my london diary index
 

March 2008

Vaisakhi Celebration in Hounslow
Stepping Out for Water
Defend Press Freedom
Aldermaston - 50 years
Flash Mob Global Pillow Fight
Defend Mehdi Kazemi
Support Tibet March
Bikes Not Bombs: London - Aldermaston
Gaura Purnima - Hare Krishna
Purim Fun Bus
Good Friday Walk of Witness
Druid Order - Spring Equinox
Tibet Vigil at Chinese Embassy
Brent St Patrick's Day Parade
Protest Brings Pipeline to Shell
Stop the War/CND/BMI - Troops out
Gaza Emergency Demo
The Zimbabwe Vigil
SERCO picket - Close Yarl's Wood
Million Women Rise
Dignity and Democracy in Zimbabwe
Tibetan Uprising Day
Freedom to Protest
Arbaeen Procession

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Vaisakhi Celebration in Hounslow

Hounslow, Middx. 30 March, 2008

Sunday's Vaisakhi procession was full of colour and life and had more than the usual interest for me. I grew up in Hounslow and my first full-time job was in a dye-stuffs lab where the Gurdwara Sri Guru Singh Sabha now stands, a short walk from where I spent most of my first 18 years. Quite a few of the workers there were Sikhs, and often their clothing and skin was highly coloured by the intensely coloured powders they were producing and packing in what would in these different days be seen as a health and safety nightmare.

I've written before about the celebration of Vaisakhi and you can read more about it and see some of my earlier pictures from various Nagar Kirtan (Sikh processions) here in 2004, 2005, 2006 and 2007.

As well as the colour, what also stands out for me is the friendliness of all of the Sikhs who welcomed me and let me photograph the day's events - and of the many individuals whose pictures I took.

Before the procession I photographed some of the preparations and the events inside the Gurdwara. As usual the kitchen was busy and purposeful, people working as a team in preparing food for the people (which unfortunately I didn't have time to try, but it looked good.) The ceremonies in the prayer hall have a remarkable dignity and warmth although I can't understand the language.

The procession out of the worship hall included the Sikh Holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib, carried with great respect on a cushion on someone's head and then installed on the the Palki truck. The Palki is a canopy over Holy book, which is placed on a raised dais (Manji Sahib), covered by a decorative cloth (Romala) and surrounded by flowers.

The procession was led by the Nagara, a large drum beaten with considerable force (originally used to celebrate victory in battles) which was followed by the Gurdwara banner. There were two rows of Sikh women carrying Sikh flags (saffron with the Sikh Khanda symbol, followed by 5 Sikh men with flags and then the Panj Pyaras (the five beloved ones) with their swords held upright, walking directly in front of the lorry carrying the Guru Granth Sahib.

Following walk the many worshippers (Sangat) taking part in the Nagar Kirtan, along with vehicles carrying the older and infirm members of the community. Many join the procession along the route, while others set up stalls to offer free food and drink to all those taking part.

With the procession I walked along streets that were once familiar to me, although many local landmarks have disappeared (to be replaced my ugly commercial developments - for which the Treaty Centre deserves some kind of wooden spoon award - and it replaced an architecturally fine Victorian civic complex of town hall, library and public baths), and much has been sacrificed to the car.

Walking down the Bath Road, I failed to locate my own first school, Major Drake Brockman's Academy, from which I was expelled aged 4. The clinic where I went in my pram for orange juice and cod liver oil has been replaced by a modern health centre (a better fate than the nearby hospital, now sheds for electrical goods and car and leisure products.) One thing that was only too obvious was aircraft noise, with a constant procession of low-flying aircraft over our heads as we walked, and a reminder of the nightmares about aircraft in flames and crashes I used to have, prompted by real events watched from my Hounslow back yard.

The procession led down Martindale Road, past the school my father left in 1913 (though he wouldn't recognise it now) and on to the Gurdwara Guru Nanak Nishkam Sewak Jatha, outside which the procession halted.

Here orange sashes were presented and put around the head of the Sikhs carrying the flags, the Panj Piaras and some of the others taking part.

