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It's not quite glasnost, but the big chill felt by New York City peace activists appears to be lifting.
On Friday, police officials agreed to allow tens of thousands of people to march down Broadway this Saturday, March 22, to oppose war in Iraq.
That's a dramatic turnaround from the city's stance last month, when it denied demonstrators permission to parade past the United Nationsor anywhere in the city. Worse, the NYPD blocked access to the permitted stationary rally, confining crowds with metal barricades and making more than 250 arrests.
This time, police have agreed to let people assemble freely, without pens. "We've reclaimed our democratic right to march," says Leslie Cagan, co-chair of United for Peace and Justice, which organized the February 15 event.
Their win didn't come easy. Organizers say they spent a week haggling with police officials, who at one point wanted to limit the route from 38th Street to Union Square. They were also upset when the NYPD presented plans to cordon off side streets and tightly control the formation of the march. The scheme approved Friday calls for assembling at noon on Broadway, between 35th and 42nd streets, and marching to Washington Square Park. Side streets will be open for contingents to funnel into the start of the march, and organizers have pledged at least 100 volunteer marshals to keep things moving smoothly.
City officials downplayed the dispute. "Our concern was not with the route but with the need to fill in the staging area in a safe and orderly way," said Gail Donoghue of the city's law department.
Billed as a local event, this march is not expected to draw the 300,000 people who swamped midtown last month. "This is the people of ground zero coming out to say no to an unnecessary military confrontation that will have devastating consequences to the Iraqi people and quite possibly us," says labor organizer Michael Letwin.
There will be large blocs of students, labor supporters, theater artists, and a mock funeral processionbut no rally. "We don't need any more speeches," says Letwin. "We're preaching to the choir at this point." Folks are encouraged to bring radios to tune in to WBAI, 99.5 FM, which will give updates on the event.
Though activists expect 20,000 to 50,000 participants, the turnout could balloon if the Bush administration launches an attack. Europeans have called for convergences at major cities on the Saturday after war breaks out, and that could mean this weekend. With President Bush issuing ultimatums, many activists are turning to civil disobedience.
On Monday, Nobel peace laureate Mairead Maguire and 44 others were arrested for blocking access to the U.S. mission to the United Nations. The protest was part of a nonviolent campaign called by United for Peace and Justice and the Iraq Pledge of Resistance (peacepledge.org), which included 54 arrests outside the Capitol and another 40 outside the British consulate in San Francisco. On Friday, the former president of the Pacific Stock Exchange was arrested with 79 others after a sit-down in San Francisco that snarled rush hour traffic for hours; the next day 157 were caught during a breakaway march downtown.
War could bring yet bigger disruptions. In San Francisco, the anarchist-oriented Direct Action to Stop the War (actagainstthewar.org) has posted a "menu" of strategies to "shut down" that city if the U.S. launches an invasioneverything from traffic slowdowns and bike brigades to lockdowns at the offices of defense contractors and oil companies.
While that kind of militancy has been slow to jell in New York, frustration is building. "In the last 24 hours, I've had 50 people contact me who say they are willing to be arrestedand most of them are people who say they've never been arrested before," says Brad Simpson, who is helping organize civil disobedience trainings with the War Resisters League.
For weeks there's been a call for protesters to assemble in Times Square at 5 p.m. if war begins. Over the weekend, organizers from 25 peace groups made plans for feeder marches to converge there. There was also talk of traffic blockades and sit-ins at congressional offices.
Organizers insist Saturday's march will remain peaceful. "We have done everything we can to stop this war," says Cagan, taking a deep breath. "And if war begins, we will do everything we can to stop it."
For further details on the March 22 protest, see unitedforpeace.org.