“The whole world is marching”

January 13, 2012

Masses of people around the world opposed the U.S. drive to war on Iraq as the Bush administration pushed ahead with its invasion plans in early 2003. The biggest protests of all came on February 15 and 16, when an estimated 10 million people took to the streets in more than 600 cities across the globe. Despite authorities' attempts to stop the demonstration, hundreds of thousands packed the streets of New York City. Here we reprint Socialist Worker's report by Eric Ruder, which originally appeared in the February 21, 2003, issue.

OFFICIALS AT every level of the government--city, state and federal--pulled out all the stops to scare the antiwar movement into silence in New York City. But it didn't work.

Families, union members, students, immigrants, activists old and young--all of them poured into the streets of Manhattan in defiance of "orange" terror alerts, advisories to buy duct tape and plastic sheeting, the authorities' refusal to grant a march permit, and the New York City Police Department's harassment and violence.

Organizers guessed that the turnout numbered between 500,000 and 1 million, but it's impossible to know for sure. That's not only because the sea of people that packed First Avenue for 30 blocks at the official rally site was so big. Because of the cops' tactic of sealing off most streets, there were spontaneous marches across the Upper East Side all day long of people trying to get to the demonstration, sometimes unsuccessfully.

For hours, Second, Third and Lexington Avenues were also choked with huge streams of demonstrators contending with police pens and barricades. Still, the best efforts of "New York City's finest" couldn't break the spirit of the demonstration. In buses, cars, trains and planes, the protesters came from all over.

Half a million people march against the impending invasion of Iraq in New York on February 15, 2003
Half a million people march against the impending invasion of Iraq in New York on February 15, 2003

One local New Haven peace group had chartered a single train car to get activists to New York. But so many reservations came in that their single car turned into two full trains--dubbed the "Peace Train" by organizers.

Though the marchers came from all sorts of backgrounds, they forged an inspiring feeling shared by all--that together, we are a powerful force that says no to this unjust war. "They're trying to redraw the global map," Vanessa Sassons, who works at Albert Einstein Hospital, told Socialist Worker. "We have to be here to make our opinion known. If we don't stand up for global peace, there will be no one to stand up later for us."

This sense of solidarity was felt across the country. At the West Coast-wide mobilization in San Francisco, at least 200,000 people took to the streets--nearly a four-fold increase from the October 26 antiwar demonstration.

Marchers represented a broad cross-section of people and groups--including representatives from nearly 50 unions, along with busloads of people from cities from all over California and the western U.S.

The mood of the march was buoyant and confident. "We need to spend money on health care, schools, housing--not a war budget," said Fred Pecker, a member of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 6.

In Los Angeles, well over 50,000 marched through Hollywood to a military recruiting center. As in other cities, protesters carried signs of all sorts--"Money for education, not for war," "Fight terrorism, impeach Bush" and "Somewhere in Texas, a village has lost its idiot."

Across the U.S., thousands more took to the streets in city after city--Chicago; Austin, Texas; Raleigh, N.C.; Detroit; Houston; Little Rock, Ark. In conservative Colorado Springs, Colo., south of Denver, 3,000 people marched through the streets--and the cops went ballistic, firing tear gas and clubbing demonstrators.

Speaking from the platform at the various demonstrations, many well-known figures added their voices to the growing opposition to war--Danny Glover, Bishop Desmond Tutu, Angela Davis, Rev. Al Sharpton, Martin Sheen, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), Pete Seeger and many more.

"Today is a continuation of a long process that we've been through in order to bring civilization to that place where we no longer consider war as an option to settle grievances," Harry Belafonte, who spoke in New York, told Socialist Worker. "I think that once the world knows that we exist--despite the attempt to say that we don't--it will make a great difference."

In New York, many groups of activists--students, unionists, Palestinian rights activists and others--had planned feeder marches to the rally site on First Avenue, and thousands took part in them. Many of these mini-marches--as well as people walking on their own to get to the demonstration--ran into barricades used by police to pen in protesters and keep the crowds of demonstrators dispersed across the Upper East Side.

As frustration mounted, protesters began to confront the police, defying their orders to head north before crossing over to the rally site. At 63rd Street and 2nd Avenue, for example, thousands of people faced down cops behind metal barricades, who menacingly brandished their batons.

Chanting, "Let us march!" and "This is what democracy looks like!" protesters began pushing on the barricades. As more and more people surged forward, the advantage began to shift from the police to the people. A few demonstrators broke through on the left side, and police rushed to reinforce their line. Then the barricades on the right collapsed, and the cops were in full retreat.

