15 February 2003
Eye witness accounts – Samia Rahman on the 15 Feb 2003 Demo
There was something different about the mood of the nation as February 15th approached and I could sense this was going to be a demonstration like no other I had ever experienced. The guys from JUSTPEACE told me they needed stewards and I thought why not?
I had my first taste of the thrill of collective action during the protests in London against the WTO meeting in Seattle in 1999. That was well before everyone had mobile phones and as I was held in Euston Square by the police for 3 hours after ‘rioting’, I managed to borrow a phone off someone and sheepishly called my mum to let her know I’d be home a little late that evening and suggested she might want to look out for me on TV. She sighed her usual sigh of resignation and said she would put my dinner in the oven!
Three years later and it seemed everyone I knew was gripped by a sense of frustration compelling them to take to the streets and make their voices heard.
It was amazing - all my friends and family were talking about the 15th of February. My sister, brother and mother who had never been on a demonstration before wanted to be there. My friends, Muslim and non-Muslim, some of whom I had never known to be interested in politics at all, were planning to march. Friends I had not seen for years were e-mailing, asking if I was going on the march and we agreed to try to meet up in Hyde Park – an optimistic plan in hindsight!
One week before the march and the Stop The War office in East London was a frenzy of activity – frantic phone calls to recruit stewards, sending out press releases, massive media interest, calls from celebrities asking how they can help, planning the route, figuring out how best to protect the grass in Hyde Park… the anticipation was immense.
Everyone involved knew it was going to be huge, and I mean really huge, and that meant a carefully co-ordinated plan to orchestrate a safe and comfortable march for all the hundreds of thousands of people we expected.
The stewards meeting on the Wednesday before the big day was packed, with many Muslim as well as non-Muslim volunteers despite it being Eid-ul-Adha. Everyone was briefed with essential information about the route, timings, location of amenities etc. We then split into groups to develop a strategy for the front and back of both the Gower Street march and the Embankment march, the point where the marches converged at Piccadilly and Hyde Park itself. Everyone was excited, filled with talk of the government’s slanderous hype about a terrorist strike to coincide with Eid, and discussing wild rumours of a possible shutdown of the tube to prevent people getting to the rally!
Saturday February 15 had a crisp, wintry feel to it and despite the initial shock of getting up so early I arrived at the embankment enthused and invigorated. Positioned at the front were the likes of Tony Benn, Ken Livingstone, Damon Albarn, Bianca Jagger and Tariq Ali and as the crowds gathered behind us and people came, and came and still kept coming, it was an awesome view of streams and streams of protestors as far back as the eye could see. The atmosphere was electric, everyone was filled with a sense of purpose… it was an unforgettable scene.
Estimates of as many as 2 million people from across the UK converging on the capital to oppose war on Iraq were filtering through the crowds as were reports of marches around the world. Each person added their voice to millions of others in more than 60 cities across the world demanding peace on a day of global protest. What an amazing thing to be a part of.
We arrived at Hyde Park, careful to walk gently on the delicate grass for Tessa’s sake. Exhausted yet invigorated, the people drank Mecca Cola, sang slogans of ‘Make Tea, Not War’ listened to stirring speeches by JUSTPEACE’S very own Shahedah Vawda, Jesse Jackson, Michael Foot, George Galloway, Charles Kennedy and others and many bopped to the sounds of Ms Dynamite. The people were still streaming in even as the rally ended and as we set about clearing up it seemed clear to me this was a day when the common values of humanity and civilisation stood up to resist the slide into hatred and war.