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'Fight poverty not wars': reflections from the Edinburgh march

Jim Jepps reports from the scorching streets of Edinburgh

 

I've been told that Madonna began her set with her hit 'Music' whose main refrain goes "Music unites the rebel with the bourgeoisie." I can think of hardly any other song that sums up Live8 better than this.

But if the ideas of the gig goers and TV viewers must have been mixed, what of those who actually came to the protests in Edinburgh? Having spent the weekend diligently vox popping and discussing the mood there are some clear pictures emerging, of who is here and why.

There are of course three main 'camps'. The NGO/Make Poverty History crowd who range from 'let's hope Gordon makes some good decisions' to a fairly clear, if fluffy, anti-capitalist consciousness. The opposite camp is the dissent/indymedia crew with their formidable logistical acumen and clear intent to both protest and have fun at the same time. These two camps have no cross over what-so-ever as far as I can see.

Sitting cheerfully in the middle is the G8 Alternatives/socialist/radical grouping. This middle group certainly has the advantage of wanting to talk and discuss with the more Christian/NGO elements of the demonstrations, but I can't help feel it's often in a very sterile and unimaginative way.

Having taken a random sample of paper sellers its pretty clear the left found the new 'white bloc' impenetrable and often were irritated by a perceived blandness. A few self deluded souls aside it was clear that the old style revolutionary literature was not 'selling like hot cakes' - part of the question is, is this because the demonstrators were to the right of the anti-war demonstrators or because parts of the left is putting their message across in a tired and stale way that leaves one hungry for less?

The Edinburgh demo itself was scorching hot and enormous. Clearly something between two and three hundred thousand strong. Whilst many went on the march others found queuing for hours in the park just to get on the march less appealing and 'the Meadows' was thronging all day with those listening to the music on big screens, having fun with various family friendly activities or simply catching up with old friends.

Great fan of route marching for justice though I am I thought I'd do my duty and quiz those remaining in the Meadows on how they thought things were going. There was certainly a real carnival atmosphere and part of the reason for this has been the incredible diversity of the hundreds of thousands of participants.

I don't just mean the obvious political differences, but the cultural breadth of it as well. I think this demo had far more young people on it than even the great two million demo against the war that seems like many years ago - and it's clear there were a high proportion of families and groups of friends there.

Another obvious difference between the mass anti-war demonstration and today is that Saturday's demo was very very white - and I'm not referring to their shirts. I think part of this is the product of NGO and church involvement that have brought people on mass from the middle of England and also the apparent non-involvement of the Muslim community that made the anti-war movement so inspiring.

A few placards (chosen at random) "send my friend to school", "George Bush number one terrorist", "no man is an island", "left to die by G8 con", "dirty aid, dirty water" and the clear and simple "fight poverty, not wars." It was also nice to see Daily Mirror placards - with their headers torn off.

Speaking to people about the relationship between the mass gigs and the demo I got some interesting responses. Dave from Oxford thought that in the media the gigs will have surpassed the demo and that the music was guaranteed press coverage in a way that the G8 'Alternatives' were not.

However, as a veteran of Prague, Nice and Genoa anti-capitalist protests he still felt that it was the direct action that was the most important part of the anti-G8 protests. However important this mass involvement was (and he clearly thought it was) this was not an anti-capitalist mobilisation, but a demo for a "nicer world" with anti-capitalists in it, as a radical rump.

We chatted about whether this G8 was more like previous mobilisations Genoa or Birmingham. It feels like the size and emotion was at the level of Genoa but the predominant ideas were often that of the NGO dominated Birmingham mobilisation.

Matthew from Leeds thought this underplayed the diversity of the Genoa protests, because although they were explicitly anti-capitalist there were still pacifist, white handed, Christians there, who ironically took some of the worst of the beatings from the police.

Martin from London pointed out the lack of trade union banners, but, in all fairness, as I wondered the crowd I later came across a gorgeous block of trade union banners and placards and the sectioning off was more of a sign of rigid and determined organisation of a very large demonstration than lack of union support.

I hunted out some paper sellers of various left organisations who were, on the whole, fairly candid and said that whilst they'd sold lots of merchandise they were having difficulty selling their papers. One seller saying "the Christians are impenetrable."  This was clearly not a traditional hard left protest.

