Last week thousands of Belgians protested against US President Bush, who was in Brussels for a short trip from February 20-22. After having alienated most of his European allies, Bush was in Belgium to heal the wounds since he is aware the United States cannot simply keep running like a bull in a china shop on the stage of world affairs. Bush needs to seek points of support in Europe and that is why (temporarily) diplomacy seems to have taken the front seat again. Even little Belgium can help the United States, which is what the country is doing at the moment in relation to the war in Iraq. Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt may be “proud” of not having any Belgian troops in Iraq, but the fact remains that the port of Antwerp plays a vital role in transporting weapons to Iraq. In this way Belgium simply collaborates with the imperialist warmongers in Iraq (see also The strategic importance of European ports in US military deployment against Iraq).
As in so many other countries, Bush is hated by a lot of people in Belgium. Often he is seen as the embodiment of “evil”. This is linked with the idea that the current chaos in international relations is caused by the obscure clique around him. If Bush disappears, most problems will disappear with him – such is the “anyone but Bush” reasoning.
Marxists, however, never judge a government by the individuals in power, though these can play a certain role. We take a broader view on the state and give a class analysis. The state is an important tool of the ruling class in imposing its rule on society. Usually the state also consists of officials who come from that class.
This is not the place to develop this argument, but suffice it to say that this is all the more true for the United States, the most powerful capitalist country in the world. The country is dominated by two parties that are sponsored by big business. It is no secret that George W. Bush comes from the oil industry. He was the head of Harken Energy, where he committed fraud by selling his shares at a higher price than they were valued because he knew his company would go bankrupt (insider trading). The same happened at Enron, which in turn went bankrupt some years ago and which once again demonstrated the link between politics and big business. Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell – all of them are involved in this, not just Bush. These creatures in turn are simply mouthpieces of the global economic system called capitalism, which inevitably produces imperialist wars for markets and spheres of influence. This, in a nutshell, is what the Belgian Marxists of Vonk tried to explain on the various demonstrations in Belgium.
More than a month in advance, we had issued an appeal to people not only to come to the national demonstration in Brussels (where in the end up to 4,000 gathered), but also to protest locally against Bush in other cities across the country. People were then able to voice their protest in their own local areas.
In Antwerp, the biggest Flemish city, the Antwerp Anti-War Committee immediately launched an appeal for a students’ strike. Comac, the youth organisation of the Belgian Maoists, then later gave its support to the initiative. Despite obvious political differences, we were able to collaborate with them in a comradely way, thus showing that unity in action is possible.
Despite the terrible weather conditions, the demonstration in Antwerp was a success with more than 500 people present. The organisers had beforehand campaigned at numerous schools. The reactions there were very positive as the majority of the youth is disgusted by Bush and his policies. In several municipalities around Antwerp like Brasschaat and Boechout enthusiastic youngsters put up posters and placards of the strike appeal around the neighbourhood.
In the end about six hundred youth braved the wintry cold to show what they think of Bush. At the start of the demonstration Wim Benda from Vonk welcomed the demonstrators and issued a message to the Belgian government: “Don’t waste our tax money on a NATO operation in Iraq. Stop supporting the bloody war in Iraq! To this very day there are weapon transports going through the port of Antwerp to Iraq. This needs to stop because in this way Belgium actively supports a colonial occupation. Our country is consequently also a potential target for far right terrorists like Al Qaeda.” On national TV news Wim declared that through this action the demonstrators were expressing solidarity with the Iraqi people and with the millions of Americans who are equally opposed to Bush’s policies.
Then the protest headed for Antwerp South. The enthusiastic atmosphere warmed our numb bodies quickly. At the front of the demonstration some youth marched with banners of the Antwerp Anti-War Committee that read “No Blood for Oil” and “Ports weapon-free”. The demonstrators chanted slogans like “Bush, Blair, CIA, how many kids did you kill today?” and “Belgium out of NATO, NATO out of Belgium.” The protest was very animated and the more the demo advanced, the more passers-by there were who joined the march. The atmosphere became fierier and fierier because the protesters wanted to be heard in Brussels!
Back on the Groenplaats, Vonk comrade Fenia Van den Brande thanked the participants for coming out and taking part in the march. She explained that “Bush only embodies something greater. He is the public face of a group of multinationals and capitalists that make no bones about the destruction of the planet as long as this serves their own interests.” She concluded: “The fact that we are here today with so many people is great and means that we won’t let ourselves be fooled with nice words and empty promises. It means that we are all convinced that this world has to change, better yesterday than tomorrow. But this won’t happen automatically. Organise yourself with Vonk to fight for another society. A society serving the interests of the people and not of the banks and the multinationals!” Comac also thanked the demonstrators and invited them to come to their screening of Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore’s famous documentary. During this last speech a layer of snow began to cover the Groenplaats so the demonstrators went inside to a warmer place, happy about their support for this strong protest.