The procession then carried on to return to the Gurdwara in Alice Way where it started. But I had to go in the other direction to catch my bus home.
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Stepping Out for Water

Laleham Church - Staines, Middx. Saturday 29 March, 2008

Marchers on Staines Road, Laleham with the Stepping out for Water banner.
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Demonstrations are pretty rare in Spelthorne, though nearby Heathrow seems likely to become a considerable epicentre unless the government decides the environment really does deserve more than lip-service and cancels the plans for a third runway there. But today's 'Stepping Out for Water' event was certainly appropriate, for the area - like the planet as a whole - is about two thirds covered by the stuff, in rivers, reservoirs and unfilled gravel pits (probably the council prefers to think of these as leisure facilities.)

But this was a march about the one fifth of the world who lack clean water and the 40% who lack basic sanitation. In 2000, 189 nations committed themselves to the Millennium Development Goals, No. 7 of which included the aim to halve those without clean water and sanitation by 2015.

Promises were easy to make, but at current rates will fall very much short of this aim - some 600 million people short. More action is needed, and the aim of this walk from All Saints' Church Laleham to Staines - chosen as it is a typical distance that people have to walk for their water in Africa - was to add to pressure on our politicians and government to get things done. Similar events have been organised elsewhere in the world, for example by WaterAid in Australia, and other events took place in the UK, particularly linked to World Water Day, a week ago on March 22, 2008.

People in the march wore blue, not unusually for Spelthorne, a dedicated part of the Tory homeland. Less usually they carried buckets, mainly empty, as those who daily walk to collect their water do, and walked down Staines High Street with them on their heads.

The march ended on the grass area by the river between Staines Methodist Church and the Riverside Car Park, where the children who took part found a 'water feature' installed by the council to play around. There were speeches by Claire who had organised the event, as well as by Spelthorne MP David Wilshire, and the event ended with a prayer.

 

Defend Press Freedom - Support Photographers

New Scotland Yard, London. Friday 28 March, 2008

Jeremy Dear demonstrating outside New Scotland Yard
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NUJ General Secretary Jeremy Dear mounted a one-person demonstration outside New Scotland Yard in support of photographers who want police to work to the agreed guidelines and respect the rights of the press when policing demonstrations. Around 20 photographers who regularly cover such events - most, but not all NUJ members - turned up to photograph him and show their support for the demonstration. You can read more about the issues and the event in the >Re:PHOTO blog post 'Photographers by the Yard.
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Aldermaston - 50 years

Aldermaston, Berks. Monday 24 March, 2008

Holding hands around the base
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Monday I got up too late to join the Bikes Not Bombs cyclists on their way from Reading, where I arrived by train. The train that goes from Staines to Reading is so so slow I'm convinced there is still a man with a red flag walking in front of it much of the way, and the 20 or so miles took almost an hour.

I took exactly the same route from Reading that I'd walked with Pat Arrowsmith and the other Aldermaston marchers in the 2004 march. Although a coo day, it was a pleasant morning for riding and I was quite enjoying it until a stretch of road called 'Hermit's Hill' reminded me how out of practice I was at cycling. I can't remember when I last had to push my bike up a hill, although in 2002 when my arteries were almost fully clogged with cholesterol I did once have to stop and rest in Brittany. Fortunately it turned out to be the only significant hill on the route.

I went first to the main gate and joined the other photographers who were there, and took a few pictures of people arriving, including the 30 or so cyclists who I had beaten there. I walked down with some of the other photographers to the Falcon gate, but not a lot was happening there.

Later I took a ride around perimeter, or at least the part of it which is on roads - the northern side is simply a footpath, and it was rather muddy and full of demonstrators, so I didn't try to ride along it. I caught up with the cyclists again at the Boiler House gate where I stopped to take some pictures, as quite a lot seemed to be happening there. They left before I had taken all the pictures that I wanted, and got a few minutes start on me, before I pedaled off in pursuit. The road leads down and through the actual village of Aldermaston (rich home counties, rather too tidy, but what goes down has to come up, and I found myself struggling uphill again through the queue of traffic held up by the 'bikes not bombs' group and their police escort of two cars and several motorbikes.

The Construction gate at the top of the hill had a Welsh socialist choir, and I took a few pictures before I saw the cyclists coming up again - they had stopped to regroup a little down the road. Further along the fence, near the Home Office Gate was another largish group of people and a veteran from 1958 was talking. The incredible Rinky-Dink mobile cycle-powered sound system was also there - another reminder of 2004 when it accompanied us as we marched down the lanes to the base.

