The G20 summit opened in London today amid widespread protests in the streets. Dozens were arrested Wednesday as thousands of demonstrators jammed the streets of London’s financial district. We speak with former British MP Tony Benn, the current president of the Stop the War Coalition. [includes rush transcript]
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: The G20 summit opened in London today amidst widespread protests in the streets. British Prime Minister opened the talks declaring there was a "high degree of consensus" on a recovery plan for the ailing global economy. World leaders are expected to impose new financial rules and come up with more funds for the IMF.
Meanwhile, police in London are bracing for more protests a day after thousands of demonstrators jammed the streets of London’s financial district. Most of the demonstrators were peaceful, but some skirmishes broke out as police tried to keep thousands in containment pens surrounding the Bank of England. A number of protesters smashed their way into the Royal Bank of Scotland and wrote "thieves" on the side of the walls of the bank. Demonstrators raised effigies of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, representing war, climate chaos, financial crimes and homelessness. A small number of protesters played a giant game of Monopoly, armed with huge crates of fake money.
One man involved with the protests died after collapsing in the street. Police said he was found unconscious near the Bank of England and was rushed to hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Up to eighty-eight people were arrested Wednesday with police mounting one of Britain’s biggest security operations in years. Security is at the ExCeL Centre, where the G20 talks are being held. It’s extremely tight, with police turning away anyone within a half-mile radius who doesn’t have accreditation.
We go right now to London to speak with the former British MP Tony Benn, current president of the Stop the War Coalition. He spoke at a G20 protest in Trafalgar Square on Wednesday.
Tony Benn, you were one of the longest reigning members of the British Parliament. You served over half a century before you left and became president of the Stop the War Coalition, yet yesterday you were outside in the streets addressing the G20 protest. Why?
TONY BENN: Well, I’m an old man. I’ll be eighty-four tomorrow. And I have never been busier. I’m doing seven or eight public meetings all over the country every week.
And yesterday we had a huge demonstration in Trafalgar Square. We marched from the American embassy, where I gave a letter to President Barack Obama, welcoming him in London and pointing we had three big anxieties. One was the continuation of the war in Afghanistan, and secondly, the obvious crisis in relations between Israel and Palestine, because the Israeli — new Israeli government says they are not in favor of a Palestinian state, and also expressing our anxiety about nuclear weapons, where some progressive moves have been made.
But it was an amazing day, the last two days in London. Because of the G20 summit, we had an audience worldwide for what we were saying. And I have never in my long life known a time when public opinion was so divided from government opinion. And I think that’s happening not only in London, but all over the world.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain exactly what you mean by that.
TONY BENN: Well, I think what’s going on now is that the leaders of the world are trying to recreate as best they can by subsidy, enormous subsidies, the system that has let us down. And we are facing a very, very serious crisis. And it’s not just an economic crisis; it is a political crisis, a democratic crisis. I remember hearing from United States people saying we want people to think about Main Street and not Wall Street, and that’s a very vivid way of describing what people feel.
Mass unemployment; foreclosures of people on their homes, which is a disgrace; money spent on war, which goes on and on — there’s a threat to Iran now from the new Israeli government — and people say we are not prepared to accept it. I don’t think these are protests, because a protest, you say, “I’ve lost the battle, and I don’t like it.” These are demands. And all progress is really made when people make demands upon the government. We will not accept war. We will not accept unemployment. And so, that’s the situation we’re in now.
Gordon Brown talks about a global structure to deal with a global crisis. Well, fine, but who will control the global crisis — the global structure? Will it be democratic, or will it be run by the banks and the multinational corporations? And so, we’ve got a huge new perspective opening up, and I think it is a big democratic demand that is being made.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Tony Benn. Is it true, Tony Benn, you were the longest serving member of Parliament?
TONY BENN: Well, I was the longest serving Labour member of Parliament. I did fifty-one years in Parliament and seven — and eleven years in the cabinet. And so, I’m — at my age, I’ve had a lot of experience. And I don’t want anyone to vote for me, and that is a freedom I never dreamed of. People listen, because they say, “Well, at least he’s not asking us to vote for him.”
AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, explain what the war in Afghanistan, or Iraq, for that matter, has to do right now with the G20, who are taking on these economic issues, this global economic meltdown.
