An un-welcome for Bush

SUN JOURNAL

London: When he visits the queen next week, the U.S. president will have trouble dodging protests.

November 12, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - In a cramped street-level office in the grit-flavored Kings Cross neighborhood of north-central London, a group of volunteers has been busily - and as noisily as possible - preparing for next week's state visit by President Bush, which has caused security here to tighten as never before.

The volunteers are making signs. They are printing T-shirts and hanging banners. They are constructing a 10-foot-high likeness of the president that they plan to topple, a la Saddam Hussein's statues in Iraq.

Mostly, though, they are organizing to bring large crowds to the streets of London to protest Bush's visit, and they apparently are having little difficulty getting people to sign on. The president is scheduled to arrive Nov. 18, with his public schedule beginning the next day.

American presidents attract protesters almost everywhere they go. But here in the capital of the United States' staunchest ally, in the only country to significantly back the U.S. war in Iraq, thousands of police and security agents are preparing for one of the largest protests to greet Bush anywhere since the start of his presidency.

"We've canceled all leave for all personnel," says Allison Clark, a spokeswoman for Scotland Yard, where officials expect from 60,000 to 80,000 demonstrators to make their way to Trafalgar Square, a traditional site of British protests. "We're anticipating a number of protests and will need all hands to deal with them."

"We are at the highest alert we have ever been at," John Stevens, the commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, told the British Broadcasting Corp. "We are working more than 2 1/2 times harder than we did at the very height of the Irish terrorism campaign."

Police here have been working with the U.S. Secret Service and protest organizers to agree on a route for demonstrators to march, but Stevens says the negotiations have not been easy.

The protesters want to march past Parliament; the Secret Service wants "exclusion zones," which would shut down much of central London.

Organizers say they expect more than 100,000 demonstrators, including anti-war activists, environmentalists and anarchists, many of them traveling to London from the continent.

The same organizing group, the Stop the War Coalition, drew more than 1 million people in an anti-war demonstration in February, the largest protest in Britain's history. They have been scurrying around that street-front office, making phone calls, preparing their signs and posting information about the demonstrations on the Internet, which has become a potent tool in organizing.

"People are energized and with good reason," says Lindsey German, who runs the coalition and is planning the biggest of the anti-Bush protests for Nov. 20. "This is nothing against Americans. At the same time, we hope Americans will see that their president is so unpopular here, even among his closest allies, that it'll drive home how he's seen around the world."

Bush has never been well-liked in Europe, and the war with Iraq has made him even more unpopular. In Germany, his personal approval standing was measured at 16 percent last month, down from 36 percent a year earlier. In Britain, fewer than a quarter of those polled viewed Bush favorably, and less than 20 percent trust him to manage world affairs.

"I think the protests are a reflection of the good will the United States has lost around the world," says Dana Allin, senior fellow for trans-Atlantic relations at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London. "There is a lot of anger at the Bush administration in this country."

And there is an edge to the bad feelings that has sharpened since the start of the war. While his foes were once content to ridicule Bush as something of an oaf - a computer-altered photograph of him carrying a copy of The Presidency for Dummies was a common sight at February's protest - the demonstrations during his visit are likely to take an angrier tone.

Among the posters being prepared: a computer-altered snapshot that shows him driving a tractor, moving naked corpses from a road that points the way to oil.

The crowds will be in sharp contrast to past presidential visits. Ronald Reagan arrived for a visit with the queen and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the middle of a diplomatic dust-up over the Falkland Islands war, but only a handful of protesters were on hand.

The president's father, George Bush, made a fence-mending mission to assure Thatcher that his growing overtures to Germany would do no damage to the "special friendship" between the United States and Britain, and he was greeted largely with apathy.

And Bill Clinton, immensely popular here, arrived to a rock star's welcome, with large crowds lining his motorcade route waving American flags. He strolled through Hyde Park and took in a pint of English brew in Notting Hill.

"Bush is going to know he's not welcome here," German says. "Everywhere he goes, we want him to run into protesters, to feel uncomfortable."

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