New York's no to war

Print edition : March 14, 2003
in New York

In New York, on February 15.-SHAWN BALDWIN/AP

NEW YORK had not seen anything like it in decades. Hundreds of thousands of people converged on the streets of Manhattan on February 15 to protest against America's plans to attack Iraq. Not since 1982, when one million protesters filled Central Park demanding nuclear disarmament, had the city witnessed such an outpouring of public sentiment for global peace. By the end of the day, the count of protesters varied from 100,000 to anywhere between half a million and 800,000, depending on who you asked. "But the numbers do not matter," remarked Leslie Cagan of United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the coalition that organised the rally. "People in New York City and scores of others in the U.S. joined 600 cities in the world in a clear cry for peace, saying we are not allowing Bush to do what he wants to do in Iraq."

Undeterred by a court order banning the planned march past the United Nations (U.N.) headquarters, and by the harsh cold of a wintry weekend with icy winds whipping across the East River, people began pouring into the east side of Manhattan early on Saturday. The focal point was a speakers' dais on 51st Street and First Avenue, within sight of the U.N. building, which was a few blocks to the south. But protesters filled the streets for nearly 30 blocks, stretching up to 78th Street and across two avenues west.

Although predominantly white, the gathering was a kaleidoscope of America - the young, the middle-aged and the elderly, men and women, peace activists, trade unionists, labour organisers, environmentalists, artists, singers, war veterans, reservists, students, teachers, citizens, immigrants, residents - from New York and the nearby States of New Jersey, New Hampshire and Maine and as far away as Illinois and Ohio, who felt impelled to add their voices to those saying "War: not in our name."

Politicians, celebrity actors and artists, including Martin Luther King III Jr., Danny Glover, Angela Davis and Holly Near, addressed the gathering from a raised dais in front of a banner that proclaimed, "The World Says No to War." Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: "It is an extraordinary moment that fills you with hope in humanity, that so many people so many miles from Iraq can come out in such weather to say give peace a chance."

The mood was partly sombre. There was also a distinctly American exuberance and energy in the air, unmistakable in the sarcasm, wry humour or plain cheeky insouciance in several posters. President Bush was an obvious target with many demonstrators offering practical ways of dealing with the establishment. "Drop Bush, not Bombs", "Stop the Bushit", "Regime Change Begins at Home", "Save a tree: Remove a Bush", "Stop Mad Cowboy Disease", and "Impeach the Son of a Bush", they urged. For "Pre-emptive Impeachment" you could visit Votetoimpeach.org. One sign warned against "Weapons of Mass Distraction", another reminded everyone that "75 per cent did not Vote for Bush", and called for "Healthcare not Warfare". "I hope Bush doesn't `Liberate' Me," said another.

Pete Seeger at the rally.-SUSAN FARLEY/AFP

A man wearing a Bush mask and snaky blood-coloured talons squashing a globe, wove in and out of the crowd. "Draft the Bush Twins," suggested a batch of bright green placards. The allusion was to the renewed debate over the draft provoked by the planned invasion of Iraq, with leading Democrats calling attention to the fact that it is mostly poor blacks and whites who enlist for the armed forces.

Many placards elaborated on the "blood-for-oil" theme: "Read Between the Pipelines." "How Many Lives per Gallon?" "How Did Our Oil Get Under Their Sand?" wondered one. "War: Is Your S.U.V. Worth It?" asked another, referring to the petrol-guzzling sport utility vehicle that is the family car of choice in the U.S. And adding its voice to "Peace is Patriotic" was a plea: "Apocalypse Not Yet: I'm Still Single."

Though largely peaceful, there were sporadic clashes between the protesters and the police, who were present in overwhelming numbers on foot, in cars and on horseback. They blocked passage through the side streets to the centre-stage and barricaded demonstrators behind block-long police fences. Most of the policemen seemed weary and apathetic, rather than overtly hostile to the demonstrators. "I have been out since 6 a.m. and am just cold and want to go home," said Officer Riley. Officer Moonan, Indian-born from Trinidad, milled about chatting with some women. "I do not have an opinion when in uniform," he replied with a grin when asked what he thought of the rally.

But overall, the sheer numbers of policemen and their heavy-handedness enraged many protesters, some of whom were arrested for `disorderly conduct', and provoked complaints from legal aid and civil liberties groups. "It is just like the city to over-police this event. They have herded us into pig pens," said one exasperated demonstrator. Turning to a phalanx of cops barring entry to 49th Street, he asked, "Why are you doing this to us? Can one of the whole lot of you tell me why you are preventing us from listening to the speakers?" The policemen looked on expressionlessly, feeling no need to explain. A Federal Court of Appeals had backed their case to ban the march for security reasons, confining it to a rally that, given the city's grid layout, was split in three parts by police barricades.

(The day after the demonstration, UFPJ coalition members charged the police with using unwarranted force. Mounted police appear to have trampled activists at Times Square. At least two clearly identified medics and one identified legal observer were arrested. Coalition members have said that some of those who had been arrested were held in buses and some were kept chained up outside police precincts for at least an hour and a half without gloves or other protection against the bitter cold. People arrested early in the day were held at precincts for as long as 48 hours before being arraigned. Lawyers were not allowed access to their clients for up to 12 hours, during which time the police interrogated those who had been arrested. The UFPJ is calling for the resignation of New York Police Department Chief Ray Kelly.)

Despite these obstacles, the protesters made their point. They may not stop America's headlong rush to war but their unprecedented turnout in solidarity with millions of anti-war demonstrators worldwide is a reminder, in the words of The New York Times, "that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion."

Among the marchers were The Raging Grannies, a group of middle-aged women attired in frumpy hats and baggy clothes who are veterans of many protest rallies including the demonstrations against the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Seattle in December 1999. The Grannies composed a song specially for the occasion (sung to the tune of When You're Happy and You Know it, Clap Your Hands):

If you cannot find Osama, bomb Iraq. If the markets are a drama, bomb Iraq. If the terrorists are frisky, Pakistan is looking shifty, North Korea is too risky, Bomb Iraq. It's "pre-emptive non-aggression", bomb Iraq. Let's prevent this mass destruction, bomb Iraq. They've got weapons we can't see, And that's good enough for me, `Coz it's all the proof I need, so Bomb Iraq. If you never were elected, bomb Iraq. If your mood is quite dejected, bomb Iraq. If you think Saddam's gone mad, With the weapons that he had, (And he tried to kill your dad), then Bomb Iraq. If your corporate fraud is growing, bomb Iraq. If your ties to it are showing, bomb Iraq. If your politics are sleazy, And hiding that ain't easy, And your manhood's getting queasy, Bomb Iraq.

Bharati Sadasivam works with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in New York.

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