Protesters swamped Dag Hammarskjold Plaza opposite the United Nations Tuesday as President Bush was inside pledging to deliver “democracy” to the Middle East.
Most of the demonstrators were there to demand an end to the U.S. occupation in Iraq. Though the NYPD had told leaders of the anti-war group United for Peace and Justice they could only march on the sidewalk, in the end the cops gave up a traffic lane for the many hundreds who gathered at Herald Square, then trekked across midtown amid a sea of familiar signs and banners calling for regime change at home.
“Americans don’t want no war, what they hell are we fighting for?” the crowd chanted, drawing approving honks from passing delivery trucks, and a range of thumbs up or shrugs from office workers, who’ve grown all too accustomed to the din of anti-war protests over the last three years.
At one point the march stretched nearly four blocks across 47th Street. A police captain gave an unofficial estimate of 700 protesters, UFPJ organizers claimed 3,500, while others put the turnout at 1,000 people, or “pretty good for a weekday morning.”
“I’m here for every soldier who wishes they could be on the streets of New York City to tell Bush to bring our troops home,” declared Drew Mealing of West Babylon, Long Island, who marched on behalf of his daughter, an Army Reserve specialist who was injured when her base was bombed by insurgents in northern Iraq. “If we thought we had enemies before, when you kill 100,000 more people, guess how many more enemies you have then?” said Mealing, now a member of the group Military Families Speak Out. “You can’t want to finish something that we should never have been in. Even though we admit we made a mistake about the weapons of mass destruction, people are still there suffering. We should make reparations and get out of there.”
Not all bystanders were supportive. “They bombed us when Clinton was in office. Does it matter to you people?” shouted sales rep Greg Schneider, referring to the attacks on USS Cole and American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. “They’re marching the wrong way. They should be heading downtown. There’s 3,000 dead American souls there,” he said, referring to ground zero.
But many of those protesting said it was Bush’s recent visit to ground zero that inspired them to hit the streets yet again. “Bush talks about security as if it were a campaign issue. But I don’t think enough attention is being paid to all the people who are dying right now,” said Luis Flores, a legal assistant from Astoria. He took the morning off from work to march with a sign bearing the name of 27-year-old Army 1st lieutenant Nainoa K. Hoe of Hawaii, who died in Iraq. “We keep being reminded of all the people who died at the World Trade Center. With all due respect, that event ruined so many families, but so has this war. I don’t know if ruining more families is the answer,” Flores said.
The marchers funneled into the protest pen set up by police in Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, where there were already numerous other demonstrators gathered, ranging from opponents of global warming and the ever-vocal 9-11 “truth” crowd, to hunger strikers opposing the military dictatorship in Burma, sparring groups of Pakistanis either for or against General Pervez Musharraf, and a large block of flag-waving Iranians there to denounce their president for being a tyrant.
“The president of the U.S. unleashed the dogs of war and now has the gall to stand at this hallowed ground and act like he’s a peacemaker,” declared Vietnam vet David Cline, president of Veterans for Peace, speaking from a flatbed truck that served as the rally stage.
Inside the UN, Bush pledged to the Iraqi people: “We will not abandon you in your struggle to build a free nation.”
But outside, Raed Jarrar, an Iraqi activist now working with the U.S. peace group Global Exchange, accused the Bush administration of undermining Iraqi efforts to run their country. “Eighty-seven percent of the Iraqi population are requesting an end for this illegal occupation,” Jarrar told the crowd, citing a recent poll. He noted that a majority of Iraq’s legislators have also supported a timeline for U.S. troop withdrawal. But U.S. officials lobbied to strip that language from the “peace” plan approved by the Iraqi Parliament in June. “If this administration doesn’t have any strategies to stay in Iraq or to leave Iraq, at least support the strategy that Iraqis are fighting and dying for,” Jarrar complained.
“We don’t need a babysitter to protect Iraqis from each other.”
That sentiment was shared by Tim Goodrich, an Air Force pilot who flew bombing runs in Iraq in advance of the U.S. invasion. “I get emails all the time from military folks overseas who say keep doing what you’re doing, because you guys are going to be the ones who bring us home,” says Goodrich, a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War. “They don’t know what they’re fighting for. There’s no definition of what success would be, or an exit strategy. All we get is one lie after another.”
The rally closed with familiar homilies from Rev. Jessie Jackson, who also supports an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. “We must leave no stone unturned to end this war. It is sapping the soul of our nation,” Jackson told the crowd. “We were lied to and spied on. We chose corrupted Iraqi exiles over UN observers. We deserve better leadership and a clearer vision. We are a better nation than this regime.”
Backstage, Jackson criticized the Bush administration’s refusal to open direct talks with Iran and Syria: “Right now, we are in a kind of isolation. We met with Gorbachev and Kruschev when he banged his shoe on a desk and said he would bring this country down. We talked with South Africa during the apartheid regime. Right now there is a danger of war escalating into Iran and Syria. This war is not working. It was based on a false foundation, and now we’re in quicksand.”
Behind him scores of Iranian Americans were rallying for sanctions against Iran, even as they denounced the Bush administration for not backing opposition groups such as the militant but secular People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran, which remains on the State Department’s terrorist list because of its violent tactics. One bright yellow banner read: “More Delays Give Mullahs the Bomb.”