The spirit of Brian Haw
IT must have been early on, before the really big anti-war demonstrations in Britain, because there was only a handful of us on Whitehall protesting for the people of Iraq, and I don't remember the names of the speakers, apart from Iraqi writer Haifa Zangana, perhaps MP Jeremy Corbyn, and a thin and not well-clad looking person who made an impression on me that I'd not expected. This was my first encounter with Brian Haw, the peace protester who became an internationally-known figure with his ten-year long vigil in Parliament Square.
It was an Easter Sunday afternoon, I think, and a cold one. The man who addressed us gave a veritable sermon, though choosing as his parable the story of the Good Samaritan, but with a twist. Talking of the "scribes and pharisees" who walked by on the other side, he said "I see them every day, these scribes and pharisees who walk by", and made clear he was not just talking about MPs who resented his presence, but clergy from Westminster Abbey who hurried past eyes averted, but complained about his protest spoiling their view.
Brian Haw challenged the politicians and their laws, defying the efforts of Westminster city council and the police to have him evicted, for ten years, winning respect and admiration, but at the weekend he finally lost a battle. This notice appeared on Brian's website:
Saturday 18th June 2011
Dear friends and supporters,
It is with deepest regret that I inform you that our father, Brian, passed away this morning.
As you know he was battling lung cancer, and was having treatment in Germany.
He left us in his sleep and in no pain, after a long, hard fight.
With your help we have been able to share months more than we should have had with him, and for that we are eternally grateful.
We would like to have this time to be together as a family, to share in the love he gave us, and respectfully ask that you allow us this time undisturbed.
We will make further arrangements known to you all in due course.
Once again thank-you for your kindness and continued support,
I have been reading up about Brian's background and history, and can see where he and his views were coming from. He was one of five children, born in 1949, in Woodford Green, Redbridge, and growing up in Barking and Whitstable. His father, who worked in a betting office, had been among the first British soldiers to enter Bergen-Belsen. He committed suicide by gassing himself, when Brian was just 13.
Apprenticed to a boat-builder, then serving in the Merchant Navy as a deckhand, Brian became a keen evangelical Christian. He visited Northern Ireland, and Cambodia, and then worked with youngsters in Redditch, in the West Midlands.
With limited means but dedicated volunteers, Voices in the Wilderness sent people to Iraq to report back, and ran sanctions-busting with medical supplies. George Galloway's Mariam Appeal, taking its name from a young Iraqi girl flown to London for treatment for leukemia, provided more graphic images and information. But politicians and people in authority here and in the United States seemed more interested in investigating the charities. than hearing about the effect of the policies they supported. Brian's protest brought them face to face with it.
There was some support, from Tony Benn and others, and some artists provided works for the demonstration. Another reproduced it poster by poster in the Tate.
Westminster City Council attempted to prosecute Brian for causing an obstruction, in 2002, but failed because his banners did not impede movement. It has another bid due to go to court this year. MPs objected to the use of a megaphone, and a House of Commons committee recommended banning permanent protests in Parliament Square, in case they provided a cover for terrorists(!). The government passed its Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005, under which the Met tried to prosecute some friends of mine over a small and entirely peaceful demonstration in Whitehall. But Brian was able to argue that his protest and residence in Parliament Square had begun before the Act, and therefore the law could not apply to him.The authorities persisted, and in the early hours of 23 May 2006, 78 police arrived and removed all but one of Brian's placards citing continual breached conditions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 as their reason for doing so. Sir Ian Blair, head of the Met at the time, later admitted the operation had cost £27,000 . The actions of the police were criticised by members of the Metropolitan Police Authority at its monthly meeting on 25 May 2006. When Brian appeared at Bow Street Magistrates' Court on 30 May, refusing to enter a plea, the court entered a not guilty plea on his behalf, and he was bailed to return to court on 11 July 2006.
On 22 January 2007 Haw was acquitted on the grounds that the conditions he was accused of breaching were not sufficiently clear, and that they should have been imposed by a police officer of higher rank. District Judge Purdy ruled: "I find the conditions, drafted as they are, lack clarity and are not workable in their current form."
On 12 January, 2008, Brian Haw was at a protest against the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act, outside Downing Street. Seven people were arrested, including Brian, who said "I was filming the students lying down in the road when one officer stepped forward, as I was walking back, and pushed the camera with his hand. It struck my face." He accused the police of using "violent and humiliating force".
On 25 May 2010 the day of the State Opening of Parliament for the new Con-Dem coalition, Brian Haw was arrested at 8:30am.
But it seems his cigarettes, which he stuck to as doggedly as his protests, succeeded where the powers that be could not. In September he was diagnosed with lung cancer and in January went to Germany for treatment.
Tributes to Brian Haw will be flowing from peace campaigners, civil rights activists and the labour movement. I didn't share his religious convictions or pacifism, and nor could I campaign as he did with such faith in the efficacy of individual protest. To be honest, I'd have neither the stamina nor the bottle to campaign the way Brian did!
But hearing of Brian Haw's death on the same day that Labour's Ed Balls urges public sector trade unionists not to strike in defence of their pensions, I am not just saddened. I am wishing we had a few more like Brian Haws and a lot more of their defiant spirit to lead our movement.