As U.S. troops streamed into southern Iraq, thousands of New Yorkers took the streets in midtown on Thursday night to voice their despair and disgust with the Bush Administration’s headlong rush to war.
Though the drenching rain dampened the turnout, protesters did succeed in snarling rush-hour traffic for several hours—with a little help from the NYPD, who caused more congestion than the protesters did.
The plan was for several feeder marches to converge on Times Square from all directions. But police deployed scores of officers and more than two dozen police vans and squad cars, which acted as a moving barricade that kept marchers penned on the sidewalks.
When a group of several hundred protesters, mostly high school and college students, tried to take Seventh Avenue at 47th Street, they were quickly forced back onto the sidewalks. Two activists were thrown to the ground and arrested, and minutes later there was a brief blast of pepper spray when cops scuffled with a group who were attempting to disassemble the metal barricades that police threw up to prevent people from massing in the center of Times Square.
Instead, police forced marchers to detour down Sixth Avenue then back to Broadway, where a series of pens were set up south of 42nd Street to accommodate a stationary rally called by International ANSWER (internationalanswer.org).
“It’s divide and conquer,” complained Ian Darling, a 19-year-old student from Manhattan. “They want to break us up and kill our momentum.”
Police hauled off 36 people for disorderly conduct and resisting arrest, though in the teaming rain it was difficult to see how or when the arrests occurred. A public information officer claimed some were busted for attempting to beat back police with their cardboard protest signs, though he said most demonstrators were “fairly well-behaved.” Some protesters said cops had clubbed several people, but police reported no injuries.
The crowd was diverse, from veteran activists to office workers, even tourists. “I had to come out because I feel so sick about this war,” said Judy Molner, a teacher from upstate who was on a field trip with several of her high school students. “We were at the Met today, and I was looking around at all the chandeliers and people in furs going to the opera and wondering, Is anybody here imagining what it’s like to be a mother in Iraq today?”
At the height of the demonstration, police estimated 7000 to 8000 people massed in or around the pens on Broadway, where loudspeakers set up by ANSWER blared denunciations of “Bush’s police state” and “fascist Fox and CNN.”
“Media, Mayor Bloomberg, New York City police, we are waging a popular struggle to stop a criminal war! Do not wage war against us!” ANSWER leader Larry Holmes declared, speaking in righteous tones of a Southern preacher.
Though Holmes succeeded in rallying the soggy crowd, many found the prospect of listening to a litany of speeches inside pens demoralizing.
“If this is all the best we can do in New York, it’s kind of pathetic,” despaired Mathew Thomas, a 32-year-old graphic designer from Brooklyn. “Other countries are doing more than we are, even though it’s our government that’s really responsible for this war,” Thomas said, pointing to the massive demonstrations that swept Europe, Australia, and Asia yesterday.
Hundreds of thousands of students walked out of schools across Britain, France, Germany, and Switzerland. In London, protesters swarmed Parliament Square, bringing traffic to a standstill, and tens of thousands of students blocked highways in Barcelona. In Athens, as many as 200,000 protesters rallied, while 11,000 marched though Tokyo. At least 20,000 mobilized in Melbourne within hours of the first missile strikes.
In San Francisco, activists paralyzed the financial district with a wave of lock-downs and blockades that at one point succeeded in tying up 30 intersections. Autonomous affinity groups staged die-ins, knit-ins, even a group vomit—”because war makes us sick”—outside the federal building. Teamsters abandoned their rigs to stop traffic; and soccer moms joined peace punks in taking busts. But violence flared later in the day, when bands of black-clad anarchists and youth set fires and smashed windows and clashed with police. More than 1500 were arrested.
“What we had today was basically a grassroots revolt,” says Gopal Dayaneni of the group Direct Action to Stop War (actagainstwar.org), which is mobilizing more protests today and next week
New Yorkers will likely be out in far larger numbers at this Saturday’s peace march, which will now coincide with major demonstrations in cities around the world.
But as activists step up their tactics, they also need to take measure of their aim. Until now, the antiwar movement has mobilized millions to speak out against the unnecessary slaughter of Iraqi innocents.
What happens if the demoralized Iraqis lay down their arms and surrender, granting the Bush Administration a relatively bloodless “cakewalk” victory in a matter of weeks? Or days?
It’s still too early to tell which way this war will go. But activists concede trying to stop a war is different from trying to prevent one. “The challenge,” says Brad Simpson of the War Resisters League, “is to build a broader movement, one that’s not just focused on opposing this war, but on opposing the Bush administration’s vision of a foreign policy that uses brute force to maintain U.S. interests around the world.”
That’s a deeper argument to get across to the general public, the idea that even if we win the military battle of Baghdad, we could lose the war for peace.
“We may win this battle in Iraq, but we’re going to pay a heavy price,” said Will, a 27-year-old electrician from Brooklyn whose ex-wife is now serving in the Gulf as an Army corps medic. Like many, he declined to give his full name. “As far as I’m concerned, George Bush has put a target on the backs of every American. He’s squandered all the good will we had internationally after 9-11. If we don’t find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, what will the international community think then?”
Where and How to Protest in New York by Sarah Ferguson
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 25, 2003