November 19, 2023
The Biggest Palestine Solidarity March in London

R Arun Kumar

ON November 11, London witnessed the largest of the marches in solidarity with Palestine. Nearly 8,00,000 people marched together from Hyde Park in Central London to the US embassy, demanding immediate ceasefire in Gaza. This, in fact, is the third march organised in London in three weeks – each march bigger than the one held the earlier week. This shows the growing anger among the people against the continuing attacks in Gaza, which has already led to the death of more than 12,000 people. This includes more than 4,000 children. Nothing more explains the blood thirsty character of Israeli aggression.

From the moment the march was announced, it faced vehement opposition from the British ruling establishment. Suella Braverman, the then home secretary (who has since been replaced by the prime minister), led the attack on the solidarity demonstration. Branding it a 'march of hate,' she asked for its prohibition and exerted tremendous pressure on the police to ban the protest. She even argued that November 11 is Armistice Day, a solemn occasion commemorating the end of the First World War with a two-minute silence at 11 am. She argued that organising a protest on such a significant day would be disrespectful to those who sacrificed their lives during the War. Furthermore, she egged the far-right, urging them to protest against what she deemed an insult to British tradition and history.

When the police refused to yield, stating they found no legal grounds to ban the demonstration and had adequate personnel to manage any untoward situation, Braverman even criticised the police vehemently. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak convened a meeting with police and other relevant officials, but the police maintained their position, asserting that the government should refrain from politicising the force and should allow them to carry out their duties independently. Ultimately, the government had to concede to the police force, and the protest was permitted to proceed. This serves as an illustration of how conscientious public servants can hold their ground and need not succumb to every unjust and illegal demand of the government. A lesson or two can be learned from the British police, who acted in contrast to our highly politicised ED, CBI, and other investigative agencies that often act as puppets in the hands of the ruling government.

Of course, this should not in any way imply that the British police force is inherently righteous and consistently aligns with the interests of the people. It harbours deep-seated biases against women and minorities, as underscored by recent reports revealing sexual bias within the force that have shaken the country. Hence, one particular instance cannot be generalised. As of now, the British government has not declared any moves to amend relevant laws to restrict such protests and curtail police powers.

The political lesson we must draw from this entire episode is how vitriolic and intolerant the right-wing ruling classes are becoming with each passing day.  The growing discontent among the people due to the economic hardships is sought to be diverted by spreading hatred. In Britain, this diversionary tactic was employed by labeling those in solidarity with Palestine as anti-Semitic. People marching for a ceasefire are unjustly branded as supporters of Hamas and terrorists. The plight of Palestinians is distorted and presented as a religious issue rather than a matter of their national identity. The marches and protests are belittled by framing them as religious gatherings organised by Muslims.

All these distortions were debunked by the march held in London. The Palestinian Solidarity Campaign and the Stop the War Coalition took the initiative in organising these demonstrations, with the active participation of numerous other sympathetic organisations and forces. Communists, socialists, sections of the Labour Party cadre, peace activists, and various social movements were prominent in these gatherings. Importantly, many individuals who had never previously participated in marches or demonstrations are joining. Many expressed that they were moved to join the marches after witnessing the images of the Gaza attacks on TV. They are coming with their entire families, including toddlers. Disabled people are present in big numbers. Old people were seen marching energetically along with the young. A predominant component of all these marches is the youth, who are taking their first steps in political activism. Women form another major section actively participating in these marches.

It is noteworthy to acknowledge women's participation, considering they were not part of the massive anti-war demonstrations that shook London in 2003. Constrained by a conservative outlook, many Muslim men did not allow women to join such marches at that time. However, the situation today is completely different. Thousands of women were seen actively participating, marching alongside others, and passionately shouting slogans. In fact, in many instances, women took the lead in shouting slogans, encouraging others to join their voices.

The placards displayed during the march showcased the creative potential of the participants. Many people carried their own handcrafted placards often using cardboard boxes, with handwritten slogans, on them. Even little children held placards they had personally prepared, with handwritten slogans and drawings depicting their own understanding of the horrors in Gaza. Many small children, perched on their parents' shoulders, energetically shouted slogans despite their throats going hoarse. Parents pushed their children in prams, and those who could walk covered the entire distance of the march without displaying any signs of irritation. The images they had witnessed on TV and in the media, despite censorship efforts, appeared to have deeply shaken them.

Students from various universities and colleges participated in the march, carrying the banners of their respective educational institutions. The Young Communist League was notably present, displaying their flags and banners. Similarly, numerous local branches of various trade unions, including teachers, medical personnel, industrial workers, and service workers, marched with their banners.

A significant highlight of the march was the active involvement of various Jewish organisations demanding a ceasefire. Contrary to what is being projected, many Jewish people are not supporting Israel's actions. This fact underscores that it is not religion that is motivating people to participate in these protests, but rather a sense of shared humanity. A small group of Orthodox Jews was observed cheering the marchers and chanting, "Judaism is OK, Zionism no way." They were greeted with applause by the passing crowds. A coalition of Jewish groups known as the Jewish Bloc was particularly notable, for the presence of hundreds of participants under its banner. They condemned the divisive efforts of politicians like Braverman, who seek to polarise society in the name of religion. Emphasizing the need for unity and mutual support, they asserted that solidarity marches like these would not contribute to an increase in hate crimes, whereas the words of right-wing politicians would certainly do.

This was indeed evident when a section of the far-right initiated a small riot through Chinatown in London on the same day immediately following the 11 am Armistice Day silence. Dozens of such men had also clashed with the police in front of the Parliament in Westminster. They attempted to attack the marchers, but the timely intervention of the police, who subsequently arrested them, averted any untoward incidents.

In stark contrast to their violent conduct, the hundreds of thousands of peaceful demonstrators displayed discipline when everyone observed a two-minute silence just after 3 pm, as called for by the organisers. They paid homage to all those who lost their lives in mindless wars, emphasizing, "We are calling for an armistice on Armistice Day. If people don't understand that, it's very disappointing." The entire route covered by the marchers, spanning over three kilometres, fell into complete silence.

In fact, the march on November 11 was preceded by various working-class actions across Britain. In Kent, where there is the BAE factory that manufactures arms and ammunition that are sold to Israel, workers did not allow trucks from leaving the factory. Similarly, in many industrial centres, the working class left their workplaces to hold solidarity demonstrations. Flash mobs and demonstrations were organised in front of major railway stations in and around London, led by the RMT, a union of railway and marine transport workers. In Cardiff, thousands marched, blocking roads and the central railway station. The extensive solidarity actions across the country paved the way for the large gathering in London.

The slogans and placards of the protest clearly articulated the marchers' demands. They called for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the Israeli occupation, along with the formation and recognition of the Palestinian State in its historical land. The chant "Rishi Sunak is a waste man" resonated throughout the march. Right-wing politicians and the complicity of the US and UK governments were strongly criticised. The enthusiasm and discipline displayed throughout the entire march to the US embassy were both a sight to behold and a source of inspiration. Most importantly, it wasn't just a march of solidarity but a preparatory school for future generations, who were well-represented. A ray of hope indeed!