The Peace Protester - Brian Haw
Issue 81 June 2011
After a long battle with lung cancer, peace campaigner Brian Haw died on Sunday 19th June. In 2001, Haw quit his job and moved out from his family home to live outside Parliament and spend his days demonstrating against the killing of children through sanctions and war. Syeda Onjali Bodrul caught up with him in July 2007.
It’s another cold and drizzly day in the heart of London’s political metropolis. Swarms of tourists gaze up in awe at Westminster Abbey, and beneath the proud peaks of Big Ben, packs of politicians in designer suits are busy saving the world – or so they would have you believe. But within the beating hub that is Parliament Square, one man stands out who really is trying to the save the world. He doesn’t wear sharp suits and has no need for fancy vocabulary. Unlike the government he so stringently opposes, former carpenter Brian Haw knows he doesn’t need bombs or economic sanctions to make his point: his mere presence coupled with a loudspeaker are more than enough.
A familiar sight to anyone and everyone who has passed through Parliament Square within the last six years, Brian’s stubborn presence at the gates of the House of Commons is as great a landmark as the edifice itself. Always to be found in his trademark badge-encrusted hat and with a packet of cigarettes to hand, at first glance Brian remains unchanged. Ask him a question, any question, and you will see him respond with every word loaded with prevailing passion and rage. But take a closer look and you will see the inevitable signs of damage that have come with years of speaking out against one of the most powerful governments in the Western hemisphere. Gone are the host of banners, posters, placards and pictures that captured Brian’s grievances against Tony Blair’s decision to impose sanctions on Iraq in 2001, and in their place is a small square comprised of handpainted words and press cuttings fronted by one horrifying image: a baby mutilated by weapons of war. “They’ve always been trying to get rid me,” says Brian, turning towards the picture. “But take a look at that poor baby and tell me, how can I not be here?”
The ‘they’ Brian refers to is of course, Blair’s government. Its infamous struggle to get rid of the “nuisance” that this oneman protester represents is one that began almost from the moment Brian decided to encamp himself on the doorstep of the Prime Minister’s working domain in 2001. Within a year, Westminster City Council began prosecutions against Brian for causing obstruction to the pavement but failed after it was ruled that none of his banners impeded the free movement of any person. A renewed effort in 2003 led to the banning of all “unlicensed protests, permanent or otherwise”, but again, despite the creation of an actual law to get rid of him, it was Brian who triumphed: on 28th July 2005, he won an application for judicial review and applied for permission to continue his demonstration. It was granted on one condition: that his placards took up no more space than a designated three metres. Naturally, Brian refused, unaware that on 23rd May 2006, 78 policemen would begin an unannounced 5am raid and remove all but one of his placards. “They’re a bunch of cowards,” says Brian, bitterly. “What kind of man, let alone a whole government, would crawl out of the dark at five in the morning and seize banners with the words ‘Peace’ and ‘Love’ and ‘Stop Killing’ on them? When did it become illegal to want peace?”
“I’m a human being, an ordinary man, speaking out against what my government is doing to other innocent human beings. What the hell’s wrong with that? People in this country need to wake up, open their eyes and see what’s going on. Since this government has come into power, it’s gotten rid of more basic human rights than any other in history – and all under the name of protecting the country against terrorism. Tell me, who are the terrorists?” says Brian, pointing again to the picture of the mutilated baby. “They are – they’re the warmongers!”
This passionate zeal to protect the innocent is what lies at the fiery core of Brian’s character. Born in Barking, Brian learnt early on about the fatal consequences of war: his father was one of the first British soldiers to enter the German Nazi Bergen- Belsen concentration camp and although freed, committed suicide 20 years later. Brian’s own travels with the Merchant Navy which he joined as a deckhand at the age of 16, led him to witness for himself the destitution that politics could inflict upon civilian populations, and in 1970,after studying at an evangelical Christian college, he travelled to Belfast to try and mediate between the warring factions during the Troubles. Two decades later, Brian, his wife and seven children travelled to Cambodia in an attempt to help the country’s disadvantaged children, only to find themselves victims of anti-social behaviour. “I’ve seen for myself what the Cold War did to the people out there,” recalls Brian. “It’s always the innocent people who have to pay while these fat cats sit and play with lives they don’t give a hoot about. It’s a game to them – just a game. Whoever wins ends up with the most cash. And now look at us – we’re right back to a new Cold War. Only now they’re calling it
the ‘War on Terror’.”
