The scratches and bruises on his face were as evident as the anarchy badge pinned to his red beret when Caerphilly Councillor Ray Davies, 79, stood from his seat and addressed the lecture hall.
“Friends and comrades,” he said to the collection of socialists, humanitarians, activists and Muslims twisting in their seats to face him, “I’ve been going to public meetings like this for years and have grown used to standing up and speaking in front of four or five people. I can’t remember a turn-out as good as this.
“I realised at the marches in Cardiff on Friday and in London on Saturday that a marker has been set. The campaign will now continue and won’t die out. The movement we’ve been waiting for is now here.”
Mr Davies has campaigned for peace for decades. His activism and humanitarian work has seen him campaign on various individuals’ behalf and on a range of issues. It has forced him to serve time in jail and seen his position as a councillor severely compromised. During the recent London protest, Mr Davies was hit on the head when violence broke out between protestors and the Metropolitan police outside the Israeli Embassy, leaving him unconscious.
He has been instrumental in orchestrating the series of peaceful protests and public meetings that have taken place, and will continue to take place, in Cardiff over the last few weeks in response to Israel’s attack on the Gaza Strip.
It is evident that Mr Davies and other activists across the city feel that the Gaza crisis has galvanised the general public and in particular the Muslim community. The protest that took place on Queen Street on Friday 9 January was the largest Cardiff has seen for many years. Starting at the City Hall and moving towards Cardiff Castle, it spanned half the length of Queen Street.
Standing by the Aneurin Bevan statue speeches were given by, amongst others, the prospective Labour parliamentary candidate for Cardiff Central Jenny Rathbone and Munir Ashi, a resident and business-owner in Cardiff who was born and brought up in the Gaza Strip.
Both of them shared their views with me on the state of political protest in Cardiff as a result of the Gaza crisis:
The next day, three coach-loads of people travelled from Cardiff to London to join in the 150,000 strong march on the Israeli Embassy. It was the biggest protest against Israeli aggression in Britain’s history.
Ghaith Nassar spent three years in Cardiff whilst completing an architectural engineering degree at the city’s university. Ghaith was born and bought up in Ramallah, a city in the West Bank where he has now returned to live.
Whilst in Cardiff, Ghaith was heavily involved in the Cardiff Palestine Solidarity Society and protested alongside the Cardiff Reds Choir against the Welsh Assembly’s invitation to the Israeli ambassador in June.
Ghaith is now an active member of Action Palestine, conducting a campaign against Israeli aggression over the internet using social-media sites, primarily Facebook.
“Surprisingly enough it was not that bad,” he said when I asked him about Cardiff’s perception of his hometown. “Many people understood a lot about the situation but not much about the Palestinian people and the culture.
“The people in Cardiff seemed to be mostly aware of the situation but active? No, not that much.
“Many people wanted to stay neutral and not take sides which was frustrating. In my eyes being objective, neutral or whatever you want to call it means you are with Israel whether you intend to be or not.”
Ghaith was keen to talk about the Palestinian people as well as the politics that surrounds their everyday existence. He directed me to an article he had written for This Week In Palestine.
Ghaith’s perception of the Cardiff people may be different if he were in the city now.
But, if the movement Mr Davies has welcomed is to sustain itself and have an impact, changes need to be made to the way that activists approach their work.
For something billed as a public meeting and a place to discuss, there was too much transmitting and not enough receiving at the Wallace Lecture Theatre at Cardiff University.
Faced with a crowd who have a liberal interpretation of facts, who shy away from asking each other questions, who applaud each comment regardless of whether it is practical and insightful or inane, self-congratulatory and wide-of-the-mark and who act like a procession of soap-boxes, the inevitable, nagging question always arises; what good is this doing in the concrete world? Why bother?
I talked to Myrla Eastland, a member of Cor Cochion Caerdydd (Cardiff Red Choir). The Choir meets outside the indoor market in Cardiff every Saturday and Tuesday, singing protest songs in different dialectics and raising awareness about humanitarian crisis throughout the world.
They formed in 1983 due to shared feelings over events in Chile, South Africa and at home in Wales. After visiting Palestine in 1994 with Ray Davies, they set up CND Cymru.
It is humbling to watch someone, rain or shine, exercise their civil liberties and in doing so continue to reinstate the belief that those liberties should be available to anyone, whether they’re from Caerphilly, Cathays, Ramallah or Gaza.
As Myrla Eastland said:
“The important thing for the people in this group- the thing we believe in- is that acting is much more important than reacting. People come up to us and say ‘what you’re doing is useless, Palestine is never going to change.’ When we were members of the anti-apartheid movement we never felt that. We felt that it was important, no matter what the odds, to keep going. In the end, we prevailed over the apartheid.”