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Peace protesters network with MPs

By Emma Thelwell

Updated on 25 May 2010

The Democracy Village on Parliament Square provides an "incredible networking experience" for anti-war protestors, who say they mingle with MPs and soldiers alike.

Protestors outside the House of Commons (credit: Emma Thelwell)

Rory Stewart, the ex-army Conservative MP for Penrith and The Border has dropped by to give his support personally, said Pete Phoenix, who has been running squatters' community centres for 15 years.

Mr Phoenix, 36, voted for the first time this year - for the Green Party - and is one of around 30 peaceful protestors who set up camp in the Square on May 1 to campaign mainly against the war in Afghanistan.

"It is one of the most incredible network experiences of my life," said Mr Phoenix. The veteran denies leading the "non-hierarchical" camp, despite dispatching younger activists to target certain members of the press.

Simon Moore, one of the younger guard in his 20s, prepared a banner for today reading: "We respect the soldiers but we do not support the war".

Mr Moore, whose father was in the armed forces, is keen to emphasise the camps' non-violent protest.

"People are naive about modern day war - it's portrayed as clean but actually it has got dirtier. The weapons are more lethal and barbaric - wiping out human lives with the touch of a button," he said.

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Mr Moore says he is "not overly fussed about the theatrics" of other protestors - which today included an alternative, somewhat alcohol fuelled, Queen's speech from the Square's homeless tenant Tracey.

The motley crew of protestors urged Tracey, who was trussed up in a regal costume, not to take another sip from her Starbucks cup which was "unlikely" to contain coffee.

Tracey and her husband Tarquin are "the resident drunks" says Gareth Newnham, a land reformist from Kew Bridge eco-village.

Mr Newnham said the couple, alongside some activists such as the Election Meltdown group, are part of a minority who distract the public from the cause of the majority.

"Some of the Democratic Village were peeved when Tracey and Tarquin sent out a press release (regarding their alternative speech), without consulting anyone," he said.

Appealing against the group's removal from the Square, Mr Moore said the protest was respectful and non-violent, adding: "It's not exactly an easy ride - we're living on a traffic island with the most horrific pollution".

The Democracy Village in Parliament Square

Lucca Benney, 19, also urged the public to look beyond reports of the camp as an eyesore.

"Apart from keeping it neat and tidy, which we try to do, we have a really important message," she said as she helped a disabled protestor put together his placard.

The activists' main complaint in the run-up to the general election was that none of the three main parties offered a vote for peace.

With the coalition offering no immediate signs of pulling UK troops out of Afghanistan, the protestors plan to remain as long as possible.

However, today Mayor of London Boris Johnson confirmed he is seeking legal action to remove the peace camp.

"Parliament Square is a world heritage site and top tourist attraction that is visited by thousands of people and broadcast around the world each day," a statement on behalf of the Mayor said.

Westminster City Council leader Colin Barrow accused the protestors of "hijacking" the square, adding: "We all support peaceful protest, but it is completely unacceptable for parts of our city to be occupied and turned into no-go areas by vociferous minorities, however laudable each cause may be."

Ranging in age from 18-65, the square has in the past played host to veteran protestor Brian Haw since 2001.

Mr Haw, who is said to be unimpressed by the camp, was forcibly removed by police ahead of the state opening of parliament this morning, for allegedly obstructing police.

Mr Moore said any oppression would be a sign of the camp's success, but insisted the group was protesting "with dignity and respect".

Paraphrasing philosopher Edmund Burke, Mr Moore concluded: "If good people do nothing, the tyrants win."

However, Mr Newnham added that today was a "day off from direct action" out of respect for the pomp and ceremony of the State Opening of parliament which attracted scores of tourists.

Indeed, the Queen swept into Parliament Square in her carriage to little more than the odd call of "get a real job", as military bands played everything from Tina Turner's Simply the Best to The Beatles' Hey Jude in the run-up to her arrival.

Tourists roamed Westminster and mingled with the activists on the square in the sun - while one activist drew laughs with the comment: "Try sending your own family to Afghanistan - send Prince Philip there."

A well-heeled bystander retorted, "What a good idea", to a few more more laughs.

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