2003 March Against War in Iraq

It has been ten years of war in Iraq. I look back to 2003, whilst I was studying Anthropology at Oxford University. I had joined one million that took to the streets in London against the war in Iraq.  This is an account of that day.

'Unseen a photograph does not prescribe, it describes.  Once seen, it invites interpretation and thus diminishes the apparent authority of the author/photographer…. the use of photographs is of dispersed authority in a way that text cannot.’  (Banks: 1989)

Preconceptions aside I joined  one million gathered in the streets of London on February 15th 2003 for a historic peace march that was apparently greater than that compared with the 1968 Governor Square demonstration against the Vietnam War attended by 50,000-plus. (BBC [online 16 Feb: 2003] The demonstration was a peace march that superseded all organiser’s expectations bringing out eleven political parties that in total.  Covering a total of two miles by two routes along the river Thames through embankment and out through Piccadilly, into Hyde Park, the event has an inherent narrative providing a structure that from which ethnographic evidence can be derived.
Whilst reading the news the following day, the papers documented steams of people coming out of the Tube stations to join the end of the two routes, from Gower Street in the north and Embankment by the river.  It also wrote about comments made by onlookers, taxi drivers grumbling saying 'Must be another march,’ then trying in vain to negotiate Tottenham Court Road.
This is common-sight for people of the metropolis, a march here a march there, they are all the same difference.  The news documents the usual suspects - CND, Socialist Workers' Party, the anarchists.   A dynamic metropolis like London or Tokyo has a flattening effect on public political events of this kind.   The event is of global significance, the metropolis becomes a space that is a vehicle to mobilise the meanings of the event holds for each of these varying groups and ethnicities.   However to the onlooker, the significant crowd in a space such as the metropolis has an opposite effect, everything becomes compressed and uniform.
This effect is synonymous with a kind of media like Sky News or  BBC in that has an equalizing effect. The main event unifies the significance for onlookers and indeed those involved, however, anthropologically, we need to address what meanings these emblematic signifiers hold for specific members in relation to their group. Emblematically, it’s different.  Initially, it seems like solely a demonstration against war in Iraq.  In actuality, there are groups that each holds their own agenda in relation to the event.The Kurds want Abdullah Ocalan free and The Palestinian’s want their state back.  The Oxford Students, don’t want the economic sanctions to end, so that large United States oil companies can engage in a free exportation of oil, knowing that this would be at the expense of deconstructing micro-economies that rely on this form of substance for their survival.  Everyone is looking for expression of their rights or a particular issue that is manifested through symbolic form in this collective peace march.The Oxford students designed their own symbols.  They had doves attached to oil carriers.  The doves are emblematic of peace, however, it is the combination of these, with oil drums that are saying something very significant about the relationship between the parts that are being played in the economy of oil in the absence of peace. 

 A variety of other emblems are appropriated and recognisable from British daily life, such as the clean-up Britain campaign, that had been translated for the purpose of this march to a witty use of words saying "clean-up America"Liberal democrats are utilizing the event to advocate their anti-war policies contrary to Labour rule.  Others are protesting against war for the salvation of children and the people of Iraq.
Walking, or rather shuffling with the march, you are kept within boundaries, marked by the state and the surroundings.  These cultural differentiae are again assimilated together by these marked boundaries.  The police and the architectural landmarks of the city serve as markers of time and place the time and place: Big Ben, Nelson’s column, Trafalgar square you remember where you are, you’re in England’s capital.  An international Oxford student is remarking on all the landmarks and saying what a great way this is to see the city.  As we’re policed into a shuffle once more before Trafalgar Square, the crowd grows louder making whistling noises as we arrive at the cenetaph, which is directly outside the gates of Ten Downing Street, Tony Blair’s head quarters.  The array of historical buildings leading to the remembrance cenotaph juxtaposed in front of the Prime minister’s house has been brought together with the present day context of the police.  This is working as a permanent marker of memory.  Everyone becomes silent and the significance at this point from a personal perspective, comes into focus.  I am made aware, through the marked territories of the significance of Britain’s role in the world power in relation to the attacks on Iraq and the consequences of war.
This event allows a confirmation of space in which there can be a strengthening of identity.  Cohen (1985) argues that the symbolic expression of community and its boundaries increases in importance as the actual geo-social boundaries of a community are weakened.  Here the most evident illustration of this is in the Palestinian and Kurdish groups.
            The Kurds have no state.  They have a no fly-zone in Northern Iraq, but they have no state.  They were assigned a flag as an autonomous ethnicity but with separate administrations.  The people within the march were speaking Turkish, so their reasoning behind demonstrating in the march was ambiguous.  Were the Turkish-Kurds actually against the attacks on Iraq? 