People were now beginning to link hands around the base, although the organisers had talked about one person every 5 metres. Most of it seemed to be surrounded considerably more densely than this, although there were some gaps.

Back at the main gate there was an opportunity to photograph some of the speakers who were touring the event, although I didn't actually hear them speak. They included two labour MPs, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, Green MEP Caroline Lucas, veteran Labour Party member Walter Wolfgang and several guests from Japan, one of whom was a survivor from Hiroshima.

After that people started to go home, and after a short but rather heavy shower I decided it was time to get on my bike too.
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Flash Mob Global Pillow Fight - London

Leicester Square, London. Saturday 22 March, 2008

Quite a few pillows tore, filling the air with feathers
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I left the Whitehall demonstration early to rush to Leicester Square for 3pm, as the first of a series of pillow fights in capitals around the world was due to kick off at 15.03, although in the event it started a little earlier.

Of course its a trivial, silly event, but the idea and the kind of organisation involved I think represents something new and exciting, a kind of 'Demo 2.0' which we will surely see more of in the future.

It's another example of the kind of on-line organisation that we saw put to a rather more serious purpose in the world-wide protests against the 'Church of Scientology' last month by 'Anonymous'.

There were several hundred people with pillows in the north area of the square belting each other around the head with them and having a great time doing so. Being a photographer in the middle of it all was occasionally a little worrying, as although the odd wildly aimed pillow was unlikely to hurt me, cameras and flash units are just a little more sensitive.

The greatest danger to my health wasn't from impact but suffocation when some pillows split open to fill the air with clouds of feathers and feather-dust. At times I wished I was wearing a mask to protect my lungs; keeping my mouth firmly closed and breathing though my nose only stopped the larger particles.

Planes in battle during the Second World War dropped strips of 'window' (aluminium foil strips) as chaff to jam the radar tracking them. I discovered that dense clouds of duck feathers have a similar effect on autofocus systems and flash. Until I had the sense to switch to manual focus my camera simply failed to focus in the denser areas and I missed out on photographing some of the most visually powerful scenes. Unfortunately later pillow splits were considerably less dramatic, at least from my position.

It was an example of a situation where the view outside the frame area of a rangefinder camera would have been extremely useful. With an SLR, I try to keep the eye not at the viewfinder looking at the scene, but it isn't quite the same, and when chaos really rules taking pictures becomes a press and hope situation. I think some of them do give an idea of what it was like to be there
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Defend Mehdi Kazemi

Downing St, London. Saturday 22 March, 2008

Peter Tatchell holds a poster opposite Downing St
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Despite a biting wind, rain and at one point a fortunately very short blizzard that reduced visibility so it became impossible to see across Whitehall, there were around 150 demonstrators present to support the protest against the deportation of Mehdi Kazemi.

Kazemi has been refused permission to stay in Britain; in Iran, where he is due to be deported by the UK government, homosexuality is a crime punishable by death, and one for which the regime have already executed his boyfriend.

The demonstration was sponsored by Middle East Workers' Solidarity and the National Union of Students LGBT campaign, and was supported by other groups including OutRage! and Hands off the People of Iran.

As the speakers reminded us, Kazemi's is by far from being the only case where the UK Home Office's attitude to LGBT refugees and asylum seekers is failing.

Peter Tatchell of Outrage! highlighted the need for training on sexual orientation issues for staff dealing with asylum issues and for an explicit policy which supports the right of refugees to claim asylum on the grounds of persecution because of their sexual orientation. He also deplored the lack of action to stamp out the abuse of LGBT refugees in the UK asylum system and for appropriate legal representation for LGBT asylum applicants, as well as the failure of the government to collect accurate and up-to-date information on homophobic persecution in countries to which LGBT asylum seekers might be deported.

Several speakers commented critically on George Galloway's apologies and lies about the homophobic Iranian regime and his attacks on Peter Tatchell for exposing its activities.
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Support Tibet March

Park Crescent - Trafalgar Square, London. Sat March 22, 2008

Waiting for the start of the march in Park Crescent
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Around 500 people, including many Tibetans, assembled in Park Crescent on Saturday morning, a short distance north of the Chinese Embassy. Tibetans and supporters of freedom in Tibet were marching through London again in support of the struggle for human rights following the brutal Chinese repression of the demonstrations and marches in Lhasa and elsewhere celebrating the 49th anniversary of the Tibetan uprising.

