Peace March Veers Way Left

Black-led protest challenges capitalism, imperialism, and New York's very rich mayor

Saturday's demonstrations in New York to mark the second anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq were a good deal smaller than last year's 100,000-strong march through Midtown, let alone the impassioned outpouring of dissent on February 15, 2003, just before the bombing began.

But activists say the many thousands who marched from Harlem to Central Park, and the 36 who got arrested during civil disobedience actions outside military recruiting stations in Times Square and downtown Brooklyn, signaled a "revival" of the anti-war movement, and proof of its deepening resolve.

"We have made history," declared Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council, shouting through a bullhorn from a flatbed truck outside the 125th Street Recruiting Station, to a crowd that stretched for many blocks. "We are standing tall together-as black, Latino, white, working class, Asians-to say we will no longer be taken for granted."

Bloomberg out now! Protesters mass outside Mayor Michael Bloomberg's townhouse to denounce the war and New York City budget cuts.
photo: Kazu Ohsugi
Bloomberg out now! Protesters mass outside Mayor Michael Bloomberg's townhouse to denounce the war and New York City budget cuts.

Charging that the war was being financed on the backs of the working poor, Bailey assailed the Democratic Party for not standing against it. "We want the Democratic Party to have complete opposition to the war. No more of this weaving and waffling!"

Members of the War Resisters League, which organized the civil disobedience actions, and the Troops Out Now coalition, which mobilized the march from Harlem, said both protests were efforts to re-energize a peace movement derailed by the campaign to defeat President Bush, and then demoralized by his re-election.

"What we are doing today is not popular," Congressman Charles Rangel told the several thousand sprawled over Central Park's East Meadow, acknowledging how torn the American public remains over the war. "But it is the right thing to do."

"It's one thing to go to war. It's another to mislead the American people," Rangel added. "If those people who took us to war had to send their children to fight, we never would have gone. The Wolfowitzes, the Cheneys, the Rumsfelds-all these people knew they were going to war before Bush got elected. They have used 9-11 as an excuse!"

The march from Harlem drew anywhere from 4,500 people, according to an unofficial police estimate, to nearly 10,000, according to legal observers.

Troops Out Now! City Councilmember Charles Barron leading the march from Harlem to Central Park.
photo: Kazu Ohsugi
But its significance, organizers said, lay less in its size and more in the fact that this was the first black-led antiwar march to emerge from Harlem, a neighborhood they say symbolizes the disproportionate impact the war has had on communities of color.

Although African Americans were overwhelmingly opposed to the war—as some 72 percent of those polled in September—that dissent hasn't always translated into foot power on the street. Many activists of color say they often feel alienated from what they see as a largely white peace movement.

Saturday was an effort to change that dynamic. "We made it clear today that this is a movement with significant black and people-of-color leadership, and our issues will not be ignored or relegated to the back burner by the established antiwar movement," said Bailey, who helped initiate the Troops Out Now Coalition. "We are at the table whether they like it or not."

Admittedly, the march might have been larger had United for Peace and Justice, the nation's largest antiwar coalition, actively promoted it. Some activists termed UFPJ's lack of involvement "unconscionable."

UFPJ organizers said they steered clear because they objected to some of the more strident rhetoric that appeared in the Troops Out Now literature, including a call to support the "absolute and unconditional right of Iraqi people to resist the occupation," regardless of the insurgents' methods or fundamentalist ideologies. UFPJ was also put off by the central role played by the International Action Center, the same group of hard-left anti-imperialists that helped spawn the International ANSWER coalition, and who have sparred with UFPJ over past demonstrations.

On the street, such factionalism didn't seem to matter, as contingents from a bewildering array of left-wing and Marxist splinter groups jostled alongside Raging Grannies, radical cheerleaders, and just plain-old pissed-off Americans, like Ellen Graves, a 65-year-old massage therapist from Springfield, Massachusetts, who sported a button that read: "4 Moron Years."

"I just think it's very important to come together so that people around the world realize there's a lot of us here still opposed to the war," Graves said.

By beginning the march in Harlem, organizers also hoped to paint in real terms the terrible burden this war has placed on the poor and working class.

The message was made clear along the march route, as the crowd trekked past shuttered storefronts, cheap mattress parlors, and 99 Cents stores along 125th Street, to the Armed Forces Recruiting Station, which, though closed, was well guarded by numerous police brass and several officers from the Technical Assistance Response Unit videotaping all who passed by.

Noting that Army recruitment is down 41 percent among African Americans, City Councilman Charles Barron told the crowd: "We are saying to the nation and to Bush that will not be cannon fodder for your illegal, immoral war for oil! We know the money they are sending to Iraq could balance every budget deficit in America."

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