A Tribute to Anti-War Campaigner Brian Haw, Driven by Revulsion at the Murder of Innocents

20.6.11

When I was a child, I read the Guinness Book of Records, and marvelled at the stories of the people who, in ancient times, removed themselves from everyday reality, like Saint Simeon Stylites, a Christian ascetic who lived on a tiny platform on top of a pillar in Aleppo, Syria for 37 years in the 5th century AD.

As I grew up, I continued to hear about people who had similarly removed themselves from the everyday world, and had come to be be regarded as prophets or as saints, appealing to those bound by the norms of everyday life — or in some cases vilified by them. However, they were always in countries that were not part of the so-called “first world,” where dissent is tolerated only so long as it is toothless, and the authorities have no patience for anyone who would occupy a public place in pursuit of a higher purpose.

Nevertheless, on June 2, 2001, Brian Haw, born in Barking, Essex, who was married with seven children, and, at the time, was 52 years old, took up residence opposite the Houses of Parliament, initially protesting about the British government’s involvement in the economic sanctions imposed on Iraq, which, he maintained, were responsible for the deaths of 200 Iraqi children per day.

After a long battle with lung cancer, Brian Haw died on Saturday June 18, but for ten years he maintained his protest, along the way becoming a hero for anyone not convinced that Britain, the US and other countries in the West should be engaged in perpetual war, in which hundreds of thousands of civilians have died.

At the time Brian Haw began his protest, no one knew that, within months, the 9/11 attacks would occur, a US-led invasion of Afghanistan would follow, and, in March 2003, the US — backed by the UK — would invade Iraq. As the death toll of innocents mounted, Brian’s presence began to be perceived by many as an important reflection of the conscience and dissent that was brushed aside by Prime Minister Tony Blair when he ignored the largest protest in British history — involving two million people — a month before the Iraq war began.

Brian was unwilling to talk about his past but he was evidently driven by his faith. His father, a sniper in the Reconnaissance Corps, was one of the first British soldiers to enter the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp after it was liberated from the Nazis at the end of the Second World War. Haunted by what he saw, he committed suicide 20 years later.

This must have left a profound impression on Brian, and, along with his deeply-held Christian faith, drove him, after spending time in the merchant navy, running a removals business and working as a carpenter, to seek out his purpose confronting the warmongering of the US and the UK, and pointing out the excruciating human cost of war. En route to his calling in Parliament Square, he had visited Northern Ireland and Cambodia (in connection with the horrors of war that had afflicted both countries) and had also worked with troubled youngsters in Redditch, where he lived with his family.

From Parliament Square, he explained that he had left his family to campaign for other families suffering in war zones around the world:

I want to go back to my own kids and look them in the face again, knowing that I’ve done all I can to try and save the children of Iraq and other countries who are dying because of my government’s unjust, amoral, fear- and money-driven policies. These children and people of other countries are every bit as valuable and worthy of love as my precious wife and children.

Despite drawing increasing support from the public, Brian was repeatedly targeted by the authorities, as his protest became more entrenched, filling the entire side of Parliament Square facing the Houses of Parliament with posters and banners opposing Britain and America’s role in the world as mass-murdering warmongers.

In April 2002 Westminster City Council started legal action under the Highways Act, claiming that Haw was a “nuisance.” That particular case never came to court, and the council also failed to establish that Brian’s placards represented “obstruction” and “unlawful advertising,” but by November 2004 the government became involved, when the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill was introduced. Aimed specifically at Brian, it removed the right to protest, without the permission of the police, within a half-mile radius of the Houses of Parliament, and also showed up the hypocrisy of prime Minister Tony Blair, who, in April 2002, had said, “When I pass protestors every day at Downing Street … I may not like what they call me, but I thank God they can. That’s called freedom.”

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act (SOCPA) was passed in April 2005, provoking widespread and creative dissent from numerous protestors, after two peace protestors, Maya Evans and Milan Rai, had been arrested for reading out, without prior permission, the names of British soldiers who had been killed in Iraq. However, the Act initially failed to restrict Brian’s presence at all, because the High Court ruled that the legislation didn’t apply to him because it dealt with authorising — or refusing to authorise — protests that had not yet taken place, rather than one that was already underway. Even in May 2006, when the Court of Appeal ruled that he would have to apply to the police for permission to continue his protest, that permission was granted.

There were conditions: the sprawling displays of the previous five years were restricted to an area just 10 feet wide, and on May 23, 2006, when Brian had failed to reduce the size of his display, the police launched a nighttime raid, seizing 90 percent of the placards and posters. Bizarrely, it was also claimed by MPs that he had failed to supervise the site of his demonstration with “diligence and care” to prevent terrorists from planting an explosive device.

In 2007, a judge found that there was no case to answer, and, that same year, Brian’s largely destroyed protest was painstakingly recreated in Tate Britain by the artist Mark Wallinger, who entitled his Turner Prize-winning exhibition, “State Britain” (with the judges praising it for its “immediacy, visceral intensity and historic importance” and for combining “a bold political statement with art’s ability to articulate fundamental human truths”). Brian also won a Channel 4 News Award for Most Inspiring Political Figure.