After events earlier in the week there was a strong police presence, especially around the Chinese Embassy in Portland Place, where the march halted briefly and many shouted in its direction for freedom for Tibet and shame on the Chinese for their human rights abuses.. The police soon urged marchers on and there were no incidents there. As usual the FIT were there and everyone and his dog where having their portraits made.

As the march walked through the busy shopping streets of the West End there were many expressions of support, although one person who put up a show of opposition was quickly surrounded by police. For most of its route the march was led by four Drapchi nuns and a monk carrying a portrait of the Dalai Lama.

There were occasional flurries of hail and showers during the march, and a few seconds of blizzard as we went down Regent Street, weather that made it feel a little more like Tibet than London.

The crowd was a little larger by the time we reached the north terrace at Trafalgar Square, where there was a short rally. Among the speakers was MP Kate Hooey, who urged us all to lobby our MPs, and particularly to ask that they sign Early Day Motion 1201 which condemns the Chinese authorities and calls on the government to denounce their actions, support a UN inquiry and urge the Chinese to negotiate with the Dalai Lama. (It also asks for the Prime Minister to meet the Dalai Lama when he visits Britain - which George Brown has now confirmed he will.)

Speakers also called for a boycott of the opening ceremony at the Olympic games by UK government officials and dignitaries in protest at the repression and lack of human rights in Tibet, as well as for pressure to be exerted to alter the route of the Olympic flame to keep it out of Tibet - and in particular away from Lhasa and Mount Everest.

Those who had taken part in the hunger strike this week were applauded and presented with white sashes, and some of them also spoke before the meeting ended.
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Bikes Not Bombs - London to Aldermaston

Oxford St, London. Saturday 22 March, 2008

I had hoped to cycle part of the way from London to Aldermaston with Bikes Not Bombs, but for various reasons (sloth, other events, lousy weather and a dislike of early rising) it didn't happen. In the end I did ride from Reading to Aldermaston (and back) on Monday, but started and hour or two later than the organised ride, taking a more direct route at a faster pace.

Although I wasn't there at Trafalgar Square to see them off on Saturday, I did come across them a little later, as they cycled east along Oxford Street past Oxford Circus, in exactly the opposite direction that would have taken them towards Aldermaston.

Of course this wasn't a cycle rally, but a demonstration, and a start by making a little noise (or rather mainly music from the tandem-hauled sound system) and getting noticed in London's busiest shopping streets made absolute sense.
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Gaura Purnima Festival - Hare Krishna

West End, London. Friday 21 March, 2008
Hare Krishna musicians in Leicester Square
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My final religious event on Friday was with the Hare Krishna (International Society for Krishna Consciousness), whose Gaura Purnima (Golden Full Moon) festival celebrates the appearance of the Lord Caitanya just over five hundred years ago in West Bengal.

It was Caitanya, also known as the Great Master (Mahaprabhu), who was Krishna appearing as a pure devotee of himself, who encouraged everyone to dance and chant the holy names of Krishna. On Gaura Purnima his followers sing and chant there way around the centre of London, fasting all day until moonrise, when they enjoy a sumptuous feast together.
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Purim Fun Bus

Golders Green, London. March 21, 2008

Next to the Camp Simcha Purim Fun Bus in Golders Green

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From Waterloo I went to Golders Green, where the Jewish festival of Purim was being celebrated on the street. When the Jews were in exile in Babylon, Esther, who had been made Queen by the ruler Xerxes, along with her cousin and former guardian Mordechai who was the palace gatekeeper foiled the wicked plans of the royal vizier Harman to kill the Jews.

Traditionally Jews wear fancy dress to celebrate and make a lot of noise to drown out the name of the evil Haman when the story from the Torah is read in synagogue on Purim. They also eat special triangular cakes full of poppy seeds called 'Haman's Ears', and children in fancy dress sometimes take these as gifts to their neighbours.

