Reclaim the Buses demo and rally

(Hey, it’s amazing what gets you posting to a neglected weblog again after a few months – and in the end it wasn’t until well after the Spring Equinox. Oh well, on to the matter in hand, and this time I’m not even going to suggest when I next expect to post.)

Polly and I went along to the demo with Uma and a couple of friends; since we all sit around bitching about the terrible bus service in the city it seemed right to support a group that aims to improve matters. I was curious, too, as I’ve never been to a demo or rally in Bristol and was interested to see who and how many would turn up. I was a bit concerned that there’d only be a handful of us and that the event would get hijacked by the usual suspects, the ones that turn up to any and every protest event with an agenda of their own and a load of branded publicity materials, and for a while it seemed my fears might be realised: we arrived at Castle Park to be greeted by a line of comrades thrusting newspapers and petitions at anyone who looked even slightly interested in the motley gang of activists preparing their banners and placards in the background. At this stage the gathering looked less like a protest at the state of the bus service in Bristol and more like a recruitment drive for any number of local left-wing political factions.

For a while this annoyed me so I’m going to indulge in a minor rant. At larger, better attended events the presence of these guys peddling their papers and ideas has less impact as they tend to fade into the background and help bulk up the numbers, but at smaller event like saturday’s demo they can end up dominating proceedings. This is a real problem for a group that wants to build up a broad base of support as they tend to warp the agenda and put people off. Pretty much every sane person in Bristol would agree that First provide an unreliable and massively overpriced bus service that falls way short of meeting the needs of the population, but this does not mean that they want to sign SWP petitions tenuously linking the war in Iraq to the issue of the day, call for more general re-nationalisation programs, abandon capitalism altogether for some unlikely socialist utopia or even become associated with these views by attending events where they appear to be the dominant ideology.

Anyway, I digress. Having successfully avoided paying money for party political propaganda from the paper sellers we made it over to the gathering crowd where eventually a Marshall gave us a bunch of leaflets and a hand-made placard to carry. As time went on the crowd grew until there were around a hundred or so people armed with Reclaim the Buses banners headed-up by two large cardboard buses parodying First’s livery. As this was Uma’s first demo, we thought she might appreciate the chance to join in so we gave her the placard to carry. (I’m not sure whether she approved – for all I know she might wholeheartedly support privatisation – but being only one year old and unable to speak she was left with little choice.)

[Uma in pushchair with placard]

She didn’t follow the march all the way round the city centre anyway, as despite having been told by one of the marshalls that we were going to go along the river on a quieter, more pedestrianised route we ended up wandering down the middle of the road through central Bristol while the traffic piled up behind us (including, amusingly, a line of First buses that looked for all the world like part of the procession). Mark and I took Uma and left the march after a while when it became obvious that some of the drivers were becoming annoyed with the protest and getting aggressive towards the demonstrators. We watched from the sidelines as the parade moved through the city centre and up and down Park Street before gathering on College Green for a rally. At this point we decided we’d done our bit and went to a nearby cafe for tea and sandwiches.

[The protestors marching through the city centre]

I reckon the organisers can count the event a success. The props were eye-catching and the volunteers handing out leaflets friendly and enthusiastic. Apart from a handful of idiots in their cars most people treated us all with good humour. The city was busy so a lot of people will have seen the demo and been given a leaflet, boosting the profile of the campaign. Despite the relatively low numbers and my initial fears I don’t think the event suffered too much from hijacking by opportunistic political activists as most of the banners and leaflets distributed during the actual march were fairly non-partisan.

As I mention above, I don’t think that anyone in Bristol is going to seriously argue against the proposition that the bus service is very poor. There may be some debate over how to deal with this and not everyone might agree with public ownership, but the presence of a campaign trying to focus some attention on the problem has to be a good thing if it inspires more people to actually do something rather than glumly accept the status quo. Even if that’s just giving a local councillor an earful on the issue over the coming weeks as they campaign for votes in the upcoming election it’ll be worthwhile.

