Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Parliament Square is Cleared.

Boris Johnson finally got his way, clearing the Democracy Village which sprung up outside the UK parliament on the grounds that it was "an eyesore".

They battled hard in the courts, but in the end the inhabitants of the Democracy Village put up little resistance when the bailiffs finally moved in.

Shortly after 1am yesterday, a squad of approximately 60 people, dressed in high-visibility jackets and helmets, moved on to Parliament Square to evict the motley coalition of anti-war protesters and rough sleepers who had taken over the patch of grass outside the Palace of Westminster since 1 May.

I can't think of a better place for people to protest than directly outside the Palace of Westminster, where our elected officials debate and decide policy, but Blair ruled that this was not to be allowed and Boris Johnson had gone to court to ensure that the area was cleared.

Johann Hari describes what he saw when he visited the site:

When I first saw them they were a mixture of students and activists and professors, voicing the conviction of 70 per cent of British people that the war is unwinnable and should end. One of them, Maria Gallasetgui, said: "We have a responsibility to stand up to what they're doing. It's immoral." She added: "We support the troops, that's why we want to bring them home. They" – she pointed to Parliament – "are the ones sending them to die."

They held up signs with pictures of maimed Afghan children, and waved them at the MPs as they walked to work. The MPs invariably looked down and away and they hurried through Parliament's iron gates.


So just a few metres from where the Prime Minister lives, people sat on an open green barbecuing food and sharing drinks and calling for that Prime Minister to be indicted for war crimes. They had daily meetings where they shared out the responsibilities, while every 15 minutes, Big Ben bonged.

In that first month, I saw a group of Chinese tourists staring at the camp in disbelief.

"This would never be allowed in China," one of them said to me. "Not anywhere. Never mind at the centre of power. This is what democracy really means."

I remember protesting in Parliament Square as MP's voted on whether or not to allow the Iraq war. It seemed the perfect, indeed, the only place to be.

Well, now the space is empty again, save for Brian Haw - who was protesting there before Blair outlawed the practice and is, therefore, exempt from that law - and I can't help but feel sad about that.

They should see it every day – the faces of the Afghan children we have caused the deaths of, and the faces of the mentally ill people we have left to rot on the streets. I can't think of a healthier sign in a democracy – that we don't allow our problems to be cleansed, China-style, from the sight of the powerful, but leave them there, in full view, demanding to be dealt with.

Yes, a few parts of it smelled. But waging war in Afghanistan, against the will of the people there and the people here, smells a lot worse. Yes, there were a few crazy people in the tents. But none was as crazy as the belief that we can win a land war in Afghanistan now, after nine years, with the population rapidly turning against us and pleading for a peace and reconciliation process. Freedom is not an "eyesore", as the London Mayor Boris Johnson claimed: citizens pressuring their government for justice are the most luscious sight in the world.

So now the people in Westminster can continue their work, free from the sight of those of us who, from time to time, disagree with what they are doing.

That's a victory for the government, but it's not a victory for democracy.
Colin Barrow, leader of Westminster city council, said he was "relieved this dreadful blight of Parliament Square has finally come to an end". He looked forward "to it being restored to its previous condition, so all Londoners can visit and enjoy it".
Yes, let's pretend that this is just like any other tourist area in London. Let's ignore the fact that decisions made in this place can result in the deaths of tens of thousands of people in other areas of the world.

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