Reflection: the 1998 human chain around Birmingham city centre

Organiser Isabel Carter recounts the atmosphere on the streets of Birmingham twenty years ago when the call to ‘drop the debt’ was raised by citizens from around the country and the world.

Well before 3 o’clock we all dutifully began moving towards our assigned streets, meeting up again with friends and getting into position. Our South Cave contingent were allocated a section near Queensway. As the church bells began to ring out 3 o’clock we all held hands.

It was an extraordinary feeling with plenty of ‘tingle factor’ – knowing that all around the city over 70,000 other people were joining hands to make up this human chain. We knew that it was being filmed from the air. I found out later that in some areas the chain was several people deep, but we had to stretch sometimes to reach the next person in our area. Each person mattered. Once we’d formed the chain we chanted, “No more debt, no more debt,” blew our whistles with vigour and sang.

Nobody really wanted to let go after the assigned two minutes and so we continued. After about 20 minutes we reluctantly broke up our section of the chain. But everywhere the atmosphere was now electric. There was such a sense of achievement.

My designer friend Bill Phelps had cycled down from Leeds on his rickshaw (a long story) and he and a group of friends were enjoying cycling round and round the inner ring road joined by lots of other cyclists. Motorbikes and some initially baffled drivers joined in the party, tooting their horns and waving at a very responsive crowd. A large Japanese contingent from the G8 talks were observed driving around and waving enthusiastically. Taxi drivers were happy to join the party. Many of the Birmingham regulars and shopkeepers, who had been somewhat wary and even irritated in the morning, were now joining in the party and celebrations, loving the happy, sociable atmosphere. What an amazing day!

In reflection, the human chain proved to be a highly significant event – for a whole variety of reasons. For many of the participants it was their first experience of people power and advocacy at work. With the formation of the coalition a few months earlier, the planning for the day had shown how numerous agencies working together in a generally well-coordinated way could make for a much greater impact.

The decision of the security forces for the G8 leaders to flee to Weston Park fell rather flat as information reached the delegates both of the scale of the demonstration and of its good nature. Indeed, various delegates and negotiators returned informally to Birmingham to see for themselves what was happening, drawn by the news coverage. And far from being a failure, Tony Blair and other leaders from the G8 summit arranged last minute high profile meetings with Ann Pettifor, Michael Taylor, Bono and other coalition members. Ann commented, “The prime minister has seen the people and he has summoned us to meet him at 5.30 today. In other words, the G8 have backed down. In the face of this people power they’ve said, ‘Wow, we’re going to have to listen to this crowd,’ so that’s very exciting!”

Days after the event, the PM stood up in the House of Commons to “pay tribute to Jubilee 2000 for its dignified and powerful breaking-the-chains demonstration”. There was massive coverage by the media and by The Guardian in particular, which had dedicated a week to give full coverage of the build-up and the event itself (printing a whole supplement focusing on Jubilee 2000 and the Birmingham event} and continued to give us media coverage following the event.

For the newly formed Jubilee 2000 coalition, it proved a game-changer. Through their campaigning they had forced debt onto the agenda of the G8, albeit with only a small time allocation planned, but through the impact of the Birmingham Chain, debt cancellation was given a much bigger focus during the summit, ultimately leading to a statement on debt on the final day pledging to extend debt relief to more countries (though still within the HIPC initiative). The news coverage obviously played a significant role with plenty of photogenic photos of ‘the chain’ capturing the imagination. The profile of the Jubilee 2000 coalition was given an enormous boost and the coalition was able to move forward and grow, establishing a larger and very efficient office base with staff building effective political links and establishing networks with many other agencies.

Other groups and campaigns around the world also gained huge encouragement, just as a number of smaller national campaigns were taking off in Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, Guyana, Honduras and Ghana. For me it had been a taste of heaven – or at least how I rather hope heaven will work out – a party made up of reunions with old friends, meeting interesting and unexpected new friends, united in a common cause, full of surprises and fun, streets free of traffic, people free to wander everywhere and bathed in warm sunshine. It brought a sense of closure to my own involvement in the adventure of the past few years but also a huge sense of anticipation of all that was to unfold.

This article is an extract from the book ‘A Taste of Heaven’ by Isabel Carter, available from Onwards and Upwards publishers. The book charts the emergence of the Jubilee 2000 movement and details the organising involved behind the scenes.


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