At the end of 2019 I went on a last-minute trip to Edinburgh. It was great to explore the city, and it also meant I got to add to my protest sticker collection! There are a range of topics on protest stickers that often crop up in in big cities, including: gender, working relations, vegetarianism, housing conditions, elections, and Brexit. There are also specific local issues, which you don’t tend to find anywhere else. In Edinburgh, examples of these are: working conditions at the Fringe Festival, the use of public land for events which profit private companies, and Scottish independence.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks in New York in 2001, global geopolitics shifted dramatically. The US adopted an aggressive ‘with us or against us’ stance, and Muslims replaced Communists as the biggest threat to Western civilization. The US government identified several countries to bear the brunt of this aggression, whether they deserved it or not; they were described as the ‘Axis of Evil.’ Iran, Iraq and North Korea were the most common targets, although other countries were also identified. The US accused Iraq’s leader, Saddam Hussein, of possessing weapons of mass destruction and having links to Al Qaeda, the terrorist group behind 9/11. At the beginning in 2003, despite opposition from the UN and countries such as Canada, France, Germany, and Russia, the US and its allies were preparing to invade Iraq. Millions of ordinary people also opposed the invasion, and the weekend of the 15th and 16th of March 2003 saw what was probably the biggest protest event in global history.
It is very difficult to estimate the number of people who take part in protest marches, but between 6 and 10 million people took to the streets in more that 600 cities in 60 countries around the world. The march in Rome made it into the Guinness Book of Records as the largest anti-war rally in history, with around 3 million people taking part. The London march was jointly organised by the Stop the War Coalition, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and the Muslim Association of Britain, with support from another 450 demonstrations.
The plan was that 2 marches (known as feeder marches) would set off from different parts of London. Londoners and people from the south of England would gather on the Embankment, and people from the Midlands and the North would meet at Gower Street. The two marches would meet at Piccadilly Circus then march as one to Hyde Park for a rally. Tessa Jowell, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport tried to ban the rally; blaming health and safety concerns and the need to protect the grass in Hyde Park. No one bought this argument however, and Jowell was forced to back down.
The weather in London on 15th March 2003 was cold and grey, but the number of people who turned up to take part exceeded all expectations. The feeder marches started earlier than scheduled because of the sheer number of people there, but many people were still delayed for a long time before they were able to set off. The speakers at the rally in Hyde Park included Harold Pinter, George Galloway and Tony Benn, but lots of people didn’t arrive until after the rally had finished, and many didn’t make it as far as Hyde Park at all.
Despite the significant delays, the atmosphere was good and the day was peaceful. Many of those who took part were not hardened activists, they were ‘normal’ people who were moved to protest by what they saw as a gross injustice. For thousands, it was their first protest march. This made the sense of betrayal and disillusionment even worse when it changed nothing, and the Labour government led by Tony Blair sent British troops into Iraq. Others argued that one protest march was never going to change anything, and that marches have to be used in conjunction with other tactics of resistance to achieve concrete change.
Troops from the US, UK, Australia and Poland invaded Iraq on 20 March 2003. Although Saddam Hussein was overthrown relatively quickly it was a long, drawn-out conflict in which hundreds of thousands of people were killed and millions lost their homes. The US didn’t withdraw the last of its troops until 2011, and Iraq is still dealing with the legacies of the conflict. To make matters worse, it was later revealed that Iraq never had weapons of mass destruction, and many people feel that the war was illegal and politicians such as George Bush and Tony Blair should be charged with war crimes.
The global protests on 15th and 16th of March 2003 may not have had the desired effect of preventing the invasion of Iraq, but they certainly demonstrated the strength of global opposition to the war and the increasing ability of social movements to coordinate internationally. The London protest was probably the biggest political demonstration the UK has ever seen, and it was a clear statement that not everyone accepted the black-and-white geopolitics of the War on Terror.
Thanks to Hull Independent Cinema I recently got to see The Nightingale, the controversial Australian film written, directed, and co-produced by Jennifer Kent. Whilst it is definitely not right to say I enjoyed the experience, it is a very well-made and thought-provoking film that has led me to reflect on the nature of resistance against a much more powerful force. Against something as dominant at the British Empire, acts of resistance can often seem futile, but The Nightingale explores how these acts are still meaningful.
Set in 1825 in the British penal colony of van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), the film is driven by the story of Clare Carroll, played by Aisling Franciosi, an Irish convict who sets out for revenge after suffering horrific physical and sexual violence at the hands of British Army Lieutenant Hawkins (played by Sam Claflin) and his men. She recruits an Aboriginal man named “Billy” Mangana (Baykali Ganambarr) to help her track the British soldiers as they travel through the bush. At first Clare is suspicious of Mangana and is aggressive and racist towards him, but as the story progresses they come to realise that they have both suffered at the hands of the British, both in terms of themselves as individuals and the societies and cultures which they come from. A mutual respect and affection develops from this shared trauma.
The Nightingale has been criticised for its graphic depictions of physical and sexual violence. The defense for this is it is an accurate depiction of how indigenous Australians and convicts were treated, and the film was made in collaboration with Tasmanian Aboriginal elders. The violence is shocking, and very difficult to watch, but I have no doubt that this kind of thing went on and I think it is important that the full horrors of British colonial rule in Australia and around the world are acknowledged. The acts of violence which the film depicts powerfully conveys a sense of how cheap indigenous and convict life was to the British army and most white settlers. Clare and Mangana do receive one or two acts of kindness, but even this is difficult for Mangana as he is forced to accept charity from settlers on land that by rights belongs to his people.
In the film, language is a form of resistance. Clare is known to the British soldiers as the Nightingale because of her beautiful singing voice, and on their journey both Clare and Mangana sing in their respective native languages, gaelic and palawa kani. The Irish and Aborigines both suffered systematic brutality that could arguably be classified as genocide at the hands of the English; both cultures and societies have been pushed to the very edge of existence. In these circumstances celebrating native culture becomes a powerful act of defiance. Even today, it is quite unusual to see native languages like this included in films, so it can arguably be classed as an act of resistance by the filmmakers as well as the characters.
The thing that struck me most about Clare and Mangana’s acts of resistance during The Nightingale is their futility. I left the theatre feeling desperately sad that there was no way either character would be able to achieve happiness, or even have a ‘normal’ life after the events of the film. Both characters had put up with a significant amount of injustice and abuse because to do anything about it would only make their lives worse. As the film progressed, both were subjected to experiences that made them abandon that attempt at self preservation. Another aboriginal man known as Charlie, the guide employed by Hawkins and his men, also reaches a similar breaking point and stands up to his oppressors. On one level, these acts of resistance are futile as well as self-destructive; they mean little in the face of the British imperial system. On another level, however, their actions are incredibly meaningful; Clare and Mangana both seem to find some kind of peace by the very end of the film. Clare, Mangana, and Charlie’s resistance may have been futile in the grand scheme of things, but it was absolutely necessary to them. They were under no illusions that their actions would overthrow British rule, and they did not seem to expect to survive their revenge mission, but they did it anyway. Resistance is about rejecting the way things are, but it isn’t always about trying to change them; it is often futile, but it is never meaningless.
The Nightingale is not a pleasant watch, and I wouldn’t recommend you sit down to watch it with a bowl of popcorn on a Saturday night. But it is a well-made and powerful story that I think needed to be told, and you should see it if you get the chance.