Clerics, pupils and sex workers unite in coalition against Bush

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The Independent Online

They came prepared with graphic placards demanding vengeance against "Bush the No 1 Terrorist", vacuum flasks and lunchboxes packed with cheese sandwiches. From sex workers to Muslim clerics, City executives to American expats, and retired teachers to giggling schoolgirls, they were the noisy coalition that yesterday brought central London to a polite and very British halt.

On the afternoon in which Downing Street swapped the pomp and circumstance of George Bush's state visit for hard politics, it fell to thousands of protesters to provide the symbolism of the day by marching through the capital against the American President and, to a greater or lesser extent depending on which banner was being waved, everything he stands for.

Organisers of the demonstration against Mr Bush claimed that, at its height, 200,000 marched from Bloomsbury to Trafalgar Square via the Houses of Parliament, a route agreed with Scotland Yard after days of hard negotiation more befitting an international peace treaty than a two-hour demonstration.

At first, Scotland Yard insisted the numbers were considerably lower, between 30,000 and 45,000. As the day progressed, the police increased their count to 110,000.

The result, organisers insisted, was that on the streets beyond the carefully choreographed talks at No 10 between Mr Bush and Tony Blair, ordinary people had sent their own statesmanlike message.

Andrew Burgin, a spokesman for the Stop the War Coalition, said: "It has been an excellent turnout. But you've also got to look at who is marching. You have middle-class, middle-England people who don't go to protests mixing with all other causes and creeds. Because of Iraq, because of what Bush has done to the environment, because of the erosion of our liberties, they have marched peacefully through the streets."

With 5,123 officers working throughout the day, the Yard declared itself satisfied. Deputy Assistant Commissioner Andy Trotter, the man in charge of Operation Saxon, the codename for the policing of the state visit, said: "We have had a good-tempered march. We are pleased with how the day has gone so far."

But some demonstrators said they were looking for confrontation. "Andy", a neatly dressed postgraduate student from Cardiff and a veteran of anti-globalisation protests in Seattle and Genoa, said: "The only language that Bush understands is violence. Look at his record. If you want to send him a message you have to do a bit more than blowing whistles and playing loud music."

There were minor confrontations between small groups of protesters and police as evening fell, but there had been only 58 arrests by 9.30pm. The nearest thing to violence most marchers saw was the showpiece toppling of an 18ft effigy of Mr Bush in Trafalgar Square designed to mimic the fate of the statue of Saddam Hussein, the demolition of which during the fall of Baghdad on 9 April came to symbolise the Allied triumph. The gold-painted statue of Mr Bush had been made from papier mâché, chicken wire and cardboard rolls during a week of 12-hour shifts by an alternative theatre group from Suffolk.

Mell Harrison, 32, a youth worker from Bungay who co-ordinates Theatre of War and helped to build the sculpture, said: "Just as the toppling of Saddam's statue symbolised the end of his regime, so we think pulling down this one will begin the process of ending aggressive US policies."

The demonstration had many elements of theanti-war events of the past 12 months. Music blasted out from a stage at the base of Nelson's Column alongside screens showing images of war, caricatures of Mr Bush and Mr Blair and political heroes such as Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. Hundreds of people carrying anti-Bush placards and Palestinian flags milled around chalking slogans on the steps of the square. Groups included CND, the Socialist Workers Party, the Muslim Association of Britain (MAB), the student union at Balliol College, Oxford, and several regional branches of the Labour Party.

But there were distinguishing factors that appeared to make this one more symbolic of a diverse Britain. At the MAB stand, workers handed out cartons of fruit juice, apples and flatbreads to mark Iftar, the end of the Ramadan fast.

One teenager, who claimed to have skipped school, insisted her presence was due entirely to noble principles. "You're always hearing adults say kids today don't care about politics, but we do. Loads of my mates have bunked off because they don't like what happened in Iraq."

James and Gillian Michaels, two retired teachers from Hatfield, Hertfordshire, had taken a break from proceedings to eat their cheese and pickle sandwiches before the start of the march in Russell Square. They used their "Blair Bliar" placards as makeshift seating. Mr Michaels, 74, said: "There is a tradition of popular protest in this country that sometimes gets forgotten. We felt we had to come here to show that it's not just anarchists or what the media portrays as extremists who care about what Bush is doing through carbon dioxide emissions or his axis of evil."

The march, which was bolstered by 200 coach-loads of demonstrators from around the country, also attracted a smattering of celebrity support. Damon Albarn, the lead singer of Blur, joined the start of the protest before flying to Glasgow to perform in a concert.

He said: "I'm here as a pacifist. The march is because Bush is here. It's a long shot but you never know, no matter how many miles away he is, he just might hear us."

The singer was among those who pointed to yesterday's bombings in Istanbul as evidence of the need to demonstrate. "That's going to happen increasingly because of the policies of the Western world," he said. "The attacks in Turkey and Bush's visit to Britain were no mere coincidence. People are playing for very high stakes."

As well as a group of sex workers and one high-flying City lawyer, the event attracted a number of Mr Bush's compatriots. For Scot Ferguson, 30, the guilt of being a Texan in London during Mr Bush's visit was too much so he chose to stand on Westminster Bridge with a brown paper bag over his head.

Mr Ferguson said: "I'm tired of the guilt by association with Texas. I don't really get any abuse but a lot of raised eyebrows. My message to Mr Bush would be, how dare you spill so much blood for the sake of a $1.7bn [£1bn] Halliburton contract [the conglomerate that had the US Vice-President, Dick Cheney, on its board]. It doesn't get more blatant than that."

As a fleet of Westminster City Council cleaning vehicles began to clear up the detritus of democracy, there were dissenting voices. Catherine Skiba, 42, an artist from Vermont who has lived in London for five years, stood under her banner. "We love George Bush", it said. "I'm really worried that the British are moving to an attitude where everything American is bad."