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Sign the Pledge of Resistance against an attack on Iraq
 
 

Naming The Dead - A Serious Crime

A book by Maya Anne Evans (and Milan Rai)

Chapter 1: Arrested - 25 October 2005

A third of the way down Whitehall, Mil suddenly emerges from the crowd ahead of us, looks me in the eye, and says calmly: ‘The police came over and spoke to me just now. We will definitely be arrested if we go ahead. They said it is “zero tolerance”.’ I’m shocked. I’ve been hoping we won’t be arrested. Until now, I thought it was a 60 per cent chance that we’d be arrested—just for reading the names of people who’d died in the Iraq War.

The tourists pass around us on the pavement, wandering down from Trafalgar Square towards the Houses of Parliament.

Mil asks: ‘Do you really want to do this? You can change your mind right now.’ For a moment, it flashes through my mind that I can wriggle out of this, I don’t have to go through with it. I’ve never been arrested before (I was detained once for a few hours in Belgium). I hate personal confrontations of any kind, and the idea of a face-to-face conflict with the ultimate authority figure, a police officer, is really uncomfortable. Do I really want to be arrested and prosecuted, and end up with a criminal record, and with a £1,000 fine? For half a second, I don’t want to go any further.

I haven’t been entirely focused until now. We’d met earlier on the steps of St Martin-in-the-Fields, on the corner of Trafalgar Square. It was overcast and there was a light drizzle. I’d arrived late, feeling flustered, and anxious about the possibility of being arrested. My friend Adesina, who I’ve known from school, had come along to support me. After we turned up, Mil had gone on ahead to meet our friend Cedric Knight, one of our legal observers. After handing over my phone and other personal items to Gabriel Carlyle, another observer, I’d gone looking for Mil, carrying our large cardboard signs, still very worried.

After that flash of doubt and fear, I felt myself becoming hyper-aware. Everything was brighter and louder. I was suddenly very calm. I said to Mil, and to myself, ‘I’m ready to do this’. I could feel myself putting on this façade of being a confident, strong person who knew what she was doing. I had to put my weaknesses and my personal feelings away. There was something important I had to do, and I needed to be very focused.

I’d mentally prepared myself for this the day before, and, after that half-second of wanting to run away, I felt ready for everything that was about to happen. It was very important to me to carry out this remembrance ceremony, and to remind people about the tragedy of the war in Iraq, and all the people who have died there.

Our protest was part of an international ceremony of remembrance we’d helped to initiate, called ‘100,000 Rings for the people of Iraq’. We were helping to mark the first anniversary of the publication of a landmark paper in The Lancet, the world’s most respected medical journal. This was explained on the four-foot-high cardboard signs we were carrying towards Downing Street. One said:

‘100,000 Rings for Iraq. A year ago, a study in the medical journal The Lancet estimated that 100,000 Iraqis had died of war-related causes since the invasion of Iraq.’

The other said:

‘Remembering the 100,000 Iraqis and 96 British soldiers who have died in this war. An international ceremony of remembrance and resistance.’

(Unfortunately, a British soldier had died since the sign had been made a few days earlier, making it incorrect.) Our event was one of dozens being held around the US and Western Europe. The US group Voices for Creative Non-Violence (VCNV) aimed to inspire 100 communities to each ring a bell 1,000 times, to mark the death toll estimated by the Lancet team. VNCV had asked ‘Justice Not Vengeance’ (JNV), the small British peace group Mil and I co-ordinate, to be co-initiators of 100,000 Rings.

Mil (Milan Rai) and I decided to carry out our 1,000 minute ceremony in four parts. During each part, we would ring a bell once a minute. After each ring we would read the name of an Iraqi civilian who had died during the invasion or occupation, and the name of a British soldier who had died in the war. The first ceremony was held in Brighton in a peace park, and the second ceremony was held in North London, at the military base in Northwood, Herts. In Brighton, we’d been on our own. At Northwood, we’d been joined by two Muslim friends: Sonia, the convenor of ‘Children Against War’, and her mother Saeeda.

I don’t remember actually walking down the rest of Whitehall. I just remember getting to the crowd barriers and attaching our cardboard signs, facing Downing Street. The white Cenotaph, which remembers all the British soldiers who have died in war, was to our left. To our right was the new black memorial to the Women of World War II. Behind us was the Ministry of Defence, and directly in front of us were the gates of Downing Street. I’d given my Tibetan bell to Adesina for safekeeping, as we thought we wouldn’t get a chance to use it, and we didn’t want it to be confiscated by the police for nothing. We were just going to read the names of the dead.