However, Brian’s successful attempts at rebuffing the authorities suffered another setback this year. With the Royal Wedding as an excuse, the Greater London Authority secured permission to evict him and his supporters from the centre of Parliament Square, where, coincidentally, a community of protestors had established themselves around the time of last year’s General Election. Later this year, Westminster Council hopes to bring the ten-year protest to an end by securing permission to remove Brian’s fellow demonstrators from the pavement opposite Parliament.

I hope they don’t succeed. Brian Haw’s resistance to the casual horrors of British and American imperialism — and the victims of the legal wars of choice of the 21st century — was as inspiring as the activities of the pillar-dwelling ascetics I read about in my youth. Brian’s chair stands empty tonight in Parliament Square, and if he is to be recognised in death as he was in life, then protestors will continue to exercise their free-born right to protest (if the wars and the deaths continue, as they will) and his chair will be immortalized and memorialized in Parliament Square, a reminder forever of the man who chose conscience over comfort, and, as a result, permanently showed up Britain’s political leaders — and those of the US — for what they are: essentially, cold-hearted killers and false Christians.

Below is footage of Brian winning the Channel 4 News Award for Most Inspiring Political Figure in 2007:

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg and YouTube). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in June 2011, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here — or here for the US), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

37 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    Oh no.
    I always assumed he’d eventually be vindicated to his face as a peaceful, ethical man of deep convictions that the UK would honour for his own sacrifices.
    He deserves a memorial stone or bench.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

    Harsha Prabhu wrote:

    An inspiring story!

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Reena Carnation wrote:

    Andy, I have tried many times to Digg this and other blogs I’ve liked. Every single time, there is an ‘error’. So let me just tell you what a beautiful tribute you wrote. Thank you. The comparison to the early Christian ascetics was perfect.

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Bernadette McDaniel wrote:

    Thank you so much for sharing Andy. This brought tears to my eyes. I have shared and we must never forget this amazing individual’s dream to stop the senseless murder of the innocents.

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, my friends, Reena, I’m glad you appreciated the comparison. I hope Brian would have, as well, as his faith was what drove him. And Bernadette, I’m glad that it moved you so much. I watched the video before I included it with the article and was very glad that I did, as it perfectly captured his passion and his compassion.

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Bernadette McDaniel wrote:

    I too have been unable to ‘digg it,’ but I have shared this story on my wall. I am truly inspired by this amazing individual. May he RIP.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Bernadette McDaniel wrote:

    Thanks again Andy. Living here in the States I had no idea what he was doing in London and his protests. I feel ashamed. He deserves the utmost recognition for his endeavors. Sadly he did not live to see the end to the mindless slaughter :(

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Reena Carnation wrote:

    What do people like Brian Haw have that the rest of us do not? I think it may be absolute will.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Bernadette McDaniel wrote:

    Courage and conviction Reena ♥

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Reena Carnation wrote:

    You and I have courage. We have conviction. But in a zillion years, I could not have done what he did. I think it is almost an act from another time, like a person running into battle, alone.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Bernadette McDaniel wrote:

    ‎:( Indeed.

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, my friends. Reena, that is a superb analogy: “I think it is almost an act from another time, like a person running into battle, alone.”

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Lidia Berger wrote:

    It was heroic

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Reena Carnation wrote:

    I think you said it first.

  15. A Tribute to Anti-War Campaigner Brian Haw, Driven by Revulsion at the Murder of Innocents by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    [...] Andy Worthington Featured Writer Dandelion Salad http://www.andyworthington.co.uk 19 June, 2011 Image via [...]

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Louise Gordon wrote:

    An eloquent tribute. Here is the late Gil Scott-Heron’s commentary on “the military and the monetary.” http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hPqpV9olIlw

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Willy Bach wrote:

    Andy, I will read your article, but a quick response to Brian Haw’s death, as you know I fortunately do not have to live in war-making Britain, but I did manage to meet Brian twice in Parliament Square gardens. I have photos too.

    1. that he tried to remind Members of Parliament that the decisions they took caused death and misery to millions of people (and it did not affect their consciences in the least – so obviously the British people have been electing callous psychopaths who never talk about the wars they started at election time) and

    2. the various authorities that hounded Brian to his death should get themselves checked out – do they actually believe in free expression? It does not appear so.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Allison Lee-Clay wrote:

    Bernadette: I believe that the film, (powerful & easily located online) “Taking Liberties”, has a great interview with him & I think Mark Thomas has him in a dialogue in an old Channel 4 MTCP [Mark Thomas Comedy Product] episode.