Camp Simcha, a charity which provides support for Jewish children with serious illnesses and their families, had organised two Purim fun buses in Golders Green and Hendon, providing fun activities for children and raising money. Together with three other photographers I spent half an hour or so photographing around the bus in Golders Green.
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Good Friday Walk of Witness - North Lambeth

St John's Waterloo & Waterloo Station, London. March 21, 2008

"Join us for Easter", Waterloo Road
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Friday was a very religious day. It was of course Good Friday for Christians, and I went with a procession starting from St John's Church opposite Waterloo station, which went around the area, stopping outside St Patrick's Catholic Schools and calling in briefly at the rather more recent building of St Andrew's in Short Street, off The Cut, before some hymns and prayers on the square opposite the Old Vic. The walk ended with a longer service on the forecourt of Waterloo Station, where they were joined by another group who had started their procession at the Imperial War Museum (see Good Friday last year.)
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Druid Order - Spring Equinox

Tower Hill, London. March 20 2008

The circle of druids on Tower Hill
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It may have been the start of spring, but it felt more like winter, and there was a biting wind across the open space at Tower Hill for the Druid Spring Equinox Ceremony, and as it came to an end, cold rain drove into us.

The horn was sounded to the four corners, and then the sword was raised, and it was peace from the North, South, West and East. The Earth Mother, Ceridwen and her attendants brought a horn for a libation, seeds to scatter and flowers into the circle, and those departed were remembered.

After the ceremony the druids filed off through the pathways around Tower Hill into the streets of London.
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Tibet Vigil at Chinese Embassy

Portland Place, London. 17 March 2008
Protesters run across the road and make for the Chinese Embassy carrying Tibetan flags, as police and two stewards try to stop them. I'm right behind them with a wide-angle lens.
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According to the Chinese Authorities, they "exercised restraint" in dealing with the Lhasa protests, using only non-lethal weapons and only killing 13 innocent civilians. Monday afternoon’s demonstration in Portland Place opposite the Chinese Embassy was timed to coincide with the midnight deadline in Lhasa for protesters to surrender.

For the hour or so I was in Portland Place, the Met put on a considerably more convincing display of restraint, with the help of the 'Free Tibet' stewards, causing – so far as I saw - nothing worse than a few minor bruises. British police at least sometimes live up to their reputation, although perhaps a double row of barriers would have been a sensible precaution.

When I arrived at Portland Place around 4.30, around 200 demonstrators were penned behind a single row of barriers along the edge of the road in front of the RIBA building. Three policemen stood in front of the demonstrators who were shouting slogans towards the Chinese embassy across the road. The media were refused access to photograph from the empty area in front of these barriers, although a row of press here would almost certainly have aided security, but they were allowed into the island – also surrounded by barriers – in the centre of the road. Of course this was too far distant for decent pictures, and I started by photographing in the pen with the protesters.

I was just crossing the road around 5pm when a demonstrator jumped the line and ran across towards the embassy waving a Tibetan flag - where the four officers on duty immediately grabbed him. Other demonstrators pushed the barriers down and followed him, and so did I, taking pictures with a wide-angle.

The next few minutes reminded me of one of those traditional village football matches, or those games of 'British Bulldog' we used to play before such things were banned, as police and stewards grappled with demonstrators. Finally the stewards took over and pushed and persuaded them across the roadway to the central island where they sat down. I saw no instances of excessive violence being used by police, and those of us reporting the incident all appeared to be well treated despite a fairly confusing situation.

The demonstrators continued to shout at the Chinese Embassy from the central island for around ten minutes. A police officer then read something out to them, which I'm doubt they could hear any more clearly than I could above the noise. I suspect they were being threatened with arrest if they stayed where they were, but I couldn’t hear well enough to tell under which Act. With the help of the stewards they were then all escorted back across the road to join the other demonstrators who had stayed in place
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Brent St Patrick's Day Parade

Willesden Green, London, March 17, 2008
Sorting out the Irish county flags
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Brent in the northwest of London is possibly the only London borough that has its own St Patrick's Day parade (the borough also celebrates Diwali, Eid, Christmas, Chanukah and Navrati, and Holocaust Memorial Day, along with a black history programme, its own 'Respect' festival and a world food and music festival.)

The St Patrick's Day parade actually starts from an Islamic Centre close to Willesden Green centre and makes its way to the library in High Road Willesden where there are various musical performances and a bit of a funfair.

This year the parade was held on St Pat's day itself, which was a Monday, and perhaps because of this seemed a considerably smaller event than last year.
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Protest Brings Pipeline to Shell

Waterloo, London. March 17, 2008

The giant pipeline outside the Shell building on York Road
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All-Irish environmental and social justice movement Gluaiseacht were in London for the weekend, and on St Patrick's Day itself gathered outside the Shell HQ at Waterloo, bringing with them a very large pipeline.

