WORLD: High school students lead the way

March 26, 2003


LONDON — Protest action swept Britain on March 20, in response to the launch of the US-British war of conquest against Iraq. Tens of thousands of school students spearheaded the militant demonstrations, holding sit-ins, road blockades and marches. The students inspired many other activists with their energy and determination.

Around the country — from Aberystwyth in Wales, Edinburgh in Scotland and all across London — students walked out of schools. Anti-war and political groups on schools have been organising for months, and rolling walkouts of thousands of students had been taking place across the country for the previous two weeks.

From 8am, students streamed into Parliament Square from all corners of London, defying crackdowns by school heads and the Labour government's intimidation (symbolised by the presence of a truancy van at the square). Students blocking the streets near Parliament Square were forcibly dragged away by police. The whole of Westminster, including Parliament Square, was occupied by thousands of people from midday until midnight. A continuous vigil is taking place.

Camden Comprehensive was left empty after students began assembling outside the school at 8am. Teresa Foard, the National Union of Teachers delegate at North Westminster Comprehensive, a school with a student body made up of children from diverse national origins, described how incredibly distressed her many Iraqi students were about the wellbeing of their families. “They are very cluey about the war. They are really clear about the effect of sanctions on the health and education systems have had on Iraq. They know the war will turn that crisis into a disaster”, Foard told Green Left Weekly.

The town centres of numerous cities across Britain were brought to a standstill by protesting high school students. All day long, sometimes roving, sit-ins in city streets took place in Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge, Hereford, Lancaster, Brighton, Newcastle and many other places.

In Birmingham, 5000 young people attempted to enter the council chambers to protest the war, according to the BBC. In Manchester, 3000 high school students left school to blockade a main road into the city. Two-thousand school students protested in Sheffield, while in Blackburn, around 500 staff and students walked out of Blackburn College and marched to British foreign secretary Jack Straw's office. The centre of Bristol was occupied by 1000 students, while 1000 protested in Leeds.

In Wales, 300 walked out in Swansea. Students at Olchfa Comprehensive were not allowed to leave school, so they held sit-ins in the classrooms.

Twenty students from a secondary school in St Just, Cornwall, were suspended after they left school to lead a march to nearby Penzance. Ilkley Grammar in West Yorkshire had to close for the day after 500 students left. Four-hundred students from Kingsmead Community School held a demonstration in Wiveliscombe, Somerset. In Leicester, police patrolled schools to prevent students protests, but dozens still managed to gather in the city centre to chant “No blood for oil!”. The Guardian reported that 800 students in Liverpool closed several motorways.

In Edinburgh, 3000 mainly high school students held a mass “die-in”, bringing the city to a halt for more than an hour. They were addressed by Scottish Socialist Party leader Tommy Sheridan, who declared that the young people should be proud of their actions and added that their parents should be too. He dismissed claims made by the mainstream press that it was irresponsible for the SSP to encourage protests by school students. “Those who are irresponsible are Tony Blair and George Bush and the other politicians who are going to support the invasion of a country with bombs and missiles”, Sheridan said as the students chanted his name. The rally then marched to the US consulate.

At the Fairford USAF base in Gloucestershire, form where US B-52s bombers take off to pound Iraq, a peace camp has been in place for a month. Another peace camp has been set up at the US satellite station at Menwith Hill in Yorkshire.

Council workers in a number of boroughs, particularly in Wales, walked out for 15 minutes at noon on March 19. However, there has yet to be substantial strike action against the war.

Protests continued on March 21, with high school walkouts in Manchester, Ipswich and Cambridge, Pedal for Peace cyclists' actions in London and protests in Sheffield, Bristol and Manchester. There was an occupation of a pro-war Labour MP’s office in Oxford and a die-in in Stoke-on-Trent. In Ireland, there were protests in Belfast and Dublin.

The Communication Workers Union, the University and College Lecturers Union, the Rail Maritime and Transport Union and the National Union of Journalists are all actively calling on their members to join and build the national March 22 anti-war protest in London. There will be a major demonstration at the Fairford base. There will also be rallies regional cities across England and Wales and in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Inverness, Aberdeen and Dundee in Scotland.

