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(en) Organise #61 - The Anti-War Movement in the North East

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Sat, 18 Oct 2003 09:59:25 +0200 (CEST)

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Though the war in Iraq is still being conducted at a low level,
memories of the anti-war movement seem very faint. Yet, for a few
brief weeks in spring, a highly significant movement helped send
perhaps 2 million people to demonstrate in London and a further
100,00 in Glasgow. The opposition to Blair’s invasion of Iraq
also appeared in towns and cities all over the country and was
sustained for several weeks before the war was finally declared
ended. As everywhere else, the north east of England experienced
some inspiring moments in this campaign and the anti-war
movement there, like elsewhere, provides both inspiration and
lessons for anarchists.

The Tyne and Wear Stop the War Coalition was set up in the
aftermath of the September 11 destruction of the World Trade
Centre, it being obvious from early on that the US would respond
with aggression and violence, and that Britain would support this
stance.But things did not really take off until relatively recently:
the attack on Afghanistan stepped up the tempo, which reached
fever pitch with the build-up to the attack on Iraq; an attack
everyone instinctively knew had been decided on months before.

Before the war started, one of the best things that happened was
an occupation of the Labour Party national recruitment office in
North Shields on 7 February. Two people pretended to want to join
the party and the rest covered the camera on the door and ran in. A
group went upstairs to try and get a banner out of the window while
others stayed on the ground floor. A third group stayed outside.

The staff were a bit radgy at first, the receptionist trying to stop
protesters from putting their banner out the window by saying the
window had to be kept shut for the central heating! The cops came
but realised they could do nothing to remove the occupiers, so they
stayed until the media turned up. The staff inside were pretty
aggressive but they calmed down and a few occupiers ended up
talking to the staff about why they were doing it. Many of the staff
seemed to think that they were ‘non-political’, and that the
target was not legitimate (odd as it was national Labour Party
office and most of the workers there were Labour Party members).
After about two hours inside the occupiers agreed to leave, to a
paparazzi-like reception from the media. All in all it went pretty
well. Though it would have been better if the occupiers had made a
bit more of a nuisance of themselves, it got some good media
coverage (both ITV and BBC cameras showed up, as did three
radio station and two newspapers) and there was a national Labour
organiser up from London there at the time, so presumably the
message got back to London at least…

But this was a relatively small group of people. Though there were
others demos and stunts, the really interesting stuff happened on
the day the war started. This is a report written at the time:

The first day of war in Iraq saw some of the largest and most
militant activity that Newcastle has experienced in recent times.
Events began at 8 am at the Haymarket. A crowd of 80-odd that
had gathered moved into the road and blocked traffic for forty-five
minutes. Some gave out leaflets but most sat and chanted in the
road. A banner was hung off a nearby church. There weren’t as
many of the usual suspects, due to some uncertainty regarding
when the war had actually started. Fortunately there was a large
group of school kids and sixth-formers from Heaton. Identified by
their pink sashes, they were the most ‘up for it’ and they
made it happen in the morning.

Eventually, the crowd moved on. Some went to work but the kids
weren’t finished yet. They marched to the Monument and spent
half an hour chalking anti-war slogans all over the area.
Dissatisfied with that, the kids moved off again… to the Metro.
The cops had heard where they were going and accompanied them
to the Metro doors. For some reason they didn’t follow the
group to Gateshead, where they made straight for the Tyne Bridge.
Stopping traffic on the Tyne Bridge was child’s play. No
coppers showed for ages. Initially sat on the Gateshead side,
people decided to take the middle of the bridge. As they moved off,
a copper finally caught up. He drove past, stopped and tried to
make people stop, but everyone just walked past him. Nonplussed
by this, he got out and grabbed the first person he saw. Then things
started getting a bit hairy. Whilst the copper was tussling with his
arrestee, several radgies had got out of their cars and were looking
like they were gonna kick off. Then several cops vans showed and
the fun was over.

The group then marched back into Newcastle, accompanied by
police vans the whole way. At lunchtime, it met up with the main
march and again stopped traffic at the Haymarket. The final event
of the day came at a 6pm anti-war vigil. Addressed by the usual
(and far too many) suspects, it looked like the crowd of perhaps
1,000 was going to end up bored to death. Despite this, a large
group (several hundred) hung about and then marched up to the
Haymarket and again stopped traffic by sitting in the road.
[Eventually] the crowd ran across the park by the church and sat in
the road back where they’d just been; the cops didn’t have
a clue what to do.

With ten years if political activity in the city, I had never seen
anything like it. A large crowd, mostly people under 18, intent on
causing disruption and testing the state’s means of control. It
seemed like the cops would never shift people, but then the church
stepped in. A vicar appointed himself police liaison and informed
the crowd that the police had identified ringleaders and would be
making arrests if they didn’. Instantly, a few people stood up
saying ‘I’m a ringleader, arrest me’… and there
followed one of those incredible ‘I am Spartacus’ moments
as everyone stood up shouting the same thing. Yet, it was clear
that something had been killed. Maybe most weren’t up for
risking arrest, but there is absolutely no excuse for doing the
police’s dirty work for them, regardless of your motives. (The
clergyman in question had been heard to say in the morning demo
that people shouldn’t sit in the road as they’d look like a
bunch of anarchists, so it was clear, and predictable, where his
sentiments lay).