The protest was over the Corrib Gas Project in Mayo in the north-west of Ireland, which the Irish Government has given at a knock-down price to Shell, Statoil and Marathon. It’s a project estimated to be worth over 50 billion Euros, but the Irish people will hardly benefit from the profits - and Shell gets the largest share.

Even worse the people in Mayo will suffer from the pollution around an inland refinery and a high pressure pipeline that will endanger local communities. Protests in Ireland have led to innocent people being jailed.

Around 30 Irish protesters along with local supporters held a good-natured and lively protest, with a great deal of singing and dancing as well as that giant pipeline, watched by a number of Shell security men and a small group of police - including FIT and the inevitable photographer.
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Stop the War/CND/BMI - Troops out

Trafalgar Square - Parliament Square, London. Sat 15 March, 2008
Somalis added their protest to the event, which also called for Israel to get out of Gaza

The front of the march on Westminster Bridge
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Around 50,000 turned up for the march, which began with a rally in Trafalgar Square, which was addressed by speakers including Tony Benn and Bruce Kent. Police FIT teams were out in force and spent most of their time hovering around the two small groups of anarchists from 'Class War' and 'FITwatch', although some young Muslim men also seemed to attract their interest.

I wasn't around when they arrested four of the FITwatch protesters, apparently on the grounds that the police had felt intimidated by their actions. Since a couple of weeks ago one of their photographers and his minder had been seen taking flight and seeking refuge up the steps of the National Gallery when pursued by a polite and always well behaved woman with a shopping trolley and free cakes - much to the amusement of other police present - intimidating the FIT doesn't seem too difficult. The sceptical might draw some connection between that loss of face and their action at this event.

Of course the vast majority of those present had come to protest peacefully, and so far as I'm aware there were no problems at all throughout the whole event which required any intervention by the police. The organisers had doubtless applied for permission to protest in the SOCPA designated zone, and there was certainly little sign that any of the abnormal SOCPA limitations on freedom to protest were being applied.

Although small compared to the estimated 2 million who marched and were ignored by the government in 2003, it was still an impressive demonstration, the end still moving up Bridge Street across Westminster Bridge when the front of the march - having come back across the Thames over Lambeth Bridge and made its way up Millbank - was walking back into Parliament Square after a walk of around 40 minutes (and 2.25 kilometres) from where the tail of the march stood.

As well as supporting the main aims of the march - withdrawal of our troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, no attack on Iran and a free Palestine, groups of protesters brought other issues to notice, including the genocide in Somalia. A special award for the protest group with the longest name must go to 'The Campaign for Abolition of all Misogynist Gender Based legislation & Islamic Punitive Laws in Iraq.' While applauding their cause I do rather wonder if they have confused the idea of a name for an organisation with its aims. Something like 'Justice in Iran' would certainly be snappier and make banners easier.
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Gaza Emergency Demo

Downing St, Whitehall, London. Saturday March 8, 2008

Congratulations to a young demonstrator who took a turn at leading the chanting.
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After events in Gaza in recent days in which Israeli attacks have killed 115 Palestinians and wounded 350, the British Muslim initiative, Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Palestinian Forum in Britain and Palestine Return Centre called for an emergency demonstration opposite Downing St on Saturday afternoon.
Pictures copyright © 2008, Peter Marshall. All rights reserved.

Despite very short notice, there were still over a hundred supporters present when I arrived rather late – quite a few had already gone home.
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The Zimbabwe Vigil

Zimbabwe Embassy, Strand, London. March 8, 2008

Dancing at the Zimbabwe Embassy on the Strand
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Every Saturday afternoon since 12 October 2002, the Zimbabwe Vigil outside the Zimbabwe Embassy in the Strand, London has protested against human rights violations in Zimbabwe.

Those concerned also stage other events as well as lobbying Parliament and other bodies to end Mugabe's madness.
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SERCO picket - Close Yarl's Wood

Hand Court, High Holborn, London. March 8, 2008

After meeting outside the SERCO office the picket formed up on High Holborn
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As a part of the International Women's Day, Feminist Fightback, All African Women’s Group and Black Women’s Rape Action Project picketed the SERCO
Research Institute in central London, demanding the immediate closure of Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre.