Similar scenes were repeated over and over again up and down the East Side, as the cops' heavy-handed crackdown backfired on them. After one group of protesters pushed through another barricade, one cop on Second Avenue was heard to say to another: "We've lost control of the streets."

The battle to push through the barricades taught a lesson to many activists about how determined the authorities were to keep us quiet, even as they claim to pursue their war on Iraq to promote "democracy."

And across the country--and the world--we sent a clear message to George W. Bush and his gang: There's a growing opposition to Washington's war on Iraq, and it's not going away.

How they tried to stop our protest

When Secretary of State Colin Powell went before the United Nations Security Council to make the case for war on Iraq, he said that he was proud to represent "a democracy that believes in peace." People who endured the police crackdown on protesters in New York City might beg to differ.

United for Peace and Justice (UFPJ)--the coalition that organized the February 15 demonstration in New York City--was denied a march permit after Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the NYPD invoked a "new" policy that they had failed to make public previously. After the September 11 attacks, the city banned marches of more than 10,000 people for groups that didn't already have pre-existing permits.

Coalition lawyers faced an absurd legal runaround--and the opposition of federal government lawyers--in their attempt to get a permit. The cops at first claimed that they couldn't adequately protect a march as big as the one expected. But they soon shifted to declaring that the march itself was a security threat.

The UFPJ fought the restrictions legally. But when it lost, many in the coalition accepted the decision and didn't make further plans to fight the restrictions.

Activists have to be able to resist illegal attacks on our rights. On the day of the demonstration, many protesters spontaneously figured out ways to break through police blockades and other obstacles to their speaking out. This is the attitude that activists need to take to the attempts by authorities to stop us from protesting.

"They arrested me for using a bullhorn"

Mat Boucher, a member of the International Socialist Organization from Boston, was arrested by New York cops early in the morning--and charged with illegal use of a bullhorn!

"We were chanting, 'This isn't a police state, we have the right to demonstrate!'" said Matt. "But then I was proved wrong. The cops grabbed me, cuffed me and threw me in a paddy wagon."

"For the next six hours, I rode in the paddy wagon with my hands cuffed behind my back. When I got to central processing, I was put in a cell with at least 150 more people. We took a poll, and only three of us had ever reached the main rally."

"Most of the people there were picked up when police on horseback charged the crowd--and arrested anyone they could get their hands on. They had lumps and bumps all over their bodies from the batons."

Global tidal wave of protest

The tidal wave of protest that swept around the globe was unprecedented. Over the course of the weekend, demonstrations were held in more than 600 places, "from Auckland to Iceland, and San Francisco to South Korea," according to Britain's Observer newspaper.

Up to 2 million people descended on London to show opposition to Bush's war--and Prime Minister Tony Blair's loyal support for Washington. Speaking to a Labour Party conference hundreds of miles away, Blair stuck to his lapdog attitude--even as an incredible one out of every 30 people across Britain braved near-freezing temperatures to demonstrate.

"I witnessed people in tears--overcome by the emotion and the solidarity," Clive Searle, a member of the Socialist Alliance in Manchester, wrote to Socialist Worker. "As the scale of the protests, here and across the globe, began to dawn on us, we realized that we were now the real 'international community'--not the stuffed shirts and generals lurking behind the United Nations."

Another 2.5 million were on the march in Rome against another favored U.S. ally--Italy's right-wing Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Tides of people swept past a huge banner reading "Stop the War" and a blow-up of Picasso's famous antiwar painting "Guernica" at the end of the march route.

Some 1 million people protested in Barcelona, Spain, the largest demonstration in the city's storied history. Up to half a million marched in Berlin, and Paris saw even larger numbers in the streets. Demonstrations took place across Europe, from Moscow in Russia and Kiev in the Ukraine, to Amsterdam, Athens, Brussels, Budapast, Copenhagen, Marseilles, Sofia and Warsaw.

The protests began hours earlier, on the other side of the globe, with demonstrations across Australia throughout the weekend. Antiwar marches were held in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, India, East Timor, Pakistan, Taipei, Hong Kong, Kazakhstan, Singapore, South Korea and Japan.

In South Africa, thousands marched in Cape Town and Johannesburg. And throughout the Middle East, antiwar protesters made their voices heard--even when that meant facing repression. In the Syrian capital of Damascus, an estimated 200,000 people took to the streets for a massive protest.

Even in Israel--Washington's loyal watchdog in the Middle East--some 1,500 people protested in Tel Aviv, with Jews and Arabs marching together against war.

Thousands of miles away, in Latin America, no fewer than 15 demonstrations took place across Brazil. And in Argentina--a country in the throes of a devastating depression because of Washington's economic assault--some 50,000 turned out to a demonstration endorsed by the country's dissident CTA union federation.

Further Reading

From the archives