Rallying for the Libyan people

February 28, 2011

Around the country, protesters are coming out to stand in solidarity with the people of Libya, who are facing a savage crackdown by dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.

DAYS OF brutal repression against protesters opposing the regime of Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi brought protesters into the streets of many U.S. cities during the week of February 21-27 to stand in solidarity with the Libyan people and their fight for democracy.

In San Francisco, approximately 700 people rallied in UN Plaza and marched through downtown on February 26 in solidarity with the revolt in Libya.

A highly energized and diverse crowd, led by Libyan Americans but joined by people from all backgrounds, chanted enthusiastically in solidarity with the revolt, "Hey Qaddafi you will see, Libya will be free!"

Earlier in the day, a Wisconsin solidarity protest took place at City Hall, placing it and the Libya solidarity rally side by side. When the Wisconsin demonstration ended, a group of protesters joined the Libya rally. One of the organizers of the Wisconsin demonstration took the stage at the Libya rally to make a rousing speech to express his solidarity.

The demonstration's organizers made a point of countering the fear mongering of a civil war in Libya that could be used to justify foreign intervention; it was a repeated message from the stage, and one frequent chant was, "From the East, to the West, it's Qaddafi we detest!"

Demonstrators gather in San Francisco to show their solidarity with the struggle in Libya
Demonstrators gather in San Francisco to show their solidarity with the struggle in Libya (Jeffrey Boyette | SW)

While the demands of organizers include the immediate resignation of Qaddafi, democracy, the right of self determination for Libyans, the right to return, and no outside influence, there were disagreements among some rally organizers and speakers as to whether the rally should endorse sanctions on Qaddafi's regime, a no-fly zone and limited U.S./UN intervention.

Those making these demands believe sanctions to be a solution that will force Qaddafi out and stop the killing without infringing on the sovereignty of the Libyan people. But a majority believes that no foreign country, especially the U.S., should intervene in Libya, since it would be doing so to guarantee its own economic and geopolitical interests, not the sovereignty of the Libyan people. One thing is certain--everyone made it loud and clear that Qaddafi must go.

The protest was particularly impressive for having been organized on short notice by an ad hoc group of people, many of whom were completely new to activism and compelled to take action at the sight of Qaddafi's brutal suppression of protesters.

While they were assisted by activists who have organized demonstrations in recent weeks in solidarity with the revolt across North Africa and Middle East, the younger activists were a majority--and brought a determination, focus and political clarity to the event.

In New York City, some 300 people rallied February 23 at the Libyan mission to the United Nations in solidarity with the uprisings underway in Libya. Organized primarily through Facebook and the Internet, people came from as far away as Arizona and Texas.

Echoing the central slogan from Egyptian protests, people chanted in Arabic, "The people want regime change," as well as "Qaddafi, you're a coward. The Libyan people are not afraid."

Mohammed El Cataani, who was imprisoned for two years under the Qaddafi regime for human rights activism and whose brother died in the 1996 massacre at the Abu Saleem prison, traveled all the way from Washington state to take part in the protest. "We are really disappointed now with the U.S. government and feel that it is with Qaddafi now."

El Cataani is elated that his home city of Benghazi, in eastern Libya, is now liberated from Qaddafi's rule. "I suffer from psychological issues and depression," El Cataani said. "But today, I love life. I want to fly."

Despite frigid weather, more than 300 protesters took to the streets in Chicago in solidarity with the people of Libya on February 26. Demonstrators shouted slogans such as "One, two, three, four, no Qaddafi anymore," "From the dessert to the sea, Libya, Libya shall be free!" as well as other chants in Arabic and English.

Amid countless news reports detailing brutal repression and murder committed by Qaddafi's embattled regime, there was nonetheless a palpable sense of excitement and optimism among protesters. Each time those leading chants talked of victory on the horizon, the crowd responded with an eruption of cheers.

Protesters waved signs that read "Solidarity with our loved ones" and "Qaddafi must go!" A large number of families with small children were in attendance, some of them with their faces painted with the colors of the Libyan flag.

Although the focus of the demonstration was on recent events in Libya, several protesters waved Egyptian flags, while others held signs expressing support for the struggles underway in Yemen, Iran and Algeria. As many of the speakers emphasized, the liberation struggle underway in Libya is part of a much larger eruption of revolutionary stirrings underway in the region.

That same day, another 300 protesters gathered in Pioneer Square in downtown Portland, Ore., to show their solidarity with the Libyan people.