SERCO may be a name that most people would not recognise, though increasingly around the world it is running their lives. Around the world, governments are turning to SERCO to run what used to be public services - hospitals, prisons, schools and even military services. In the UK, if you go to prison it may be run by SERCO, and you will be taken there in a SERCO van. They own and run Yarl's Wood Immigration Removal Centre, where around 400 women and children seeking asylum are imprisoned.

Around 70% of the women there at any time claim they are survivors of rape. Conditions at Yarl's Wood are appalling, with inadequate food, racist and sexist abuse, and profiteering from the sale of essential items, (and SERCO were forced to investigate why they were no receiving their miniscule government allowance of 71p a day.) At times women have been prevented from contacting their lawyers.

Women there have responded with hunger strikes as well as letters and petitions to Gordon Brown and others demanding investigation of their treatment.

SERCO have a Research Institute in a court off High Holborn, and as a part of the International Women's Day, Feminist Fightback, All African Women’s Group and Black Women’s Rape Action Project held a picket there after the Million Women Rise event on Saturday March 8.

Around 40 people turned up to demand the immediate closure of Yarl's Wood and an end to the criminalisation of rape and torture survivors. They also called for an end to SERCO and other private companies profiting from the oppression and misery of others.
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Million Women Rise: International Women's Day March

Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square, London. March 8, 2008

The march reaches Trafalgar Square
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This all-woman march was aimed against all forms of male violence against women, and supported by women from a very wide range of groups, including trade unions and political organisations, rape support groups, feminist groups, sex workers, the women's international league for peace and freedom, the women's network of the international action network on small arms, Kurdish women and the women's institute.

I arrived just in time for the start of the march promptly at 1pm when several thousand women (my estimate was 2,500) made their way out of Hyde Park and onto Park Lane. Dedicated to the dignity of women across the world, the main banner at its head read ‘Million Women Rise – together we can end violence against women….

As well as placards, banners and T-shirts from a number of organisations, there were also many women carrying hand-made placards with obviously very strongly personally felt statements against male violence.

This was an all-women march and I had to work from the sidelines rather than pitch in and take part as I usually try to do. The police had also responded with an unusually high proportion of women officers, although their presence was hardly required other than for traffic control. The only incident with police I saw during the march was an argument with a woman standing on a roadside box taking pictures of the march who ignored their requests to come down.

I left Trafalgar Squares as the rally started, needing a rest (and, as it happened, a Shropshire Lass, a rather pleasant blonde bitter.) Later I was dismayed to hear that at least one of those expected to speak had been prevented from addressing the rally after the organisers had read her draft text.
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Rally for Dignity and Democracy in Zimbabwe

Trafalgar Square, London. March 8, 2008
Diana Holland on screen, other speakers including TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber wait their turn.
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The Dignity! Period campaign was launched by ACTSA in 2005 in solidarity with the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and supported by the UK trade union movement and a number of celebrities. It offers very practical support to the women of Zimbabwe, where inflation has made sanitary products prohibitively expensive. Since its start the campaign has distributed more than 3 million sanitary pads, enabling women and girls in Zimbabwe to continue work and education without the risk to their health from using newspapers and dirty rags.

The Zimbabwe government has reneged on its promise not to collect import duties on the pads, and the campaign is now working through the only remaining local manufacturer of these products to avoid paying this tax.

Although ACTSA had hoped for thousands to attend this rally on International Women’s Day, there were only around a hundred when I left at around 12.45 to rush to the Million Women Rise march starting in Hyde Park. Probably many of those who might have attended had already gathered there, as the start of the rally was unfortunately timed to coincide with the assembly time of the march.

This was unfortunate, as there were some interesting speakers both from Zimbabwe and the UK trade unions - the latter including Diana Holland, Unite national organiser for women, race and equalities and TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber, both of whom spoke before I had to leave.
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Tibetan Uprising Day

Chinese Embassy - Whitehall, London 8 March 2008

Tibetan monks and former nuns were among those demanding freedom and an end to human rights abuses in Tibet.

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Around a thousand marched from the Chinese Embassy to a Whitehall rally to remember the Tibetan uprising 49 years ago and to demand that Gordon Brown meet the Dalai Lama and end British silence over Chinese human rights abuses in Tibet. The event started with a demonstration opposite the Chinese embassy in Portland Place, and a small deputation - including two men in a yak costume went across the road to attempt to deliver a message to the Chinese embassy.

