Taking to the streets across the U.S.
March 26, 2004 | Pages 6 and 7
THE WORLD still says no to war! That was the message of antiwar protesters in cities around the country and across the globe in demonstrations on March 20 that marked one year since the U.S. invasion of Iraq. The Bush gang's lies to justify their drive to war have been exposed, and the cruelty of Washington's occupation of Iraq is clearer than ever.
Here, ERIC RUDER rounds up the day of action against war and occupation--and reports on the dramatic protest led by military families and veterans in Fayetteville, N.C., the home of the military's Fort Bragg.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
EVERY MAINSTREAM news report took pains to point out that the demonstrations were smaller last weekend than in the lead-up to the invasion. But the media couldn't ignore the fact that millions of people took to the streets around the world.
Across the U.S., protesters who gathered to say no to occupation were proud of the turnouts that were almost all larger than expected. In New York, up to 100,000 people formed a sea of protest on the streets of Manhattan, stretching as far as the eye could see. In San Francisco, 25,000 marched through the city. Some 15,000 gathered in Los Angeles, 6,000 in Chicago, up to 10,000 in Seattle, and thousands more in Denver and other cities. Close to 1,000 people took the antiwar message to Bush's home away from home in Crawford, Texas.
All in all, demonstrations took place in about 250 cities around the country. People came from all over the East Coast for the demonstration in New York. They came from all walks of life and all manner of experiences--veterans, longtime peace activists, high school and college students, unionists, retirees, Blacks, whites, immigrants and native-born.
Chanting "Occupation is a crime from Iraq to Palestine" and "Bring the troops home now," the march snaked through midtown Manhattan, filling 45 city blocks. At the opening rally, the crowd was addressed by civil rights lawyer Leonard Weinglass, U.S. Labor Against War Co-president Brenda Stokely, Democratic presidential candidate Dennis Kucinich and others.
"I think this demonstration shows that a growing section of the antiwar movement says we cannot oppose the occupation of Iraq without taking up U.S. aggression throughout the world," said Elizabeth Wrigley-Field of the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) at New York University.
In Fayetteville, N.C., next to Fort Bragg, home to the Army's 82nd Airborne Division, more than 1,000 people--many of them veterans and family members of active-duty soldiers--marched to a park where speakers addressed the crowd. "You can feel very isolated and alone," said Beth Pratt, who said it took every ounce of her courage to stand on the speaker's podium.
Her husband drives a truck for the military in Iraq, an especially dangerous job. "Ending this war and bringing them all home safely would be the best form of support that I can see," she said, challenging the idea that antiwar activism is a "betrayal" of U.S. soldiers.
Former Marine Lance Cpl. Michael Hoffman couldn't agree more. Michael traveled from Philadelphia with Veterans for Peace to participate in the Fayetteville march. He was part of the initial invasion of Iraq last year and returned to the U.S. around May 1--but he had no illusions about what he was getting into.
"The highest enlisted member in our unit, my first sergeant, had been in the Marine Corp for 20-some years," he said. "And he told us before we went over that we're not going over there because of weapons of mass destruction, we aren't going over there to get rid of Saddam or to make Iraq a democratic country. We're going there for one reason and one reason alone, and that's oil."
Like demonstrations elsewhere, the Fayetteville march was dotted with signs of all sorts--from "Free Haiti, jail Bush" to "War breeds terrorism" to "No more blood for oil." But the importance of this demonstration--bringing together a large number of people with direct connections to the U.S. military machine to challenge Bush's war in the heart of a military town--can't be overstated.
In San Francisco, the march from Dolores Park in the Mission District to the Civic Center was led off by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union's drill team--with their huge banner declaring "An Injury to One Is an Injury to All" held proudly aloft behind them. The ILWU declared a daylong work stoppage in Oakland and San Francisco to support the demonstration. There were many signs in Arabic and Spanish as well as English, and Palestinian flags dotted the demonstration.
In Chicago, where organizers said they were hoping for a turnout of 2,000, some 6,000 people took to the streets--despite the fact that the mainstream media filled the airwaves with police spokespeople raising the threat of a violent confrontation as the day of the protest approached. Chanting "No justice, no peace, U.S. out of the Middle East," marchers walked to Federal Plaza with 2,000 police "escorts"--many in full riot gear with their batons drawn.
