Despite protester fears that the NYPD will seek to corral them like cattle, organizers say tens of thousands of people from across the Northeast will gather on Saturday for a march through midtown Manhattan to mark the one-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and to demand an end the U.S. occupation.
Dennis Kucinich, former British Labor Party member Tony Benn, and Fernando Suarez del Solar, whose 20-year-old son was one of the first US marines killed during the invasion last March, are scheduled to speak at the event, which coincides with scores anti-war protests across the country and around the world.
"In the last few months, all the justifications for war have been proven to have been widely exaggerated and/or false, so I think we'll see a loud outcry on March 20," says Bill Dobbs of United for Peace and Justice a national network of peace groups that is co-sponsoring the protest with the leftist coalition International ANSWER.
Admittedly not everyone in the peace camp is behind UFPJ's call to "End the occupation of Iraq; bring the troops home now!"let alone ANSWER's more doctrinaire "End colonial occupation from Iraq to Palestine to Haiti and everywhere!"
More mainstream groups such as MoveOn, True Majority, and Win Without War have stopped short of calling for an immediate pullout of U.S. troops and are instead encouraging people to participate in peace vigils for the 568 U.S. soldiers and estimated 10,000 Iraqi civilians killed since the war began. Some groups feel their energies are better spent trying to unseat George Bush.
But in the wake of this week's massive car-bombing in Baghdad and gruesome terrorist attacks in Spain, there's also growing concern that U.S.-led occupation in Iraq is provoking more terror, not less. With both Bush and his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, insisting on the need to maintain U.S. troops in Iraq, critics of the occupation say it's time to make their position heard.
Significantly, opposition to the occupation is increasingly being led by veterans and military families, who marched from Dover Air Force Base to the White House earlier this week to demand that Bush stop "hiding the human toll of war." This weekend, members of Military Families Speak Out and Bring Them Home Now! have called for mass protests in Fayetteville, North Carolinahome to Ft. Braggand Bush's own Crawford, Texas.
But in New York, the issues behind the protest have been overshadowed by the controversy over the NYPD's plans to segment the crowd during the rally following the march with metal barricades like those used during last year's massive anti-war demonstration.
Police officials insist the issue has been overblown. "We're not interested in penning anyone," says Deputy Commissioner Paul. J. Browne, the chief spokesperson for the department. Browne says the four-foot, interlocking barriers (ironically called "French barricades") are necessary to keep the crowd from blocking sidewalks and spilling into cross streets.
"The parade route itself will be totally unobstructed," Browne says. "We're only concerned with keeping the cross streets clear during the rally portions of the event to allow for access by emergency vehicles." As the marchers file down Madison Avenue, barricades will be placed across the intersection of each block to prevent people from filling in the cross street. But the top of each block will be left open.
Police have also agreed to provide mid-block openings in the barricades that line the sidewalks to allow demonstrators to exit and enter. "If you want to go out and go to the bathroom or get a coffee and come back, you can do that," Browne says.
Activists remain suspect. "No one has any problem with cross streets being left clear," says Chris Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "But when they set up something that has four sides and is enclosed, that's a pen, and people don't want to go in it."
In fact, word of the NYPD's crowd-control plan has prompted calls from some quarters to "resist the pens" entirely. "A lot of people are going to join the bike bloc because they don't want to be under the direct control of the NYPD," says Brandon Neubauer of Times Up, an environmental group. Neubauer expects as many as 200 bikers to gather at noon at Union Square on Saturday for a spirited ride through midtown to highlight the link between oil and war.
Left out of this battle over the pens is the larger question of what pulling out of Iraq now really means: Activists concede the anti-war movement has yet to fully grapple with how to secure the peace in Iraq and what role-if any-the U.S. and the United Nations should have. But that doesn't mean there won't be plenty to demonstrate about on Saturday: As UFPJ's Dobbs says, "This war is a disaster and we have to hold Bush and the Democrats who supported him accountable."
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