The coup de grace was delivered by a representative of a similar
organisation. The SWP regional organiser then announced that the
demo was over and everyone should go to the next one. The way in
which such a high level of solidarity, spontaneity and militancy was
effectively killed by people who were meant to be supporters of the
cause was nothing short of a disgrace. It definitely did not need to
end that way.

Yet, this incredible day, did not herald the start of an even larger
and more militant campaign of direct action. There was another
rally-cum-march on the Saturday after war started but the police
refused to let the crowd march up Northumberland street as it was
busy with shoppers. They cordoned it off but people went through
various shops and the march kind of happened anyway. It
dispersed after a ‘vigil’ at the war memorial and there
weren’t enough people to do a sit-down on the road again.
Most of the kids weren’t there, and they were the ones who
had made it so successful the previous Thursday. An attempt by a
few people to sit in the road ended in predictable failure as angry
taxi drivers jumped out of their cars. It was also a Newcastle home
match and a lot of the fans were pretty abusive. Since the war
actually started a polarisation had occurred, as might have been

After that relative failure I still thought that the success of the first
day’s action could be repeated or even bettered but,
unfortunately, I was mistaken. The subsequent Thursday and
Saturday meetings began to decline in size and militancy. By May
Day things had reached a real low. It was the most depressing
May Day march I can remember (no mean feat given previous
marches’ ability to induce feelings of total despair). It was
pathetic and embarrassing marching through town. Did the shite
way the first night’s actions were killed-off put people off
doing anything similar? What is certain is we didn’t see that
same level of militancy again. The experience of that night left a
bitter taste in my mouth and, I imagine, in that of many others.

For an all-too-brief moment we had glimpsed something special in
Newcastle. The political impact on those who became politically
engaged for the first time is something that can and will last. In the
north east one of the most important features of the anti-war
actions was that they were supported and often inspired by people
who had not taken direct action before. It was great to see, for
example, a load of kids running onto the ‘blinking eye’
bridge and locking on, when we’d heard that a naval training
vessel was due on the Tyne (and consequently needed the bridge
to be raised). It was the kids of Heaton that took the Tyne Bridge
and the youth of all Tyneside seemed to be at the mass road
blockade in the evening. The youth gave the demos a lot of energy
and inspiration, and they were up for a lot more than just marching
and chanting slogans. Another positive development has been a lot
of young people coming into contact with anarchist ideas and
setting up groups. Now there are Anarchist Youth Network people
in places like rural and very Tory Hexham, and other groups
elsewhere who are now interested in anarchist ideas.

The internal politics of the Stop the War Coalition was predictably
messy. A coalition of peace activists, liberals, Greens, lefties of
almost all 57 varieties, anarchists, hippies, other
ne’er-do-wells, some old Labour people (I think) and other
assorted odds-and-ends, it was always likely to end in tears. It
often did. And when push came to shove it almost always seemed
to be the SWP and a few hangers-on versus the rest. A group
outside of the STWC did the Labour Party occupation and it got
slagged by some at the following STWC meeting. The SWPers
accused the occupiers of being "super heroes", "elitist", and "petit
bourgeois" etc. (the same old unoriginal and frankly meaningless
platitudes you’d expect). The SWP didn’t like it but it was
being left out that really rankled especially as it appeared to be one
of the more effective things done in the region.

Then there was the repeated SWP attempts to push through their
re-organisation idea. The effect of this would have been to create a
‘committee’ with a handful of ‘elected’ (read
SWP-appointed) people who would make all the decisions and
co-ordinate the whole regional campaign. It seems that it’s
more democratic to have this committee then it is for anyone who
wants to get involved just coming along and having their input. One
of the most hilarious aspects of it all was the SWP claim to
represent more people and therefore deserve more voting
power/influence over what went on. If an SWP member is a trade
union branch secretary, ergo he or she represents all the people
who are in that branch in whatever meeting they happen to be
taking part in. The truth is, like the rest of us, they represent
themselves, their party and no one else. Anyway, they argued that
at present the STWC was not working efficiently in the region and
that it needed co-ordination by this committee. Bar one or two
others, like a student who thought that a ‘command
structure’ [!] was an essential part of any organisation, the rest
argued that it worked well enough as it was: the problems that did
arise could be sorted out as and when necessary; the committee
idea meant putting control into the hands of a few people at the
expense of everyone who wasn’t on the committee; specific
events could, as was already happening, be organised by
sub-groups of those interested. The first time the committee idea
came up, it was not decisively dealt with, though it was obviously
unpopular outside the ranks of the SWP.

