John Nicholson of Greater Manchester Friends of Palestine reports on the breadth and diversity of Palestine solidarity activity across the region since October.
The last three months of 2023 saw over 80 protests of one sort or another around greater Manchester in support of Palestine. These included weekly city-centre and local district protests, school strikes and specifically-targeted student actions, Jews against Gaza Genocide, Amnesty, health worker vigils, and main road demonstrations, marches and (at least partial) occupations of key organisations, eg Barclays, the BBC, Elbit landlords Fisher German, and the sportswear shop Puma. The last two have since cut their ties with Elbit and the Israeli football team respectively as a result of our campaigning.
At the same time, Greater Manchester Friends of Palestine (GMFP) have raised over £10,000 from public collections and union donations, which has been sent directly to those working on the ground in Gaza and the West Bank (though it is now very difficult to get money into Gaza). This has included the Palestine Amputee Football Association in Gaza, for example, which has given sporting opportunities to boys and girls who have lost their limbs to Israel’s military aggression. All donations are predicated clearly as solidarity not charity and we only send to organisations who are actually operating there, as opposed to international or charity NGOs.
Most of these protests have received little or no coverage in the mainstream media apart from a couple of snide commentaries in the Manchester Evening News about ‘tension’ felt by shoppers on the streets of the city centre. The only consistent national coverage has come from the Morning Star.
I think that the disconnected nature of all these shows people’s widespread and undiminishing desire to show their anger and to get involved in public protests, whatever or wherever they may be. After the slight lull around the short-lived ‘truce’ at the end of November, the numbers and the energy increased again in December. In parallel, there was something of an increase in police harassment, including arresting one young person for putting one sticker on the window of Marks and Spencer. In response, we stopped the march and held up the tram lines for about an hour until they backed down and ‘de-arrested’ him.
The following weekend, we walked through police lines when they wanted us to take a ‘safe’ route avoiding the main shopping areas. Indeed, we went so far as to close down a Barclays branch and occupy a sports shop – inside the Arndale Centre- selling Puma goods. Probably because we had humiliated them twice, they resorted to chasing some of us down the road, as the protest dispersed, shouting threats of ‘Section 11 charges’ if we don’t give them six days’ notice of any future demonstration.
There is no way we are going to give in to this. Apart from anything else, if we did notify them, they might well just say we couldn’t take the route we proposed. But we have to be aware – more so for any of us who are younger/not white/Palestinian especially – that there may be a risk for anyone about whom the police say they have ‘evidence of being an organiser’ So the following weekend we assembled in a park south of the city centre, though with the intention of going into town but avoiding the main shopping areas.
To me, this range of activities is a good thing, with no one organisation looking to authorise or control what is taking place on the streets. There is room for many different approaches to stopping Israel’s war, from lobbying councils and MPs to direct action to close arms factories.
Thinking of the longer term
However, there is an issue of how we can develop and sustain more long-term organisation. So far, despite practical difficulties, collecting names and contact details has been pretty good. Although not everyone at a protest either hears or acts on repeated requests for people to sign up, many have done so, both at stalls (when they have been there) and in person by talking to people at the end. It helps that there are a number of Palestine campaigning organisations to sign up to: Youth Front for Palestine (YFFP) and Manchester Palestine Action (MPA), for example, as well as GMFP
Those who do sign up may or may not continue to be involved, when weekly or even daily protests are no longer taking place. They may want to be involved in other types of activity, whether targeted actions or stalls or discussion meetings. The move we took to emphasise actions rather than just protests was important – developing eight different Barclays actions on the same day worked really well, as has the repeated surrounding of Elbit-landlord Fisher German.
One suggestion has been a wider coalition (as has taken place in London, with national demonstrations under the auspices of Stop the War, CND, Friends of al-Aqsa, Muslim Association of Britain and Palestinian Forum in Britain as well as PSC). However, not all of these have a presence in greater Manchester, and those who do are already involved in the various actions.
There is however is an argument for looking to develop a strategic approach, for a Palestine-led movement across greater Manchester that can build on the activism of the last couple of months, into 2024 and beyond. Internally, this means much more production and acquisition of resources (leaflets, flags, banners, sign-up sheets, buckets, bibs – as well as information leaflets and other materials for our stalls). Externally, this means having a clear list of target organisations and methods of attacking them that could begin to involve people on a regular and frequent basis. People (including other organisations) can be sought to join in with these. And while the leadership of this approach would be within the current combined forces of GMFP/MPA/YFFP, it would also be good that other local or specific-issue groups could take their own actions alongside.
GMFP has consistently taken the line that it is by working together with the range of different people involved, especially the young people in Manchester’s YFFP (recently expanded with a new group in Birmingham) and the activists of MPA, that we can make the move to emphasise actions rather than just protests – such as closing eight different Barclays branches across greater Manchester on the same day.
But while this is fine as far as activity goes, there is also a need to develop the movement politically and organisationally. The desire from more traditional labour movement-oriented activists working within Palestine solidarity is for a more clearly-constructed, wider umbrella, that takes in more people and debates and decides democratically within clearly evident structures.
Strengthening the movement
However, that isn’t where the world is at now. Our recent campaigning shows that more can be done by multiple protests and many different groups doing lots of varying things. And maybe that is simply better – so long as there is some communication and co-ordination between them all. Certainly GMFP (as Manchester PSC before it) has contributed to a mutual trust and respect between a dozen or so groups, so that any action called by any of these can be automatically supported by all the others.
The drawback to this is in the differing politics of some of the new groupings, some of which don’t seem to recognise that other groups exist (sometimes even using names that belong to existing groups). This is unfortunately accompanied by a wide diversity in organisational skills, and some of the necessary limitations of online-only organising. There are also big divisions around ‘peaceful’ protest versus ‘direct action’ (which rather ignores that all actions may well be regarded as ‘violent’ by the cops, following the Court of Appeal judgment after the Colston Four’s acquittal). But while any future ‘umbrella’ approach towards a Palestine solidarity movement should not exclude people who are doing something, there is also the issue of how to influence and emphasise the more progressive and radical (and Palestinian) voices within this.
The main question for me is how to develop the argument that while mass protests are good, and the more traditional parliamentary lobbying is a useful background, the reality is that we need to find targets that affect Israel as directly as possible, and methods that close down those who are complicit, especially economically and militarily. Building a movement around all this may be a good direction, but it may not be along any lines that have been tried before. Locally, the trust gained between some of the different wings involved may mean we can go further and more effectively with this, which is something that we can hope to see develop in 2024. There have already been some 40 actions in January – we’re not stopping until they do!
The second edition of rs21’s pamphlet Israel – the making of a racist state’ is now out and can be bought here. The pamphlet is being launched at a public meeting in Manchester on Saturday 10 February – details below.