Living activism (ten years after the Iraq march)

Ten years ago today, I joined millions of other people around the world in marching against the planned invasion of Iraq. This morning, I was effectively banned from my local branch of Costcutter. It’s been a strange decade.

My conflict with Costcutter began when the manager told me I should not pick up and look at the newspapers before choosing which one to buy. I nearly always buy one (and sometimes more than one) and always put the others back neatly. But I often look at them before making my decision.

The manager told me this is not allowed. I politely asked for the reason, and he was unable to give one. He resorted to repeating that it was not allowed without explaining why. I find legalism like this particularly frustrating. At one point, he suggested that all newspapers basically carry the same news – an alarmingly inaccurate statement.

The discussion went on for some time. He told me I was not welcome to buy newspapers there. I told him I would not be buying anything else there either.

Of course, resisting unreasonable rules in local shops is a very trivial issue compared to resisting the invasion of Iraq. The invasion led to at least 200,000 deaths (by conservative estimates). Ten years later, international NGOs rate Iraq towards the bottom of the world’s league tables when it comes to political freedom and other human rights. The worst fears of those of us who campaigned against the invasion have come to pass.

And yet, many people who marched against the war feel that they made no difference. For first-time activists, it was particularly disheartening. At the time, I had little doubt that Bush and Blair would push ahead with their vicious plans regardless of our action, although I believe that we may have made them more cautious about starting more wars immediately afterwards.

Unfortunately, after that march, the anti-war movement effectively tried to replicate it with more central London marches characterised by long dreary walks and endless repetitive speeches (OK, some were better than others). I made this point when interviewed by Ian Sinclair, author of a new book, The March That Shook Blair. I’m about to go to the book launch.

A few years later, activism took a different turn. Groups such as the Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT) combined direct action with media activism and court cases. The coalition’s cuts agenda was greeted by a rise in nonviolent direct action greater than I dared to hope for. Imaginative actions by UK Uncut and their allies saw tax-dodging shoot up the political agenda.

Marches are sometimes important, but they are rarely, if ever, enough in themselves. We need more diverse tactics, more effective tactics and a greater understanding of active nonviolence.  More importantly, we need to root activism in our daily lives.

I’m not suggesting that alternative lifestyles are a substitute for explicit political campaigning. Rather, I believe we should seek to resist injustice in everyday actions and choices. As Jesus of Nazareth put it, they who are faithful in small ways will be faithful in big ways.

Challenging Costcutter’s unfair rule about newspapers is of course a minor example, but I’m glad I did it. There are many (greater) injustices around me that I fail to challenge. And of course, we are all complicit in the unjust systems that we live under and sometimes benefit from.

But I believe we can aim to live out our values in such a way that our very existence is an act of rebellion. It is something to which I aspire. I have a long way to go.

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