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.

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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."

The march then headed south down Malcolm X Boulevard, past boarded-up brownstones alternating with newly renovated ones, and teams of Latin American day laborers hanging out in front of newly gutted tenements-part of the urban renewal that is sweeping many longtime Harlem residents out.

Though organizers hoped to capture some of the disaffection simmering in Harlem, many locals said they were not aware of the march. "I think it's good, but I think it's a little late. A lot of people done got killed over there already," said Earl Williams, a barber at the Brite Lite barbershop, who is battling to save the 85-year-old shop from the landlord's efforts to triple the rent.

Besides engaging more people of color, the tenor of the Troops Out Now protest was sharply to the left of past large antiwar demonstrations.

At the Marcus Garvey Park amphitheatrer, where the march assembled, the crowd gave a standing ovation to radical attorney Lynne Stewart, who was convicted last month of aiding terrorists by relaying messages from jailed Sheik Omar Abdel-Rahman, the so-called mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Calling herself a "poster girl for repression at home," Stewart told her supporters, "We are here as the great resistance . . . to this dirty, rotten, self-aggrandizing war made by misguided men in high places."

And a secretary from City College who was arrested during a protest there last week spoke less of the campaign to kick military recruiters off campus and more of the need to "overthrow capitalism."

Other speeches in Central Park included former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who reiterated his call to impeach Bush, a tape-recorded message from death row star Mumia Abu Jamal, and more firebrand rhetoric from Councilman Barron. "It's time to call it like it is: This as a war for oil and for the protection of Israel," said Barron, who vowed to "build a progressive, revolutionary radical new order."

Indeed, the march took on class-war overtones when a still-hardy crowd of 4,000 set off from the park to Mayor Michael Bloomberg's townhouse on 79th Street near Fifth Avenue. The contrast from Harlem was clear as the jeering protesters filed past the Upper East Side's marbled residences, chanting things like: "Rich people, that's okay, you can work for us one day!" and "Money for jobs, not for war!" But the reaction from passersby remained surprisingly positive-including blown kisses and "thank you's" from a well-appointed wedding party getting into limos outside Ignatius Loyola Catholic Church on Park Avenue.

"We came from Wisconsin for my niece's wedding, but we would have joined the protest if we could," said Marlene Dion, a nurse from Appleton, Wisconsin, adding that she was disappointed there were not more antiwar protests where she's from. "This war should never have happened. I'm against anything from this administration."

About 1,500 people made it to the corner of 79th Street and Fifth Avenue-half a block from Bloomberg's residence, which was as close as the cops would let them get. The police, though numerous, remained relatively low-key as speakers assailed Bloomberg and "the wealthy who don't like protests on Fifth Avenue"-a reference to the organizers' battle over the right to march down the avenue, which is reserved for cultural parades.

Brandishing a poster of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, Troops out Now leader Larry Holmes justified the attack on Bloomberg as a mayor who, while publicly neutral about the war, has nevertheless done his best to suppress dissent over it in the city. "He's a billionaire and he's close to Bush, and we want that $80 billion that Bush is spending on war-we want that money in New York and all these other cities that are suffering now."

No doubt Bloomberg would also like a piece of that $80 billion as he grapples with steep cuts to federal aid for housing and mass transit, and the shortchanging of homeland security dollars to New York.

But Holmes was adamant: "If Bloomberg is not with us, he is against us."

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