The Word From the Streets of New York: "No War!"

As the battle in Iraq gets gets uglier, the peace cause is building steam.

In the face of polls that show 70 percent of Americans rallying behind President Bush, hundreds of thousands of protesters streamed through the heart of Manhattan on Saturday to denounce the US attack on Iraq as a reckless affront to international law and American democracy.

Unlike the massive demonstration on February 15, a national protest that drew hundreds of buses from other states, this was largely a New York affair--which is what made the turnout so impressive. The official crowd estimate by police was "in excess of 125,000," but officers at the scene said more than 200,000 marched, while organizers claimed 300,000.

While that may have been fewer than the half a million who swamped the city on February 15, the day was far more peaceful.

Under sparkling blue skies, throngs of festive but adamant protesters drummed and chanted their way down Broadway from Herald Square to Washington Square Park. The crowd was so huge it packed Broadway for two miles, and a good hour after the front of the march reached the park, the back hadn't even left 42nd Street.

Though there were some scuffles and arrests after a group of about 150 young anarchists tried to stage a breakaway march south of Union Square, tensions really only flared at the end, when police sought to clear the thousands still jamming the streets around Washington Square Park. There were 91 arrests, the bulk of them made after protesters chanting "Our streets!" staged a sit-in on Waverly Place.

Police reported 17 officers injured, eight of them after being sprayed with "mace-like substance." But activists said it was likely blowback from the pepper spray that police used when they moved in to clear a crowd of people (a few of whom were burning American flags) at the southwest perimeter of the park.

Organizers with United for Peace and Justice, which won a permit for the march, blamed police for escalating the conflict. "When we reached the park, the crowd was in a very celebratory mood," said Bill Dobbs. "All they had to do was bide their time and wait for things to wind down." Instead, marchers were greeted at Washington Square with a police loudspeaker broadcasting a tinny order: "The march is now over. Please disperse in an orderly way."

For most in the crowd, however, their aim wasn't challenging police but what they saw as the frightening arrogance of the Bush Administration. Many said it was the memory of 9/11 that compelled them to march. "When I saw the first footage of the 'Shock and Awe' campaign, it looked so much like the Twin Towers attacks, and I thought those people must feel just like us. What did the Iraqi people do to us?" asked Claudia Rullman, a plant biologist from Brooklyn Heights.

In addition to the march in New York, about 50,000 came out in San Francisco for a rally called by International ANSWER, and smaller demos were held in hundreds of cities nationwide. Abroad, another 100,000 rallied in London over the weekend, 90,000 in Paris, and tens of thousands protested in Sydney and the Australian capital Canberra to demand the removal of Aussie troops. Thousands more hit the streets in Mexico, Russia, Taiwan, India and Belgium.

What Now?

So where to go next? On Thursday, New York activists are planning a large civil disobedience protest at Rockefeller Center targeting the media and corporate profiteering from the war. Many groups are also planning roving street blockades, taking their cue from the wave of protests in San Francisco that paralyzed the financial district last week and resulted in 2,150 arrests. San Francisco activists are calling for more direct-action protests on Monday and Tuesday.

The idea, activists say, is to make the political and economic costs of war untenable. But they're facing a stiff crackdown by police, who have been using a city ordinance to declare the street assemblies illegal, penning people in on sidewalks and then arresting them en masse, and sometimes with force.

Others in the movement say civil disobedience actions risk turning the attention from fighting the war to scrapping with police. Rev. Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches and co-chair of the Win Without War Coalition--a group that has sought to build mainstream opposition to war--says his folks are ready to turn up the heat, but plan to use more traditional forms of civil disobedience. "We're looking hard at the lessons of Gandhi and Dr. King," he says.

Beyond tactics, there's the question of targets. Some groups say they want to go after Congress and get them to rescind their approval of the use of force, or even withhold appropriations for the war. But considering that on Friday both the House and Senate passed resolutions to support the troops with near unanimity, it's hard to see such ideas gaining traction.

There's also an online campaign afoot to demand that the General Assembly of the UN condemn the invasion as a violation of international law, and even talk of bringing Bush to trial as a war criminal.

Others say it's time to take a step back and refocus. "I think what the peace movement has to do now is look at the real human costs of war," says Jason Mark of the Bay Area-based human rights group Global Exchange.

"It's obvious we're not going to stop the war and bring the troops home. But if buildings are ablaze, it means thousands are probably dying. So our goal is to focus on the damage we've caused and how we are going to heal those wounds. The current budget for rebuilding Iraq is like two cents on the dollar compared to the $90 billion we're supposed to be spending on this war. And how are we going to afford it? We need to get back to the roots of why we hate war. Because the price in human life is just too high."

Sarah Ferguson is a freelance writer in New York who writes frequently about activism.

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