Politics

Life of Brian

london—Brian Haw and I spent the night together back in September 2002. I had a sleeping bag, which I unrolled on the grass of Parliament Square in Central London, across the street from the heart of British governance. Ten feet away, Brian took up his usual position under his blue tarp and fell asleep for the few hours he gets each night, surrounded by his many protest banners and buffeted by the horns of early-morning traffic and the regular toll of Big Ben.

In December 2004, Brian is still there. He has been sleeping, living, eating, debating, and smoking an endless series of hand-rolled cigarettes on the pavement for three-and-a-half years now. He leaves only for court cases or emergency hospital treatments—his nose now has a soft curve in the middle where it’s been broken twice, first by an American, the second time by an Israeli. His fingers are embossed with the layer of city dirt that comes with life on the street. On top, his corduroy hat is held together almost solely by his vast collection of pins—Keep My Muslim Neighbours Safe, Bush Lies, No War.

At fifty-five, Brian feels a little worn by his years on the street. His wife has divorced him since his protest began, and he’d love to go back to his town of Redditch, Worcestershire, to see his seven kids; he’d love to tone down the voice he uses to debate—with tourists, curious onlookers, drunk Australians—about why he won’t be moving anytime soon. Some mornings he squats down, presses his fingers together and prays to Mr. and Mrs. God, whom as a Christian he fervently believes in, for a little more of the wiry strength that, along with cups of coffee doused with packet after packet of brown sugar, keeps him going. “Do I want somewhere I can talk in a soft, sweet voice? ” Brian says. “I do.” But most of all, he says, he wants to see a stop to the killing of the children—he calls them his “neighbours’ children”—like the Iraqi kids with their mangled bodies portrayed on his display.

On a grey, overcast afternoon in December, “Day 1,298” of his protest, the only real light is the flashes coming from the camera of two American tourists who stand, in matching ucla sweatshirts, before photos of an Iraqi child with half his head missing. “You know, we don’t see a lot of this on our local news,” says the American man.

In June 2001, when he came down from Redditch, some 150 kilometres northwest of London, Brian’s protest was against the economic sanctions that were killing kids in Iraq, then evolved into a protest against the build-up to the war, the war itself, and now the occupation. How long will you stay, I asked him in 2002. “As long as it takes,” he answered.

When asked the question in December, his answer was the same: that one hard, obstinate sentence. A five-word summation of British bloody-mindedness. But these days, despite polls that say most Britons are still outraged by Tony Blair’s decisions, England’s stiff reserve seems to rule. Millions marched against the war in February 2003, but now Brian seems to be the lone reminder — as I witness from the 88, the bus I take home from work each night. With its steamed windows, it rolls through Parliament Square towards Vauxhall Bridge, and whatever is happening in my own life is put into context when I wipe the glass and glimpse Brian’s quick silhouette on the pavement, surrounded by a few glowing tea candles. Around the two-year mark of his vigil and armed with a donated megaphone, he began shouting his most popular slogan: “Forty-five minutes, Mr. Bliar“—a not-so-gentle reminder of Blair’s claim that Saddam’s weapons could be deployed in less than an hour.

The pressure for Brian to leave has been unyielding, most recently from Sir Patrick Cormack, MP for South Staffordshire, who complained in November about “this mess in Parliament Square.” In October 2002, a high court granted Brian permission to stay on the pavement, against the wishes of Westminster city council. But in May 2004, police arrested him for failing to leave a cordoned area after a suspicious car was spotted next to Parliament. He was also charged with assault, though he seemed to sustain more injuries than any of the officers involved. It was, as his lawyers pointedly remarked, perhaps only coincidence that the Chinese premier was scheduled to visit Parliament the next day. On December 14, with a few supporters attending Court Room 3 of the Bow Street Magistrate’s Court, Brian was found not guilty of assault. The charge of not leaving a cordoned area stuck; if any other incidents occur, the penalties will be severe. If Brian weren’t protesting in the most visible place in the country, facing the irate, the kind, and the curious every day, it might be easy to avoid any other incidents. But Brian is in Parliament Square, at the centre of it all.

His greatest legal challenge is yet to come. In early December, the Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill got its second reading in Parliament. The bill was a favourite of then Home Secretary David Blunkett, and tucked away at its core is section 123—“Directions as to behaviour in vicinity of Parliament”—which would recognize the “unique position” of parliament and allow police to remove any permanent protesters in the square, including those wearing battered corduroy hats. “Serious organized crime,” Brian asks with incredulity. “Do they really think I’m the Godfather? ”

If he savoured revenge, Brian might have taken more pleasure in seeing the resignation of Blunkett on December 15, partly owing to a scandal over a paternity claim for a son he had with an ex-lover. The next day, Brian crouched on the chilly pavement reading a newspaper with the former home secretary’s teary face on the cover. He fastened on a quote from Blunkett about tears for his child.

“What about these children?” Brian said, pointing to his posters of the maimed victims in Iraq. “When are we going to cry for them? ” And then he was back up on his feet, fuelled by the coffee, the sugar, cigarettes, and the righteous anger.

“Stop sending our kids to kill their kids,” he said. “Stop killing kids.”