In the last week, Leeds has gone anti-war crazy. On Saturday March 15th, an estimated 10,000 people came from all over the region and the country to the Yorkshire anti-war demonstration held in Leeds. Yesterday’s superb student walkout and march around the city at times numbered around 500 people (see photos). And on Thursday, protestors have blocked roads and motorways for hours, and taken part in an all-day spontaneous rally and march numbering upto 3000 people. I start this report with the events in the last 24 hours before looking back on last Saturday’s huge demonstration.
National Student Walkout – Noon, Leeds, Weds March 19th.
Yesterday’s superb student walkout and march around the city at times numbered around 500 people. Students simply took over the city centre without informing the police and for around an hour there were very few to be seen. Until, that is, two police horses managed to bump into us and then more of the filth appeared (horseshit obviously). The protest was entirely peaceful and was a joy to be a part of, and several roads were shut down through sit-downs for around 2 hours. But once again, the police were condemned for their disgraceful attempt to pen students in like cattle at the entrance to the Headrow shopping centre. With police horses getting extremely nervous and nearly causing a major injury to a lot of people as they jumped around, one police officer assaulted a student. Passers-by spoke out, shouting at the police to let the 200 students out of the pen. Eventually, they agreed to a police escourt and the students returned to the University where several pints were then consumed.
The Leeds Roadblockers – 07.15am, Leeds, March 20th.
This morning at 07.15 GMT, around a dozen peace activists, supported by upto 40 more activists gathered outside the Yorkshire Evening Post building before attaching themselves to each other with plastic piping and lying across the A58, causing its closure and that of the eastbound carriageway of the M621 at junction 2. This courageous and successful road-block lasted upto four hours, caused huge traffic delays. It demonstrated just how easy it is to bring a local area to a standstill through the actions of a few committed heroes. The protestors were eventually cut out of their piping, arrested and bundled away.
Midday Protest to the Start of Bombing – Dortmund Square, Leeds.
And as this first protest of the day ended, the next stage began. At midday, 100 members of Leeds Council Workers Against the War gathered outside Leeds Civic Hall in Millennium Square – Leeds City Council’s abhorrent concrete jungle that wasted £64m paving over a civic garden and turning it into a permanent outdoor events venue. They were joined by radical students from Park Lane College, Leeds University and the local schools. We were told discreetly by the daughter of a police officer that the police were going to get nasty today and arrest key people to maintain their control. Kath Owen, Leeds Socialist Alliance candidate for Headingley informed the crowd about the road-blockers whom she had just left to huge cheers. Then a young school pupil took the loudspeaker and admonished everyone for being ‘too quiet’. She led the usual ‘Bush-Blair-CIA’ chants as the Council Workers made their way to Dortmund Square for a lunchtime rally. Noone could have predicted how big this would be. There were hundreds and hundreds of people crammed into the square and already a large police presence. A local lecturer led chants, and then more students from Leeds University and the local schools arrived. The school kids had already marched to Leeds University to pick up the students, repeating yesterdays national student walkout which caused a lot of disruption in Leeds city centre. The rally turned into a march as now around 700 people flooded onto the Headrow, stopping traffic in both directions, and then sitting down. The police immediately began handing out Section 12 orders from the Assistant Chief Constable S Smith of West Yorkshire police, telling the protestors that the police believed that the public procession “may result in serious public disorder, serious damage to property or serious disruption to the life of the community” and imposing a route.
For the next 2 hours, between 1000 and 2000 people marched around the city centre, stopping for sit-downs every so often at key junctions to block buses which in turn blocked everything else. The marchers came from all backgrounds, professions, ages and classes. There was a large student contingent and a significant number of young Muslims. Disobeying police orders, the marchers walked straight past Dortmund Square and then attempted to storm the Town Hall. A good number of school students managed to get inside the building, only to be locked inside. They were quickly released because they had a Maths conference to attend in the afternoon. The Town Hall steps were turned into a huge, colourful, noisy rally, but it was quickly realised that the police had suddenly moved around a dozen vans into position and were rapidly encircling the 500-strong crowd. Key organisers (not just from the SWP either, which was a nice surprise) managed to pass word around that the next destination was the constituency office of Blairite war-monger Hilary Benn MP (how his father must weep with shame) which was outside the University of Leeds main entrance. As the demo made its way back upto the University, the police had sealed off a key part of Woodhouse Lane, turning protestors back. After another sit-down, someone decided to try and storm Hilary Benn’s office but managed to get the wrong building, taking the anti-war Transport & General Workers office by surprise. Finally, the crowd found Hilary Benn’s office but the building had ‘to let’ written all over and major building work was going on. This prompted another sit-down. The protest was still going on at 3.30pm. Many were planning to stay out until the next scheduled protest at 5.30pm in Dortmund Square.
