al Qaeda suicide bombers (who turned out to be working in Istanbul that week), more and more events were either canceled altogether (Bush’s planned address to Parliament, for instance) or moved indoors, where the baying of protesters and anarchist shenanigans could not drown him out. (“If he wants a photo-op, we can give him one,” vowed Caroline Lucas, a Green Party member of the European Parliament, making it clear that Bush would regret showing his face even for a minute.) As a result, the president was made to live like a shady fugitive.
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 Standard wrote 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.”
Several people who had spoken at the Friends Meeting House two nights earlier were at this rally as well Kovic, Galloway, Lucas and others. Anas Altikriti, head of the Muslim Association of Britain, finished his speech with the words “Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar, Allah Akbar.” The protesters, though outraged by Bush’s references to the Almighty, cheered.
Then there was our old friend Galloway, getting a massive welcome as he launched into his “Brothers and sisters, salaam aleikum,” routine again. A video screen displayed his face in reverential close-up as he worked the crowd. He struck me as thoroughly sinister, an authentic dictator type, and I noted the ease with which he equated Iraq and Afghanistan with the Israeli occupation of the West Bank, rolling them up into one poisonously anti-American ball for his audience to swallow.
Later, at a table outside a pub near Trafalgar Square, I talked to a pair of London lawyers enjoying a pint and a cigarette after their day’s labors. One of them, who said he worked for an American firm, wouldn’t give his name. I asked him why he’d come to the demonstration, and the answer emerged as promptly as if I’d dropped a dollar into a slot machine.
“I was there to remind Bush and Blair that they should be accountable for their lies, to remind them not to tell us more lies and force another absurd military adventure in Syria or Iran, and to hold them accountable for the promises they made to bring peace and justice to Palestine.”
Should Bush and Blair be held accountable for the al Qaeda bombing that had taken place in Istanbul earlier in the day?
“Bush and Blair have to realize that they have polarized the world with their war against terrorism. It was Bush who said ‘Bring them on’ in Iraq, and sure enough they’ve come on.”
“Do you think terrorists take their orders from Bush?”
“I think it was a very foolish challenge,” he replied.
“So where does the anti-war movement go from here?”
“I think we have to keep the pressure up. I think we have to make Bush and Blair understand that there are many people out there who are not happy with their imperialist agenda. You’ll find at that demonstration today, as you did at the ones in February and earlier in the year, an enormous spectrum of people, from the anarcho-syndicalists through the stockbrokers, lawyers and other classes. I saw schoolgirls there, I saw old ladies there.”
At 8:30, thousands were still milling around Trafalgar Square, now illuminated by the flickering light of bonfires. Almost everyone over 30 had left. Impromptu DJs played songs with anti-American lyrics. A girl, accompanied by someone on electric guitar, sang from the midst of a throng pressed around her, her face barely visible amid all the other faces as audience and performer merged.
By the biggest bonfire, a group of Muslim teenagers chanted pro-Palestinian slogans in Arabic as they danced around the flames. One of them, his face wrapped in a keffiyah, shot fireworks into the dark night sky, his right hand raised in a Black Power salute, face pointed down. He looked like he was practicing how to shoot down a plane. A white kid yelled, “Bush is a piece of shit,” over and over again. The ground was littered with beer cans and newspapers and cigarette packs and plastic cups and candy wrappers and discarded placards.
At 9 p.m., City of Westminster trucks moved in to clean up, and the square slowly emptied. As I walked to the Charing Cross tube station, a drunk was tottering down the street waving a huge peace flag. “Fuck America! Fuck Bush!” he yelled.