As the bombs drop, Australians say 'No war!'

Issue 

BY ALISON DELLIT

Just three hours after Washington announced the beginning of its war against Iraq, Australians had flooded onto the streets in protests marked by deep anger and determination. Green Left Weekly has received reports from 25 anti-war protests on March 20, mobilising around 90,000 people in total, and it is likely that many more occurred.

Sydney and Melbourne both hosted around 30,000-strong protests. Ten thousand rallied in Brisbane, 6000 in Perth, 4000 in Adelaide, 3000 in Newcastle, 2000 in Canberra and 500 each in Geelong, Lismore and Hobart. Many other cities hosted sizeable protests, including Cairns, Queanbeyan, Darwin, Devonport, Launceston, Rockhampton, Penrith in Sydney's western suburbs and Wollongong.

The size of the rallies, given the short notice, exceeded organisers’ expectations in many cities. In Sydney, the crowd spilled out of Town Hall square into surrounding streets, many protesters unable to even see the platform.

In Canberra, many didn’t wait for the “official” 5pm protest, instead rallying spontaneously in Civic. Resistance activist Erin Killion led a one-hour speakout with the 100 protesters, who were mostly students and public servants.

Many of the rallies were quieter than recent anti-war protests, as participants attempted to grapple with the impending devastation. Protester Karen Fletcher described the mood at the Melbourne protest as “sombre”.

Protester Emma Murphy reported that in Adelaide, many protesters were moved to tears as they sang “give peace a chance”, and again during Socialist Alliance member David Scrimigour’s speech condemning the immorality of the war. “The mood of sad defiance shifted to angry determination”, Murphy commented.

“People reacted to the start of the war in different ways”, Canberra peace activist and Socialist Alliance member Kerryn Williams told Green Left Weekly. “Some people at the [March 20] rally were depressed that we had not been able to prevent the launching of the war, others were frustrated and thinking only civil disobedience would stop the war, some were more upbeat, and determined to stop it as soon as possible. But there was unity around one thing: absolute anger at US President George Bush’s war drive and PM John Howard’s support for it, despite overwhelming opposition.”

This anger against the warmongers was palpable at all the protests. In Sydney, protesters passing Liberal Party headquarters stopped to boo and hiss. In Newcastle, protesters marched chanting to senator John Tierney’s offices. In Melbourne, when one speaker said that “our leaders” had taken Australia into an immoral and bloody war, one protester called out, “What bloody leaders?”, which drew a chorus of support from the crowd. A similar response greeted Greens’ MLC Ian Cohen in Sydney, when he said, “Let’s march! Let’s show that we are bigger and better than our 'leaders’!”.

As the marches progressed, protesters report that the “mood”became even more militant, and the protests larger, as people saw the marchers and joined in.

The anger had deepened by March 21, when protests were held in about a dozen cities, with the largest protests a 20,000-strong mobilisation in Melbourne and a 2000-strong lunchtime protest in Canberra.

At this Canberra protest, one of the most popular chants was: “Georgie, Georgie, Georgie, out, out, out! Tony, Tony, Tony, out, out, out! Johnnie, Johnnie, Johnnie, out, out, out!”. Addressing the crowd, Socialist Alliance member James Vassilopoulos was wildly cheered when he demanded that Howard “face the people”, calling on the Senate opposition parties to block supply and force an early election. A similar response greeted Socialist Alliance member Ruth Ratcliffe in Darwin on March 20, when she made the same call.

The ALP did not escape abuse, despite many Labor speakers on the rally platforms. Aside from the anger directed at NSW Premier Bob Carr’s car in Sydney, Melbourne’s March 21 rally marched to state parliament to protest Premier Steve Bracks’ failure to oppose the war. VPN convenor David Spratt, who is an ALP member, tongue-lashed his party from the platform, saying:

“To Labor leader Simon Crean we say: For six months you have sat on your hands and given no support to the anti-war movement. You squirmed and you did not say that this war was always going to be wrong, with or without the UN. And now you say you are against this war and we say to you, 'Don’t expect us to welcome you with open arms. Your weakness gave John Howard free reign to support this war’.”

Spratt told Green Left Weekly that Bracks had refused to speak at the protest or at “anything organised by the VPN”. ALP speakers who have been outspoken in opposition to war for some months, received warm welcomes in many other cities.

The protests showed decisively that we will keep protesting this war. Brisbane protester Marcel Cameron told GLW: “Many people came to the protest feeling overwhelmed by the brutality and seeming inevitability of this unprovoked attack on the Iraqi people, but went away feeling confident that 'people power’ can stop this war.”

[More extensive reports of the protests are available on the Green Left Weekly web site <http://www.greenleft.org.au>.]

From Green Left Weekly, March 26, 2003.
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