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Despite the Bloomberg administration's unprecedented refusal to allow protesters to march in the city, peace activists insist that hundreds of thousands of people will assemble within sight of the United Nations on Saturday, urging the Security Council to pursue further weapons inspections in Iraq, not war. Organizers with United for Peace and Justice, a network of more than 200 groups, have a permit for a stationary rally starting at noon, on First Avenue north of 49th Street.
Protesters in New York will be joined that weekend by more than a million people in 300 cities around the world, a global uprising against President Bush's push for war.
The New York event was supposed to include a walk past the UN. But pressed by the U.S. Justice Department, which filed a friend of the court brief, a federal judge ruled the city could deny the necessary permit because a march of such scale would pose an unacceptable security risk.
Hemming in thousands of frustrated people presents its own dangers. While they plan to appeal the court decision, organizers say the city's refusal may only boost the turnout. "People are outraged," says UFPJ co-chair Leslie Cagan. "At this point, we're not just protesting over this war but over the right to assert our basic civil rights."
Speakers at the New York rally include Archbishop Desmond Tutu, NAACP executive director Julian Bond, and Martin Luther King III. With chief weapons inspector Hans Blix slated to report to the UN on Friday, activists feel it's now or never to make their voices heard. Buses are coming in from as far as Denver and Kentucky, and MetroNorth is adding trains to accommodate the expected influx from upstate and Connecticut.
In the U.S., the demos will test whether activists can field a truly broad-based message capable of catalyzing public action.
Polls show Americans profoundly wary of the consequences of this war, and the movement to oppose military action is growing larger. Although organized labor backed the war in Afghanistan, six national unions have come out against blasting Iraq, fearful of what a $200 billion military adventure could do to already hemorrhaging state and city budgets. Lobbying campaigns like MoveOn.org and Win Without War are raking in funds and celebrity supporters.
Until now, though, much of the work of organizing national demonstrations has been delegated to the hard left. The last big protests in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco were coordinated by International ANSWER, a coalition spawned by members of the Workers World Party, a Stalinist group, and its spin-off, the International Action Center. These demos drew surprisingly large numbers of ordinary mom 'n' pop folks, but many veteran activists agonized about lining up with a group that has defended both Saddam Hussein and North Korea's Kim Jong-Il, and whose leader, Ramsey Clark, is on the defense committee for Slobodan Milosevic.
When it comes to Iraq, ANSWER opposes even UN weapons inspections as an affront to Iraq's national sovereignty. That puts them at odds with most peace campaigners, who say international efforts to disarm Saddam are the best way to avert war. And onstage, ANSWER rallies tend to devolve into a kitchen-sink litany of U.S. imperialist abuses. It's not the kind of approach capable of attracting organized labor and mainstream clergy, let alone shifting the political calculus.
United for Peace and Justice intends to help expand the debate. Its membership ranges from traditional peaceniks and anarchists to Greenpeace, the National Council of Churches, and several national student networks.
"People are very appreciative and glad that ANSWER was organizing those initial demos," says Cagan. "But many of us wanted another vehicle to allow even broader organizing and representation. We really wanted to be connected in a way that ANSWER doesn't quite give us space to do, and also to facilitate other efforts, like national education and lobbying campaigns."
During the Gulf War, the peace movement split in two because ANSWER refused to condemn Iraq's invasion of Kuwait. This time around, ANSWER and the newly formed United for Peace and Justice camps are endorsing each other's events. "There's a shared sense of urgency now," says David McReynolds, the 73-year-old stalwart of the War Resisters League. "People are saying that what Bush is doing is so extraordinarily dangerous, it's no time to be playing these politically correct or sectarian games."
Although polls show opposition to the war is more widespread among people of color64 percent of black voters are against it, according to a Zogby poll last weekthe marches thus far have remained largely white. By contrast, New York's rally will be led off by representatives of the "world's many Ground Zeroes"from the September 11 Families for Peaceful Tomorrows to people from Hiroshima, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Colombia. There will be battalions of labor; elected officials from the 65 city councils that have passed anti-war resolutions; and large contingents of Palestinians, Latinos, African Americans, and Asians.
Many of these groups are planning to hold "feeder marches" to the main rally site on First Avenue. How that will play out with the NYPD's new dictum banning protest marches from the streets remains unclear. "We're trying to negotiate a permit, but if not we'll stick to the sidewalks," says Michael Letwin of New York City Labor Against War, which is organizing a march of more than 5000 union members from Columbus Circle. "For many of us, it's unimaginable that the city would deny our right to march. We have to march."
For more information on the February 15 protest in New York, including details on travel arrangements and accommodations, see www.unitedforpeace.org.
"Cornered! Marching in a Melancholy Time" by Richard Goldstein