Terror coiled around me as I lay next to my friends on the steps of Birmingham’s Victoria Square. It was crushing my chest, making my breathing swift and shallow. The angry white men on the other side of the line of police had been yelling at us for well over an hour, and had just started spitting.
The youngest member of our little group, Cassie, lay next to me. She was eighteen, and habitually wore swirls of black makeup under her eyes. I could only see half of her – she was splayed out, her limbs appearing broken and twisted. An A4 sheet of paper was taped to her chest. On the paper was a printed picture of a casualty of war. A similar picture was attached to my chest.
On my other side was Sefu, a tall man with a kind face and short, clipped hair. If my memory served, his Marilyn Manson t-shirt was currently being masked by a picture of an Iraqi hospital that one of our bombs had flattened.
Just beyond Sefu were Liam and Gus, who were the closest to the police line separating us from the angry white men. My friends’ proximity to a mob of people who hated us was only amplifying my terror.
In a die-in, protestors lie down in a public place and pretend to be dead. The idea is the general public don’t really understand how devastating wars are so we show them. Extra points are awarded if a die-in takes place in a major intersection so we cause traffic to grind to a halt. But we weren’t doing that today. We’d chosen Victoria Square because Birmingham’s town hall and council house looked out over it.
“Traitors!” cried the angry white men. “Saboteurs!”
The cops were playing games with us, hoping we’d give up and go home. Every once in a while, they would come up to one of us and carry us away from the square. They’d say they were arresting us, move us past the line of police separating us from the general public and then release us back into the wild. They called this ‘de-arresting’, which I hadn’t known was a thing the police could do. They kept dragging us away from our protest and we kept finding ways to break back through the cop line, back to the steps of Victoria Square.
“Saboteurs!” the angry men yelled again, before someone in their midst with a megaphone managed to organise them into a more complex chant.
“You lost! Get over it!” they screamed. “You lost! Get over it!”
This seemed to energise the zealots at the front of the line who increased their efforts to get at us. The cops were pushed back a few metres, nearly treading on Gus in the process. This seemed to give a couple of men an idea, and they concentrated on spitting on my friends. The spittle rained down on Gus, and some splashed onto Liam. Gus opened his eyes and locked his gaze on to Liam.
I didn’t see exactly what happened. All I saw was a furious man in a St George’s flag shirt spit at Liam. With a roar, Gus leaped to his feet and swung a punch at the flag-wearer. The flag-wearer went down, but two identical men took his place. Gus dropped another, but his mate struck back. Gus took the blow and didn’t seem to notice. The angry men surged forward, furious at Gus’s audacity. The cops suddenly didn’t know what to do. They were supposed to arrest Gus, but if they broke their line, the mob would attack the rest of us.
Liam scrambled to his feet and tried to pull Gus back, but his scrawny tattooed arms couldn’t do the job. Gus swung and swung at the line of identical furious men. He swung until Vince appeared from nowhere. Vince was smaller than Gus, but he placed himself in between Gus and the mob. I couldn’t hear anything over the shouts but I saw Vince’s mouth move in quick, precise movements.
I knew I should be up on my feet supporting Vince, talking Gus down, but the terror had wrapped itself around my legs and arms. I couldn’t move. I heard charging feet from the direction I wasn’t looking, and suddenly cops had launched themselves on Gus, Vince and Liam. Gus was seething, Liam was shouting “No blood for oil!” and Vince was holding his head high. He had just stopped a terrible situation from getting even worse.
“Do we make a last stand?” Sefu asked. “Or do we stay put?”
“What kind of question is that?” demanded Xia from just past where Cassie was lying. Xia was a tall woman with greying hair who had been arranging actions like this since the '70s. “The longer we stay here, the more people have to look at us and the more they have to think about what our country is doing. If we get ourselves arrested trying to free our friends, the authorities win and we lose.”
I’d been waiting for Xia to say that, all the while hoping she wouldn’t. My hands clenched and unclenched as I saw the cops dragging my three friends off with them. I wish actions like this were as effortless for me as they were for Xia.
“Phoebe!” My sister Mel called down to me. She was just up the steps from where I was lying, her voice calm and warm. The muscles in my jaw loosened. “Think about what they’d want. They’d want us to carry on.”
