A personal account of a magnificent day of solidarity and internationalism from Orlando da Rocha Hill
Last Saturday, approximately 200 hundred cyclists wearing black cycling jerseys with Freedom, Justice and Equality for Palestine written on the back and Palestine flags tied to their bicycles rode from west to east London covering 36 miles, the length of Gaza. I was fortunate and honoured to be among them.
The day started in Finsbury Park where I met with a fellow rider. We rode to Camden where we met three other riders, an Englishman, an Algerian and a young Spanish woman from Basque. This was a small international brigade. We took some photographs in front of the HSBC branch near Camden underground station as an improvised demo against the bank’s holdings in arms companies like Elbit Systems, BAE Systems, and Boeing, whose weapons are used in the brutal attacks on Gaza and the rest of Palestine.
Our small group cycled on to the starting point in Maida Hill. We arrived to a small square decorated with Palestine flags and the Big Ride for Palestine banner stretched from one tree to another. The red, green, white and black of the flags and the high spirits of the riders made quite a contrast to the dreary grey of that London morning - 20 degrees cooler than the preceding days. The general feeling was that the fine rain was a blessing for it would cool down the riders.
It was great to meet up with old friends from previous Big Rides, especially those from the first one in 2015 when we cycled from Edinburgh to London stopping in towns along the way and holding rallies in support of Palestine. The Big Ride for Palestine was initiated as a protest against Operation Protective Edge the year before. Fifty-one days of relentless bombardment in heavily populated Gaza by the Israeli forces had left thousands of dead and injured. According to some sources 30 percent of the dead were children.
Activists from Britain, Ireland and beyond wanted to combine their love for cycling with their support for Palestine. The aim was to raise awareness and funds for educational projects for the young people in Gaza. Since 2015 every summer there has been a ride. In 2016, we rode to Shenstone and managed to successfully blockade the UAV factory in protest against their selling drones to Israel.
For one reason or another I had missed the 2017 and 2018 rides, but this year after seeing the ruthless campaign against the leader of the opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, for his commitment to the Palestinian cause, I was determined to take part in this year’s.
Before the ride started there were the usual speeches, We were reminded of this year’s project which we were raising funds for, Cycling and Sports for Girls in Gaza. Over 200 girls are offered “the chance to learn and practice different sports in a safe environment.” You can still donate by visiting the site.
The send-off song Something Inside So Strong sung by a singer named Sue with a powerful voice. The video of her performance received 711 views and 52 shares in the matter of a few hours. There are plans to make it the Big Ride anthem or who knows a Palestinian version with Lowkey in the mix.
The countdown to the start of the ride was performed by the Palestinian national footballer and member of the Palestine national football team, Mahmoud Sarsak. In 2009, he was arrested while travelling from his home in Gaza to his club Balata Youth in the West Bank. He spent three years in an Israeli prison without trial or charges. He went on a three-month hunger strike and was finally released in July 2012.
So with a chant of “from the mountains to the sea, Palestine will be free” started by one of the riders in the back we set off on our 32 mile ride. I thought to myself, “I think she got the words wrong. Shouldn’t it be ‘from the river to the sea’?” But then the Golan Heights must be in the mountains. I guess geographically she was right.
“I lived in London for my life and there are still places I’ve never been”, I heard one of the riders say. One unexpected outcome of this ride was to show hidden places of their city to Londoners.
Along every high street that we cycled through we were received with huge enthusiasm from pedestrians, bus and motor car drivers. Everyone seemed to have their phones out recording our ride.
While we were waiting for the riders who were held back by traffic lights in Maida Vale to catch up, the shop keepers of Milad Supermarkets came out and offered us bottles of water. There were so many we didn’t know what to do with them. Fortunately, some of us had bike rack to which we could tie them to.
Thomas Christopher, one of the supporters in the van told me that a rider had a problem with her bike. They put the bike in the van and drove to a bike shop. When the bike mechanic in the shop was told why we were cycling, he refused to accept any payment. It was his demonstration of solidarity to Palestine.
There was a stop over in Regent Park for some refreshment and for everyone to gather together. Some more cyclists joined us there.
Cycling down Seven Sisters from Holloway to Finsbury Park and down Blackstock Road we were greeted by more enthusiastic support. The customers from the Algerian shops came out to witness us and show their support. On the next day when I went to Blighty, my local coffee shop, the baristas were eager to show their photos and videos on their phones of the Big Ride, and wanted to know more about it.
At Clissold Park, we were received by the local Palestinian Solidarity Campaign (PSC) with a delicious lunch inspired by Middle Eastern cuisine. A picnic party with a Mexican theme hundreds of metres away shouted out their support. Some more riders joined us adding to the number and off we went towards Walthamstow and Waltham Forest, where we were once again greeted with enthusiasm. People came out into the streets with phones in their hands to share the experience of seeing so many Palestine flags cycling through their streets.
A rider from Football Against Apartheid made a very clear observation that the “clear growth in the massive welcome for the 200 Palestinina flags riding through communities” demonstrates that the attack on Corbyn and his committment to recongnising a Palestinian state as soon as he becomes PM has “massively backfired”.
We were greeted at Saint John on Bethnal Green with a warm welcome by a crowd of supporters. Once again we were served food and attended a rally inside the church. Reverend Alan Green reminded us that it is a Christian duty to stand by the downtrodden and oppressed. He was followed by Mike Cushman who said he has been called a fake Jew by those who support Israel’s actions against Palestine. But in his view justice for everyone is a basic Jewish value and one lesson “we should take from the Holocaust is never again. Never again for everyone. That is why it is a Jewish duty to support Palestine.” He ended his speech shouting out “free, free Palestine” to which the crowd in the joined in. It got deservedly the biggest applause of the day.
This coming Saturday, 3 August, the Big Ride will take place in Manchester. The ride is a bit longer, 44 miles - the length of the West Bank. Then from 31 August to 1 September there is the Big Ride in Australia.
Orlando was born in Brazil and was involved in the successful struggle for democracy in the late 1970s and 80s in that country. He teaches A level Economics. He is a member of the NEU, Counterfire and Stop the War.
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