Streets of Rage

How George Bush and his Republicans mobilized half a million people

"When I started to find out what was going on, I was just amazed," he told a visitor last week. "I mean, I watched Colin Powell testify on TV at the United Nations. I loved Colin Powell. I thought he was going to be our first black president. There he was, saying, 'Look at these pictures, here are the tractor trailers with the weapons. If we don't strike soon, they are going to be moved, and we won't be able to get them.' I assumed he was telling the truth. Then, when I found out there were no weapons, that all that stuff he was saying had been hyped up, I was so mad. How could they do that to us?"

The impact of George W. Bush on America was even more striking in the presence of Michael Hoffman, 25, from the faded steel town of Allentown, Pennsylvania, marching in Sunday's heat in one of his old Marine jackets with a contingent of the one-month-old group Iraq Veterans Against the War. Hoffman's story is fodder for the films of Michael Moore, who marched at the head of Sunday's procession. His father was one of the last workers at the now demolished Bethlehem Steel plant; his mother, a Teamster, is a janitor at a local school.

A sea of coffins
photo: Willie Davis
"I bounced around for about a year and a half after high school doing odd jobs," he explained at one of many press conferences he attended last week. "The last one was as an assistant manager at a toy store. I made about $15,000 a year, your basic poverty-level job. I had a good friend who was joining up, and he kind of talked me into it. I thought that the military represented a lot of good things, was a good opportunity. When I joined in February 1999, the war in the Balkans was a big deal. I thought we were doing the right thing there, and I wanted to be a part of that."
Sequined protester aboard Staten Island Ferry
photo: Cary Conover
Sequined protester aboard Staten Island Ferry

His four-year hitch in the Marines was up when news came that the Pentagon had imposed "stop-loss orders" preventing all discharges. Instead of mustering out, he and his artillery unit were dispatched to Kuwait. "We crossed over into Iraq and pushed north up to Baghdad. We were firing 155-millimeter howitzers." About a day south of the capital, he said, he drove past a town they had blasted. "It was just entirely in flames. The people were wandering around, like in a daze."

Discharged a year ago, he found himself talking with other vets haunted by what they'd seen, along with families who had lost loved ones in the conflict. "I'm just opposed to what we are doing there; this [protesting the war] is all I'm doing now."

The war has seemed like little more than the cruelest of tricks to Fernando Suárez del Solar, who carried a photo of his son, Jesús, handsome in his lance corporal's Marine uniform, along Sunday's parade route. Originally from Tijuana, Mexico, Suárez's family had moved to Escondido, California, in 1997. Military recruiters had persuaded Jesús, who aspired to be a firefighter, that if he signed up he would obtain both a green card and valuable experience. But there wasn't time.

On March 27, 2003, Suárez learned that his son had been killed in Iraq. It wasn't even hostile fire that took his son's life. He had stepped on an unexploded U.S. cluster bomb and died from his injuries. "I paid the highest price for free speech," he told a roomful of reporters at a pre-march press conference last week. "My son."

The president's invasion also turned around the life of 26-year-old Kelly Dougherty, of Colorado Springs, who spent a year in Iraq with the National Guard, part of the 220th Military Police Company. For Sunday's march she wore an Iraq Veterans Against the War T-shirt and brown camouflage shorts, with a black armband that read, "Support Our Troops, Bring Them Home Now." On Friday night, she had shyly addressed the audience at a fundraising event in a hot and crowded Soho loft. Patrolling the broiling streets around Nasiriya after its capture, she said, she had seen local citizens turn from friend to foe. "When we first got there, the people would smile when they saw us, but as time went on, they started averting their eyes and scowling," she said. "I felt like we treated them like trespassers in their own country."

Cops await marchers in Columbus Circle
photo: Cary Conover
As an MP, part of her job was to respond to accidents, and she had seen a grisly one in which a U.S. truck had inadvertently run down a seven-year-old boy who had been trying to cross a desert highway with his donkey. Under standing orders, the truck driver had kept right on going, reporting it later. "I couldn't blame the Iraqis for their hostility," she said.

Marching alongside Hoffman and Dougherty was Michael McPhearson, who spent 11 years in the Army, long enough to serve in the 1991 Gulf War, and to later have severe doubts about U.S. actions in Iraq. The son of a schoolteacher and a railroad worker, McPhearson, 40, grew up in Fayetteville, North Carolina, next door to Fort Bragg. He had a pair of uncles and a grandfather who were veterans of the world wars, and he joined the Army the first chance he got, at the age of 17.

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