Thanks for making it such a successful rally. It was great to be able to meet so many people in the pubs afterwards.
The stewards were advised that a bylaw prohibits the display in Trafalgar Square of any foreign flags, so they had to cooperate with the wardens and the police in asking people to lower Danish and American flags. That's a shame, but thank you to the people concerned for complying with good grace (and sometimes managing to "wear" the flags in a way that was allowed to pass).
One person was taken aside by the police after a complaint was made that they were displaying one of the Danish cartoons. He was a member of an Iranian group that had come in support of Maryam Namazie, and she was naturally anxious about this and wanted to make a comment to the crowd. We went over to where he was being spoken to, and filmed, by the police and made sure there was no question that he would be arrested, then told the rally what had happened and Maryam said a few words. The "offending" placard was passed around, on the grounds that they couldn't arrest everyone. Evan Harris was good enough to intercede as well. The man was able to rejoin the rally, where he was made most welcome again. We will, however, be tracking the incident to make sure there are no after effects and will keep you informed.
Despite the rain, the speeches were well received, even when the speaker was expressing a position people didn't entirely share. There were two unscheduled speakers: Ali, an Iraqi who turned up to support the campaign and felt he wanted to share his experiences of living under a regime that denied basic freedoms of expression, and Labi Shiffre. Both spoke very well and several people have commented on the quality of Labi's words.
Maryam Namazie spoke cogently, urgently and with passion. Evan Harris was funny, wise and precise. Peter Tatchell followed up on, and elaborated on the themes outlined in his essay below. Mark Wallace was well received, after the occasional controversy here. Sean Gabb spoke without notes in a structured, reasoned argument for absolute freedom of expression. Rend Shakir made a nuanced and complex case for tolerance and freedom. Keith Porteous Wood spoke about principles, but also echoed Evan Harris on some points of practical action. We shall be doing what we can to help with these in the coming weeks.
Muslims, Christians and atheists, Britons, Americans, Danes, Iraqis and Iranians, socialists, liberals conservatives and libertarians all mixed, chatted, listened, applauded and supported the basic principle of freedom of expression. It was an extraordinary occasion. Estimates of numbers vary, but I'm told the square wardens put the figure at 600. The BBC estimates it at half this figure. More than this can be counted in partial photos of the crowd, but even this lower number would be almost double the next highest turnout at rallies held in the wake of the cartoons saga.
And by and large the extremists kept away. There was no visible BNP presence. A handful of Islamofascists turned up. The headbangers have been bashing away in the comments sections of this blog, but they weren't there at the rally.
We have started the process of reclaiming this debate for the middle ground. We are replacing a standoff between deport-all-Muslims fascists and Islamofascists with a calm, reasoned dialogue and an insistance on the primacy of freedom of expression that does not produce an instictive allegation of Islamophobia. The people who are not at heart fascists but feel beseiged can move away from the BNP and the religious supremacists, into the middle ground.
It was a victory for tolerance, reason and freedom. If you want to know how badly this hurts the extremists, read some of the comments on this blog. This was just the beginning, but it was a very good beginning.
Thank you to everyone who made it possible.