Personally, I think that Bristol is too small for a free-market solution, although my objections are based on practical rather than ideological grounds. The market in Bristol just isn’t big enough to support the kind of competition necessary for this approach to work, so there has to be some level of public control or regulation to ensure the service meets the needs of the city. This isn’t really my field so I don’t have any detailed suggestions about what kind of model we should adopt, but if other cities can find a decent balance then I can’t believe that it’s not possible here – it just needs some political will. Nor do I believe that anyone can seriously argue that this isn’t desirable – Bristol is clogged with traffic but to get people out of their cars there must be a viable alternative, and at the moment there just isn’t.

Keep off the grass

From the BBC:

Political activists opposed to US President George W Bush have been told they will not be allowed to stage a huge rally in New York this weekend.

A judge at New York’s state Supreme Court has ruled that the rally, which was expected to attract a quarter of a million demonstrators, cannot be held in Central Park because of the damage which may be caused to the grass.

It appears that a protest march will be allowed past the convention centre on Sunday, so the cries of foul play from the organisers have been somewhat blunted. Still, I thought the reason provided for the ban was in itself a good enough reason for a post – quite surreal.

Update 2004-08-31

It appears that the park ban had little effect on the anti-Bush protests, as evidenced by (among other reports) the BBC’s photographic record of the events.

Elsewhere on the net, the evidence of nerdy influence at the demo is noted, and more evidence of geekish, techie and arty contributions to antiBushistas are logged at Boing Boing.

Critical Mass Protest

This evening I witnessed my first Kiwi protest event! And all by accident, too. We were taking a stroll around the city to check out where I have to be for a job interview next week and to have a peek at the Cave Troll, when we spotted a poster exhorting the reader to attend the monthly Critical Mass protest, meeting in Civic Square at 5.30pm. As Civic Square is where you can find the aforementioned Troll, we ended up there at about the right time.

For those unfamiliar with modern protest movements, Critical Mass is the name associated with anti-car/pro-bicycle groups in various cities around the world. There are protests using the same name in London, some of which I’ve witnessed in the past. I don’t think that there is any overarching Critical Mass organisation – the name is adopted by different groups in different cities who have similar agendas but who may not communicate in any strategic manner, except for the odd occasion when an attempt to synchronise protests across the globe is made.

Unfortunately for the Wellington Critical Mass crowd, something kept the numbers down – there were only about 30 people on the demo. Perhaps this is a factor of population, or perhaps the fact that many students will have left the city for the summer holidays had an effect. Maybe no one in Wellington gives a shit – Heaven forbid! Still, top marks for pluck, as those that were present carried on regardless and braved the rush hour traffic. There were no police in sight, and the only camera I spotted was my own – so I felt homour bound to record the event.

[On the March.  The Banner reads 'Mobil Murders']

There were two main strands to today’s protest according to the leaflet I was handed. First off were the general principles of oppostion to a car-dominated society, with the specific Wellingtonian issue being the proposed construction of an inner city bypass. The flyer recommends a visit to the Campaign for a Better City for more info on this. The second strand was a protest against the Mobil Corporation, which the protesters accuse of having a part in crimes against humanity committed in Aceh, Indonesia. They allege that the corporation hired units of the Indonesian military to provide security for their assets in the region that were at some unspecified stage involved in “systematic torture, murder, rape and other acts of terror”. The leaflet recommends a visit to the International Labour Rights Fund for more information on this issue. I suppose I should take a look through ExxonMobil’s website to see if they have bothered to refute any of these allegations, but I’ll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Demonstrated

Everyone must have seen the pictures from the demo yesterday. Somewhere around 1 million of us shuffing slowly through central London in the freezing cold. It took the best part of four hours to get from Bedford Square to Hyde Park, surrounded by people from all walks of life and all parts of the UK.

I saw no touble, and many high spirits despite the crush and the cold. Although the vast majority of the placards on site were of the mass-produced variety, there were plenty of home made ones too, often with funny and ironic slogans. Respect to the guy on the phone box at the bottom of Shaftsbury Avenue holding aloft his which said “All your bomb are belong to us”, to the utter mystification of many of my fellow marchers.

