Short on solutions, protesters say they know what not to do

Tens of thousands rally against Bush's policies on the streets of London

November 21, 2003|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON - Stef Gray sneaked away from his job yesterday, hopped on the subway to the central part of the city and stepped into the street with thousands of other people protesting the state visit of President Bush.

The 30-year-old computer technician spoke with absolute certainty about how not to fight terrorism, about how violence begets violence, creating a spiral toward doom. Then he added, with just a hint of embarrassment, that, yes, he recognized far-flung and loosely connected networks of terrorists could not be called to a negotiating table for truce talks, that he recognized no reasoned appeal was likely to stop al-Qaida from killing innocent people.

"If I had the answer for stopping terrorism I'd be a lot better off than I am now," he said. "What I know is the answer that's being used is wrong and causing more harm than good. A decision to invade a country merely because you don't like its leader can only come from a very dangerous man. Attack a country that feels vulnerable, and the people are going to fight back."

Gray was among the tens of thousands of protesters who marched to Trafalgar Square in yesterday's "Stop Bush" protest, a raucous but mostly peaceful demonstration against a variety of the president's policies, but mostly against his decision to go to war in Iraq.

With the rubble still being cleared from twin bombings earlier in the day in Istanbul, Turkey, protesters remained united in their opposition to war but few had any real suggestions for stopping such attacks. The demonstrators knew what they were against; few seemed to know what they were for.

To be sure, the protesters had several themes: stop trying to connect the invasion of Iraq to the war on terrorism because it only diverts attention away from the task at hand; help poorer Arab nations so their misery does not give birth to new generations of terrorists; and, most commonly, find a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"I don't know how to stop terrorism but I know there will never be peace until the Palestinians are free," said Gregory Bouvier, 22, who moved to London from Lyon, France, last month and was among the marchers assailing Bush. "For sure, that is part of the problem. War will not work. War is no way to get peace."

The bombings in Istanbul, which killed at least 27 people, seemed to do nothing to temper the protesters and rather, for many, seemed to deepen their conviction that Bush's policies for dealing with terrorism - security sometimes "requires the violent restraint of violent men," he said Wednesday - were counter-productive.

What yesterday's protest served as a reminder of is the tough sales job Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair have as support for operations in Iraq dips in the United States and Britain. Both leaders have sought to connect the invasion of Iraq with the war on terrorism, a connection this group does not accept.

The protesters can be accused, rightly or wrongly, of being naive idealists - no war is justified for any reason, many of them believe - but they tend to be well informed and are aware that no weapons of mass destruction have been found in Iraq and only tenuous ties, at best, have been established between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaida.

"How, exactly, is bombing 20,000 Iraqis fighting terrorism?" asked Brigitte Burger, a 19-year-old student at University College London. "Bush's war killed innocent Iraqis, and now there are more dead innocents in Turkey because he let the terrorists go while he chased Saddam around."

Police estimated the crowd at 110,000 people, who ended their march in Trafalgar Square with speeches and the toppling of a papier-mache statue of Bush - evoking the fall of a statue of Hussein after U.S. forces entered Baghdad in April.

According to Scotland Yard, 53 people were arrested in minor incidents, a low number considering the passions of some, who chanted, sang, prayed and cursed their way through the streets.

Alan Campbell, a 39-year-old artist from southwest London, watched the marchers and said he felt torn whether to move to the street to chant with them or to hold an American flag to counter them.

In the end, he decided to just watch.

"I think I'm embarrassed because I'm so torn about how I feel and how I should express that," he said. "If people would stop and think about all that is going on, I think they'd all be quite torn as well. I try to keep my views very simple but there's nothing simple about the world today."

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