“Whose Streets? Our Streets!”: Reflections on the World’s Largest Demonstration, Ten Years Later


February 15, 2003

Sarah, New York:

The wind that whips down the avenues is bitterly cold, but that doesn’t stop us from protesting the drive to war in Iraq.  People from all over the city and the Northeast — young and old, hardened activists and first-time protestors — have converged on Manhattan, where the wounds of 9/11 are still gaping, to tell our unelected president NO to war on Iraq.  Now, at 63rd and 2nd, my contingent has come face to face with a line of police.  Word travels through the crowd: If you’re prepared to get arrested, come up to the front.  I am twenty-two and out of work at the moment, with a little money in my savings account and no real responsibilities.  I push forward through the throng.

Familiar faces, my fellow activists, surround me.  I link arms with Sharon, with Dao, and inches away a stone-faced policewoman stares straight ahead, avoiding eye contact.  The shout goes up: “PUSH!”  I do not need to push; the crowd is swaying.  I cannot move.  The pressure is immense, and I wonder what it’s like to be crushed to death.  The pushes come again, harder and closer together, the intense contractions of a movement being born.

And then comes the delivery: we see the police exchange a signal and then we are breaking through, expelled from the tight womb of the crowd into an empty street.  We shout with joy and run, skip, dance past the discarded sawhorse barricades.  My friend Peter, still in his teens and a fresh arrival to New York, grabs my arm and we whirl around, dancing a little jig as waves of bundled-up activists with signs and drums wash past us.  We have won.  We can still stop this war.  Our joy, we know, has power even against the enormity of the war machine.

* * *

Leo, London:

I have spent the run-up to the demonstration fighting in court against a charge of violent disorder.  I was arrested, months before, on the Halloween protest.  A night to remember, even if you weren’t arrested.  Thousands filled Whitehall, crowding outside Downing Street to tell Tony Blair that we wanted no part in the war that he sought with Iraq.  We were all happy and hopeful that night; the city felt as though it was on our side.  I shouted at the police and got those around me to rattle the metal barriers separating us from Blair’s official residence.  Then I got arrested and charged with trying to push through police lines.  Two weeks before we all demonstrated in London — two million of us — the judge threw out the case and I was free.  They didn’t want a martyr, even such a hapless one as me, twenty-nine years old, still a student with no money and lots of time for activism

But on 15 February I have another reason to be jubilant.  I am wrapped up in my keffiyeh and jean jacket, ridiculous now when I look at the photographs, how thin my clothes, how bitter the cold.  As I shuffle onto the train in South London, surprised to see so many placards, my phone buzzes with messages from friends already in town: “Leo, get here now.  I have never seen anything like this.”  I know London well, the backstreets, the alleys and shortcuts.  I know how to get to the tube station where I am meeting my group of friends and comrades to march together.  But each tarmac tributary is blocked up with demonstrators carrying homemade slogans they wrote out on the kitchen table the night before.  I can’t move.  I can’t circumnavigate the crowds, but I don’t care.

When I finally meet up with Adam, my best friend, we hug tight, pleased to have found each other, overwhelmed by the numbers and what we have done.  This will stop the war.  Always more confident than me, he jabs his fist into the air and shouts over the heads of the protestors, “There ain’t no power like the power of the people!”  When we repeat the cry — which has always sounded old-fashioned to me, stuck in the 1960s — thousands around us take up the chant and the street reverberates with our determination.

* * *

A month later, the invasion begins.

We don’t say it, but we’re all crushed, all of us who organized and fought and held out hope.  “We knew our chances of really stopping it were slim,” we say in panel meetings with titles like ‘STOP THIS RACIST WAR.’  “Now we have to keep fighting.”  Some people stop coming to the meetings.  Others drink too much afterward, glassy eyes glued to CNN on the TV above the bar.  It will be, we say privately to one another, the next Vietnam.

Ten years later, the wars drag on, ragged and limping.  There have been MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banners and soaring speeches about our great victories, but the only ones cheering have been Halliburton, KBR, and whatever Blackwater is calling itself these days.  There have been more soldier casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan than there were in Vietnam, which was a shorter war than this; statistics on civilian casualties are badly kept, but the losses are profound, the devastation immense.

Those of us who live in the West, in the London and New York of 2013, are insulated from wars that are no longer newsworthy.  They rage on in the background while our televisions offer breathless coverage of royal weddings and celebrity wardrobe malfunctions.  The wars pervade our lives more subtly.  Old friends home from Kabul or Fallujah jump at loud noises.  Our cars slide on the snowy streets because the state has no money for salt or plows — though there is money, always, for war.  And the drones that have, for years now, tormented the people of northwestern Pakistan now fly over the Black neighborhoods of California.

It’s worth looking back, with a decade of war under our belts, at the lessons of that February 15.

It’s true, we didn’t win.  We are told, now, that it was naïve to think we would.  But it wasn’t that simple.  Holding the march was itself a victory: in New York, the NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg (still in office) initially denied a march permit; after public pressure forced them to allow the march, police attacked and arrested hundreds of demonstrators.  In London, there were few arrests because the demonstration was so large that the police (and government) were forced to stand back — sheer force of numbers compelled them to stay off the streets.  Seasoned demonstrators commented that the police were nowhere to be seen, but this wasn’t the case: they were present, just overwhelmed and outnumbered by us.  Never had our anticapitalist call-and-response made such sense: “Whose streets?” we shouted.  “Our streets!” came the resounding response.  But around the world, protestors braved the wrath of police states far worse than those of the US and UK, and many came together across unlikely borders: in Israel, for example, two thousand Israelis and Palestinians marched arm in arm against the war.

Altogether, 17 million people marched in six hundred locations around the globe, setting a world record.  Our side marched in South Africa.  In Kazakhstan.  In Barcelona and Rio de Janeiro, in Singapore and Delhi, even in Antarctica.  This uniquely global mobilization, coming as it did at the dawn of the Internet age, proved to the world that no borders can stop a worldwide wave of protest — a lesson that has since been driven home again and again by the Occupy movement, the Slutwalks against rape, and, most dramatically, the Arab Spring, as protests that sprang from Tunisia and Egypt spread into some of the most repressed corners of the world.

The world has changed since 2003.  It’s not just that we’ve seen the extremes of violence and remote-controlled brutality to which the great powers will go in their quest for control of the world’s supply of fossil fuels.  It’s also that the effects of those fossil fuels have become far more apparent.  We know now how very swiftly our climates are changing — the dire global-warming projections of 2003 now seem quaintly optimistic — and if we weren’t sure then of the severity of the situation, the past few years’ unending march of “natural” disasters has surely driven the point home.

Our world is facing an unprecedented environmental crisis, created and driven by capitalism — one that does not respect borders or permits or political expediencies.  If we are to face it, if we are to apply the brakes and have a chance of leaving our children a world worth living in, we will need a global protest movement much like the one that so inspired us in 2003.  Then and now, we are small, ordinary people marching at the feet of a massive and faceless monolith.  The system we are taking on is perfect and impersonal in its violence.  But we are many, and, for all their might, they are few.

Ten years ago, 17 million of us were angry and hopeful enough to take to the streets.  We can do it again — and we must.

Leo Zeilig is the author of several books, most recently African Struggles Today: Social Movements Since Independence with Peter Dwyer (Haymarket Books, 2012).  His new novel Eddie the Kid (forthcoming this March from Zer0 Books) takes place during the London antiwar movement of 2002 and 2003.  He is a senior researcher at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in London.  Sarah Grey is a freelance writer and book editor (www.greyediting.com) based in Philadelphia.

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