Today is the spring equinox. Ideally I’d like to have posted a page with photos of daffodils on the bar walls, crocuses in the Museum Gardens, updates on various things happening in the here and now. But the weather is awful and I’m too busy to go wandering.
In any case, something else has been on my mind. Ten years ago today York’s streets were taken over by a large group of protesters, many of them young people, against the war on Iraq. A largely spontaneous protest, and unforgettable.
Filmed, along with other demonstrations that week, by Belle Vue Studio. The section on the 20 March demonstration begins at 3 mins 45:
I wrote about the events of that day, felt it needed recording. At the time I didn’t have this website about York, so didn’t have anywhere to share it. Thought I’d share it now, having found this writing from ten years ago.
On 20 March 2003 I woke to hear the war had started. In their 8am news bulletin Radio 5 Live played the sickening sounds of air raid sirens and bombing.
Everything seemed so vulnerable that day. So many lost their lives in that conflict, and it felt like we all could. On that day I stood on the city walls near West Offices and felt like I used to do in the 80s with the nuclear threat feeling so real and so close, realising that we were all the same, that it can happen here, or over there, how fragile we are. The cities in Iraq about to be bombed seemed like this place, as I stood on its now ineffectual defensive walls.
[written in 2003]
Thursday 20 March: large groups of school pupils walked out of schools and marched through the city’s streets – a scene I’ve never witnessed before.
I couldn’t shout with them, I felt too sad for shouting. Maybe older people like me feel more like crying than shouting. But I was glad they were shouting.
Young people’s apparent lack of interest in politics has been much discussed in the media in recent years – they appear not be rushing to the ballot box at their first chance to vote. No lack of engagement evident here though, as they marched through the streets, and spoke eloquently to reporters about why they believed the war was wrong.
All I can do is to present a few scenes from my city as the war began.
Arriving at a junction in the town centre where, before me, the road is full of marchers – some young, others obviously not bunking off school, but possibly having walked out of work. They’re marching along the road, towards the bridge, while the late-morning traffic is at a standstill. As they get onto the bridge there seems to be someone who’s decided to lie down in front of a bus. I’ve ended up on the opposite side of the road from the marchers, so instead study the faces of the people walking towards me on the pavement – the ‘non-protestors’. Some are looking with great interest, some look like they’re deliberately trying to ignore these examples of civil unrest – like ‘don’t look, it’ll only encourage them’. Some older people look amused, occasionally there’s an angry face. I hear an older woman say to her companion ‘They haven’t really thought about it, have they.’ (It was said as a statement, not a question.)
I walk onto the city walls and watch the march snake away up the road below me. It’s such a sunny day, such a beautiful town, and there are young people marching who are all fired up and rowdy and shouting, but to me seem vulnerable and I want to protect them all from any bombs that might fall on their heads. And feel the same about everyone else in the world.
At Cliffords Tower the daffodils are blooming on the grassy banks. Above them the white stone of the tower beneath blue sky. The sunshine is warm like summer. All over the grass are protesters – many sitting quietly still holding the placards stating ‘Not in our name’. Audible from just along the road are the chants of the younger protestors, who have moved en masse across the busy junction and are now occupying the centre of the roundabout. They might not now be able to stop the war, but they can stop the traffic.
The marching may have been planned, yet it still seems like groups of schoolchildren are appearing everywhere and setting off on separate marches.
The city’s main shopping street is full of people on their lunch breaks and browsing shoppers. One bystander starts to jump up and down on one of the placards.
I notice we’re marching incredibly fast. I wonder if protest marches have in general speeded up since I was young, in some kind of reflection of what is generally perceived as a shorter attention span. It’s more of a run than a march. I wonder if I’ve joined a local half-marathon by mistake. I then realise it’s probably because we’re going at the pace of fit 15-year-old people, not knackered 30-somethings . . .
As the march reaches the square near the Mansion House, we people of the more mature age group pause awhile, though I notice the younger people marching off again, back down the street we just covered already. I watch them disappear into the distance, into the midday sunshine.
A tourist asks me and Frank if we’re the teachers? I’ve never wanted to be a teacher before, but in that moment I would have been proud – my pupils marching off away from me, regardless, yelling political slogans. I’m not sure the parents of York would think it was great, but it amused me. I thought of my late sister, who was a teacher. I wish she was here.
. . .
Later, in the square, people gather at 6pm. We stand in silence for a few minutes, to think about those whose lives are threatened by this war. In the middle of our silence I hear angry sounds to my right, and see a young woman who is part of our group being subjected to a verbal barrage from an older woman who is so close to her she’s basically spitting in the younger woman’s face. She yells: “Shall I pull your fingernails out for you, shall I??!! That’s what Saddam Hussein would do to you!!” Then shouts some more, and stalks off again across the street. Oh my. It’s hard to see how someone can be so angry about a group of people standing silently in the street.