A Peace Movement Emerges

In the first major sign of popular opposition to a unilateral war with Iraq, an estimated 20,000 people filled the East Meadow of Central Park on Sunday to pledge their resistance to President George Bush's military plans.

The diverse crowd ranged from seasoned activists--many of them veterans of Vietnam War protests--to college and high school students, business professionals, Muslims, Jews, Christians, and concerned parents, some of whom traveled from the Midwest to voice their dissent.

"I've been waiting for this since 9/12," said Bruce Olin, 52, who flew in from Springfield, Illinois. "The reason the terrorists did what they did was to provoke the exact response that America has had. They were relying on the fact that we have an idiot for a president," said Olin, who owns a pharmaceutical testing verification firm.

Beverly Walker, a 50-year-old customer service rep from Crown Heights, had never attended an antiwar rally. But she felt compelled to come out on behalf of her sons who are of draft age.

"I think there should be long and patient negotiations in the U.N. to decide how to best deal with Iraq. We need to give peace a chance," said Walker, adding, "People are suffering already in Iraq. This is going to make it 10 times worse." The rally, which was organized by a diverse coalition of groups operating as the Not In Our Name project, coincided with smaller peace rallies in Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, and other communities.

In New York, organizers were joined by Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia and several celebrity activists, including Martin Sheen, who plays the U.S. president on NBC's The West Wing.

Sheen read an excerpt of Dr. Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech and invoked the diplomacy used by President Kennedy to avert war during the Cuban missile crisis.

"This is the first public debate that I've really seen," Sheen commented backstage, "so I'm grateful to New Yorkers for being here today. I can't remember a time in my country, in my life, when there has been such an overall stifling of public debate on such a critical issue."

Taking on Bush's effort to impose a new U.S. doctrine of preemptive strikes, actress Susan Sarandon demanded, "Do we the people really want to be a new Rome that imposes its rule by the use of overwhelming force whenever its interests are threatened? Even perceived potential threats? We do not want endless warfare."

Calling the proposed military action in Iraq a "war for oil," Sarandon gave out the phone numbers for local Congress members and urged people to "make trouble!"

But Sarandon's companion, Tim Robbins, also cautioned the antiwar crowd to be careful in the way it frames its dissent. "This is not the chickens coming home to roost," Robbins said. "Al Qaeda's actions have hurt this burgeoning peace movement more than any other.

"Our resistance to this war should be our resistance to profit at the cost of human life," Robbins argued. "Because that is what these drums beating over Iraq are all about . . . . In the name of fear and fighting terror, we are giving the reins to oil men looking for a distraction from their disastrous economic performance."

There were also heartrending testimonials from relatives of victims of the World Trade Center attacks who oppose military action, and Afghan women who had lost family members during the bombing campaigns against Al Qeada.

Shokriea Yaghi, an Afghan immigrant, spoke out on behalf of her Jordanian husband, a pizza parlor owner in New York for the last 15 years who was deported in July after being detained for nine months without charges.

"I have not seen my husband for 15 months," said Yaghi, a mother of three. "Now we are being told that he cannot return to this country for 10 years. I am here to fight for my husband's rights," she cried in tears. "I am here to fight for my children's rights. My father and brother died in Afghanistan trying to run away from the civil war there. I was orphaned at 10. I do not want that to happen to my children or to the children in Iraq. I want my husband home."

At a time when polls show the majority of Americans do not support a unilateral invasion of Iraq, many in the crowd voiced their frustration with Congress for not representing their views.

"We were promised a real debate and a statement from the president about why Iraq is such a threat now, and we're not getting it," said Rick Jones of Highlands, New Jersey, who sported a homemade sandwich board that read: "Hey Congress! Killing Iraqis for Votes Is Pathetic!"

Jones said he had been calling his New Jersey representatives every day for the last three weeks to ask their position on a war with Iraq, but has so far received no responses. "Getting re-elected seems to be their only concern. They're all sitting on the fence, hoping to wait it out."

There was also widespread anger at the mainstream media for failing to represent antiwar views. "The establishment--AOL, Disney, GE, Viacom, Murdoch media--they're not going to bring us pictures of the Iraqi dead and dying any more than they did in 1991 [during the Gulf War]," said Laura Flanders of New Yorkers Say No to War.

"They aren't going to show us Iraq any more than we've seen the bombings of Kandahar or Tora Bora or Mazar-e Sharif," she told the cheering crowd. Many said they were skeptical about the real motives behind President Bush's stepped-up campaign against Saddam Hussein.

"If he had the proof of all of what he's been saying about Saddam, why would the rest of the U.N. be against him? It doesn't make sense," said Mark Shafer, an 86-year-old veteran of World War II.

There were some off-key moments on stage, like the anti-cop rhetoric of some Boston rappers, or the throwback stridency of one young woman from the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade.

Her curse-filled tirade was overshadowed by the simple speech given by a nine-year-old girl: "We have more than enough money to buy oil," she told the crowd. "So why do we choose to steal it?"

Photos by David Vita.

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