Failing to get what they wanted inside the STWC, they attempted
to establish another organisation they could control; a north east
‘people’s parliament’ briefly found its way into an
uncaring world. It soon vanished and another attempt at getting the
committee adopted was made. The same arguments were had, that
it was about control not democracy or organisation, that we should
be doing things not wasting time arguing about how we should be
doing things. After heated and at times very comic debate, it was
voted down. The STWC was operating in a relatively
‘anarchist’ manner. With no formal hierarchy, it was
characterised by openness, equality and democracy. Of course, it
could have been better, but most of the problems were down to
people not using some initiative and not communicating. Most of
the complaints came from SWP members, as if they were
deliberately trying to show that the structure didn’t work. The
SWP fervently believes you can’t organise without people
telling you what to do. They were going to try and impose their
‘top-down’ model and show us (a) we needed leaders and
(b) they were the best people for the job. Though a committee
would stifle initiative and creativity and disempower people who
were wanting to do stuff, it would have given control to the SWP.

There are many lessons that need to be understood or things that
require thinking about by anarchists, arising from the anti-war
campaign and its activities:

(1) Spontaneity, often from people new to ‘political
activity’, can be a very effective tool if you want to keep the
police on their toes and cause maximum disruption. There is no
need for marshalling, corralling and generally being controlled a la

(2) If the SWP or other authoritarian groups try and control
direct action, then ways are needed to prevent what happened to
end the demo on the first day of war. In the immediate aftermath of
that debacle, some argued that loud-hailers should not be allowed
on marches. It’s not really the loud-hailers, but the people
using them who cause the problem. Ways and means need to be
found of stopping would-be leaders from attempting to assert a
dubious authority on proceedings, but without appearing like other
would-be leaders. Someone getting up and using the loudhailer to
say ‘sit tight and ignore the guy telling you to go home’ is
in some ways being guilty of the same thing. We need to find ways
of combating those who elect themselves to sell us out. Maybe the
kids, who were the main inspiration of the days’ events, will
learn to deal with this in the future... Answers on a postcard,

(3) It was clear that the old formula of ‘big public meeting,
with twenty-five different speakers’ is of very limited use.
Once everyone who likes the sound of their own voice too much
has had a go, there often seemed less people left in the crowd than
on the platform. Those remaining invariably wore the expression of
people who had lost the will to live. Events in Newcastle showed
people wanted to do something, and we should think about ways in
which we can make all this stuff more participatory for the people
involved and more disruptive to the powers that be. They’ll
happily have people boring other people at the Monument for as
long as we can bear it.

(4) Though the STWC has people in it who we’d never
normally choose to work with, it is important that anarchists
involve themselves in such organisations: to get anarchist
arguments about organisation across and to attempt to frustrate
authoritarian ideas. Some people will come across anarchist ideas
for the first time and many will be influenced by them rather than
go with the SWP. Sadly, even after having seen how the SWP
operated at close hand, some still chose to join them in the
aftermath of war. Due to all the Stop the War activity, people who
had shelved a pre-war idea for a conference to establish a new
direct action group. The new group eventually emerged too late to
prevent at least some of the anti-war people getting mopped-up by
the SWP. Learn from our mistakes.

(5) Having people you know and trust with hand-held video
cameras when doing some kinds of activity is very useful. A lad
was arrested on the Tyne Bridge for obstructing and was also
charged with assaulting a police officer. He didn’t do it,
needless-to-say, and we have a video of the whole arrest that
shows quite clearly that he didn’t. The case was recently
adjourned and apparently the copper started saying he was ill and
couldn’t attend court when told we had a video as part of the
defence. The case was adjourned and it is likely that the assault
charges will be dropped thanks to the video (which the copper
incidentally tried to illegally snatch off the lad operating it on the
day). Another good aspect of the presence of ‘youth’ at
these demos was the police’s obvious uncertainty about
whether to arrest them or not. They would obviously have preferred
some ageing hippies to rough-up instead.

(6) The lad in the Tyne Bridge arrest had support with his case.
This did not happen in an earlier case when a lad was arrested and
manhandled by a load of coppers for writing ‘Justice Not
Vengeance’ on the Monument. A lot of the people said
they’d not go to any more rallies as he’d been
‘violent’ etc. He subsequently got very little support from
coalition members and was found guilty of criminal damage and
fined £50, the cost, apparently, of removing the chalk. Though the
STWC did pay his costs (it needed to do something with all the
money it’d been accumulating, after all), he didn’t want to
involve himself in it further; understandable. You have to be
prepared for this kind of thing when working in such a wide and
diverse kind of coalition.

To sum up, anarchists should be in STWCs and arguing an
anarchist case. Fight the authoritarians as much as possible and
try to show by practical example that anarchist methods are the
most effective way of organising. Those new to political activity
will hopefully learn something from anarchists, and we, in turn, will
definitely learn from and be inspired by, them.

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