Islamic State massacres in Syria, Saudi air strikes on Yemen, Israel’s stonewalling of Iran… It might be forgivable to see these events, perpetually populating the information-light news channel tickers, as some sort of isolated events, independent of historical baggage. Hasn’t it always been like that? Shouldn’t the West step in to enforce peace? Why do people in these faraway place (and I’m talking from a British perspective here) hate each other so much? Those are questions that you will generally get no answers to on the explosion obsessed mass media, as “security experts” line up in the TV studios to perform their latest arguments about why We Have To Do Something, often involving sending more advanced weaponry to some of the most war-torn parts of the planet.
That’s because these events are part of the latest chapter of the “war on terror” – an epoch in global political history which began around 14 years ago (although its roots go much further back). The clash between the West and “terrorism” seems timeless. But throughout this conflict, fraudulently described as one between freedom and tyranny, the decisions of Western governments stand like tombstones on the rocket-pocked road of history. That’s a fact that is often conveniently forgotten. Another fact that is conveniently forgotten is the way the world stood up in its tens of millions, one day in February 2003, to try and stop the drive to war in its tracks.
Thankfully, a new documentary by film maker Amir Amirani, We Are Many, goes some way to reminding us all that when this phony war, waged in our names, first began, it did not have the blessing of the people whose names it had attempted to appropriate. This astonishing collection of footage from news agencies, citizen reporters and others, charts the spine-chilling course of the conflict, starting with the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks on New York. At the time, the widespread sorrow and horror at what was perpetrated was gradually met with the realization that it was the beginning of something even more awful.
We all remember where we were at the time of the attack. I was bussing around south London trying to find a college that would enroll me. In the checkout queue of the Orpington branch of WH Smiths, holding a newspaper that was full of things that soon wouldn’t seem to matter any more, I caught the cashier in mid-conversation with a customer. “It’s like something out of Independence Day,” she was saying, “It’s the Palestinians, they think.” I asked what she was talking about, and she told me what she had seen on the news. In the local further education college, where I had previously been a student and head of the students’ union, we had organized many a protest against the Nato bombing of the Balkans (among other things) back when Tony Blair’s talk of “humanitarian intervention” was at its strongest. But on this September morning, the enrollment room was set up with television sets showing the live pictures, and prospective students sat around watching events unfold. What was to come, from those at the top of society and those of us at the bottom, would be far greater than anything we had seen before.
Within a week I was one of thousands of people building local meetings to “Stop the war before it starts”. One packed meeting at London’s Friends House, just ten days later, saw 2,000 people come to discuss what could be done to prevent the global devastation that is now a matter of historical record. The meeting voted to set up the Stop the War Coalition. This historic moment is recorded in We Are Many, as are similar events world wide.
The seed of this movement was already there, thanks to the several years of anti-capitalist activism that was sparked by mass protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Less than a month before 9/11, I was one of hundreds of thousands of people who had travelled to Genoa in Italy to protest against the G8 summit of world leaders. Our rulers, whose arrogance would not even permit a demonstration challenging the rule of neoliberalism, unleashed some of the most vicious repression I have ever seen as an activist. We were blinded by tear gas and chased by tanks, many were viciously beaten by police, with one activist, Carlos Guliani, shot dead by the Carabinieri. Meanwhile, inside the conference centre, the great and the good discussed how best to ensure that money had its freedom. But none of this was anything compared to the mass brutality that was set to be unleashed on the Middle East.
The demonstrations and protests began in 2001, in the UK and around the world, but their high point was without doubt the 15 February 2003 demonstration against the upcoming devastation of Iraq. Tens of millions of people around the world took part in what was probably the first truly global protest, with events taking place in every continent on earth. I was working for a homelessness charity at the time, and we had all been given the day off, perhaps partly with the realization that no one would go to work if they didn’t. My family were there, as were most of my friends. Even my landlady was there.
This didn’t come out of nowhere. Stop the War groups had sprung up in hundreds of places around the country. Most universities and colleges had some sort of anti-war activist group, as did many workplaces and housing estates. Despite the increasingly desperate claims by Tony Blair about how Saddam Hussein had the ability to wipe out life on Earth, most people knew at least one person somehow involved in the movement who could counter such an argument. The media was generally slanted heavily in favor of going to war, with even the BBC’s soft criticisms of Blair and co resulting in the exit of the director general, but people were smarter than to soak up the lies unthinkingly.
The day itself was something I will never forget. I remember standing in the middle of a rapidly filling Hyde Park in half a foot of mud, proudly wearing my stewards tabard, trying in vain to direct the vast procession — the start of which was still at the assembly point at Embankment. On stage stood a giant electronic display, paid for by the Daily Mirror newspaper, which was counting people as they entered. 600,000… 700,000… 1.2 million… 2 million… The pride we all felt was almost tangible. Despite the talk from Blair about us having “blood on our hands”, people went anyway. And those who didn’t would often come to regret it.
Tragically, history proved us right. Iraq is in tatters, its succession of corrupt, Western-backed governments along with its devastated infrastructure led to what we see today in the rise of the Islamic State. Tony Blair still says he would do it again, as if the deaths of more than a million Iraqis wasn’t going to hang around his neck like a blood-soaked concrete necklace until his dying day. Some of his more savvy former ministers are less deluded, but only just. “If I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t have voted for war,” they say. But we did know then, they just chose not to listen. The weak performance of Labour in this month’s elections is in part due to the lingering disgust of what that party’s leaders did to take us to war.
I defy anyone seeing the footage in We Are Many of oceans of people swarming around London’s parliament building, or New York’s Times Square, or Barcelona’s La Rambla, not to get goosebumps. The breadth of the movement was staggering. In the film we see scientists in the Antarctic hold a small protest outside their station. In Sydney we see a man who risked his own liberty to daub “No War” in giant letters on the Opera House. In Washington DC we see activists from the Code Pink women’s movement following around Donald Rumsfeld, valiantly shouting abuse at him.
But the central question whenever you talk about this global movement is, what did it achieve? It didn’t stop the war. Tony Blair was re-elected and so was George W Bush. Was it all a waste of time and energy? It’s a tough question, and one which the film has an attempt at dealing with. It uses the examples of Egypt’s 2011 overthrow of Western-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak, and the failure of British and US governments to endorse attacks against Assad in Syria, both of which, the film argues, stemmed directly from our international movement. But perhaps the biggest achievement was the empowerment people felt at the time and afterwards, the entrenchment of their distrust in war-hungry politicians, and the fact that governments to this day fear it might happen again. Perhaps we can never know the true victories achieved by the movement. Would the US have invaded Iran? What Pandora’s box of terrors that would have opened, we can only imagine.
The sheer diversity of the anti-war movement globally is a difficult thing to fit into a film, and there are a few areas left in the shade. One of the most inspiring things I remember was the school students. Young teenagers led walkouts at schools across the country, defying their head teachers, police and, sometimes, their parents. Unfortunately, this didn’t make it into We Are Many, and it also has rather too many celebrities, from Damon Albarn to Richard Branson (don’t get me started), and rather too few ethnic minorities. That’s a shame, because the diversity was amazing and brought people together in a way that undercut the growing anti-Muslim racism magnificently.
We Are Many is a powerful recap of what we all achieved, and is a timely reminder of how, as Patrick Tyler in the New York Times put it at the time, “there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.” And it’s a warning to our governments that we won’t let them get away with murder.
We Are Many is in cinemas across the UK from 21 May, 2015.