British Labour Prime Minster Tony Blair is marching to war with the backing of the opposition Conservative Party MPs. On March 19, two votes on the war went to parliament. One motion, which stated that the case for war had not been made, was defeated by 396 to 217 votes. The second, supporting the use of “all means necessary” to “disarm” Iraq was carried by 412 votes to 149, with 139 Labour MPs voting against.

Although cabinet minister Clare Short has reneged on her threat to resign if Britain went to war without the backing of the UN, Labour's backbenches are swelling. The Home Office minister John Denham, the leader of the house Robin Cook, the health minister Lord Hunt and four ministerial aides have quit.

While public opposition to the war is growing, Blair's personal popularity is also on the rise. He is being touted by the media as a “strong leader” who makes tough decisions. It remains to be seen whether the protest movement against the war will threaten Blair's position of power.


Across Europe, the United States and South Africa, high students were also at the forefront of anti-war protests on March 20. In Germany, 80,000 school students marched past the US embassy in Berlin. “Let's bomb Texas, they've got oil too”, read one banner. Eight-thousand students mobilised in Cologne, while a similar number rallied in Munich, Chemnitz, Stuttgart, Hanover and Saarbruecken. There were some 250 separate protests staged in Germany.

In Austria's capital, Vienna, more than 8000 mostly high school students marched. In Switzerland, students boycotted classes in at least 20 towns. In Stockholm, 10,000 protesters, mainly secondary students, rallied at midday. That evening, 15,000 people marched to the US embassy. There was also a student strike in Denmark.

In Paris, 20,000 overwhelmingly young people protested outside the US embassy in the Place de la Concorde. In Milan, Italy, at least 50,000 people — many of them high school and university students — were prevented by police from reaching the US consulate there. Tens of thousands of other Italians blocked roads and train tracks throughout Italy.

According to organisers, more than 200,000 people filled the streets of Athens as they marched to the US and British embassies. The high scholl students' contingent alone numbered more than 60,000. The teachers' union gave students the day off from school to take part. In the port city of Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, 15,000 people gathered outside the US consulate, while 15,000 protested outside the British consulate in the western port of Patras.

In Spain, the national students' union called a strike. In Madrid, tens of thousands of high school and university students joined a rally. The union reported that more than 300,000 people joined its rally in Barcelona, including more than 12,000 students and staff from Autonomous University alone. Other student demonstrations across the country attracted more than 40,000 people.

'Anarchy' in the USA

Across the US, high school and university students mobilised in large numbers for the March 20 emergency anti-war protests. Anti-war rallies and vigils took place in about 500 cities; organised mass civil disobedience took place in at least 28 cities.

In San Francisco, more than 1300 people were arrested in a day of mass civil disobedience, as thousands of protesters took control of city intersections and attempted to block bridges and tunnels. This created “absolute anarchy”, moaned assistant police chief Alex Fagan.

In Berkeley, hundreds of university students were arrested when they occupied the University of California's administrative buildings. In nearby Oakland, at least 1000 high school students walked out of class for a rally.

More than 5000 people, overwhelmingly high school students and young people, protested in New York City's Times Square.

In Chicago, more than 10,000 marched through the city at peak hour despite attempts by riot police to disperse the protesters. At least 200 were arrested.

“Thousands of Washington area students walked out of high schools yesterday to protest the war”, reported the March 21 Washington Post. “In groups of 10 or 100 ... students at dozens of schools marched and shouted similar refrains, such as, 'Hey hey, ho ho, we won't kill for Texaco!'... About 150 students walked out of TC Williams High School in Alexandria during the morning Pledge of Allegiance, gathered in front of the flagpole and at one point tried to lower the school's flag to half-staff, they said, until the principal intervened.”

Just outside of Washington, more than 2000 students walked out of classes at Montgomery Blair High School. At the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque, police used tear gas when anti-war protesters refused to leave. In Austin, several hundred University of Texas students linked arms and sat down in a busy street.

In Massachusetts, 600 students and teachers walked out of classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, while in Concord, New Hampshire, 60 Concord High School students walked out of class, shouting anti-war and anti-Bush slogans while they banged on drums and cans.

The high school anti-war revolt also spread to South Africa on March 20, with 8000 students taking part in protests in Cape Town's working-class townships of Gugulethu, Langa, Athlone, Maitland and Salt River. There were also several protests by students at Johannesburg's Parktown Girls' High.

From Green Left Weekly, March 26, 2003.
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