Police stopped the yak in the refuge in the centre of the road, and for a while it looked as if they would not allow it to approach the embassy, but eventually decided it didn't present a major security hazard and allowed it to proceed.

Soon after the march set off through London's west end to Whitehall, catching attention with its colour and noise, and many of the shoppers and tourists waved in support.

The march marked the 49th anniversary of March 10, 1959, when Tibetans rose up against the Chinese who had occupied their country since 1950. Tens of thousands of Tibetans were killed following the uprising (estimates put the total killed since 1950 as 1.2 million) and the Chinese tightened their already repressive regime.

The march was led by several former Tibetan nuns who were imprisoned and tortured in Tibet. As well as asking the British government to support its campaign for human rights, demonstrators demanded the release of the 11th Panchen Lama, kidnapped by the Chinese when 6 years old in 1995.

My heart goes out to the people of Tibet, although my head tells me that there is little chance of freedom for their country in the foreseeable future. But perhaps as China matures as a nation, things will change.

One cyclist taking part was warned by police who felt he was putting other demonstrators at risk. When he refused to dismount they pulled him to the side of the road and threatened him with arrest. Otherwise I saw no incidents.

I left before the rally in Palace Street at the end of the march to go to another demonstration.
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Procession of Arbaeen

Marble Arch, London. Sunday 2 March, 2008

The procession on Park Lane
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Shia Muslims regard the massacre of the prophet Mohammed's grandson, together with 72 companions at Karbala as "the greatest sacrifice make by mankind, for humanity" and the "ultimate standoff between 'good and evil'. Hussain had refused to pledge allegiance to the ruler - "Death in honour is preferable to life in humiliation" - and his small band of followers fought to the death against an army of 40,000.

Following the massacre the women and children who had been travelling with Imam Hussain were taken captive and paraded through towns and cities on a 750 mile journey to Damascus, along with the decapitated heads of the martyrs, impaled on spears.

The Arbaeen procession marks the end of the annual 40 days of mourning, and similar processions take place in cities around the world. There are reenactments of some of the events, prayers of mourning, and expression of grief in various ways including the beating of breasts.
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Freedom to Protest 2

Westminster, London 1 Mar, 2008

SOCPA placard outside the National Gallery
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Police were obviously determined not to be caught on the hop again after the Freedom to Protest event in January, and there were hundreds if not thousands of additional officers on duty throughout Westminster for the second 'Freedom to Protest' demonstration on Saturday 1 March. In Trafalgar Square where the event was due to begin, there were perhaps 50 officers when I arrived half an hour before it was due to start, and I'd already passed extra police on duty outside Downing St, with a further large number spread out in Parliament Square and surrounding areas, and later I found more around the Home Office.

While the police had put on such a splendid turn-out, demonstrators had clearly decided to stay at home, or at least to celebrate St David's Day elsewhere, with only a small group of perhaps 50 turning up to the square, where they were heavily outnumbered by police.

An officer came up to a small group and warned them that any demonstration in the SOCPA designated area would be illegal, handing out a few notices while one of the demonstrators took notes and a police photographer kept busy photographing those present. Later the photographer objected to demonstrators photographing him and several times pushed out his arm in a unfortunate gesture resembling a Nazi salute, at one point hitting one of the demonstrators in the throat.

Later this photographer was chased by a 'serious criminal' offering her 'Illegali-Tea' and was so harassed that he took refuge by running up the stairs of the National Gallery.

A small group of the demonstrators decided to walk towards Parliament Square and were followed by police. One young man who managed to evade the police (but not several press photographers) was later stopped by police opposite Downing St and searched, but the most suspicious thing found on him was a strong Newcastle accent. Although through most of the event police behaved impeccably toward the press, one officer here ordered me away from the scene quite unnecessarily, although others continued to behave more reasonably.

I went and photographed the continuing peace protest in Parliament Square, where one protester was making a rather splendid chalk pavement drawing. While I was watching her a police van drew up and it looked as if she was about to be apprehended, but seeing several photographers present, the van drove off.

Later a small group of protesters walked though the area followed by the press and police, making their way to a pub on the Horseferry Road, and causing a little consternation among police around the Home Office. But they went into the pub and police and press went home
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