TONY BENN: Well, they’re connected, because, you see, one of the great dangers of an economic crisis is it can lead to war. I remember Hitler coming to power very well. There were six million unemployed in Germany, and Hitler said it’s all due to the Jews and the communists and the trade unions. “Give me power,” said Hitler, “and I will give you jobs.” And he did. Half the unemployed, he put in the arms factories. The other half, he put in the German army. And we had another bloody war. And the two European wars from 1914 to 1945, in thirty-one years, cost 105 million lives, were lost in two wars, and that was not unpredicted with the grave economic crisis in the 1930s.
AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, the issue of Main Street and Wall Street, who benefits, who controls where the money goes, how the money is lost, or who gets the most of what’s there — how would it be controlled democratically? What is your alternative?
TONY BENN: Well, you see, the United Nations was set up after the war, and the five permanent members have a veto. They were the victors in the last war. But if you look at a democratic world, if you look at drawing up a constitution for the world, like the American Constitution, you’ve got to base it on population. And, of course, China has 1.2 billion people, and they have the same vote at the United Nations as Luxembourg, with a population of a few hundred thousand. And then India has a population of 1.2 billion. So we’re talking about something that’s never really been contemplated before, that the world economy should be supervised by people we elect and we remove, and therefore act in our interests. And those who drafted the American Constitution are needed now, because “We hold these truths to be self-evident” is something that you’ve got to apply globally now. And it’s very exciting.
And, you see, young people are so well aware of this. I’ve just been talking at a conference of people — and they’re sixteen, seventeen years old — at a girls’ school in London, a huge national conference. And when I look at them, I think my generation made a complete muck of the world, and here’s a generation coming along that, through the internet and Facebook and all that, understand each other. They don’t have the hostilities about religion or race. They just know that they’ve got to put the world at rights, or we will end up with a nuclear war that will destroy everybody. I have huge confidence in the younger people. I’ve got ten grandchildren, and I have confidence in them, too.
AMY GOODMAN: I’d like to stay on, Tony Benn. After the G20 talks, President Obama’s next stop will be France and Germany to take part in a NATO summit marking the sixtieth anniversary of the alliance. There are mass demonstrations planned there with thousands of protesters from over twenty European countries and the United States.
TONY BENN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Some 25,000 French and German police are taking up positions around three cities on both sides of the Rhine. The summit runs Friday and Saturday in the French city of Strasbourg and the German cities of Kehl and Baden Baden.
We are going to Strasbourg now to speak with Andreas Speck, a member of the War Resisters International, one of the lead organizers of the protests against the NATO summit.
We welcome you, Andreas, to Democracy Now! Explain what the plans are and why you’re out in the streets.
ANDREAS SPECK: Yeah, hello. I’m now here in the camp in Strasbourg. And our plans are — well, there’s quite a range of activities happening in the next days here in Strasbourg and also in Baden Baden. Tomorrow, on Friday, there will be a counter-conference in Strasbourg with a lot of workshops and discussion about NATO, what NATO means in the Middle East and in other parts of the world, but also for the countries in Europe, the war on Afghanistan and so on. On Saturday — also on Friday in Baden Baden, there will be attempts to blockade the reception and working dinner of all the heads of state and government and the reception by German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
On Saturday, everything will focus on Strasbourg, because the official summit will open in Strasbourg at 10:00 in the morning. And early in the morning, there’s a coalition called Block NATO, will be a part of that, which will try to blockade all the entrances to the NATO summit. There’s quite a huge security zone around the NATO summit area, and we will try to blockade the entrances to the security zone. They will be setting up a fence in the middle of the city of Strasbourg to protect the summit. And there’s a lot of — thousands of citizens of Strasbourg that got special passes, because they live in this area, and they can only get in and out of the security zone accompanied by police with the special passes. So we will try to blockade that.
AMY GOODMAN: And exactly what your demands are?
ANDREAS SPECK: Well, obviously we are focusing on the war in Afghanistan and saying troops out of Afghanistan immediately, but we’re also going much further than that, because we are opposed to NATO in principle. We want NATO to dissolve. It should have been dissolved at the latest when the Warsaw Pact was dissolved in 1990. But from our point of view, it never had really a right to exist, and we want NATO to dissolve. We don’t think it serves any good in the world. It’s certainly not a force for democracy, what it always claims to be. It’s an imperialist force trying to protect the interests of Western capitalism all over the world. And especially since 1990, we could see a development of NATO becoming increasingly involved in military operations all over the world.
