Monday, March 27, 2006

LONDON'S MARCH FOR FREE EXPRESSION


Depending on who you ask, Saturday saw somewhere between 300 and 600 people brave London's weather and turn up to show their support for freedom of speech and expression in Trafalgar Square.

Not a million man march, but given it was almost entirely advertised through blogs and word of mouth, not a bad turn-out.

As hoped, concerns about a presence from the far right turned out to be ill-founded as most of the protesters were the sort of people you'd happily have a drink and a natter with. I did my best to do so, although a severe bout of flu didn't help my cause much - thank goodness for the power of Sudafed...

Peter Risdon's report is here; what follows is my personal take on the event.

Firstly, big big thanks are due to Peter Risdon, Patrick Vidaud and Nick Pullar for their tireless work to get this thing off the ground. Despite traffic and tube problems, everything ran pretty smoothly which is credit to their preparations.

On the whole the speakers were very good. Maryam Namazie kicked things off with a empassioned speech, followed by Evan Harris who managed to milk the applause of the crowd by taking credit, as the only MP present, for the government losing the vote on the Religious Hatred Bill by one, for which he took the credit.

Peter Tatchell was as good as expected, his speech echoing the talking points from his article of last week. Rend Shakir managed to speak at both this rally and the MAC rally in Birmingham - it will be interesting to read what she said at the latter because she gave a fairly strong performance here, with Peter Tatchell being a true gent and holding an umbrella over her.

Surprisingly, Mark Wallace from the Freedom Association didn't generate any controversy on the day, sticking to the principles of free speech and expression and probably causing a lot of people to think, "Hmm, why were we so worried about him again?" In fact, the Leftist friends I had there were more outraged by some of Sean Gabb's comments, but I also saw similar disdain given to Peter Tatchell from a section of right-wingers in the crowd. Neither were particularly serious incidents and only highlighted the importance of dissent in public debate - this was a march for free expression after all!


There were a couple of surprises too - a bullfighter with a Danish flag running rings around Mark Wallace in the name of "fighting the bull of oppression" (was it Aaron Barschak?), Labi Siffre turning up and probably giving the best speech of the lot and an Iraqi called Ali giving an impromptu speech in which he pointed out that not only was he a practising Muslim, but that he wouldn't be if Islam didn't encourage independent thought. Having bashed those who use religion to rule their people with an iron rod, he made a joke about female suicide bombers scoring 72 men in paradise that seemed to go over the heads of about half those present.

On the nutter front, there were a few. A chap on a bike who kept shouting "And the Prophet!" despite on several occasions it making absolutely no sense, and a nun (I'm told she was) with a statuette of the Virgin Mary and Jesus and a Union Jack top on heckling Labi Siffre and calling for suicide bombers to be prosecuted?!? (Hat-tip - publicansdecoy) There was a bit of a hoo-hah when a chap turned up with a strange sculpture consisting of a rubber mask of Tony Blair with a swastika attached made out of L-plates. Stewards, police and the crowd seemed to be in some confusion as to whether he ought to be allowed to display his wares there, but common sense prevailed and calls from the crowd to leave him be seemed to win the authorities over.

I'm not sure that the guy body-popping behind the rally was doing his bit for freedom of expression or not, but he certainly kept us entertained and our minds off just how wet we were likely to get if the speakers over-ran!


One odd thing was that according to a local by-law, foreign flags cannot be displayed in the Square. Weird - I'm sure I've seen Palestinian flags there on the anti-war marches, but I guess it's easier to enforce when the people displaying the flags are part of a smaller crowd and aren't ranting about Zionist conspiracies and McChimpyHitlerHalliburton. It didn't really matter - those who turned up with Danish or American flags just wore them as cloaks and were given plenty of opportunity to have their pictures taken by the media and everyone else present.

Speaking of photos, it seemed EVERYONE was taking pictures of everyone else. I understand it's standard pratice at any rally now, but there was a heavy presence of police photographers. There was no hassle though, and they didn't seem to mind that lots of people were taking pictures of them taking pictures of us.

All in all, the police were pretty chilled. They had to act against one protester after a complaint about his placard. Rather rankly they had to take him to one side for questioning, but plenty of people from the March followed to check he was OK and Maryam Namazie then encouraged people to pass his poster around, using the logic "If we all touch it, they can't arrest us all."

Other than that, the only problem was with some masked youths who the police quickly spotted and had a quiet word. I saw an unmasked lad (maybe 18 years old) getting a little too larey and, within four or five seconds, a copper popping up saying "Would you like to calm down sir?" When he didn't, the policeman, simply nudging him on his elbow, took him and his friends for a little stroll and I'm not sure what was said, but the three guys decided that perhaps shouting for jihad or whatever they were up to wasn't going to get them anywhere other than a cell out of the rain.


One final thought - bloggers. Thaaasands of 'em. Well, a lot anyway. From publicansdecoy, Wardytron and chums who were busy arguing about nachos in the pub beforehand, to Jon from DrunkenBlogging who had (IMHO) the best poster of the day. In fact, the Infidel Bloggers did us all proud, with plenty of top quality placards. When checking the photos of the event, if the banner makes you laugh, the chances are they were behind it. I owe that guy a beer or two for all his effort - feeling fluey I didn't last long enough in the pub afterwards to find him at the time and say thanks. Power-bloggers David T of Harry's Place, Johann Hari and Perry from Samizdata were also present.

A big thank you also has to go to the Richard and Neil from Little Atoms and Chris from BBC Radio 5 Live who did their level best to bowl round the rally getting opinion and comment from the wide variety of people who'd kindly given up two hours of their weekend to come and support the demonstration. There can only be so many ways to say "Why are you here?" or "What does freedom of expression mean to you?" so full credit to all three of them for keeping it up for well over two hours.

Given the rain, we all legged it to the pub afterwards where we found a couple more Drink-Soaked Trots who were busy getting, um, drink-soaked. I also met the two guys who were arrested for counter-demonstrating at the Al Ghurabaa hate-fest outside the Danish Embassy - top fellas!

Overall, it was quite inspiring to see such great camaraderie between the politically diverse bunch who turned up on the day, whether bloggers or not. I only wish I wasn't so poorly that I could have joined in properly with the post-rally celebrations!



MORE LINKS
(In the order I found them...)

My photos - taken with my phone but not the worst I've ever seen...
Peter Risdon's report
David T's round-up at Harry's Place
BBC report
Marc Vallee's photos
Nordish Blog
More shots from Nordish
Samizdata's report
Another good placard
Schmoo on the Run
Pink News report
Johnno93's photos
Bagrec's Report

Please leave more links in the comments!

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