Andrew Burgin calls for a united movement against Trump.
I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was late 2001, in the wake of the terror attacks of 9/11. I was standing in one corner of Trafalgar Square just days after Operation Enduring Freedom – the invasion of Afghanistan – had started. CND had called a march in opposition to the war and the usual peace marchers were joined by thousands of Muslims, determined that their voices would be heard in opposition to this war. Only the week before, the founding meeting of the Stop the War Coalition had taken place at Friends Meeting House in London. 2,000 people had turned out, filling the main hall and several overflow rooms. This was a new movement responding to the terrible and only too real threat of permanent war. For a socialist there was no choice but to get involved and help build a mass movement against war.
Many years later those wars continue, in one form or another, having destroyed entire countries, leaving hundreds of thousands dead and millions living as refugees. Despite the determined efforts of anti-war and peace campaigners those wars have been accompanied by the rise of Islamophobia, racism and xenophobia, generated by successive government policies and misallocation of blame for the results of US and UK foreign policy over generations. This has been part of a wider degeneration in the political culture of our societies, reinforced and exacerbated by the crisis of neo-liberalism. So far, it is primarily the right has taken political advantage of the anger of ordinary people who have been made to pay for the bailing out of the financial system, instead blaming migrants for the social and economic ills produced by government austerity policies.
This political shift to the right has found expression in the racist and xenophobic campaign that the right spearheaded in the UK referendum campaign and in the election of the right-wing demagogue Donald Trump. Both of these, Brexit and Trump, are consolidating the rise of far-right, extreme nationalist and anti-migrant parties throughout Europe and beyond. The slogan of Marine Le Pen for the forthcoming French presidential elections is ‘Brexit Oui! Et Maintenant La France’.
It is important that we acknowledge the scale of the move to the right and that we recognise, much as we did in 2001, that the world has changed in a terrible way and that we need new ways of working in order to confront these new dangers. It is no exaggeration to say that we are entering a period in which the possibility of nuclear-armed conflict has become real. The doomsday clock advances.
The historical parallels are there for all to see. The endless global economic crisis has led once again to the policies of economic nationalism. And these policies are being voiced through the re-emergence of far right and fascist forces. Each nation is determined to reach for its own greatness at the expense of all others.
Saturday 21st January. It is 16 years after the CND demo and I am in Grosvenor Square. It is the day after Donald Trump has been inaugurated as President. It is the day after he has given his chilling America First speech and has started speed-signing executive orders, stripping the US of important environmental protections, curtailing abortion rights and preparing plans to build his wall. People can barely keep up. A week later the one banning Muslims from seven countries is signed off.
A group of women in the US have called for a March on Washington for this day, to protest at Trump’s misogyny, his threat to women’s rights, his assaults on women’s bodies and his threat to humanity as a whole. Their call has been taken up not only throughout the US and North America but around the world too. There are now hundreds of marches planned and here in Grosvenor Square one has been called and put together by a group of five women – the march on London.
Grosvenor Square filled up quickly. Soon it was so full that you could barely move in the park or the surrounding roads. The crowds were so dense that we in Left Unity struggled to move around distributing our literature. The crowds backed up to Oxford Street. The march moved off but those in the park had to wait a good hour before they could move. The march reached Trafalgar Square and I was still trapped in the park. All the exits were blocked. The crowds, mainly of young women, were exultant. They were dancing and singing and partying. This was a joyful occasion. Thousands of marchers had made their own placards – inventive, humorous, angry. The organisers, being new to the job and not knowing the honourable history of the left in over-reporting march numbers, proceeded to under-report the size of the march as 100,000. It was many, many more.
Across the world millions took to the streets. As Ernie Tate, one of the veteran organisers of the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign in the 1960s – now living in Toronto – put it:
‘The mobilization of women in Washington and all over the country on January 21st was truly incredible – of historic proportions and quite spontaneous, with millions participating, in cities and small towns everywhere, even in remote areas. They were larger than the largest demonstrations at the time of the Vietnam War, and involving whole new layers who have clearly never been on the streets before.’
This is a moment of extraordinary mobilisation that marks the emergence of what can become a new movement. A new movement necessary to confront the dangers we now face. In the US, as Trump steps up his attacks and extends their range, there have been almost continuous mobilisations against him. As I write this there are reports of thousands of school students in New York and elsewhere quitting their classes and taking to the streets. It is reminiscent of the great school student movement here, in opposition to the Iraq war.
