16 May 1998A personal view of the Jubilee 2000 'human chain' demonstration on 16 May 1998, during the G8 summit in Birmingham, by Ann Pettifor. Ann Pettifor was formerly Director of Jubilee 2000 in the UK and is now Director of Jubilee Research at the New Economics Foundation. Just thinking about it makes me shudder. An emotionally charged, positive, uplifting; but also scary day. A roller-coaster of a day. The teams in London and Birmingham consisted of a small core of paid staff; supported by a wide circle of committed volunteers. Both teams started the day exhausted, drained, and fearful. Exhausted by all the hard work; drained by the stress. Afraid that few would turn up. That we would not raise enough money to pay our bills. That the logistics would go wrong. That someone would get hurt. Above all, that the massive, collective efforts of thousands of volunteers, would fail to make sufficient impact on powerful, indifferent G7 leaders. So it was that I found myself, early that Saturday morning, outside the Jubilee 2000 HQ, the United Reform Church's Carr Centre), apprehensively staring out across at the Birmingham station exits.
In what we thought of as a calculated move to de-mobilise our supporters, (but which they argued was just a security measure) the Foreign Office had made a surprise announcement the Tuesday before: G7 leaders would not be in Birmingham on Saturday 16th! The very purpose of this demonstration was to make an impact on the G7. Now they were going to be whisked away to a secret venue. It had come to this, after months of endless, exhausting negotiations with the Foreign Office, Birmingham City Council, Birmingham police and the CIA. Thanks largely to Michael Taylor's diplomacy, we had managed to negotiate the making of a 9 km human chain around the venue the leaders were to meet in. To reduce its impact, as we saw it, the police insisted that part of the chain be diverted behind empty warehouses, into deserted squares and far-away streets. Birmingham Council required a risk assessment of every inch of road and pavement likely to be used by human chain makers. Paul Miller, a volunteer, tirelessly mapped every inch of the route. Despite all this careful and constructive co-operation, the demonstration was going to be snubbed by world leaders.
Why were they running scared? From what we have since been able to piece together, it appears that Helmut Kohl, Germany’s then leader, was the main problem. He had apparently taken offence at a campaign launched by Erlassjahr in Germany, and led here by Christian Aid (CA). It was aimed at the German Protestant churches. Thousands of CA postcards were sent, calling on the German people to remember that their debts had been cancelled in 1953. That debt write-off had given German children a future. Could African children be given the same hope? Just before the big day, International Development Secretary Clare Short called in a small group of Jubilee 2000 leaders. In the presence of senior officials and advisers to Archbishop Carey and Cardinal Hume, she ticked us off severely. She did not want the Prime Minister or other G7 leaders embarrassed. We assured her that we had every intention of running a peaceful, constructive and co-operative event. Julian Filochowski, CAFOD's director, was less diplomatic. The people of Britain had a democratic right to demonstrate, he said, and were not going to be intimidated by foreign leaders even if they did belong to the most powerful and exclusive club in the world! A strategic error
And so it was, that on the day, at 11 a.m. Birmingham was brimming with 70,000 peaceful, cheerful Jubilee 2000 campaigners, their banners and posters. Present also, were about 3,000 journalists, sent to cover the event. Only the G7 leaders were absent, giving the journalists very little to write about. So naturally they turned to the demonstrators. Overwhelmed by calls from hacks, we had done dozens of interviews by 11 a.m. It did not take long for No. 10’s spin doctors to realise that a major strategic error had been made. Soon the call came. The Prime Minister, Tony Blair, was flying back from the country-house meeting earlier than expected. Would it be possible to meet with Jubilee 2000’s leaders? For those of us who were there the 16th May, 1998 gave us precious memories. Of the joy and delight of uniting with friends around an issue of justice. Of the deep well of love and concern that unites large swathes of humanity. And of the powerful potential of human solidarity. Above all it gave us hope, courage and energy - to do more, and to give more. We owe it to millions of the world’s poorest people, in the world’s most indebted nations, to keep alive that hope, that courage and that energy. This account previously appeared in Did the G8 drop the debt?, a report by Jubilee Debt Campaign, Jubilee Research and CAFOD. Previous: the birth of Jubilee 2000