I took the list of British soldiers, while Mil took the much longer list of Iraqi civilians who had died in the conflict. As we got ready to read the names, the police spilled across the road. I was approached by a stocky, grim police officer who I now know to be Police Constable Paul McInally. He was unsympathetic. Mil and I were warned that we were breaching the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act by holding an unauthorized demonstration. We were each given a map of the ‘restricted area’ around Parliament where unauthorized demonstrations are not permitted. Mil asked them whether they were aware that 100,000 people had died in Iraq because of the war. The police gave us five minutes to leave.

I said very little to the police. I concentrated on reading out the names of the British dead. I read each soldier’s name, his rank, and his age. Meanwhile, Mil was reading out the names of Iraqi civilians who’ve died violently as a result of the invasion and occupation.

Whenever you read out the list of names, a shiver goes through you, and you feel sad for the people who’ve died. You feel so sad that they have lost their lives in such an unnecessary war. The list of Iraqi civilian names was published by Iraq Body Count, which keeps track of all reported violent deaths in Iraq. Their list contains information about people’s occupations, where they died, and the manner of their death. Previously, we’d confronted all this heart-breaking information for four hours at a time. I’d felt close to the people whose passing we were acknowledging.

Somehow, now, reading the names in the presence of the police made the whole experience much more intense. And I felt almost as if the police were being affected by the reading more than I was. I had to be disciplined and focused, and to remain polite and calm at all times. How I behaved would reflect on our ceremony.

While we were reading the names, and waiting for the police to arrest us, I saw my friend Adesina directly outside Downing Street, pointing a video camera towards us. She was approached by, and then surrounded by, a group of police officers. I felt really bad because I had asked her to video our event, and now it had led to her being harassed by the police. I could see from her hand gestures and body language that it was quite a difficult experience for her, and I felt really torn. Then I saw them starting to search her bag—under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, I later discovered. Part of me wanted to dash across the road to support her. The other part of me realized that I’d probably just make her problems even worse.

Despite the fact that we knew we were about to be arrested at any moment, I was more concerned about Adesina than about myself. I’d had time to prepare myself mentally for the experience, and I knew what the process ahead was like. Adesina hadn’t had any preparation at all, and she didn’t have any idea what could happen to her.

Slowly, however, the situation seemed to calm down.

I still felt angry and powerless. Our friend Cedric, who is a tall blond Englishman, was also taking pictures—on our side of the road—and he wasn’t being harassed at all. A professional photographer, Molly Cooper, had arrived and she was also being allowed to photograph us freely. I felt as though the police were going for the easy target, a lone African Muslim woman wearing a headscarf.

Finally, after a quarter of an hour, the police arrested us. Mil was the first to be led into an unmarked police van. I should explain that at this point Mil’s arrest seemed to everyone involved much more serious than mine. I was just another person being arrested for ‘participating’ in an unauthorized demonstration under the Serious Organized Crime and Police Act (SOCPA). People had been getting arrested for this since 1 August 2005, when SOCPA came into force. But Mil was the first person to be arrested for ‘organizing’ an unauthorized demonstration. He had notified the police about our demonstration, but he’d refused to ask for permission to hold it. He therefore faced a much higher maximum penalty than me, possibly months in prison.

So on 25 October, it was Mil’s arrest which we all thought might possibly get some media attention. That’s why, for example, the short video made of our arrest by Rikki, an Indymedia activist, focuses almost entirely on Mil.

When I decided to take part in the demonstration and risk arrest, no one—least of all me—imagined that the end result could be mainstream media attention. I thought it was possible I might be interviewed once or maybe twice as a result, perhaps for the Hastings Observer. I thought maybe Peace News would feature it. (Peace News did cover the story—I wrote the article!)

From what I’d seen, most of the time when people carry out nonviolent civil disobedience, it isn’t reported at all in the national newspapers. If it is mentioned, it’s a small item in the ‘news in brief’ column buried inside the paper. That suited me fine. It may seem funny now, with the way things turned out, but I didn’t want the pressure of being in the spotlight. I hate public speaking. Even now, after all media work I’ve done in the last year, I avoid public speaking. The other day I was invited to speak at a public meeting alongside an MP, in a hall that seats 100 people. I felt physically sick at the prospect.

When I was arrested by PC McInally, I still felt strangely calm and focused. I know that being arrested for the first time can be an emotional experience for a lot of people, but after all the preparation I’d been through, and my moment of clarity earlier, it all just felt like a very natural progression. The most important thing was that I just could not believe that what we were doing was wrong.

I didn’t see how reading the names of the dead without the permission of the police could be wrong—morally or legally. I did feel resentful towards the authorities for making a law that meant we could be arrested for carrying out a peaceful protest of remembering the dead, and I felt more resentful towards the police officers for allowing themselves to go along with this law, but overall I felt calm.

As we pulled away from the curb, I saw Adesina leaving the scene, probably on her way to the V&A Museum. I could relax about her, but what about myself? How would I cope with being in the hands of the police?