November 15, 2011
"This is Not the Time for Your Opinion"
by MICHAEL DICKINSON
Last Thursday, carrying a coffee back to my tent in Parliament Square in London after my morning visit to the public toilets in Green Park for ablutions, I noticed a line of metal fences along the pavement around Westminster Abbey, and a large crowd of mostly aged people in various kinds of military attire congregating in the grounds where thousands of small wooden crosses bearing names and red paper poppies had been planted in the mown lawn, a Field of Remembrance to commemorate those who died fighting in wars for their country. I learned from one of the numerous luminous-lemon-jacketed policemen that the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, was about to arrive to lay a cross of his own. Deciding to wait among the smallish crowd of mostly curious camera-weilding tourists to witness the event, I noticed a strange curved shape among the plywood Poppy Factory crosses a young Chinese woman was selling from a tray at the gate, and she showed it to me. It was in the shape of a Muslim crescent, minus poppy. She also showed me other shapes – one in a Jewish star, one like an hourglass for Sikhs, and one like a lollipop stick for ‘No Faith’.
Police started to move people away from the Abbey so I went over the road to Parliament Square where I got a good view of the arrival of the Duke in his insignia-crested Rolls and his greeting of the clerics and dignitaries. Then it was the two minute silence to remember the war dead. Traffic came to a halt and the air was pregnant with silence. Suddenly a trembling indignation came over me. I felt that silence was an inappropriate way to commemorate those gassed, maimed, crippled, killed, and driven mad by armed conflict, both in the past and today. Instead I felt like shouting “No More War!” at the top of my voice. But I didn’t. I was afraid that I might swiftly find myself in police custody on a charge of ‘breach of the peace’. The silence ended, the chatting began again and the traffic resumed its incessant roar. I had missed my chance. Disappointed at my funk, I went back to my tent and finished my coffee in a pensive mood. I still had another chance. The official Day of Armistice was on the morrow, the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 2011, and the 2 minute silence would begin at 11am at the Cenotaph in Whitehall.
Next morning as the hour approached I walked along the Victoria Embankment next to the Thames, and came into Whitehall from the direction of Trafalgar Square. I couldn’t have cut it finer. There was quite a crowd standing to attention around the cenotaph memorial and the last post was being sounded by a bugler prior to Big Ben’s striking of the eleventh hour signalling the beginning of the 2 minute silence. I got as near as I could and stopped about twenty yards from a quartet of lemon jacketed policemen. One of them stared at me intently as though he knew I was going to do something. Looking behind me I saw a group of uniformed soldiers standing to attention. Running away would be useless. I decided to play it cool. The bell gonged eleven times and the silence began. I counted ten slowly and then opened my mouth and shouted at the top of my voice in the direction of the cenotaph.
“NO MORE WAR!”
Several heads in the crowd turned. I shouted again.
“NO MORE WAR!”
I wanted to say it three times, but I was suddenly approached swiftly by the policemen.
“You are entitled to your opinion,” said one, “But this is not the time or place.”
I turned and walked away past the soldiers and up towards Trafalgar Square, free, feeling quite proud of myself. No newspaper reported the incident.
On Sunday morning I was awoken by a dog sniffing outside my tent. I looked out and found it was on a lead held by a young policewoman who explained that they were doing a security check in the area before the Remembrance Day Ceremony at the Cenotaph in Whitehall. Another one? But this was the special one, to be attended by Her Majesty and the Royal Family, the Prime Minister and Military Dignities. I thanked her for the information and she went on her way with the sniffing white labrador (named Sunny). “So,” I asked myself, as I sat on the kerb of the fenced-off lawn watching the crowds in civilian and army dress arriving for the ceremony, all with poppies pinned to their breasts, while a policeman crawled inside my tent and rummaged for bombs, “Are you going to do the shout again?” Definitely! (I had just been reading about the sale of arms to Israel by UK warmongerers.) And this time I would do shout three times. But where? There was a lot of people around. I’d be safe doing it in St James’ Park but felt the sound not might reach the cenotaph. I went for a walk along the Embankment parallel to Whitehall but there were too many police vans parked along it. I decided to go back to Parliament Square.
Big Ben was just striking when I reached my tent. People were already standing to attention in the traffickless street. The last gong sounded. I counted slowly up to ten and then raised my hands to the sides of my mouth and cupped them.
“NO MORE WAR!” I bellowed three times, with a brief pause in between. Then I crawled into my tent and lay down. It was dead quiet for a while, and then a policewoman peered into the opening. She said there had been a complaint, and could I explain my action. I said that I had been speaking for those killed in armed conflict, and that God had told me to do it. Another couple of policemen arrived and they told me to come out. I did so and was tightly handcuffed behind my back and escorted across the road into the grounds of the Houses of Parliament where we waited for thirty minutes behind the black bars of the gate for a police van to arrive. A passing politician coming in from the ceremony glared at me and snorted “Disrespect for the dead!”
“It wasn’t disrespect!” I replied indignantly, unheeded.
The van arrived and I was bundled into the little cell cage at the back. The two plastic seats had recently been washed and were still wet, and I perched precariously on the edge of one as we wheeled through the streets across town to Marylebone Police Station. There the handcuffs were removed and I was also relieved of my shoes and trousers (both having strings for tying which could be used for hanging myself). Instead they gave me a pair of long johns and canvas slip-on shoes to wear, and after having the inside of my mouth swabbed for a DNA sample, my fingerprints and mugshots taken, I was shown to a cell. A policewoman gave me a cup of tea and a chicken supreme and rice packed lunch that she had heated in a microwave oven. After I’d eaten I lay and waited for the arrival of a lawyer from Biden’s Solicitors, who help people arrested in political demonstrations.
When she arrived we talked in the room before the taped interview to be conducted by detectives. She advised me to say “No Comment” to most questions when asked, but I found this difficult and generally replied honestly and straightforwardly to what was put. The officers said that I might be charged with a Public Order crime or for demonstrating without permission. They withdrew for discussion and I was returned to my cell. When they let me out an hour or so later I was informed that I was being charged with ‘use of threatening, abusive or insulting words/disorderly within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby CONTRARY TO SECTION 5 (1) AND (6) OF THE PUBLIC ORDER ACT 1986.
I am due to appear in Westminster Magistrates Court at 181 Marylebone Road on 23rd of November at 10 am. In the meantime, on condition of bail I must sign in every day at a police station in Charing Cross in case I fail to surrender to custody. However, I have decided to attend the hearing on the prescribed day and I will stick to the answer I gave the police when they read me the charge. “In my opinion I was not threatening, abusive or insulting.”
It is we, the people, who are under threat from the military machine.
“NO MORE WAR!”