U.K.’s one-man band weathers 3-year protest

From the pavement outside London's Houses of Parliament, Brian Haw has been protesting against Western policy in the Middle East since June 2001.
From the pavement outside London's Houses of Parliament, Brian Haw has been protesting against Western policy in the Middle East since June 2001.Henry Deedes / NBC News
/ Source: NBC News

In the Westminster district, Parliament Square is a picture-postcard of the British capital.

Red double-decker buses race black London cabs in the hectic lunchtime traffic. The Houses of Parliament bustle with activity as politicians rush in and out of grandiose doorways.

Overlooking the whole scene, Big Ben chimes gloomily as the midday hour arrives. And, of course, the customary British rain is pouring it down.

But for the past three years another institution has been forged at the heart of London’s political center.

"He’s down there on the left," sighed a policeman. "You’ll see all his banners laid out."

And sure enough, there he stood, busily rearranging protest placards in the cold March rain.

Brian Haw has been protesting against Western policy in the Middle East since June 2001. Leaving his wife and seven children at the family home in Worcestershire, he has sat waving his placards on the pavement outside the Houses of Parliament, washing out of a bucket, and sleeping under a tarpaulin.

"One thousand and twenty-eight days and counting," he said, offering welcome refuge under an umbrella. "And I’ll be here a while yet."

Calls for peace
Behind him sit a mass of posters and vigils calling for peace in the Middle East. Cartoons lampoon the close relationship between Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bush. On one board he has arranged photographs of Iraqi children killed, he said, by American and British bombs during the last gulf war. 

"Laser-guided missiles, oh, they’re great, aren’t they?" he cried. 

Henry Deedes

"Well, we hit the target but we also managed to kill a couple of innocent kids as well. What kind of use is that? He’ll bomb anything, that Blair." 

Haw originally set up camp in 2001 to protest against sanctions imposed on the Iraqi government. When the wars against Afghanistan and Iraq gave his protests new resonance, he decided to stay.

"They had it all planned out, those Americans," he said. "Cheney. Rumsfeld. They were going to go into Iraq as soon as Bush got in. It was inevitable."

Well-wishers often stop by and give their support.

"I get all sorts here," he said. "Americans who believe what their country did was wrong. Politicians. All types. Not all friendly, mind you.  I have had my nose broken three times by people having a go at me while I was asleep."

As cars pass by, a number of drivers vocally make their opinions known. Some of them would  rather Haw went back home.

'Freedom of speech'
Recently the British press has reported that Blair himself is known to want to get rid of this resilient protester. 

“If they banned me they’d look ridiculous," said Haw. “I mean, all that bragging they did about the freedom of speech they brought the Iraqi people and there they are trying to ban me."

Efforts on Haw’s removal have been made before. In 2002 however, a high court judge ruled that his protests were an expression of freedom of speech and so he remained.

Haw says he’s had enough of Blair. "They used to fly the U.N. flag around here. Can you believe that?" he asked. 

"If they’d gone through there to get permission to go to war it would have been veto, veto, veto. They should have kicked Blair and us out."

Of course there is something comical about this one-man band who has defied the government, heckled the visiting president of the United States, and achieved national notoriety all while living it rough on the streets for the past three years.

But since last April, public support in Britain for their involvement in the war in Iraq has plummeted from 64 percent to below 50 percent and many Britons have questioned Blair's motivation for joining the military action. 

There may not be a rush to join Brian Haw and set up camp on a cold wet London pavement, but some British people might be starting to believe him.