NEW YORK—A wave of opposition to America’s rush to attack Iraq washed over the globe with the sun on Saturday as millions of protesters rallied against war in more than 600 cities around the world, from Capetown to Karachi, Tokyo to Chicago, Manila to Miami. In the wee hours of the morning, when Denise and Luther Weeks set out from their home in Glastonbury, Connecticut, for the hour’s drive to Hartford, where they would catch a train to New York, hundreds of thousands of protesters in New Zealand and Australia had already turned in for the night. And by the time the Weekses arrived at Grand Central and started to make their way to New York’s rally at First Avenue, night was falling in Tel Aviv, where 3000 Jews and Arabs had taken to the streets in a powerful show of unity against the war.
Meanwhile, 1 million people rallied for peace in Rome; in London, local media reported that at least half-a-million turned out to object to Tony Blair’s call for war (though organizers there put the number at well over 1 million); and in Spain, where polls show 92 percent of the public rejecting force as a solution to the barbarity of Saddam Hussein even as the Spanish government lines up behind President Bush, 1.3 million demonstrated in Barcelona, and 2 million in Madrid.
Protesters in New York were not deterred by the city’s refusal to permit a march across Manhattan nor by temperatures in the low twenties and a biting breeze slicing off the East River. Organizers counted at least half a million here, as throngs filled First Avenue from 50th to 72nd Streets; untold others never made it to the rallying point as police barricaded street after street, preventing groups from advancing east from Second and even Third Avenue.
“We just couldn’t stay at home and watch this war take shape on TV any more,” said Denise Weeks, explaining why she and her husband had decided to attend their first anti-war demonstration ever. Having returned to school recently to pursue a new career in student advisement, Weeks had recently written an eye-opening paper on the USA Patriot Act, while her son, a college student, had been sharing his findings for a research paper on corporate control of the media. “Both got me in tune with what’s happening,” she said. Added her husband, Luther, “A preemptive strike would set a terrible and frightening precedent.”
While the usual lefty suspects were certainly in evidence—kids with black kerchiefs tied over their faces, sectarians hawking newspapers, protestors with signs proclaiming “Free Mumia” and “Fuck Bush”—the vast majority of people and the slogans they carried revealed how mainstream the opposition to war has become in America. Two middle-aged attorneys from Danbury (one representing employers in labor disputes, the other handling commercial real estate deals in Manhattan) got politically involved for the first time in decades. “We just don’t want to see all those Iraqis killed,” said one, summing up their no-brainer of a motivation for braving the cold. For Millicent Petersen, a unit clerk in a Long Island hospital who rallied with her union sisters and brothers from 1199-SEIU, “there’s just no purpose to this war that makes sense.” At 40, Neil Hill, who works for a sporting goods company, was also attending his first demonstration, because “war always has to be the last resort and I just don’t think we’re there yet.”
Hill was among many who came on their own. One freelance participant hastily scrawled a sign on brown cardboard granting himself representative status, “Plumbers for Peace.” But dozens of organized contingents gathered at various points around the city to provide “feeder marches” to the main rally. Performing artists, led by the Bread and Puppet Theater and some 300 of their papier mache and fabric skeletons, capitalist fatheads, and figures of anguish, started out at Columbus Circle and were sent up and down midtown as they tried to find a through-street to First Avenue; thousands of uptown youth of color surged into the rally with chants and drums; several hundred Jews, who had begun the morning with bagels and optional Sabbath services at the old Yiddish center the Workmen’s Circle, were turned this way and that by police as they tried to walk together from 33rd Street to the rally. (“Last time we listened to a Bush,” read one woman’s placard, “we wandered in the desert for 40 years.”)
At some intersections where people were barred, frustration mounted. Around 2 p.m., hundreds of people gushed onto First Avenue after being held a block away for more than an hour-and-a-half, according to Josh Kulp, a 25-year-old school teacher who had been pressed up against at barricade by an aggravated crowd. One young man who tried to push his way past, Kulp said, was pinned at the neck by two cops with billy clubs.
There were dozens of reports of other such aggressive police responses—ranging from rudeness to shoving to surrounding protesters with horses and cops in riot gear—all along avenues west of the rally as people objected to being prevented from exercising their First Amendment rights to join the demonstration. The National Lawyers Guild, which provided legal assistance, estimated that 350 people were arrested, the vast majority of them simply trying to get to First Avenue—where protesters were herded into pens set up on each block.
Many participants speculated that it was the city itself that had created volatility by refusing the march permit on security grounds (a position upheld by the courts last week). An orderly and known route of march would have posed far less of a security threat, they said, than the random convergence of groups from all over the city and cops who often seemed not to have clear instructions about how to handle the flow. Police officers themselves seemed frustrated by the lack of clarity about their orders—and in some cases by their lack of sense. An officer named Villegas, for one, seemed embarrassed as he insisted that five college students trying to join their friends would have to walk several blocks out of their way to find an opening in the obstacle course of metal fencing that had been erected for the occasion. “My wife is out here with my children,” he told them, almost by way of apology.
Those who did make it into the pens on First Avenue fanned northward from a stage with a colorful banner proclaiming “The World Says No to War,” and hundreds carried signs produced by the organizers—United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of some 120 groups—bearing that slogan in English, Spanish, Arabic, Hebrew, and Chinese. Actors Danny Glover and Susan Sarandon, playwright Tony Kushner, Congress member Nydia Velasquez, and musician Richie Havens were among some 60 speakers—visible on monitors set up every several blocks—who fueled the crowd’s commitment with analysis, jokes, songs, and prayers. “Peace! Peace! Peace!” intoned Bishop Desmond Tutu, veteran of South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement. “Let America listen to the rest of the world—and the rest of the world is saying, ‘Give the inspectors time.'” Angela Davis, veteran of America’s anti-racist movements, recalled the city’s last rally of comparable size, when 1 million rallied for nuclear disarmament in 1982, and asserted that “no weapons of mass destruction should be in the hands of any government.”
Miles Joris-Peyrafitce, a 10-year-old from Albany who’d come down with his folks for the rally, had his own rousing words to offer from atop a police horse on First and 53rd. It’s a poem he’d written for his fifth-grade class: “These military views are so hazy/ so maybe/ we need to fight against the war in Iraq./ Cuz this war/ is about to erupt./ They say they’re trying to find Saddam Hussein/ so they’re bombing everyone else by planes./ It’s insane.”
The message heard ’round the world today is that simple. But does George Bush get it?
“New York City Labels Anti-War Marchers a Security Breach” by Sarah Ferguson
“NYC Peace Activists Vow to Face Down Bush’s War” by Sarah Ferguson
“Cornered!: Marching in a Melancholy Time” by Richard Goldstein
“Britain’s Anti-War Majority Gathers in London, Gets Heard” by Kareem Fahim