Maureen "Mo" Costello came to Chicago from St. Louis on an Amtrak train--in two cars filled with about 120 fellow activists. She said she wanted to express her opposition to the occupations in both Iraq and Palestine. Four members of her group spent three weeks in Palestine in December. At a protest they attended, "Israeli soldiers started shooting," she explained. Her friends "were expecting tear gas and got real bullets."
One of those who traveled to Palestine, Hettie, is a Holocaust survivor. "She was, I believe, representing all of us in our coalition in St. Louis and all of us as Americans when she went over in support of peace and in support of the Palestinian people," Mo said. "I think that says everything...
"I don't know how you can separate [the occupations]. I have a hard time understanding how anybody separates any of the conflicts going on. And when you throw Haiti in there, it all fits together. If we don't continue to connect the dots, and try to educate by connecting the dots, we'll never get anywhere."
All the March 20 demonstrations were unified by the protesters' hatred of the Bush administration's policies, both at home and abroad. That, of course, raised the question of how to stop Bush. Some--like Rev. Jesse Jackson, who spoke in Chicago--came to the demonstrations intent on using them as a platform to promote Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.
Voting for Kerry was the unspoken conclusion to Jackson's call to "Remember in November." But some at the protests disagreed--for obvious reasons. After all, Kerry voted for the war on Iraq, for the USA PATRIOT Act and for Bush's tax cuts. And he has spent recent weeks stressing how much he agrees with every important element of Bush's foreign policy.
As one sign in San Francisco put it, "Kerry, listen up: No peace, no vote." Though smaller than the protests a year ago at the beginning of the war, the March 20 demonstrations had a spirit, an urgency and an anger that has deepened in the past 12 months. Our reasons for opposing Bush's war on Iraq have been proven true, one by one. This weekend marked an important step toward building a movement that can challenge Washington's imperialist adventures--in Iraq and around the world.
Speaking out against war in a military town
THE PROTEST in Fayetteville, N.C., packed a punch beyond its numbers. During the movement against the Vietnam War, soldiers came to play a crucial role, returning home with horrific stories about what they saw--and the credibility to challenge the U.S. government's propaganda about the war. But this soldiers' movement took years to develop.
The movement among GIs today has a long way to go. But it has taken some big strides. For one thing, March 20 marked the largest demonstration in Fayetteville since 1970, when then-antiwar activist Jane Fonda addressed 4,000 soldiers opposed to the Vietnam War.
Nancy Lessin, one of the founders of the group Military Families Speak Out (MFSO), came to Fayetteville brimming with pride about the organization's success. MFSO has mushroomed from two families in November 2002 to 1,000 last October to about 1,500 today. "And with the troop rotations," says Nancy, "a lot of new people are getting involved who say that they've been silent up until now, but they can't be any longer.
"People from MFSO are speaking on podiums across the country on March 20--in New York City, in Ann Arbor, Mich., in Portland, Ore., in Kansas City. We even have a speaker on the podium in Rome, Italy. We're also getting a lot of new families whose loved ones have been killed who feel that the most important thing they can do now is bring the troops home in honor and memory of their loved ones."
With the lies and deceptions of the Bush administration exposed and an upturn in the Iraqi resistance, many soldiers are questioning their role--and even refusing to go to Iraq. "We've heard everything from 600 to 7,000 soldiers are absent without leave," Nancy says. "I don't know what the real number is. But we do know that we have some folks who have gone up to Canada to seek refugee status.
"The overall reason is that this war is based on lies, and soldiers feel like they're being used as cannon fodder in a reckless war that never should have happened in the first place." The family of Sgt. Camilo Mejia, who last week became the first soldier in the U.S. to publicly state why he's refusing to go to Iraq, marched with the MFSO contingent in Fayetteville.
Camilo is in custody in Fort Stewart, Ga., awaiting trial on charges of desertion. "I support my son 100 percent," said Maritza Castillo, Camilo's mother. "The killing of innocent people really changed him," said Maritza. "And Camilo didn't want to be an instrument of a criminal war, of an imperial war, and he didn't want to be an instrument of a powerful elite in the U.S. that was seeking to grind down another people."
Camilo's aunt, Norma Castillo, was also in Fayetteville. "As Camilo has said at different times, people go through a process to get to a point where you make a big decision in your life," said Norma. "If you add up the factors, he was thrust into the war, and there were no weapons of mass destruction. There was only destruction and death and a nation being humiliated. He didn't think that fighting for oil was a good enough reason to continue."
Larry Syverson, an active member of MFSO, has one son in Iraq and one who recently returned. During the weekend before the March 20 protests, Syverson marched with MFSO to the Dover Air Force Base where U.S. military dead arrive from overseas--and again from Walter Reed Memorial Hospital to the White House.
