WHEN Brian Haw sat in his old canvas chair in front of his banner-hung tent in Parliament Square, people kept coming by. Tourists with their cameras. Teenagers drinking beer. Commuters on their way to work. Taxis, vans, bicycles. Bloody big black cars with lying politicians in them. Buses with passengers all on their phones or buried in their papers. Drivers who wound down the car window, not stopping, and shouted “Get a job!”
Wasn’t that nice. But he had a job. He had it for ten years in sun, rain, sleet, snow. Never left the square. And his job was this. Get the people to wake up. Get them to realise that the USA and the UK were killing babies. Hundreds were dying every day in this place called Iraq and this place called Afghanistan. He had their photographs on his wall of shame. Bloated, pathetic, missing limbs. Sanctions were killing them. Sanctions and bombs. And especially, check out depleted uranium munitions. That poison was everywhere, in the air, in the water, even between the grains of sand. There wasn’t a Hoover in the world big enough to suck up all that shit. And everyone was responsible. Everyone. Raping and pillaging and murdering the world. Just to get that stuff called oil. FOOD YES, BOMBS NO, his banners said. COLAT DAMAGE, NO. A GENOCIDE TOO FAR. STOP KILLING MY KIDS.
People from the whole wide world filmed him on a regular basis. They liked to photograph his old corduroy hat—more badges than hat—which said THE WAR IS THE ENEMY OF THE POOR and SUPPORT US TROOPS—BRING EM HOME! They asked him how he slept. (Badly. How would you sleep if 200 babies were dying every day?) They fussed over how he ate. (Mostly chips people brought him and coffee with five sugars. He was lean as a twig. But you know what? People in Calcutta would think he was a king to have so much pavement to live on.) They asked about the mice. They had nested in his sheepskin coat once. He was far more worried about the rats across the road.
When he talked, he sounded tired. He was. Tired of the bollocks. Tired of people not taking responsibility for their inhumaneness to their fellow man. He probably smoked too much, too. Breathed in too much exhaust. Between sentences he would work his stubbly chin as if chewing on unpalatable facts. Then he’d sing:
I dreamed the world had all agreed, to put an end to war.
He spoke like an evangelist, because he was one. His parents were Christian, and he’d found Jesus too at Sunshine Corner beach school in Whitstable. After the merchant navy, he went missionising round Redditch in a minivan. He moved to Parliament Square in 2001 to express his Christian outrage about sanctions. Bush’s and Blair’s wars kept him there. He loved his neighbour’s kids as his own because he was a Christian. Other so-called Christians bombed them. Other “believers”, also in the square, didn’t care. (WESTMINSTER ABBEY, WAKE UP!) If the people who had marched in 2003 against the Iraq war had stayed, like him, the politicians would have thought again.
His megaphone helped spread the message. ARREST GEORGE BUSH, WAR CRIMINAL! HI TONY! 45 MINUTES, MR BLAIR. MR B-L-I-A-R. They could hear him even in the Commons chamber. At first Tony Blair said good old Brian, what a champion of free speech. Yes, he was. He defended the right to free expression in front of Parliament: 350 years of peaceful protest. Some rapper boys from South London came up and hugged him once. They said they totally supported him, fuck Parliament, fuck ’em all. But he wouldn’t have that. He just answered Love, Peace, Justice, stop killing my kids.
The authorities soon got tired of him, though. Westminster Council tried to remove him because he was a nuisance and “obstructing the pavement”. It failed. By 2005 Tony decided he’d had enough of the name-calling. The Serious Organised Crime and Police Act said Mr Haw had to give six days’ notice, if you please, of any demonstration within a kilometre of Parliament. How could he do that? The High Court ruled against it, and said he was legal. But the police never acted as though he was. Any morning they might wake him up with a siren, whoop, whoop, Are you there Brian, yank up his plastic, rifle through his private property right in front of Parliament. Who was abusing whom then? In 2006 78 of them came to tear down his wall of pictures, smashed it, trashed it, left it like a bomb site. Left him with one sign. He stayed, of course.
People asked him about his own kids, seven of them. An off-limits topic. Family was left behind when he came to the square. His wife had divorced him, he’d learned. It wasn’t his fault. He hadn’t wanted to stay eight bloody years away from them, with the pollution and the drunks who broke his nose and the thugs who shouted “Wanker!” at him. He stayed because he wasn’t finished yet. And you know what? It was never fundamentally about free speech and the rights of Englishmen and all that stuff. It was about the dead children. And not walking by.