By Albert Samaha
By Amanda Dingyuan
By Anna Merlan
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By Tessa Stuart
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By Roy Edroso
This Saturday, March 19, anti-war activists across the country are mobilizing to mark the second anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.
Certainly there's more than enough reason for outrage. The House just approved another $76 billion to fund the occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, with no exit plan in sight. If the budget measure passes the Senate, that would bring the total cost of the war in Iraq to more than $200 billionwith some 1,500 U.S. troops dead, more than 11,000 others seriously wounded, and perhaps tens of thousands of uncounted Iraqi casualties.
A majority of Americans now think the war wasn't worth the bloody priceand some 59 percent of those polled last month said most troops should come home within the next year.
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Yet anti-war forces remain divided over just how to capitalize on the nation's growing discontent. The debate over jihadist and fundamentalist forces in Iraq is one that's roiling the peace movement as a whole as it grapples with just what exiting Iraq now might mean.
The split is reflected in the wide range of protests. This year, United for Peace and Justice the nation's largest anti-war coalition, opted not to host another protest parade through the streets of Manhattan and is promoting decentralized actions instead. "We wanted to surface the real breadth of the anti-war movement," says national coordinator Leslie Cagan.
That strategy appears to be paying off; there will be vigils and demonstrations in close to 600 cities this weekendnearly double what took place last year. One of the most controversial protests will be led by military families and Iraq war veterans in Fayetteville, North Carolinato Fort Bragg and the Army's 82nd Airborne Division and Special Forces Command. UFPJ is sending buses there from New York and other cities, part of the peace movement's effort to build resistance to the war from within the military.
Here in New York, the War Resisters League has called for civil disobedience actions outside recruiting stations. More than 200 people are expected to take part in a funeral march on Saturday from Dag Hammarskjöld Plaza to Times Square bearing cardboard coffins to symbolize American and Iraqi dead. Once at Times Square, activists will link arms and symbolically block the recruiting station there. "We want to graphically demonstrate the costs of the war in real lives, and call attention to the lies and empty promises that military recruiters are using to lure young people," says organizer Frida Berrigan, daughter of famed anti-war activist Philip Berrigan.
The league has permits to rally, not to march, and Berrigan says the group plans to keep to the sidewalk. "We have a commitment from the police that as long as we don't impede other pedestrians, they won't arrest us along the way," she says, speaking to concerns that the NYPD will pounce on group members before they get anywhere, as cops did during the Republican National Convention last summer.
Activists also plan to block the recruiting office on Flatbush Avenue in downtown Brooklyn, and there will be vigils outside the Fordham Road recruiting center and Kingsbridge Armory in the Bronx.
But the largest protest this weekend in New York City will be a black-led march from Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park to Central Park organized by the newly formed Troops Out Now Coalition.
In contrast to the battle over gathering on the park's Great Lawn last summer, the Parks Department easily granted a permit for 25,000 to rally in the East Meadow from noon to 3 p.m. on Saturday. Speakers include Congressman Charles Rangel, City Councilman Charles Barron, Lynne Stewart, Howard Zinn, Patti Smith, and former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark.
The Troops Out Now leaders are still fighting for the right to march down Fifth Avenue for a post-rally demonstration outside Mayor Michael Bloomberg's townhouse on 79th Street.
Although the NYPD agreed to let the group within shouting distance of the mayor's residence, Fifth Avenue is off limits because of a 2001 City Council resolution that restricts it to 11 major cultural parades a year. At this point, organizers say they'll abide by the NYPD's approved route, which detours down Park Avenue. But they are still going to court over the Fifth Avenue rule, which they contend amounts to a defacto ban on political protest on New York's "most auspicious avenue."
Just why Troops Out Now is so adamant about going to Bloomberg's house is another matter altogether. Organizers say a key demand of the demonstration is "funds for cities, not war." While Bloomberg has been steadfastly neutral when it comes to the war, and his control over the federal purse strings is nil, organizers say his silence in the face of massive budget cuts to city services amounts to some element of complicity.
"He can't pull New York troops out of Iraq, but he could take a stand and demand more money from his party," says spokesperson Dustin Langley, who termed Bloomberg a "billionaire enforcer of Bush policies to silence dissent."
What remains significant is that this is the first major anti-war demonstration to emerge from Harlema neighborhood that organizers say is emblematic of the war's disproportionate impact on communities of color. While African Americans have overwhelmingly been against Bush's Iraqi conquest since its inception, their opposition hasn't always been as visible or heard.
"There's this idea that the anti-war movement is a white progressive movement, and it's not," notes Nana Soul, a singer with Artists and Activists United for Peace, the black-led alliance that organized an anti-Bush march through Harlem last September during the GOP convention. "People of color of all backgrounds are against this war, because we are the ones they aggressively try to recruit, and we are the ones most likely to die."
That's why organizers say they're angry that United for Peace and Justice has refused to endorse or send a speaker to their event. "This is a travesty, particularly from those who profess to support communities of color," contends Nellie Bailey of the Harlem Tenants Council, who helped initiate the demonstration. "They have to be called on the carpet over this. These forces from the established anti-war movement cannot have their cake and eat it, too."
UFPJ's Cagan acknowledges the peace movement's "historic and current" racial divide but insists, "This was absolutely not about dissing those forces. The coalition did not have the breadth that it does seem to have now," she says. She points to the founding role played by the International Action Centerthe same group of hard-left anti-imperialists who helped spawn the International ANSWER Coalition, and who have sparred with UFPJ organizers over past demonstrations.
In addition, Cagan said her group had problems with some of the early Troops Out Now literature, which called on the anti-war movement to "acknowledge the absolute and unconditional right of the Iraqi people to resist the occupation of their country without passing judgment on their methods of resistance."
Given the often hideously brutal attacks on civilians by various elements of the Iraqi resistance, not to mention some of their fundamentalist positions on women, that's a stance that neither the local nor national UFPJ coalition has been willing to take. "There was a concern that this would develop into an actual demand or theme of the demonstration," says Cagan. "So we decided to let them do their demo, and more power to them."
But activists on all sides say it would be wrong to lose sight of this weekend's larger message. As Soul maintains, "We're saying the best way to support the troops is to bring them home from a war they never should have gone to fight in the first place."