“May I ask why you are marching today?” I tentatively queried the lady in front of me at Saturday’s anti-war demonstration in London. Her placard bore a picture of a dead baby and the words, SHARON’S GREATEST VICTORY: LONG LIVE THE INTIFADA—a sign that was only slightly more provocative to a New Yorker like me than the ever-present: FREEDOM FOR PALESTINE: VICTORY TO THE INTIFADA. I used the line I’d perfected on dozens of people that morning, from Muslim boys in black and white kifeyahs, wrapped terrorist-style around mouth and nose, to hippies in army fatigues, and grannies whose homemade signs read simply NO WAR. For I was marching as an observer only, trying to gauge the mood of the 1 million or so who filled the streets from Haymarket to Hyde Park Corner. Till now, I had always gotten a civil—if ill informed or garbled—answer.
Dressed in a beautiful camelhair coat, with an opulent fur hat and Gucci shades, this lady interested me: her—at least to my NYC-bred mind—anti-Semitic placard hardly fit the refined figure she cut. Nor did her answer. “No,” she snipped. “You’re American, aren’t you? You’re not very popular here today. I should go home, if I were you. In fact, I should go back to America.” In other words, “Yanqui go home”—despite the Upstairs pronunciation.
Anti-Americanism came from some very strange quarters on Saturday. “September 11 was the fault of the Americans. They want to rule the world, like, literally, but also with cultural imperialism,” explained one cliché-spouting student in Nikes, as we waited together in the half-block-long line for Starbucks. “September 11 was the only way the oppressed could make themselves heard.” A yuppie, wearing a NYC hat and a badge that read OLD EUROPE, said, “I’m marching against hypocrisy: America is the greatest terrorist in the world, but they call their terrorism war. You’re Canadian, right?” Or the red-bearded hippie, who mumbled through a McDonald’s burger, “Socially, we’re not allied with the US.” It wasn’t so surprising when a group of yoofs, clutching beer cans, elbowed me off the curb. As I fell, one hissed, “You fucking Americans are so pushy.”
But, having gone to Sarah Lawrence, I wasn’t shocked by the notions that America is “an imperialist power trying to take over the world” and “in hock to big business.” I’ve seen the defaced American flag before—our stars replaced by logos for Shell, IBM, McDonalds, and the like; it could just as easily have been waved on an American campus as by the Bristol Student Union on Saturday’s march. But the defaced flag of Israel carried by a bearded, middle-aged Scot took my breath away: a tank, dripping blood, was superimposed over the Star of David. I’d never seen that at a NYC student rally, and I never hope to.
A motley assortment of activists had organized the march: the Stop the War Coalition (founded by trade unionists, students, and the odd celebrity or politician), the Muslim Association of Britain, and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. I thought, naively, that the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament had disarmed itself years ago, when the end of the Cold War proved that the arms race had worked. How wrong I was—scores of old Lefties came out on Saturday to refight ancient battles. But what were they doing marching side by side with radical Islamic groups? How curious to see the CND demonstrating against disarming a murderous dictator before he gets nuclear weapons. Curiouser still was the weird amalgam of chants and slogans, the trivial next to the libelous: a BAGELS NOT BOMBS next to ZIONISM EQUALS RACISM. DOWN WITH ISRAEL/ BLIX LOOK INTO ISRAEL/ LONG LIVE THE INTIFADA. ISRAEL BROKE 69 UN RESOLUTIONS and JUSTICE FOR PALESTINE FIRST jostled with MAKE TEA NOT WAR and TWAT: THE WAR AGAINST TERROR. A group of veiled girls in black chadors chanted, “Bush, Bush we know you; Daddy was a killer, too,” next to trust-fund trendies in specially made T-shirts: MY BUSH MAKES LOVE NOT WAR. Where else would full-bearded Muslims, in hajji caps and white traditional dress, march next to the gay alliance, Iraqi flags vying with rainbow flags?
But one thing unified the march: a rabid hatred of Israel. Young Arab men, beautifully turned-out yuppies, and aging hippies alike all wore the kifeyah; most carried Palestinian flags. The VICTORY FOR THE INTIFADA sign was mass printed and distributed free by the Socialist Worker newspaper; the official slogan for the march was “Stop the war on Iraq/Freedom for Palestine.” As we walked past the Ritz, along the fanciest street in Mayfair, I saw a young man standing atop the ten-foot high entrance to the Green Park subway station: feet apart, right fist thrown up in a psuedo fascist salute, left holding a huge green flag, scrawled in Arabic, his lower face covered with the kifeyah and his head wrapped in a black scarf—the picture would not have been out of place on Al Jazeera. As the veiled girls passed him, they broke out in ululation. I couldn’t help wonder, what did all the Guardian-reading Jews of Hampstead make of marching in such company?
Many people were quick to assure me that, “We object to the Republican administration, but not to the American people—they didn’t even vote for Bush,” a canard voiced even more vehemently by London’s mayor Ken Livingstone. “This is a man who stole the US election illegally,” the mayor charged; “a man who has been arrested twice; a man who wouldn’t even fight for his country in Vietnam. And we’re being asked to die for this man—I don’t think so.” He finished by introducing the “leading American campaigner for peace and justice, Jesse Jackson.” This ambulance chaser of international disorder proceeded to chant, ad nauseum, “Stop the war—save the people; stop the war—save the people; Give peace. A chance. Keep hope. A-live,” while the British listened, entranced. Then, of course, there was the rapper, Ms Dynamite, Harold Pinter (who read a “poem”), and Bianca Jagger. Near the rally a group was selling T-shirts for £10: FARRAKAN SAYS NO TO WAR.
“Are you Muslim?” I rudely asked a young boy, draped in a Palestinian flag, whose friend chanted, “Allahu Akhbar,” echoed by the surrounding crowd, as a nearby group of would-be hippies sang plaintively, “All we are saaay—ing is give peace a chance.” The boy seemed shy but not angry. “Yes,” he replied, “but not a very good Muslim. I don’t pray five times a day.” And what did this baby-faced 17-year-old, with his radical friend, think about America? “America is a nice country, and Sadaam is not a nice man. But now whenever they talk about terror they talk about Islam. I don’t want there to be a war on Islam. We don’t sit around saying kill, kill, kill, all day. We don’t want to kill; Islam loves peace; but America doesn’t seem to understand Islam at all.” As I left, he called after me: “I am glad we are on this march together. That is a good sign.” I wondered what the intifada-supporting toffs would make of him.
On the whole, the Muslim militants—like the one who told me that AIDS was an American conspiracy to keep the Third World in place—were more willing to speak with me than the older, white marchers. School children and next-generation hippies were eager to talk, too. But the respectable middle classes, many from the countryside, clammed up. It was these who shouted, “Vive la France”; these who wore OLD EUROPE badges, and carried signs reading SUPPORT REGIME CHANGE: GET RID OF BLAIR. It was these who rounded on me, when I asked about the threat of terrorism: “If we get attacked now, it will be America’s fault.”
Julia Magnet is an editorial writer for the (London) Daily Telegraph.