Mel was right, as always. Our parents had always insisted I defer to Melissa, but it was when she’d discovered her softer side and started calling herself ‘Mel’ that I found someone actually worth listening to.
I relaxed my hands. The stone beneath my back felt less cold. “Cassie,” I said, trying not to move my lips. “How are you doing?”
“I’m alright,” Cassie said, “but the last cop who arrested me told me that he was going to nick me properly if I tried this again.”
They’d told me the same thing. “You okay with that?”
Cassie rolled her eyes to look at me, although her face still stared serenely towards the sky. “Duh. Can anyone see Paula?”
“I made her promise she’d go home after the third time she got hauled out,” Sefu said, “so she climbed onto the statue of the Floozie in the Jacuzzi and started hanging a banner. You didn’t see that?”
A battle-hardened grin flashed onto Cassie’s face. “I think I was trying to break back through the cop line then.”
“You didn’t see it, Phoebe?” Sefu asked me.
I grunted a sort of ‘no’ noise. I was trying not to think about the cops or the mob of men who’d beat us to within an inch of our lives if they could get at us. As part of not thinking, I had been steadily working through an Evian bottle I’d filled with vodka and lemonade. I’d initially been using it to settle my nerves, and since it seemed to be working, I’d carried on.
“So there’s five of us left?” Sefu asked.
Xia grunted. “Five of us, along with three from Justice for Iraq, two from Stop the War, seventeen from Campaign Against the Arms Trade – well done them – and one unaligned.”
Cassie laughed. “That’s the nice lady from Games Workshop who I talked into coming yesterday when I went to pick up my orks.”
I saw Sefu blink. “You did what?”
“I know, I was surprised as well. But I put the action in her terms, right? I said, imagine the Space Marines wanted to go to war, but instead of going up against Chaos or someone, they decided to just bomb a load of Gretchin villages and destroy their squig farms.”
“And that persuaded her?” Sefu sounded confused.
“Hey, that’s the power of orks.”
“If you say so.”
“I do say so. You wouldn’t catch any of those smelly Tau players getting anyone to come along to an action like this.”
“Smelly what players?” asked Sefu.
“Space Stalinists,” said Xia, “and I hate that I know that. You’ve broken me, Cassie. You’re supposed to treat your elders better than this and not fill their heads with the grim darkness of the far future.”
I smiled at this. Cassie was obsessed with a game that involved shoving orks and other painted models about on a table. She’d conned me into playing it a few times. It was fun enough, although it would have been nice to have some diplomacy mechanics.
A splash on my cheek indicated some ballistic spit had hit me. “Saboteurs! Saboteurs! Crush the saboteurs!” cried the mob past the cop line. I could hear Carling and bulldog tattoos in their chants. The mob was from Patriots Unite – a right wing group who we’d got a bit previous with.
Another splash on my cheek, then another. I’d been wrong. It wasn’t spit, it was rain. Well, maybe getting soaked would cool Patriots Unite off a bit. Rain wouldn’t bother us; we were just lying here.
The left side of my face had gone numb from pressing into the stone step. The rain was making the right side feel pleasantly damp. I was tingling, partly from vodka, partly from adrenaline caused by being this close to Patriots Unite and partly from feeling helpless.
Five days ago, my country had lost its senses. Five days ago, on the 24th of June 2003, the referendum result had been announced. 52% of the voting public had answered the question ‘Should the UK intervene in Iraq due to Saddam Hussein’s refusal to disarm?’ with a ‘yes’. 48% had answered ‘no’. The referendum question and its campaign had made it all sound painless and easy. Not a single mention of bombing villages, schools or hospitals.
We had been promised that the vote would be meaningful – the UK wouldn’t intervene if the public voted ‘no’ – but the Americans hadn’t wanted to wait. The US military had begun Operation Iraqi Freedom nearly two months before the vote, on the 2nd of April, bringing troops, armour and warplanes to Iraqi soil. As far as the ‘yes’ campaign – the pro-war campaign – was concerned, Saddam Hussein hadn’t been found and neither had the weapons of mass destruction. So the job wasn’t done, and we needed to wade in even deeper.