It is not difficult for socialists to recognise the significance of such a moment. The difficulty sometimes is knowing how to engage with this new thing creatively, to let it breathe and have its own space and not to let the accumulated debris of previous failures and organisational decrepitude stand in the way of the new. When tens of thousands of young people come forward – as they are – we have a big responsibility not to get in their way and slow them down with our baggage.
We need this new movement and we need it to take the initiative against the reaction we face.
The week following the Women’s marches, Theresa May rushed off to Washington to offer Trump a state visit. The same day, the 27th January, saw the introduction of Trump’s Muslim ban. Trump signed the executive order which included a 90-day travel ban for citizens of Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia and Yemen, as well as a 120-day suspension of the US refugee programme. People across the US and throughout the world were outraged.
In the US, the immediate response was for thousands of people to descend on the airports where people were being refused entry. They had responded to calls from activists on Facebook and Twitter. New York’s JFK airport was effectively shut down and these protests spread across the US.
In Britain we watched the protests there as they unfolded. On the Saturday evening, Owen Jones made a call on social media for an emergency demonstration against the Muslim ban, followed shortly after by Lindsey German, and thus two demonstrations were born.
Left Unity was involved in the organisation of the one on Monday evening. The response to the call for the demo was overwhelming. There was a huge pent up demand to get on the streets and tens of thousands of young people poured into Whitehall that night, overwhelming the organisers. The protest was due to start at 6pm so I got to Downing Street at 5.30pm to do some press work but Whitehall was already rammed. Our stage and sound equipment were nowhere to be seen. Fortunately Stand Up to Racism had brought a pretty serious sound system themselves which they let us use and comrades from SUTR helped organise the immediate stewarding needs. We gave high-visibility vests to anyone who would take them and asked them to create a cordon so that the speakers could get through. The police had to open the MOD gates to stop a crush developing. For a while it was dangerous. Fortunately the policing of the event was excellent. The police recognised the scale of the event and withdrew. I walked up Whitehall a little and stood and watched as thousands of young people streamed by me. They represented the possibility of building a new movement not just against the Muslim ban but against everything that Trump represented.
The following Saturday there was another great demonstration organised by the Muslim Association of Britain, Stop the War, SUTR and others.
I have been on all of these demonstrations and Left Unity sponsored the Women’s march, was part of organising the Whitehall demonstration, and was not only on – and marched – but had teams out distributing our materials on the Saturday demonstration. The Left Unity EC agreed to participate wherever we can in helping build this new movement. We have already done broadsheets, placards, badges in preparation for the Trump state visit. We were on the demonstration in Edinburgh yesterday.
From two demonstrations there have emerged two anti-Trump Coalitions both building for the state visit protest and both claiming to be able to get a million or more out onto the streets.
This will have to be resolved quickly. Those thousands of young people now emerging into political life will not understand the nuances of the differences on the left over this. I don’t want to detail the tangled web that led to this situation because it is tedious in the extreme. I reject the assertion by those who should know better that this situation has been initiated by one side, representing the preparation of an attempt to undermine Jeremy Corbyn. One might point out that organising a day-long rally against Trump on the Saturday before the two most important by-elections of this parliamentary cycle will not do Jeremy much good either. It will pull hundreds of Jeremy’s supporters and key Labour party activists away from Copeland and Stoke.
I do not agree with those who refuse to work with SUTR because of the involvement of the SWP.
We do not yet know when the Trump visit will be or where he will go. The latest reports are that they are trying to move the visit to what they call a ‘Brexit’ area where they think Trump will get a better response. More fool them. There will be many protests when Trump comes.
My proposal is the same as the one I proposed at the Stop Trump founding meeting and which I shall be taking to the next Left Unity leadership meeting: that the two coalitions work together to build a united demonstration to oppose Trump’s visit in central London on the Saturday before it takes place and that the preparations for that begin almost immediately. A liaison committee should be established between the two campaigns. And this committee should work with others, such as the women who organised the largest protest that we have seen so far in opposition to Trump.
There is a real opportunity now to turn this initial mobilisation against Trump into a lasting movement that can begin to turn back the tide of reaction that we face. I have enough confidence in comrades that I have worked with over the years – and in some cases decades – to know that this is possible. We must embrace the new.
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