And with this NATO summit, they will start to discuss a new NATO strategy, which will continue this development for NATO to become a global military intervention force. And the war in Afghanistan is central in that it’s the first major military operation of NATO, and the future of NATO depends on it being successful. That’s why they’re trying to put so many resources into this war, and that’s also why we focus on this war. We say troops out of Afghanistan immediately and, in the long term, a dissolving of NATO.
AMY GOODMAN: Andreas Speck, the level of police presence?
ANDREAS SPECK: There’s a lot of police here. We had a lot of police repression out of — people were not allowed into — from different parts from Germany into France. Several people got arrested. They got banned by the German authorities of leading Germany — got arrested for breaking this ban or trying to break this ban and will be in prison until Sunday. Also, we know that people in Germany, all over Germany, certain activists, got contacted by the police and have to report to police every day during the summit time, so they cannot leave their cities to come to Strasbourg.
There’s a lot of police in Strasbourg already. We had a small clash two nights ago at the camp. The police was provoking some confrontations. They are checking a lot of papers. Whenever you go into town, there’s a high risk that they will check your papers, and that can take a longer time or less time depending on who you are and what they think of you. So there’s a lot of police repression over here, which is very visible and creates a bit of tension. But at the same time, we have a lot of people here in the camp. Thousands of people are camping here in the south of Strasbourg.
AMY GOODMAN: Andreas, I just want to interrupt. Who did you say has to report to the police every day?
ANDREAS SPECK: Certain activists known — activists who are known by the police who live in different cities of Germany. They have been contacted and have to report to police in their city, which means they cannot leave their city, because every day they have to go to the police station and say, "I’m here." So that’s been preventing them from leaving their home to come to Strasbourg or Baden Baden to join the protests.
AMY GOODMAN: Tony Benn, finally, a comment on President Obama coming for the first time as president to Britain. Can you explain the level of popular sentiment around the issue of the war in Afghanistan? In the United States, in the mainstream media, there’s very little criticism of the expansion of the war. Today, the Pentagon calling for 10,000 more troops, on top of the 17,000 that Obama has promised. Tony Benn?
TONY BENN: Hello?
AMY GOODMAN: Hi. Tony Benn, are you still with us?
TONY BENN: I’m still there. Do you need me?
AMY GOODMAN: Yes. I’m just asking if you can explain the level of popular sentiment around the war in Afghanistan, with President Obama calling for more troops, the 17,000 more than the Pentagon today, calling for another 10,000 on top of that. Little idea in this country in the mainstream media — little is heard of those who are opposed to the war in Afghanistan. What about in Britain and around Europe?
TONY BENN: Well, you see, Britain invaded Afghanistan in 1839, a year or two before I was born, and we captured Kabul. And the following year, we were thrown out and lost 15,000 troops, British troops, were killed in the retreat. We went in again in 1879, and we were thrown out again.
The Russians went in, and I led a delegation to the Soviet ambassador in 1958 [sic] to complain about the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, and he said, “Comrade, we have to do it, because there are terrorists there.” And who was he referring to? Osama bin Laden. And who was funding Osama bin Laden? George Bush, the first George Bush. And, I mean, the thing is ludicrous.
And I’m not very good at geography, but I didn’t know the North Atlantic extended to Afghanistan. And the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is being turned into the French Foreign Legion for the White House. And so, there’s great opposition. Troops are dying. And it is an unwinnable war, but it’s also an immoral war. So opposition is very strong here against the Afghan war.
And I think that President Obama has made a mistake, but sometimes a mistake has to be learned by the person who makes it. And just as in the Vietnam War we were told there would be the great Tet Offensive and it would set it all right, but I fear this is going to go wrong, too.
Probably the most immediate danger, however, is the Israel threat to bomb Iran. And when I went to Iran in 1976 as the Energy Secretary, American policy then was to persuade the Shah to adopt nuclear power. And I had three hours with the Shah in Tehran, and I was told the American government were very keen that Iran should adopt nuclear power. So, you see, the whole thing is hypocritical, and the arguments used are cynical.
And people are seeing through it. I think there’s a greater awareness of what’s happening in the world among people than has ever been possible before the internet and television and satellite stations like Al Jazeera and so on. So I’m hopeful it will come right, but I’m afraid more lives will be lost as people learn they have got it wrong.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you both for being with us, Tony Benn, former British member of Parliament, current president of the Stop the War Coalition, spoke at the G20 protest in Trafalgar Square on Wednesday; also want to thank Andreas Speck, member of the War Resisters International, one of the lead organizers of the protests against the NATO summit.