Bush was also not welcome in Kalmthout. In this town near Antwerp some youngsters had taken up the appeal and spread leaflets in schools in Kalmthout and Essen. Some 23 people chanted slogans along the road and showed off their banners to the drivers. This was quite a modest protest but as a local police officer said: “You weren’t many, but go on. It is important that there are idealists.” Indeed, those facing the wintry showers who voiced their opposition against the war have the sympathy of a lot of people. At the start of the Vietnam war it seemed as if only some remote individuals were chanting against injustice. However, some years afterwards the war machine was beaten by massive protests. Worldwide protests against imperialism are today on the verge of flaring up. Those who are present now are laying the foundations for future demonstrations and movements.
On the initiative of Vonk, the Anti-War Committee of the Coast and the Ostend youth organisation Bulldozer, about 45 people gathered for a playful but militant protest on the Wapenplein. The gathering received the support of Animo (youth organisation of the Socialist Party), Attac, several trade union militants and a dozen students.
On the chest of fourteen demonstrators were pasted the letters “BUSH NOT WELCOME”. This slogan, together with the banner “Ostend airport weapon-free”, was clearly seen in the press and on the local TV station Focus. Significantly, the demonstration was not only against Bush but also against the use of the Ostend airport by the US air force. Two years earlier the same protesters demonstrated against weapon transports at the airport, then known as “planespotting” and “plane stopping”. These things were once again explained in the speech of Roland Vanderbeke, a veteran trade unionist, and in the interview by Focus-TV with Nick Deschacht. They pointed to the anti-social policies of Bush in the United States itself and his refusal to sign the Kyoto agreement.
In the end Roland appealed to all to participate in the youth march on March 19 and invited everybody to come to a preparatory meeting in the socialist trade union building. With this small demonstration anti-war protesters in Ostend took a modest but resolute step in re-mobilising youth along the coast!
“You did it, you dared to do it”, was the reaction of a tired but clearly happy student at the end of the demonstration. One hundred and twenty demonstrators, mainly students, marched through the streets of Hasselt (the capital of the province Limburg). The very cold winter weather affected the turnout but the action was nevertheless a success.
This is what a popular newspaper, Het Nieuwsblad, said about the demonstration:
“The banners made no doubt about it: there are quite a few people from Limburg who are against Bush’s arrival in Belgium. The demonstration was organised by the left-wing youth organisation Vonk and received the support of various organisations. Vonk organised the demonstration in Hasselt in order to give the youth of Limburg the opportunity to voice their protest against Bush. It was indeed striking that many trade union militants joined the demonstration.” (Het Nieuwsblad, February 23, 2005)
Just one month ago few people dared to bet their money on the possibility of protest action being organised in Hasselt against Bush’s arrival in Belgium. Vonk Limburg accepted the challenge and distributed leaflets and posters for about a month in various youth centres and schools. From the local sandwich bar to a trade union building even to a mosque – everywhere our poster was present. Even in Maastricht (Netherlands) some students heard about the demonstration and came down to Hasselt to participate.
Full attention for the preparation of the action went to the schools and unorganised youth. Still other progressive organisations were involved who also thought this a good initiative. The comrades of ACOD, the socialist public trade union, helped us with placards, a sound system and other logistical support. This is important because the struggle against US imperialism and the war cannot only be waged by the youth. The labour movement has a big role to play here. Hence André Pues, trade union militant of ACOD Limburg, emphasized in his speech at the end of the demonstration that Bush not only wages war against the Iraqi people but is also involved in a social war against the American population.
At the start of the demonstration, Nosh Malik addressed the youth and explained that behind president Bush are hidden the interests of the capitalists. A big placard of Vonk showed an equal sign between capitalism and war. She emphasized the fact that the Belgian government – despite its “protest” against the war – is still allowing the port of Antwerp and the Limburg railways to be used for military transports of weaponry to Iraq. At the end of the demonstration about fifteen protesters gave their addresses in order to fight the system that generates wars and poverty. Later in the evening footage was shown of the protest on national television.
The next stage is March 19 in Brussels. Three demonstrations will aim at the anti-social policies of the European Union and the growing militarism of the so-called European “peace doves”. A youth march will stand up for free education and equality.