A word on the police: their presence grew larger over the day and it was nice to see all our friends in plain clothes, disguised as the local BNP, hanging around in and by the side of the march. The police filmed the entire event from the very start but they generally behaved themselves for a change, although one plain clothes officer assualted someone (punch) trying to enter the Town Hall. And there was horseshit everywhere.
A word on the general public: most cars beeped their horns; a lot of people shouted support from windows; there were some very rude and obnoxious characters who verbally abused protestors and even gave us a few gestures from time to time.
A word on the protest: it was magnificent. It wasn’t dominated by the SWP although they did their heroic best to recruit and sell papers during the sit-down moments. It was loud, it was broad and diverse, it was colourful and it policed itself.
Yorkshire Regional Demonstration – March 15th, Leeds City Centre
Organised by the rapidly expanding Leeds Coalition Against the War (LCAW), demonstrators assembled at 12 noon outside the City Art Gallery before marching through the city centre to Hyde Park for a rally addressed by amongst others Dave Nellist, Labour rebel MP Harold Best, sanctions-breaker activist Milan Rai and even a 16-year old local school pupil from Headingley.
The significance of this event cannot be understated. An amazing diversity of people and groups helped create the largest demonstration held in Leeds in living memory and shut down the city for hours. And it had all been organised in just 11 days following LCAW’s spontaneous decision at one of its weekly city-wide meetings. Organisers believe even more people would have come if there hadn’t been serious train delays and cancellations, and pointed to the high numbers taking part in simultaneous events in near-by York and Newcastle. The location of the rally even had to be moved to Hyde Park because there was no other place in the city that could accommodate the expected numbers of people.
It wasn’t just the size that was significant. Marchers received tremendous support from shoppers, taxi-drivers and passing cars, and despite the considerable anger felt by demonstrators towards imminent war, the procession passed off without incident. Previous demos in Leeds had been criticised for being visually bland and dominated by slogan chanting so several DIY sessions were held in the preceding week and the result was a sea of colourful, brilliantly imaginative banners and signs dancing to a large jazz band, and turning Leeds into a ‘carnival for peace’.
But the most significant aspect of the demonstration was the incredible “organised” youth presence. According to 16-year old Sachin Sharma, who made national news headlines on March 5th when he and another pupil were suspended from Prince Henrys Grammar School for “inciting younger pupils to walk out of school”, the February 15th demonstrations in London and across the world “inspired more young people to get involved”. Since then a “sixth-form anti-war network has emerged spontaneously across Leeds with regular meetings to plan actions”. In recent weeks, Leeds sixth-formers have become increasingly active and militant mirroring similar trends across the country and the anti-war teenagers promise “civil disobedience” in the coming weeks in response to war on Iraq.
As the one-way bomb blitz begins on Iraq, the peace movement in Leeds is building up an unprecedented level of momentum and organisational capacity justifying the resolve of a handful of anti-war activists to keep meeting every week after the Afghanistan war had left the mainstream media’s interest. Frances Jones, Chair of LCAW and a member of Labour Against the War, says that the Coalition had “deliberately kept a structure in place to help enable people to get involved when necessary”. Part of the success of the Leeds Coalition is that it is “not a controlling organisation that takes a lead on everything” but instead creates a space in which “people can share their different views and ideas and then go and act on them”. In the last month, LCAW has been supplemented by local anti-war groups across the city organising their own stalls, leafletting and speakers and according to Joel Smith, activist in the recently set-up Headingley Stop the War group, this has had a real impact “on bringing in a whole new set of people we previously weren’t tapping into”. There are now daily student stalls in the local universities and colleges and both the student unions and Leeds University AUT have recently passed anti-war motions. A “Leeds Council Workers against the War” group has been set up. While activists are for the most part realistic about the overall impact that their efforts can have on stopping the Bush-Blair war machine, one after the other spoke of their belief that a radical politicisation of people is taking place that hasn’t been seen since the Miners Strike. One sign of this was the enormous number of first-time marchers who said they were prepared to take direct action against military installations across the country regardless of the consequences.