Ten years since the biggest anti-war protest in history

February 8, 2013
Some of the Green Left Weekly covers before and just after the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Ten years ago, the February 14-16, 2003 global protests against the looming US-led invasion of Iraq involved more than 12 million people in 700 cities around the world. A million people marched around Australia — 500,000 of them in a huge protest in Sydney that was so big that most participants could not move (let along march) from Hyde Park.

It was the biggest globally coordinated protest ever — certainly the biggest global anti-war protest.

Where were you on that day? What political impact did that mobilisation have on you? Were you part of the stirring Books Not Bombs youth marches and high school strikes? Were you one of those who splashed in Hyde Park fountain after the first Books Not Bombs march?

Ten years later, what are your reflections on the movement against the war in Iraq? What lessons have you drawn from this experience for the anti-war and other progressive social movements? Do you have anecdotes, film footage or photographs that you would like to share with Green Left Weekly or our sister project Green Left TV?

We'll try and use your contributions in Green Left Weekly or through Green Left TV. There is an important chapter in people's history to be written around this experience.

But to get you going, here are some recollections.

I missed the giant march in Sydney as I was in Belgium to attend a conference. But I went to the march in Brussels. It was so huge, I was forced with other antiwar protesters to get off two train stations before the station closest to the advertised assembly area. The crowd estimated at 100,000 took three-and-a-half hours to cross the city centre.

Friends and comrades back in Sydney had passed on news of the giant marches in Australia, so a colleague and I who were in Brussels made up a placard which said: “Half a million Australians march to stop Bush! Stop Howard! No war!”

It drew the attention of other Australians, including two young people from Alice Springs. Scores of Belgians came up to express their solidarity with our small Australian contingent, but many asked: “Who is Howard?”

Participants in the February 16 Sydney march told of waiting for trains or buses to the city and smiling at the fact that just about every other person seemed to be armed with a homemade anti-war placard. If it had been today, everyone would have been updating their Facebook status to “OMG!” via their smart phones.

GLW reporter Lisa Macdonald described the scene at the protest: “Many protesters did not march, but stayed in the rally in Hyde Park because the crowd was so huge that the march gridlocked itself around six city blocks. Some watching from the sidelines said it took two hours for the march to pass them by.

“A range of local anti-war groups organised feeder marches to Hyde Park. The trains from Wollongong, the Blue Mountains and Newcastle were all packed to the rafters. At least 5000 trade unionists gathered at Town Hall to march, united as workers against the war, to Hyde Park. They were joined by contingents from every Christian denomination.

“And there were several marches out of Hyde Park. The front of the official march was returning to Hyde Park for the second round of speakers even before much of the crowd had been able to start marching out. Many, getting frustrated, headed down different side-streets, forming parallel marches of their own.

“Police also diverted around 10,000 people onto other roads out of the park to the nearby Domain. The entire CBD soon became a protest zone.”

From the Melbourne march the previous day, GLW's Arun Pradhan reported: “Organisers and police were shocked at the huge turn out. Protesters spanned eight city blocks, many with their own placards or banners. By 4.50pm, all traffic in and around Swanston Street had come to a virtual standstill. Tens of thousands marched from Flinders Street to the State Library, filling Swanston Street as they went.

“The official start time of the rally came and went, and still people poured from Flinders Street station, slowing to a trickle by 6pm. By then, the rally had filled Swanston Street from the State Library to Bourke Street. Rally goers were packed in tighter than fish in a can. At 6.15, the official march started...

“Thunderous applause greeted trade unionist Michelle O'Neil's comment, 'We oppose the war, no matter what the UN says'.

“A similar roar of approval greeted state Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) state secretary Martin Kingham, when he told protesters that if war broke out, there would be 'a massive strike' the next day.”

The sense of people's power at demonstrations like these in more than 60 countries was overwhelming. It prompted New York Times columnist to write that there were now perhaps “two superpowers on the planet — the United States, and worldwide public opinion”.

Yet despite this — and many polls that showed that popular majorities all around the world opposed the invasion — the armies of the US and its imperialist allies (including Australia) invaded and began a war that would kill more than a million Iraqis, shatter a civilisation, displace more than 2 million and leave the rest in living in terror and economic ruin 10 years later.

While anti-war demonstrations persisted through the decade, the numbers in the streets fell off dramatically even while the polls continued to show firm majorities against the invasion and occupation.

Was this the defeat of the Vietnam Syndrome, or as some more pessimistic analyses argued, the disillusionment of most people in the value of mass protest? Were the comparisons many of us on the left made to the earlier movement against the Vietnam misplaced? What did those two movements have in common and what were their critical differences? What was the politics of the demobilisation of the movement that produced the biggest anti-war demonstration in history?

Green Left Weekly will run a series of articles exploring these questions over the next few weeks.

To get in touch, email weekly.greenleft@gmail.com

Related story: PHOTOS: When half a million marched in Sydney against war

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