Brian pauses for a brief moment and then in typical fashion, lets loose a volley of rhetorical questions that stirs his listeners into questioning their own conventional ways of thinking. “What kind of man would I be, if I allowed stuff like this to continue happening without saying a word?” he asks, as if pleading with me to come up with an answer that we both know does not exist. “How would I be able to look at my own kids knowing that I never tried to stop other people’s kids from suffering? Especially when it’s all for money and oil. That’s all it’s ever been about – and don’t you believe anything else. Millions of people said ‘No’ to the war, to the sanctions, to going into Iraq and Afghanistan, but they were never going to listen. They don’t care how many innocent people they kill, as long as they get their money and oil.”
Behind me I suddenly sense a growing sense of urgent commotion. “Sorry love,” says Brian, quickly grabbing a speakerphone. “It’s a bad time for an interview – he’s about to come out.” Around him, Brian’s supporters are grabbing their placards and getting ready – the gates are opening and the police have stopped the traffic: the Prime Minister is on his way out. A polished black car flagged on both sides by police escorts begins to make its exit. “MURDERER!” cries out Brian’s booming amplified voice. “Stop
killing the innocents! Baby killer! Stop the sanctions! Stop killing our sons and daughters!” Blair’s car disappears around a corner. “He’ll be back later,” he tells me, reassured, looking at his watch.
Following Brian to his deck-chair slightly dampened in the rain, I am about to restart our conversation when a tall imposing passer-by suddenly approaches us. “What’s the point of you being here?” he asks, in a strong Australian accent, his eyes focusing on Brian’s face. Brian looks up and responds, “Read the placards smart-Alec! I’m here to protest against war, against unlawful killings, against this corrupt, lying government.” The Australian leans in and asks, “So are you saying Saddam Hussein was a good guy – that we didn’t need to get rid of him?” Hearing these words, Brian stands up. “Open your eyes! Who put him in power in the first place? Your government – my government, the whole world! You think Iraq’s a Disneyland now do you? It’s not a war – it’s a massacre.” The Australian shrugs. “I know that’s bad, but it had to be done. You want 9/11 and 7/7 to happen again?” Brian is by now becoming red with anger. “So massacring millions in the name of a hundred people is alright is it?” The Australian retaliates with an answer that leaves me dumbstruck. “It’s not a massacre – it’s the natural consequence of war. Your whole cause is flawed. Why don’t you just go home? No-one’s forcing you to be here!” Brian watches as the man walks away, and shouts out “I’m here because I have to be here. It’s my duty – my obligation. The world is forcing me to be here!” The Australian continues to walk away, hurling out abuse. “That happens all the time,” Brian says, in a futile attempt to reassure me.
Noticing yet another group of people heading his way, I quickly volley a few questions of my own at Brian: where does he find the energy to keep up this fight, and what does he think of the reactions of British Muslim communities to the war in Iraq? “There’s no-one you can trust to help your brothers and sisters other than yourself. Everyone needs to fight the wrongs of this world – no matter what community you’re from. You can’t hang around for some perfect leader to do all the hard work for you, because they’re easily bought. Everyone knows what’s going on with the Middle East – they’ve all been bought so that they keep their mouths shut.” As a Christian, Brian’s fundamental belief in the equality of human beings
lies at the core of his campaign, providing him with the sustenance needed to go on with his protest. “I don’t care what they are – Muslim, Christian, atheist, black, brown or green: we’re all responsible for any fellow human who is calling out to us for help. You think that God cares what colour or faith we are? You think He’s going to turn around and say ‘you can stay oblivious to that kid’s pain because he’s of a different race to you’? Of course not! We’re all His children. Some people may be able to shut their eyes and go on with their lives, pretending that it’s ‘not their fault’ and that they can’t do anything about it. But they can – they can act. Otherwise what the heck am I doing here?”
Approached by a new group of people, Brian touches my arm and turns to answer their questions with just as much heartfelt honesty as he did mine. It is my cue to leave. As I cross the busy road that stands between Brian and the gothic structure that hides the enemy within, it dawns on me that I have just exchanged words with a man who is a living emblem of hope, an example for us all. Amidst the ever-strengthening barrage of political webs that threaten to engulf us all and a public exhausted with its own disillusionment, it is the Brian Haws of this world who drag us back to a consciousness where humanity not only exists, but refuses to be killed. As he says: “Everyone has the potential to fight the wrongdoers. You just have to listen to yourself and follow your gut reaction. That’s all I’m doing here: following my conscience.” It is such words, simple, direct and true, that will ensure no matter how hard they may try, our ‘democratic’ government will never succeed in silencing Brian, for the spirit of what he represents lies within us all.