April 20 Anti-war Protests Overwhelm Expectations
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Huge anti-war demonstrations on Saturday in Washington, San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Salt Lake City and Houston turned out considerably more people than organizers and police authorities expected. District of Columbia Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey estimated that 75,000 marched in Washington, while estimates in San Francisco varied between 30,000 and 50,000.
The size, energy and peacefulness of the marches was a big boost to progressive forces across the country who have been very much on the defensive in the post-9/11 period. "Saturday was inspiring evidence that there is enormous grassroots opposition to the Bush agenda of endless war at home and abroad," said Terra Lawson-Remer, one of the D.C. organizers.
The gatherings, by far the biggest in the U.S. since the Sept. 11 attacks, focused on an array of progressive grievances -- the undermining of civil liberties, questions about U.S. foreign policy in Afghanistan and Colombia, as well as the effects of corporate globalization around the world.
But the protesters' most powerful message was their anger about Israel's repression in the West bank. Chants of "Stop the occupation now" and "We are all Palestinians today" emanated from the marchers, and the black, red, white and green flag of Palestine dominated the visual landscape.
Saturday's demonstrations in Washington were in contrast to the memorable April 2000 actions in Washington, when protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund led to a virtual shutdown of the downtown area. At that time there were pitched clashes between police and demonstrators, and many hundreds were arrested. In this weekend's protests, separate events with differing goals were held on Saturday morning, but in the afternoon, everyone -- despite some differences in strategy and tactics -- came together to create a huge and peaceful crowd. According to the Washington Post, Chief Ramsey praised the decorum of Saturday's demonstrations.
"The organizers did an outstanding job," said Ramsey, baton in hand as he watched thousands file past the Justice Department building. "This is really what protests ought to be."
The San Francisco four-hour protest caused widespread gridlock. "It's one of the biggest protests in the past five years," San Francisco Police Commander Greg Suhr told Jim Herron Zamora of the San Francisco Chronicle. "It's not often that you see one where a crowd has formed in the Civic Center but there are still people in Dolores Park who haven't started marching."
The San Francisco demonstration was billed as a march against "the real axis of evil: war, racism, poverty." But clearly, support for the Palestinian cause transcended the other issues. The march included many Americans of Palestinian descent, as well as immigrants from other Arab countries who became politically active after the Sept. 11 attacks. One protester, Riad Morrar, immigrated from Egypt 27 years ago, and now owns a technology company in the Sacramento area. "There is nothing else I can do but tell President Bush: 'You are wrong. Stop killing my people,'" Morrar told the San Francisco Chronicle, as he marched with his wife and four children.
"I spent 20 years avoiding the news, avoiding conflict. It is too depressing," said Kais Menoufy, another Egyptian immigrant at the march. "I love America. But I'm embarrassed and angry that my country is supporting genocide."
According to Herron Zamora, the oldest marcher in San Francisco was probably Dave Smith, an 89-year-old member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, an American group opposing nationalists in the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39. "I am proud to fight fascism and oppression, whether it's in Spain, Nazi Germany or Israel," said Smith.
The youngest demonstrator might have been Hanif Amanullah, a four-month-old from Oakland who slept in his father's arms. "I'm marching for this little guy," said Shahed Amanullah. "I want him to grow up in a world without this kind of violence."
Not everyone agreed with how the rallies turned out. Robert Elan, an inner-city school teacher in San Francisco, felt that Saturday's actions were supposed to be about war, racism and poverty. "Instead of focusing on U.S. corporate corruption, the attack on civil liberties ... and celebrating the environmental victories just before Earth Day, the multi-issue demonstration was dominated by solidarity with the Palestinian people," he explained. "Palestinian Independence took the front seat and relegated many other important issues to the back seat. By doing so, the rally de-emphasized domestic issues and the problems associated with globalization. I believe this was a missed opportunity. Some people are calling this a huge success for its large numbers. I think it was rather a failure for its impact."
Nevertheless, as John Nichols wrote for TheNation.com, "The size of the protests is notable because they come at a time when most political leaders and media commentators remain cautious about criticizing U.S. policies. Organizers across the country argued that the turnout was evidence that there is far more opposition to U.S. policy among the American people than the relative silence of official Washington would indicate."
The success of the organizing and the peaceful nature of the protests will no doubt open up some political space for larger numbers of people to more aggressively pursue a range of issues -- and perhaps give some elected officials a little more spine. Furthermore, the presence of large numbers of Arab Americans and immigrants represents a breakthrough in the American protest movement.
"Clearly the significance of Saturday was that Americans do not support the way Bush is handling the war on terrorism, either domestically or internationally," said Terra Lawson-Remer. "People came out to say that supporting freedom and democracy and opposing terrorism does not mean expanding war and cracking down on civil liberties."
Behind the scenes, organizers were congratulating themselves. The fact that 75,000 people came out in the streets of D.C. without the backing of organized labor suggests that the left has expanded its base. And perhaps for the first time, a clear message of common ground was established between the anti-war and anti-corporate globalization campaigns -- that they are both about promoting justice by challenging the U.S. might, whether military or economic, that reinforces U.S. dominance at the expense of many countries around the world.
Don Hazen is the executive editor of AlterNet.org.