Speaking to Karen and Lindsey from Zimbabwe they asked "where are the African voices here?" and felt that Africa probably didn't even know about the G8 and their protests were taking place. But they also seemed to reflect some of the tabloid worries about African corruption and felt that any benefits the G8 should bestow had to be tied to advances of democracy against dictatorship. I really pressed them on this because it seemed unrealistic to me to say unless you're nicer to your people we will let them starve. But they were pretty clear, no debt relief et al without attacking corruption.

Later in the day George Monbiot (star of the Stop the War rally in my view) addressed this point really well when he said that "It's the Western multinationals that are the biggest bribe givers in the world - who are they to lecture anyone on corruption?"

There was another clear worry on the part of the protesters - that of being used by the G8 and the demonstration being seen to be owned by Brown, Geldof and co. Jo from Inverness went so far as to say that she should have been marching separately to make it clear she wanted to abolish the G8, not simply appeal for it to have a cuddly side.

Nan, Jo's vociferous yet jovial friend, said that although "folk sometimes need a spokesman" they "forget we have all have a mind" and even people who are seen to be leading the movement need to listen and respect the opinions of this broad mass.

This point was also picked up on at the Stop the War rally when John Rees quite rightly proclaimed that we should never let anyone "use a mass movement for their own purposes" and I couldn't agree more with John on this (cough).

David and Lorna, from 'the north' (of England) put it well when I asked if they'd come to demonstrate for or against the G8. "We think the G8 should just get off the backs of the poor. That's what we think, but I'm not sure everyone here agrees."

It was also clear they were pulled by two different arguments. Whilst on the one hand they felt that many of the NGO style protests seem politically bland and they were very keen to say that it's the corporations that are one of the prime creators of injustice in the poorest parts of the world. They were frustrated that the mainstream acceptance of the campaign had also diluted the message far too far - simultaneously they believed that Geldof had made "this all possible".

Now in terms of numbers I actually believe it's the descendents of Jubilee 2000 that mobilised the bulk of demonstrators on Saturday but it's certainly true that Geldof has helped create what Monbiot described as "the false consensus" that we are all on the same side.

That's why brilliant African activist Trevor Ngwane had his invitation to speak at the Make Poverty History rally withdrawn because his message of opposition to privatisation and neo-liberalism was "too radical".

But if we're not going to address the conditions of structural adjustment that further impoverish the impoverished and create massive human catastrophes then aren't we just saying "let's throw a few coppers in the charity bowl to make ourselves feel better rather because it's too radical to actually make a difference."

John, from Edinburgh Unison was also very clear. It's true that the voices of Africa had been virtually ignored in the debate on what should happen there but it's also true that the people of the West have to take responsibility and do what they can to make the world a better place - "we can't simply leave the fight up to them [Africans], because the same problems of workers' rights and privatisation come from here" and although we can't end the problems (unlike the implication of the Live8 memento stalls labelled "the final push" we have to try.

The separation of the radical and mainstream elements of the demonstrations also led to a split in the way the more radical participants reacted to the whole affair. Some began to see themselves as the 'real' protesters accompanied by far more politically backward elements - others developed a kind of frantic self delusional style trying to convince themselves that the entire thing was in support of their own views of the world. I found both these solutions wholly unattractive, although thankfully not everyone feel into these polarised camps.

The Stop the War rally on Saturday saw a whole string of shrieking speakers barking at the rather small crowd (estimates between 500 and 2,000) which felt very small because of the size of the earlier demo. Speaker after speaker referred to how 'we' had made this all possible (which 'we' they didn't say) and the how the war was central to it all, or who poured hatred and scorn upon Make Poverty History for its insipid message of collaboration with the enemy. The fantastic antidote to this was George Monbiot who not only had something to say of interest but actually spoke to the crowd rather than shouting at them.

And, incidentally, on the question of the war, there were a large number of "George Bush World's #1 terrorist" placards both on Saturday and on the Sunday anti-war demo which I can't help feeling is the wrong message for the left to send out.

I liked the occasional "fight poverty not wars" placards that I saw which genuinely drew the issues together, but to tell tens of thousands of people who want to do something about global injustice that actually the only real issue is the war on terror I fear is to try to pull people away from making those connections and saying something that we hear every day, even in the mainstream press. Just a little niggle really.

Anyway, having tried to record fairly faithfully a flavour of the conversations I had with the actual participants on the demo as an antidote to the rewriting of history that will inevitably take place, I'll give the last word to Diane and David, the two demonstrators standing right at the back. "The whole idea is to end poverty, but these are all interlinked issues, we've not got much faith in the G8 but I just hope that they've watching and listening."

 

July 2005

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