Salma Yaqoob addresses the crowds at the Gaza meeting in Birmingham
Report by Mark Anthony France
RESPECT National Committee
On Sunday 18th January 2009, following the 5,000-strong Demonstration through the streets of Birmingham the day before, over 500 people packed into the Bordesley Centre Camp Hill for the ‘Justice for Palestine’ meeting organised by Birmingham RESPECT.
As the size of the audience grew so did the atmosphere of excitement. This felt like a confirmation that RESPECT was a real force to be reckoned with in Birmingham politics. The audience was reflective of the local community and included a much higher number of young people and in particular young women than Respect Public meetings held in 2008
Aisharr Mahmood and Mariam Khan speak about Gaza
Mark Holland, who has been active in the Birmingham Labour movement for three decades, chaired the meeting and first to speak were two young women who have played a key role in mobilising solidarity with the people of Gaza over the past 3 weeks. Miriam Khan and Aisharr Mahmood spoke of the success of their work in using Facebook groups as a method of connecting with and organising young people and they received cheers from the audience. Miram and Aisha talked of how children and young people all over the planet have been affected by the images of slaughter caused by Israeli weapons.
Former US marine and Guantanamo Bay guard Chris Arendt speaks on Palestine
Then Mark Holland introduced Chris Arendt a 24-year-old former Guantanamo Bay Prison Camp Guard who has been working with Moazzam Begg in a recent Caged Prisoners speaking tour. Chris talked about how impressed he is by the size and enthusiasm of the Palestinian Solidarity movement here in Birmingham he said “I am more used to speaking to small groups of concerned Christians and Liberals”.
Next up was the radical Anglican cleric Ray
Church minister Ray Gaston supports Gaza
Gaston who congratulated the audience for their hard work over the past three weeks in building the Boycott Israeli Goods campaign across the city. Ray explained how he was inspired to join RESPECT, he said “I was inspired by this woman [pointing to Salma Yaqoob] to join and to proudly stand as a candidate for RESPECT”. Ray went on to talk about the dangers of ‘Demo fatigue’ and noted that there was another national mobilisation called for London next weekend. Ray questioned whether now might be a better time to ‘think globally and act locally… to deepen the effectiveness of our campaign where we live’. Ray talked of the mobilisation tomorrow in nearby Lichfield against the factory that was manufacturing engines for the Israeli Drone aircraft used against the people of Gaza.
Ray was followed by Councillor Mohammed Ishtiaq who talked about the successes of RESPECT leading the way on Solidarity with Palestine in the Council Chamber using the clear moral arguments to bring New Labour, Lib Dem and Tory Councillors on Board with the Boycott Israel campaign. Cllr Ishtiaq talked about how many of these forces have now back tracked he said “Lip Service is no good….we need action in practice”, to growing applause Cllr Ishtiaq stressed that “the Boycott should start in our own homes”
At this point in the meeting George Galloway arrived and to rapturous applause joined Mohammed Ishtiaq on stage.
Kevin Ovenden [George Galloway’s Political Assistant and RESPECT National Committee Member] also joined the platform and after bringing greetings from the RESPECT activists of London’s East End spoke in some depth on the origins of the Zionism and its connection to the imperialist system that developed in 19th century Europe. When Kevin talked of the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 15th Century and described how they were given refuge by the Islamic peoples of the Levant and Mahgreb he reiterated that the “slurs against us that we are Anti Semetic…anti Jewish have no foundation…and have never had foundation… to stand up to the Israeli State is not to be Anti-Jewish”.
Salma Yaqoob on Gaza
When Councillor Salma Yaqoob took the microphone it was to prolonged and warm applause. She said “I haven’t come here to inspire….. I have come here to be inspired by you!” and the applause started again. At some points in Salma’s heartfelt speech individuals in the audience began to cry at other points there was smiles and laughter. She talked of the energy she gained from the mass mobilisations of ordinary working class Brummies. She explained why she put so much effort into attempting to construct the broadest political coalition to give practical support to the Palestinian people. Salma said she “didn’t regret arguing till midnight with councillors from other political parties to finally win agreement on the Boycott Israel Campaign”.
Salma began to say how proud she was of the role of the RESPECT Councillors and members in piling on the moral pressure. At this point the meeting exploded in spontaneous chanting of ‘FREE, FREE PALESTINE! FREE, FREE PALESTINE!’ Evoking the spirit of 3 weeks of mass action…Others began to chant “SALMA IS OUR MP!”
There was a standing ovation for Salma before George Galloway RESPECT MP for Bethnal Green and Bow took the microphone.
George Galloway encouraged support for the Gaza Aid convoy
George spoke of the double standards and hypocrisy of the media focusing on the failure of the media to describe Hamas as ‘the Democratically Elected Government of Gaza’ and spoke of his disgust at the news earlier in the day that Brown is sending the British Navy ‘not to bring aid to Gaza but to tighten the siege’ to ‘prevent Hamas from getting weapons’… George said ‘What is wrong with the Palestinians having weapons to defend themselves from Israeli state aggression?’… ‘The Palestinian people need arms to defend themselves’. Towards the end of his speech George talk of the plans to establish a Convoy…. A Convoy of Aid to travel from Scotland through all the major population centres of the UK across to the continent …. through France, Spain across to Morocco and through all of North Africa to Egypt.
George said … ‘…and when we get to Rafah, if the Egyptian government will not let us through we will smash our way through!” Our aid to Gaza will get through!
After a second standing ovation the meeting began to disperse. Hundreds of people had signed contact sheets to become more involved with RESPECT’s work, Hundreds of pounds were collected for RESPECT and over 100 copies of ‘the RESPECT Paper were sold.
The end of this meeting marked the consolidation of the mass base in the working class that RESPECT activists in Birmingham have been building over the past year. This mass base has been tested through 3 weeks of intensive internationalist struggle, fighting for Justice for the Palestinians.
Birmingham RESPECT is in a powerful position to turn this mass base into a electoral breakthrough with the election of Salma Yaqoob as the MP for Hall Green in the next General Election.
Images: Mark Anthony France