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Monique D’hooghe wrote:

    thank you andy…. great, thoughtful write up… we are going to miss him…

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks for the comments, my friends, and thanks also to the 250 people who have shared this so far.
    Willy, I just wanted to thanks you for raising the topic of the British public, and their inability to stop voting for psychopaths, as I believe that part of the necessary impetus for radical political change involves a clear recognition that the current system is bound to fail the people, because those who enter into it are corrupted, if not by the essentially unchallenged callousness of the State, then by their own tendency to be drawn into a world in which psychopaths (those unable to empathize) are those who succeed.
    I also agree re: the hounding of Brian to death, which was definitely a part of the story — although Brian’s drive, and that harsh life outdoors for nearly ten years, and of course the cigarettes also contributed significantly. However, the point you’re making, about how the State hounded him, is thoroughly accurate, and an indictment of the real mindset of a State that claims to believe in freedom of expression, but endlessly opposes it, openly or behind the scenes, in reality.
    I only met Brian once, but it was clear that he was honest in a way that almost all of those across the road from him are not. The whole story of the SOCPA legislation is one of a paranoid PM (Blair) and a quiescent Parliament, prepared to sacrifice the right to protest spontaneously where it counts — outside Parliament — when their warmongering master clicked his fingers.
    Louise, thanks for the Gil Scott-Heron link (another who passed away this year who will be sadly missed — I managed to get to see him at WOMAD here in the UK last summer, and his voice rang out not only with the pain of the world, but also the personal pain that he had experienced).
    And Allison, yes, thanks for the mention of the excellent Mark Thomas (whose absence from TV these days is part of the sanitization of British TV in general, with very little hard politics allowed at all) and the mention of “Taking Liberties,” available here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pXq5F8Dus-c

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Shepard wrote:

    Shared, Andy. Thank you, once again.

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    And thank you, Mary.

  23. Sulaiman says...

    he is so heroic – i think you guys only know half the story. i remember watching on the news some years ago that this guy, he was so dedicated to his protesting and standing up against tyranny, that his wife threatened to divorce him (i think because he wouldn’t see them that often). but that didn’t stop his sense of justice and he continued to do so and then a judge did grant a divorce – i think i remember him saying that a soldier goes to war sometimes for long periods, and that he is a soldier away from his family standing up for innocent people – but his wife didn’t seem to understand that… God bless his soul.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    John Niems wrote:

    Shared as well Andy! People like Brian are why I don’t stop talking TRUTH 24/7! I know as much as I can do then there are people out there doing much more! That is why my music is always about TRUTH now! THANK YOU BRIAN HAW for all that you did for all of us!

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Alice Mennie wrote:

    brian is in heaven

  26. Andy Worthington says...

    Sumayyah Abdul Al Sabuur wrote:

    wow such a loss

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Thank you, Sulaiman, John, Alice and Sumayyah. It has been impressive to read all the reflections about Brian, from people who knew him or were inspired by him, or from people who have just heard about him now, and have found themselves moved by his story.

  28. Gordon Watson says...

    A truly inspiring man who, despite all, managed to keep his message alive and in the public eye.

  29. thelonius bostik says...

    thanks for your insightful article. here is a shorter piece (also written in responses to the sad news of Brian Haw’s death) that looks at some of Parliament Square’s questionable symbology:
    Models From The Earth

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Gordon and Thelonius. An interesting post, Thelonius, and some worthy questions. I particularly liked the mention of Brian breaking off an interview to shout, “Unclean!” at Tony Blair as he passed by in a limo. Very apt.

  31. Andy Worthington says...

    Esther Angel wrote:

    Dugg and shared, thank you so much for this superb tribute to a truly inspirational man.
    His death saddens me as much as that of Joe Strummer did years ago, and of course also Gil Scott-Heron. Although he wasn’t as well known, he is a true hero for what he did. I met him once briefly on the Northern Line when he was on the way to either a hospital appointment or court. I wish I had had a proper chance to chat to him.
    He will be hugely missed.
    http://www.brianhaw.tv/index.php

  32. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, Esther. I’ve been thinking about him and talking about him all day. I hope someone’s watching out for his place in Parliament Square. It really should be marked with some sort of permanent monument from the people, to remind Parliament of Brian’s sacrifice, and why he did it.

  33. Andy Worthington says...

    Esther Angel wrote:

    Off to the London CAAT meeting tomorrow, where I want to suggest to do a “Die In” on Parliament Square in his honour. We will need permission, but considering they have given Mark Thomas permission for an IRA demo, I think we should get that.
    Up for any other way to honour his memory and protest.

  34. Andy Worthington says...

    Feel free to let me know what happens, Esther.

  35. A tribute to anti-war campaigner Brian Haw, driven by revulsion at the murder of innocents — War in Context says...

    [...] Andy Worthington writes: When I was a child, I read the Guinness Book of Records, and marvelled at the stories of the people who, in ancient times, removed themselves from everyday reality, like Saint Simeon Stylites, a Christian ascetic who lived on a tiny platform on top of a pillar in Aleppo, Syria for 37 years in the 5th century AD. [...]

  36. Andy Worthington says...

    Gaian Aware wrote:

    shared

  37. Brian Haw: memorial bench unveiled | 4WardEver Campaign UK says...

    […] A tribute to anti-war campaigner Brian Haw, driven by revulsion at the murder of innocents 20 June 2011 […]

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