The big three political parties in the UK were all split. Only the smaller parties like the Greens and the SNP were able to maintain their coherence. The Labour Party was so split on the issue of war that it couldn’t risk a vote in the House of Commons. The referendum was simply a mechanism for the government to get what it wanted. It was never about taking it to the people. The ‘yes’ side was aided by an incompetent opposition and the press, who cared about helping their allies in the ‘yes’ camp, or staying doggedly neutral in the face of this looming catastrophe. This wasn’t how our democracy was supposed to work.
The only voices of reason were coming from groups like ours who could see through the lies, and we were being largely ignored by the media. Patriots Unite and their brother organisations, by contrast, were being interviewed on BBC News, Question Time and a dozen radio shows to proselytise about the benefits of war. We had to fight to get our voices heard every day, despite the majority opinion clearly being that needlessly killing people was a bad thing. Patriots Unite had friends in high places, so its voice was the one the nation heard.
I’d spent the day after the vote wandering in a state of shock around the farm where I lived. We’d all worked so hard… and this was the result.
“So, Xia,” Sefu said. “What do we want to do tomorrow?”
Xia put on an affected, scheming accent. “Same thing we do every night, Sefu. Try to take over the zeitgeist in order to counter the neo-liberal pro-war narrative.”
“Have you been watching cartoons with your grandkids, Xia?” Cassie asked.
“Never you mind what I’ve been watching with my grandkids. Anyway, I’m being optimistic. If we get arrested properly, theoretically they can hold us for 24 hours without charge. That might stop us doing an action tomorrow.”
The thought of another action tomorrow made me want to sink into the stone steps and die. I was so tired. I hadn’t slept properly in two weeks. I’d been suspended from work. My car was making a strange banging noise. There were probably other things I should be worrying about, but the world around me swirled subtly, and I found myself unable to focus.
“I was thinking we should take tomorrow off,” Sefu said. “We’ve been on overdrive since the run up to the referendum. The Stop the War campaign can manage without us for a day.”
Xia sighed. “The people of Iraq won’t get a day off when we invade.”
“That’s true, but we can’t help if we burn out.” This was true, very true. I wanted to back Sefu up but didn’t want to draw Xia’s scorn, “Look, I didn’t say anything during the referendum campaign – that was our raison d'être. We brought in Gus, Liam and Cassie so we could fight it. But we failed, and, I don’t know about you, but some of us are feeling ragged and lost and scared… and it’s not selfish to look after ourselves if it means we can campaign for longer as a result. It’s strategic. Cassie, back me up here. What would your ork warboss do?”
“Send wave after wave of her greenskins at the enemy until they ran out of bullets, then use whatever soldiers she had left to crush her foes into submission.”
“You ask a silly question,” Xia said.
I heard footsteps approaching, several pairs. The police had probably returned to collect us. I wanted to get up and run, but I didn’t want to let my friends down. The cops usually started by asking if we’d come with them quietly. With any luck they’d give up and not arrest us this time, not with Patriots Unite pushing ever closer.
Sefu shouted in pain. My head whipped round. One officer had her boot on Sefu’s head, and another was clawing at his arms, trying to get them behind his back. This officer had cuffs in his hands. They were serious this time. A third officer was closing in on Sefu as well.
This was absurd – we weren’t a threat. They knew that. They only needed two officers per protestor. The third officer grabbed one of Sefu’s arms as a fourth approached. This was bad. Four white cops surrounding a young black man was how ‘accidents’ happened.
I leaped to my feet and staggered shakily, as my left leg had gone to sleep after lying on the stone steps for so long. Sefu cried out again, and I hurtled to his side. I couldn’t push the cops off him – they had very liberal interpretations of assault – but I could try and draw some of them away from him. I got up in the face of the last cop to arrive and started yelling, “No blood for oil!” at the top of my lungs. It didn’t really apply to the situation, but my panic had fought through the fog of alcohol and had a neat little grip on my heart.
Thankfully, the shouts and spittle caused the cop to turn, and she grabbed me by the arm. She spun me round, and I felt another pair of hands grab my free arm and haul it behind me. I struggled as much as I could, but they locked my arms up good and tight. I felt the cuffs go on, just as Sefu was hauled up next to me. He looked annoyed but unharmed, which loosened the anxious knot in my chest a little. The cops led us away, along with a good cluster of the other protestors.
This time, we were not de-arrested. The last thing I saw as the doors of the police van closed was Cassie, who had made it into the crowd, just another citizen. She waved to Sefu and me, and made a gesture of solidarity.