Soccer Moms and Weirdos

Britain protests against President Bush.

The Bush effigy still under wraps

There are surely going to be reports of a small crime wave in other parts of London tomorrow.

I’m sitting in a coffee shop overlooking Trafalgar Square, and I can see seven vans full of policemen. They move on, and moments later another seven vans are waiting at the traffic lights or switching on their sirens to get through. This is repeated over and over. The big demonstration against President Bush is due to start in half an hour, and between the demo and the protection for the visitor, can there be any bobbies left to look after the rest of London?

Alongside the fleets of police vehicles are coaches with “Stop Bush” posters in the windows, ready to disgorge their protester-passengers. There are also black taxi cabs, many people going about their normal business, and some rather bemused-looking sightseers. Trafalgar Square is, after all, one of London’s top tourist attractions.

Polite protesters

Today it was also host to what’s claimed as the biggest weekday political demonstration in Britain’s history: Organizers say 200,000 people turned out to protest. (Police figures, as ever, put the figure much lower, but still over 100,000.) The march through the center of London was never particularly close to the visiting president—the demonstrators passed near the Downing Street home of Prime Minister Tony Blair, but Bush had left a short time before. The protesters then collected in Trafalgar Square for speeches, after which a giant effigy of the president was ceremonially toppled in front of Nelson’s Column, the statue whose high pillar dominates the square, in an ironic nod to events in Baghdad earlier this year. The effigy was not, it must be said, instantly recognizable: The figure held a missile and had the air of a rock-and-roll museum statue of, say, Jimi Hendrix with guitar, combined with an intriguing touch of Stalin-era pomp. The crowd was delighted with it, nevertheless.

The police presence was pervasive, but low-key—probably because geographical distance meant the crowd presented no threat to President Bush. The whole demonstration was good-tempered and cheerful and slightly subdued as people heard the news of the bombing in Turkey.

Playing card posters ready to go

Many were anxious to stress that they are anti-Bush and anti-war, but not anti-American. There were many Americans present, and one of the biggest cheers of the day came for Scottish politician Alex Salmond’s announcement that he was here with his American friends to protest the U.S. leadership. The banners ranged from the weird “Bog Off Ape Boy” through “Sinner” to the “Not in My Name” slogan that has always been a big feature of the anti-war movement here. I particularly liked a modest poster saying “Americans wake up!” which had had the word “please” inserted as a polite afterthought. How British.

There was a good sound system, and that’s something that has definitely improved over the years I’ve been reporting on demonstrations. No feedback, no wailing mikes, no sudden silences. One thing that hasn’t changed is the evocative sound of a helicopter droning overhead—though at least this doesn’t drown out the speeches these days.

The speakers were a mixture of politicians, Greens, a lawyer, and a few ancient old lefties. They were well-organized, brief and to the point, and in no way extremist. There was a strong Muslim presence in the crowd and in the organization of the event—they even made a point of having an imam announce the end of the day’s fasting for Ramadan as the sun went down.

Last week, Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland declared:

So long as the protesters look like the usual suspects—multiply pierced, Genoa-style activists in torn clothes and mohican [Mohawk] haircuts—then, I’m told, the White House will not worry. They will be able to say Bush enjoys the global support of all but a few anarchist weirdos. If the demonstrators look like the U.K. equivalent of America’s “soccer moms”, regular people of all ages, including plenty of women—tricky to bring out on a weekday—then Washington may have to rethink.

So—did the demonstration pass the soccer mom test?

The crowd looked like Londoners: multicultural, all ages and types, like the people you’d get at any other event. There wasn’t the same bring-the-family, kids-in-strollers feel of the huge anti-war protest I attended on a Saturday in February, though there were plenty of schoolchildren on hand today. (How glad one is to see this evidence of the much-longed-for political engagement in the young, and how one pushes to the back of one’s mind the question of how much an unauthorized afternoon off school has to do with it.) But, yes, there were a huge number of women, many of whom you might describe as soccer moms.

The event was safe and non-threatening, and presumably both sides can claim victory. The organizers got the predicted huge turnout, and the U.S and British leaders got on with their day undisturbed; they can claim the demonstration as another victory for democracy and free speech.