|ISSUE 54 SPRING 2007
- oppressed and vilified
Lucy Beck reflects on the heady days when the PPU and pacifists stood almost alone in their opposition to the Falklands war
Twenty-five years ago the Falklands war brought some of the new generation of PPU members up against their first experience of Britain at war. For the then youngish PPU staff this was new too (we are a lot older and wiser now and used to Britain being permanently at war!). My recollections of that strange period are of the shock of the war actually happening, after the long voyage of the Task Force to the Falklands during which we all hoped that peace negotiations would succeed. It then became a very intense and short period of peace activity in which Bill Hetherington, then PPU Chair, camped out in the office (and some say, never left!) lobbying prominent politicians, church leaders and other public figures here and in Argentina, Jan Melichar was constantly updating the PPU leaflets, the PPU printing machine seemed to be permanently churning them out (thank you, Alena), and PPU members were going out and getting themselves arrested in ways which have become commonplace since but for the PPU then were new. We were ‘fortunate’ to be in the middle of the fairly successful Campaign against Militarism. Vigils against the war were held all over the country. I have to confess that my role, in addition to work in the office, was confined to buying bread and cheese every day to feed the hordes of staff and volunteers! But I do remember the hatred in the eyes of the police when we were marching against the war, which I haven’t seen since. The war polarised opinion very sharply and the peace people were few and hated as traitors. Even Argentinian pacifists felt unable to sign a joint statement with their counterparts in Britain.
In London there was an active London Peace Action group which was involved in a number of lively demonstrations against the war. Charles Davey described the day it began: Saturday 1 May: ‘The telephone rings. The British air force has just bombed Port Stanley airstrip for the first time. It’s the first major attack on the Falklands. I hastily telephone my own part of an improvised telephone tree and pass the message on that we meet at the PPU at noon….By 1.00 there were enough there to start the meeting. By 4.30 five of us had been arrested and our support group is putting out a press release. By 9.00 we are all back at the PPU, a court case to come.’ They were part of the PPU’s Day of Protest and Resistance called countrywide for May l. They held a silent vigil on the steps of the MoD and spilt symbolic fake blood. Jan Melichar asked at the time ‘What will the politicians and the military be charged with for spilling real blood as symbols of their power?’
Annie Bebington looks back today and remembers the women in London Peace Action ‘who placed little bouquets of flowers on the steps of the Ministry of Defence, each with a note tied to it deploring what was happening in the Falklands and calling for an end to hostilities. However, one of the doormen took umbrage and started to trample on the flowers.’ Cat Lorigan described this in the Pacifist at the time: ‘It was a beautiful sight – the steps of the Ministry of ‘Defence’ covered in flowers, but the notes attached to them were something of a surprise to curious civil servants, ‘Violence ends where love begins, ‘Get well soon, your faulty vision is costing lives’, ‘Give peace a chance’. We came together because we felt, as women, that we had something positive to say about peace, that we could show that there is a real alternative to violence and aggression. We came away feeling happy that the sense of this did come across, that the atmosphere we created was one of calm and of strength, rather than of provocation or aggression.’ Little did they know then that the only Falkland Islanders to die during this war would be three women, and that they would be killed by the British.
Annie also remembers the ‘Tube theatre’: ‘We obtained two fancy dress bowler hats with Union Jack headbands for the British, and two sweatbands with the Argentinian colours for the Argentinians, and two balsa wood airplanes. Six members took part and took it in turns to be ‘British’, ‘Argentinian’ or handing out leaflets on the London Underground one Friday evening. .. We gathered by the double doors, two wearing the bowlers and two more the sweatbands. We threw the planes at each other, the ‘British’ calling out ‘The Falklands are British!’ and the ‘Argentinians’ calling back ‘Malvinas por los Argentinas!’. Meanwhile the other two were going through the carriage handing out leaflets. Most of the reaction was positive (apart from those who were a bit drunk!).”
At the national demonstration on May 23, London Peace Action intended to carry the PPU’s coffin (first made for the time of the Nigeria/Biafra civil war), to represent, as Alastair Rae described it, ‘a truth of warfare: war means killing people and Death is the only victor….A simple piece of street theatre used hundreds of times by many different campaigning groups in peace time suddenly takes on a new significance once the war machine is off doing its job for real. The police declared the carrying of a coffin to be insulting and that it might upset people….As the march moved off the police moved in to seize the coffin and to break up the LPA contingent (who were wearing black cloaks and masks). Two members of the group were arrested while resisting police attempts to steal the coffin.’ At Trafalgar Square later on, four more members of LPA were arrested: ‘They were attempting to represent another truth of war, that it is states that cause war, not individuals.’ They tore up home-made British and Argentinian flags and were charged with insulting behaviour. London Greenpeace set up an Anti-Falklands War Support Network to report on and support many arrested at that time around the country. In Portsmouth, even putting up the PPU’s Resist the Falklands Madness poster was risky – one member had his window broken. His response was to ask for 50 more posters which the whole street agreed to display.
We couldn’t know then that 25 years later, veterans of the Falklands war, both British and Argentinian, would still be killing themselves. Nor could we know that the issue of the sovereignty of the Falkland Islands would remain to be settled. We probably could have anticipated that the British state would be commemorating the war with ceremonies here and in the Falkland Islands and with all due pomp and circumstance.
More information about the Falklands war and related issues at www.ppu.org.uk/falklands