It always cheered me to see Brain Haw at his vigil outside the Houses of Parliament, protesting against the wars waged in our name. With his weathered face topped by a soldier’s tin helmet, he’d squint at Parliament like some weary but valiant sergeant in a war film, assessing his enemy’s position from across a valley. Other times I had the impression that he was a Lilliputian soldier standing guard over a giant but half-conscious beast, knowing that its inclination for devouring the little people was only subdued by their vigilance.

I visited the camp on a number of occasions, but one time I spent the whole afternoon and evening there. It seems that when you take a stand, the world comes to you. The day unfolded with a rich variety of visitors, each drawing out a different side to Brian.
In the first incident, shortly after I arrived, a stocky crew-cut man across the road and boomed “War is cool,” at us through a traffic cone, before catching up with his laughing mates.
Brian, standing on crutches but unbowed, turned and croaked:  “More white men without any balls.”

Later, sat watching the traffic as it encircled us, Brian explained his fragile condition. He’d been assaulted at 3am in his sleep by what he suspected were off duty police officers. He also spoke about having an iron bolt thrown at his head from a speeding car—it just missed. His was an existence on the frontline of society, with nowhere to hide and scant protection. As a result, his camp experienced the best and worst of our culture on an almost daily basis. There was a lot of love, praise, gratitude and countless heartfelt gifts and offers of support, but also regular amounts of abuse and violence: the deflected pain of those for whom peace in the outside world would mean facing the war inside themselves.

As evening fell, a minister and congregation from a Pentecostal church in New Cross arrived. They sung together in a circle and it felt they were blessing the camp. Brian was invited over and as we held hands and listened, he gave a gracious but powerful speech. He thanked them for coming, but went on to say that it was time for the church to empower its congregation—to encourage them to wean off its breast. He said it was the duty of all people of God to stand up for what was just—to speak out and risk injury as Jesus and the prophets had done. From anyone else it would have seemed trite, but the eight years of his life and the health he had given over to his cause gave the speech great resonance. The minister looked uncomfortable, but many of the congregation shouted out in assent.

Around midnight, three Russian men arrived out of the darkness, all very drunk. They were jovial at first, but then became menacingly fixated on one question: “In a war with the Soviet Union and America, who would win?”
I could feel their wounded pride and valiantly kept deflecting. “Neither would win; the whole world would lose,” I said, but they wouldn’t leave it. Eventually Brian exploded, forcibly ejecting them from their plastic chairs and screaming at them to go. These big, muscular men erupted into aggression, yet some strange sense of honour kept them from hitting Brian. “You are old man but if you weren’t old man we would kill you,” they said.

So instead they went after me. Luckily a female protester positioned herself between us as I danced around, like Muhammad Ali, trying to avoid the blows. Eventually they left and I remonstrated with Brian: “How can you preach peace and then use force to get what you want?”  He said that I had no idea what he had suffered—how many drunk people had turned on him over the last eight years, the sacrifices he had made, the family he had lost.

I knew he was right. I simply didn’t have the courage to do what he had done, or pay the price he had paid. Looking back, it was obvious that the stress that Brian had endured over the last ten years had left him with something akin to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). His paranoia and reactive responses were symptoms of an overloaded system, greatly in need of some healing and recuperation. But his need to stay on that small stretch of pavement was more powerful than the trauma he encountered.

The incident that stays with me most about that day was much subtler than all of this.  We were sat together, smoking roll-ups when an Iraqi man approached us, his newly born baby cradled in his arms. He seemed wounded and shy, as if he had come to confess something. Eventually he spoke: “My brother was killed two days ago in Baghdad.”

The cost of war and fragility of life was present in that moment, in the tender way he held his baby, in his palpable grief as the traffic roared past. And despite all the gory photos and the drama of the setting, the whole point of the protest seemed to crystalise in that short exchange. This was a place to tell the truth about war: the endless sorrow, the anger and the injustice.

Brian Haw died on 18th June, 2011. He was 62 years old.

Text: Nicholas Sebley

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