The protest was lively, alternating between rallying and chanting at the steps in the center of Pioneer Square and marching around the square. There were chants in Arabic and English with the most popular chants being "Down, down with Qaddafi. Free, free Libya," "The people want the removal of the regime," and "The people, united, will never be defeated."

Protesters also chanted "Neither West nor East, but one Libya" showing their desire for Tripoli to come under the control of anti-Qaddafi protesters who have already taken over much of the eastern part of the country.

At one point, the Libyan solidarity protesters marched past protesters who had come to Pioneer Square to show support at a rally for Planned Parenthood--resulting in cheers from both sides at the novelty of having two protests run into each other unplanned.

The protest concluded with a tribute to those who have died, including seven relatives from one family of a Libyan-American resident of Portland who was in attendance at the rally.

Organizers at the rally handed out a statement addressed to President Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other American and UN officials from the "Libyan Americans in Oregon." That statement called, among other things, for the UN and NATO to intervene in Libya--but no one should trust the U.S. or other Western governments to take action in the best interests of the Libyan people.

This protest followed an earlier rally on February 23, in which some 100 people gathered in Pioneer Square to express their disgust with Qaddafi's brutal repression and solidarity with the people on the ground in Libya fighting for democracy.

When a pro-Qaddafi man booed at protesters, a young Libyan boy yelled back at him: "If you don't support the Libyans in the street, you're not human!"

In Washington, D.C., some 100 people came together for a solidarity demonstration at the White House on February 21. The President's Day holiday meant that the crowd included a fair number of high school students and young children, alongside adult men and women of all ages.

Despite cold and rainy weather, dozens of people with friends and relatives in Libya, and their supporters, showed up to demand that Obama pressure Qaddafi to step down. Men and women wept openly for their loved ones at the rally, amid waving Libyan, Egyptian and Tunisian flags and chants of "Not Qaddafi, not his son--freedom and the sun!"

Chants alternated between English and Arabic as megaphones changed hands, and the crowd, with a heavy presence of Libyan Americans, raised criticisms not only of Qaddafi and his murderous regime, but of the Obama administration. The chant, "Obama, where are you? Gaddafi must go!" was followed by the more pointed, "Obama must know! Gaddafi must go!" The connection between Western complicity with despotism in the Middle East was unmistakable.

This demonstration comes on the heels of a 300-person demonstration at the Libyan Embassy, organized by the same network of Libyan activists. Plans are in the works for more protests in support of the Libyan people until Qaddafi is gone from power.

In Seattle, several hundred Libyans, Libyan Americans and their allies rallied downtown February 21 show their solidarity.

People at the rally were optimistic that Qaddafi would soon be gone, but horrified at the monstrous slaughter perpetrated on his way out. They recounted reports of helicopters and planes strafing crowds of protesters and targeting medical personnel. One young man discussed the level of repression:

My uncle was in jail for 12 years for merely criticizing the government. He was in a tiny cell with a bucket for a lavatory and no exercise except once a week. He was only supposed to be in for six months, but they kept him for 12 years. When he got out, he had to undergo physical therapy just to be able to walk normally.

Qaddafi entraps people. He sends out agents to speak quietly against the regime. When people respond and criticize the regime, he arrests them! Yesterday, my 18-year-old cousin was killed by the regime.

Another man asked, "Why does the U.S. continue to back these dictators?" He stated that he had voted for Obama, but now regretted his vote.

In Austin, Texas, a group of about 50 gathered on February 25 at the Capitol to both support the Day of Rage demonstrations in Iraq and Palestine and to stand in solidarity with the people's movements in Libya, Bahain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia.

To the sound of drum beats and children running on the surrounding grass, the crowd cried for Muammar el-Qaddafi to leave Libya and for Palestine and Iraq to be free. Chants included "Down, down, down with Qaddafi," "Qaddafi, you can't hide; we charge you with genocide," and "Muammar Qaddafi, you're a clown; get the heck out of town."

Another chant made the link between struggles "from Austin to Egypt and Tripoli to Wisconsin."

Among the crowd there seemed to be a grim determination to support the people's movements against the violence of their governments, at home and abroad, until victory is won.

Cindy Beringer, Zac Dettwyler, Wael Elasady, Lucy Herschel, Steve Leigh, Kitty Lui, Julia Morgan and Camille White-Avian contributed to this article.

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