As is always the case on large demos like this, there were plenty of groups present hoping to get their various messages heard along with the more general anti-war message that the majority had come to support. I was a little troubled by one or two of these, but I don’t think that this is important – the sheer volume of people ensured that no one group could wholly hijack the march for their own agenda. The proliferation of left wing splits reminded me of an incident in Ken Macleod’s The Stone Canal, where the characters are on a similar Peace March (p.82, UK Hardback edition):

My father spotted a young woman carrying a bundle of papers whose headline – no, it wasn’t even that, it was the actual masthead – read “Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism!” and asked her in a tone of polite curiosity: ‘Why don’t you fight capitalism, for a change?’

But none of this really matters. What matters is that somewhere between 750,000 and 2,000,000 people were on the streets yesterday to show their disapproval of the coming war on Iraq. Tony Blair suggested on Friday that we ought to think about those in Iraq who would be supressed if they tried to do such a thing, and yes, we should, but that shouldn’t stop us doing it if we feel that it is the right thing to do, whether or not we believe that it will make a difference.

Demonstrate

I’ll be attending the anti-war demo in London this Saturday. Although I’ve posted the odd war-related piece I’ve been shying away from politics a bit lately, but I thought that the time had come to post some of my thoughts.

One of the reasons that I’ve been avoiding the subject is because I hadn’t quite made up my mind on the issue. That’s not to say that I haven’t been entertaining a healthy dose of cynicism about the whole exercise, just that I wasn’t quite sure what the hell I really felt myself.

I regularly read blogs by people on both sides of this debate. That’s one of the things that attracted me to the blogosphere in the first place – it’s a great place to find the views of regular people – not pols, or campaigners, or journos, though some bloggers either are those things or else have pretensions in those directions. I’ve read things on all sides that have made me nod in approval and things that have made me shout in anger. All this has been contributing to my own internal debate on the matter. (I’m not going to bother posting linkage here, this post is about what I think.)

This is going to be a bit of a rant, not a particularly reasoned argument, but this is my blog and I’ll write what I want to. OK?

On balance, I feel that the case for war has not been made. I cannot see that the west is in any clear danger. Saddam is not about to become a hegemonic power in the Middle East, and nor is a country crippled by over ten years of sanctions ever likely to develop a nuclear capability likely to directly threaten us. If our governments truly have evidence that this is the case then they should put it before us whatever the consequences. We are democracies – how can we choose without the facts? Handwaving is not enough, and I don’t buy the “trust me and I’ll fill you in later” approach, not when hundreds or thousands of lives are at stake.

As for the charge that Saddam and bin Laden are in cahoots, we all know what a pile of stinking excrement that is. Do me a favour, I wasn’t born yesterday and nothing that has been put forward as “proof” of this has convinced. Even if Saddam was foolish enough to support people like bin Laden, he’d soon find himself rising up their hit list too – Ba’th “socialists” weren’t flavour of the month with Islamic fundamentalists last time I looked, and bin Laden will use Saddam like the opportunist he is.

So Saddam flaunts UN resolutions. So do other countries, and where’s the invasion force? What about North Korea? They’ve practically been jumping up and down over the last few weeks waving their half-built nukes in our faces and very little seems to be happening there, so the argument about standing up to those who laugh in the face of the UN doesn’t hold much water really.

Nor do I believe that the plight of the Iraqi people figures particularly highly in the minds of Our Glorious Leaders. They’ve been screwed for years – so why the sudden concern now? Puh-lease.

This war is what bin Laden wants. Surely this is enough in itself to make us stop and think for a minute. He doesn’t care about the people of Iraq, he just wants to unite the Islamic world in some sort of jihad against the west and we’re going to help deliver the silver platter to his door.

I stand up and say this not because I want to see Saddam remain in power, or because I’m anti-American (I’m most definitely not), but because I cannot see a clear case for an invasion, and I can see a whole lot of reasons why we should be being a lot more cautious about this. The whole damn thing stinks, and it’s liable to cause far more unrest and chaos than it cures.