"Over the weekend, I met seven families who had lost sons in Iraq," explained Larry. Some of these families, according to Larry, had requested that they be allowed to meet the bodies of their loved ones as they arrived at Dover--but were denied. "When we were marching to Dover, the main reason we were going there was to make the administration accountable, to allow the coffins to be shown [by the media].
"Right now, the administration says that they won't show the flag-draped coffins of soldiers because they don't want to upset the American people. But when Bush had his very first re-election ad, he brought out the flag-draped coffin of a 9/11 victim. To me, it was the hypocrisy--he's showing the 9/11 victim to get a vote, but he won't show the flag-draped coffin of a soldier because he's afraid he'll lose a vote. So the coffins come in under cover of darkness."
Not all soldiers--either in Iraq or the U.S.--are opposed to the war, of course. But many more have come to question why they are risking their lives for an occupation for oil and empire. "I was against the war going into Kuwait," said Michael Hoffman, a Marine who served in Iraq during the first couple months of the war.
"I knew what was going on. I felt there were no weapons of mass destruction. I knew the chemical weapons they were talking about were basically given to Saddam by the U.S.--that he used them on his own people while he was under U.S. protection and control."
Michael says that when he joined the military, he thought U.S. intervention could be a positive force. "I wasn't nearly as radicalized as I am now," he said. "But it was also a regular thing. I was from a working-class family. And I didn't have many options. My dad was a steelworker, and his plant was shut down. Everything was moving out or shutting down.
"The war right now is just a horrible mess. The troops don't want to be there. They're not stupid, they're on the ground, so they know more than anyone else what's going on and what's really at stake there."
During the Vietnam era, the soldiers' revolt was critical to stopping the U.S. war effort. But the confidence of soldiers to disobey and organize was inspired by--and in turn reinforced--the antiwar movement at home. The inspiring turnout in Fayetteville will only strengthen and accelerate these developments.
International opposition to Bush's war
MILLIONS OF people around the globe joined antiwar protests on March 20. The biggest turnout was in Italy, where Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's right-wing government supported the war and has sent 2,500 troops for the U.S.-run occupation. Masses of people jammed the streets in a march through central Rome that ended up in the Circus Maximus park.
Organizers' estimates of the size of the protest ran as high as 2 million. One marcher, Paolo Quadrardi, told a reporter that the vote in Spain after the Madrid bombings, which kicked out a pro-U.S. government, probably inspired a larger turnout. "War doesn't do anything but increase terrorism," he said.
In Madrid, some 100,000 people marched in an evening demonstration. Leading the way was a large banner--decorated with a black sash to memorialize the victims of the bombings--which read: "End the occupation. Bring the troops home." Antiwar activists in Barcelona turned out for an earlier daytime demonstration that drew an estimated 150,000.
In London, about 75,000 people came out despite driving rain and gusting winds for a march past the parliament building. In Athens, 20,000 took to the streets, and some 2,000 activists gathered at the U.S. military's Ramstein Air Base in western Germany.
Several countries that have sent troops to Iraq for the occupation saw larger demonstrations last weekend. In the Hungarian capital of Budapest, demonstrators formed a human peace sign and called on the government to withdraw its soldiers from Iraq. Across Japan, an estimated 120,000 people joined protests. Yasuko Nagasawa told a Reuters reporter that she feared the presence of Japanese troops in Iraq could make her country a target. "The troops must come home," she said.
Protests took place across the Middle East as well. In Cairo, thousands of people braved a massive show of force by riot police to demonstrate opposition to the occupation of Iraq and in support of the rights of Palestinians. The government had blocked off roads, subway exits and streets the night before, and on the day of the protest, the main bridge leading into downtown Cairo was shut down, causing massive traffic delays.
Some 10,000 police ringed the streets to seal off Tahrir (Liberation) Square. But some 3,000 people made it to the square, where they demonstrated for several hours. Among those who attended was antiwar activist and political dissident Ashraf Ibrahim, who spent the last year in prison on trumped-up charges for daring to take part the huge demonstrations in Cairo last year as the U.S. invasion began.
THESE ARTICLES were written thanks to reports from around the U.S. and the world by Nicole Colson, Mike Corwin, Laura Durkay, Darrin Hoop, Evan Kornfeld, Rachel Odes, Suzie Schwartz, Clive Searle and Ahmed Shawki.