Thousands March for Peace
In a preview of the kind of anti-Bush force that may converge in New York this summer during the Republican National Convention, tens of thousands of demonstrators from across the Northeast marched in Manhattan on Saturday to protest on the one-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq war and to demand an end to the American occupation.
"Today we sent a message, not only to George Bush and his cronies in Washington but also to John Kerry and the people he wants to bring to the White House that our movement is alive and strong we're not going away," said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, which initiated the call for a global peace demonstration last October.
City officials estimated the crowd at 30,000 to 40,000, but organizers said the number was closer to 100,000, considering that the march at one point spanned more than 40 blocks as it snaked through midtown. The New York demonstrations coincided with peace vigils and protests in close to 300 cities across the US and in 60 countries -- including an estimated 1 million Italians who filled the streets of Rome to denounce their government's support for the war and approximately 25,000 who marched in London, where two intrepid Greenpeace activists caused a security panic by scaling Big Ben to hang a banner that read, "Time for Truth."
More somber marches were held in cities across Spain to mourn the 202 people killed in the Madrid train bombings, and protests took place across Asia, Latin America, and even in Egypt and Turkey -- where demonstrators clashed with riot police.
Photos of the San Francisco protest march by Derek Powazek
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Although the turnout in New York and other cities did not match the massive demonstrations that took place a year ago, organizers said the crowd sizes exceeded expectations -- especially in New York, where there has been an uproar over the police department's heavy-handed crowd-control techniques.
At last year's Feb. 15 rally during the buildup to the war, police penned protestors behind a maze of barricades to control access to the demonstration, prompting numerous arrests, injuries, and a class action lawsuit by the New York Civil Liberties Union. This time, the NYPD scaled back the barriers and went so far as to post detailed instructions for the protesters on its website -- though many still found the level of police control oppressive.
New York's protest, like those in other cities such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Chicago, was co-sponsored by the hard-left antiwar coalition International ANSWER, which expanded UFPJ's call to end the US occupation of Iraq with a more doctrinaire demand to "End Colonial Occupation from Iraq to Palestine to Haiti & Everywhere!"
Nevertheless, the demonstration drew a remarkably broad cross-section of people, from large numbers of Arab Americans, Palestinians and Haitians angry over the US-backed ouster of Aristide, to students, Greens, revolutionary socialists and Kucinich peaceniks, along with union workers, teachers and more well-heeled professionals -- many of them Deaniacs and Kerry supporters.
There was also a large contingent of veterans and about a dozen military families, whose presence added a level of gravitas to the protesters' myriad causes.
"Bush lied and who died?" demanded Fernando Suarez del Solar speaking out on behalf of his 20-year-old son Jesus, who was one of the first Marines killed during the invasion last March when he stepped on a cluster bomb dropped by Coalition forces. "More than 570 beautiful human beings have died in this war, and for what? For lies!" Suarez cried. "America, I am looking in you. We need to stop this war today. No more dead bodies," he pleaded, before leading the crowd in a chant of "Bring them home now!"
Suarez's anguish was echoed by Sue Niederer, whose son, Army Lt. Seth Dvorin, 25, was killed on February 3. Holding a sign that read, "You killed my son," she castigated President Bush for misleading the nation to war. "I want answers to my son's death. I want answers to why he was defusing a bomb when he was never trained to do that.
"What did he die for? For a country that hates us, that doesn't want us there. We should bring our troops home and topple Bush."
Toppling Bush was a central theme of the day, spelled out in a multitude of placards from "Outsource Bush," and "Stop Mad Cowboy Disease" to a 40-foot-tall "pink slip" strung up by members of Code Pink on the façade of a building on 23rd Street that read: "Women say Fire Bush." (The giant slip fluttered there for about 20 minutes before police entered the building and forced the activists to take it down.)
Indeed many of the demonstrators said they came out not just to voice their anger at the war but the entire agenda of the Bush Administration. "I'm against everything this president has done," said Jerry Mazak Sr., an unemployed pipefitter and electrician from Phoenix who carried a sign that read: "Read my Lips: No New Jobs."
"Bush put a stop to the Clean Air Act, and that shut down a lot of our work installing scrubbers," said Mazak who marched with two other unemployed union electricians from Boston. "There's no money for public works. We've been all over the country looking for jobs."
Brooklyn Congressman Major Owens, speaking on behalf of 133 House members who voted against the war, saluted the crowd as "warriors for peace" and urged them to "make your voices louder."
"Adopt a Congressman! They need to hear your voices. Because we are in a period when the Congress is shriveling," Owens said, pointing to the many legislators who last week supported the Republican's trumped-up "support the troops" resolution even though it also endorsed the Administration's handling of the occupation.
Other speakers included Ohio congressman and Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich and former Labor Party member Tony Benn, head of Britain's Stop the War Coalition, who said he hoped Americans would "follow the example of Spain's electorate."
But if the crowd was unified in wanting to see Bush defeated, there were many differing opinions over what to do about ending the occupation in Iraq. On stage, there were emphatic demands to "Bring the Troops Home Now!" but little effort to address the larger question of how this might be achieved.
Part of the problem may have been the fact that while UFPJ and ANSWER co-sponsored the march, the two organizations have been openly feuding for months over the direction of the peace movement and how much to emphasize the struggle for Palestine. First ANSWER put out a call for its own demonstration on March 20 after UFPJ had already issued theirs. Then, according to Cagan, ANSWER said they'd work with UFPJ, but demanded that the UFPJ network put ending the occupation of Palestine on equal footing with the demand to get US troops out of Iraq.
Cagan and others within UFPJ balked, stating that while they also believed it was important to address the Israeli occupation of Palestine, the main purpose of the March 20 demonstration was to mark the anniversary of the Iraq war. ANSWER responded by circulating a letter signed by numerous Arab and Muslim groups alleging that it was "racist" of the antiwar movement not to give Palestine equal footing.
In the end the groups agreed to collaborate on March 20 but with separate messaging -- which made for a somewhat schizophrenic stage show. The split was apparent as the march stepped off on 23rd Street behind two separate banners: UFPJ's "End the Occupation: Bring the Troops Home!" side by side with ANSWER's more elaborate: "End the occupations of Iraq, Palestine, Haiti and everywhere..." While the UFPJ crowd chanted "Money for housing, not for war!" the cry from the ANSWER side was "Occupation is a crime: From Iraq to Palestine!"
Left unaddressed by the speakers at Saturday's march was the larger question of what bringing home the troops actually means. Should the US simply withdraw and leave the Iraqis to fashion a democracy for themselves, as ANSWER advocates? Or should the peace movement push for the United Nations to oversee an international transitional force to help secure the peace, facilitate real elections and prevent the country from devolving into civil war? And if the UN or other countries refuse, then what?
Indeed, some critics say that with the US occupation failing in Iraq, the Bush Administration would like nothing better than to cut its losses and get out, leaving the Iraqis or the UN to pick up the pieces. "The risk here is that that by demanding an immediate pullout without some sort of UN transition, the peace movement is dovetailing into Bush's position," says Stephen Bronner, a professor of political science at Rutgers University.
Peace activists concede there are no easy answers. But for many of those who turned out on Saturday, the point was to keep opposition to the war and occupation visible.
"It's far beyond 'Bring the troops home," said Michael Schwartz, a technical writer from Boston who marched carrying a sign that read: "We Were Right."
"This is about a critique of the administration's entire program. The profound dishonesty of George Bush is destroying this country."
Sarah Ferguson is a New York-based freelancer who often covers activism.