       In 1988 Saddam killed somewhere around 100,000 Kurds in the 'Anal' campaign to Arabise northern Iraq. Kurds being wiped out was a staple of international relations. The truth of the Kurdish proverb, 'we've no friends but the mountains', was indisputable. Kurds occupy a crucial no-fly-zone in northern Iraq with access to Baghdad they have become crucial allies to America and Britain. From this it is doubtful that they are demonstrating for peace and more likely that they are emblematically, through the face of Abdullah Oclan showing others in the march, media and indeed their own ethnicity that they are actually demonstrating against his captivity and in turn their freedom and independence to be unified as a group.  The significance of these images are perhaps not as they appear to the London crowd or as they appear in the press, but the specificity of these symbols are perhaps speaking more to the imagined Kurdish community.  The march gives the community an opportunity to 'perform' the communities solidarity whilst simultaneously having a larger significance to the Iraq peace march.
            Similarly the Palestinians are utilizing the space to remind others there is still another war continuing across the Gaza strip and that it should not be forgotten, the effect of which will be gain significance to those people of Palestine as they see their community acting upon their behalf.
            The contradictions of the event can be seen throughout the narrative, in that the event is seen as a space in which different political parties can voice their ideologies.  The very proximity of the march makes parties shift into greater articulation of each other by using emblematic symbols that aid to differentiate between each group. To quote the symbolic construction of a community: ‘ethnic boundaries are maintained in each case by a limited set of cultural features.  The persistence of the unit then depends on the persistence of the cultural differentiae…’ which is signified through emblematic use.
What is essential to this photo-essay is Cohen’s argument of how people sustain their identity through public behaviour, or 'performative' behaviour which cannot be directly evaluated: first it must be interpreted with reference to the available ethnic alternatives.  Ethnic identities function as categories of inclusion/exclusion and of interaction. 
Boundary is synonymous with community in that it recognizes itself against others in relation to social groups.  Cohen notes that boundaries unlike community have a stigma attached.  If we see the event acting as a unifying community for a day and the boundaries of this community marked out by the police, the assignment of stigma becomes apparent.  However, in actuality, the event had an essential humanism and the public and press all commented on the absence of antagonisms.  This was a peaceful process. In the case of community there is a variability of the individual’s orientation towards the idea of community, so in order to constitute that understanding of identity it is necessary to adopt and manipulate symbols.  The reality and effectiveness of the community is kept alive through these symbolsThat there was tolerance for the diversity of symbols that were being expressed shows just how peacefull and humane this march was.
The agendas of each group or community within the march may have varied, however, the geo-spatial markers of the city of London unified the march and the collective reason signified peace.
In order to understand the symbolization of community boundaries, Cohen argues we should question the significance we might be inclined to attach to these symbolic forms and instead analyze the meanings they hold for the specific members.  This can be understood effectively, through fieldwork methods of which the photographs and essays are part of this complex way of understanding the whole.  We can look at the macro and the mirco parts, like adjusting the zoom with a camera lens. It depends on what you want to look at, what perspective you would like to take.  Both views are significant, but each will give you a different perspective.  By bringing these multiple views together it is possible to have a more holistic insight into the event and what it means it its larger socio-economic and political scope.
What became evident was that with adequate understanding of the location, locality and structure of event, a deeper understanding of the constituent parts arose.  Like Clifford Geertz illustrates, in the ‘Balinese Cockfight’ (1975) it is quite possible to describe to an audience the event, and then bring the deeper understanding as an interpretive form of analysis from that event so that we may learn from it.
NY Times Photographers' oral history here  
You can read more citizens' mini-stories of the March here:

  • Cohen, Anthony P. (1985) The Symbolic Construction of a Community. Tavistock, London
  • Banks, Marcus ‘The Narrative of Lived Experience, some Jains of India and England’  photographic essay Critique of Anthropology Volume 1X Autumn (1989)
  • Moors, Annelies and Steven Machlin ‘Postcards of Palestine’.  Critique of Anthropology 7 (2) (1987)
  • Zehr, Stephen ‘Photographs in student projects’.  Visual Sociology Review 5 (1) 26-7 (1990)
  • Hunter, Jefferson:  Image and word: The interaction of Twentieth-century Photographs and texts   Harvard University Press