Protesters in New York at heart of worldwide actions opposing U.S. war
February 15th, 2003, New York City--Today the world united for peace. Throughout the United States and the world millions of people from all walks of life joined hands, raised banners and voices and marched against an unjust and wrong rush to war. In hundreds of marches, from one pole to the other and on every continent in between, people voiced their dissension and attempted to turn the tide of violence and realize a world of peace. I was in New York City for the march there and it was one of the most amazing things that I have ever been a part of.
It took more than seventeen hours to drive from Gainesville, Florida to New York City and the entire trip was filled with excitement and trepidation. We knew that the NYPD and the City itself had refused to give the marchers a permit to march, saying that there could only be a rally. United For Peace, the main group behind the NYC rally, had fought in court during the weeks leading up to the 15th for the right to march peacefully, but without success. The judge ruling on the case cited an "Increased Security Risk" as the reason for taking away the people's right to demonstrate. Coinciding with the planning for the huge war protests was the raising of the terror warning color to "Orange" by the Department of Homeland Security. Many involved with the antiwar movement saw this as a weak attempt by the fear mongers in Washington, DC to fill the people with more paranoia and keep the marches from being well attended. It did not work.
As we drove closer to New York, I began to feel a pang of fear myself, though not of any sort of weird terrorism. My fear was directed towards the Powers That Be. I knew deep in my soul that we would march; that there was no way the police could keep hundreds of thousands of people from their First Amendment right to protest peacefully. But, what would happen as a result? Would this be the 1968 Democratic Convention all over again? Would this be our Kent State? The fear was very real because of the terrible record of violence that the power structure has when it feels threatened. And the power structure must have certainly felt threatened after the huge protests in Washington, DC and San Francisco in January, not to mention the gut wrenching plummet in the polls that George Bush, Jr., suffered recently. The worm was beginning to turn for the war pigs and I was a little afraid of what their reaction would be.
Nevertheless, there was no turning back for us. We were going to ride this strange rocket ship all the way to the end, no matter what. We were prepared to offer our heads to be clubbed, our bodies to be bruised, our lungs to be burned by pepper spray so that we could stand and be counted against war. It was strange, but it was how we felt. This was our time. No more sitting back and letting the Powers That Be destroy any hope of peace or justice. No more standing on the sidelines and watching the horrible injustices that our country carries out on the rest of the world. No more sitting quietly and letting the Powers That Be take away our freedoms in the name of security.
My generation was not even around in the sixties, but we know our history and we have those who were alive and fighting then as our teachers. We know the power of movement, the energy of being right, the knowledge that what you are doing has to be done. That is why so many of us came to New York City on that cold day. They could raise the terror warning to glowing, magma red, we didn't give a damn!
It was with these soiled thoughts on my mind that I first saw the skyline of Manhattan from the Jersey turnpike. I hadn't seen it since before September 11th, 2001. Not seeing the World Trade Center stabbing upwards above everything else made me feel a deep sense of realism. It wasn't just some image on TV. The Twin Towers were gone and the three thousand plus people who didn't emerge from the rubble that day were gone also. Only a scar remained. My giddy sense of adventure took pause and a seriousness overwhelmed me. This was real, it was time to stand and be counted with all those who refused to let something like September 11th, 2001 happen ever again anywhere. There was no joking around anymore.
Our connection in New York was fuzzy. The United For Peace web site had listed several different potential places for wayward protesters to stay in New York. The week before the trip I had found a young woman from Fordham University who was willing to let my friend and I stay in her dorm room. I communicated with her over email, but failed to contact her by phone for the entire week. Her email said that she was happy to have us and was excited to meet people who were willing to drive all the way from Florida. As the time passed quickly by and the window of opportunity narrowed, my friend and I decided to rent a car and go. We hadn't actually spoken to the person we were hoping to shack with, but the whole thing just felt right.
After a bit of confusion and worry, we finally did meet the young woman from the web and she was excited to have us. However, she had also given her address out to several young women from Vermont and there was a problem of too many people for her small dorm room to handle. To our great relief, some of the woman's friends had a house in the Bronx near Fordham and were willing to let complete strangers stay there for the entire weekend. Our Sisters of Mercy had come through.
The day of the protest was cold and bitter, with wind gusts ripping through our tender Florida skin. We awoke early and were on the subway by nine a.m., tired, cold and ready for anything. We had our signs, we had our warmest clothes, we had our legal contact numbers and we knew that we were as prepared as we could be. We didn't expect the complete, wonderful chaos that would follow, but we were willing to let it happen.
Our plan was this: we were to join the Fordham feeder march at Lincoln Center and make our way toward the rally point on First Avenue. This was going to be completely illegal of course because of the lack of a marching permit. However, we knew that it was our right to protest and we were willing to play our hand. There were to be other feeder marches from all over Manhattan converging at the same rally point. We hooked up with the hundred or so folks from Fordham and made our way slowly toward Park Avenue south, holding signs, chanting, playing music all of us spurred on by each other's passion.
On Park Avenue south, in the shadow of the Trump Towers and other temples to money and power, we converged with several other feeder marches. As far as I could see, up every avenue and street, marchers were waving banners, singing and smiling with rosy red cheeks. From the North side of Park Avenue came the police with sirens blaring, van after van of blue clad "peace" officers. We marched on toward the rally site with people wearing "Legal Advisor" armbands urging us to stay on the sidewalks. However, there were simply too many people to keep on the sidewalks as we picked up feeder march after feeder march and headed towards First Avenue and the main rally point. Within minutes the throng of protesters had spilled into the streets themselves, stopping traffic and effectively shutting down Manhattan for a day.
As we moved forward slowly, I tried to take it all in. I saw people of all ages, races and backgrounds marching. I saw an old man with a walker and an oxygen mask weakly holding a sign that read "Moving Towards a Just Tomorrow." I saw a young child holding a placard that read "The Real Axis Of Evil" and showed the faces of Bush, Cheney and Ashcroft. There were marchers form organized labor with signs that read "If The War Starts, Walk Out" along side teachers with banners that said "Money For Books, Not Bombs." The variety and number of people that were there, linked by one goal and raising one voice, was truly amazing to behold.
As we made our way ever slowly towards the rally point, picking up more and more marchers, the police decided to make a stand. Overwhelmed by sheer numbers, the police had only one choice to try to "control" the peaceful crowd. They decided to funnel the marchers away from the rally point and then cut us off completely from getting to First Avenue. On Second Avenue, we realized what was happening. We could go no further and the side streets connecting Second Avenue to First Avenue were barricaded and guarded by hundreds of police officers.
At first, there was a sense of disbelief. We didn't want to believe that the police weren't even going to allow us to the rally point to see the different speakers who were scheduled. The streets were plugged with chanting, singing, protesters trying to reach the main rally area. Traffic had been stopped completely and the police could only hope to keep the huge groups of marchers separated. Our guide led us up and down Second Avenue searching for a point to cross over. The marchers behind our group met barricades when they tried to join us as the police attempted to divide the protesters. We saw many struggles as the marchers pushed against the barricades and the police tried to hold them back. Chanting "Whose Streets? Our Streets!" the marchers threw themselves against the metal fences and the police were overwhelmed.
This continued to happen even as we finally made our way toward the main rally area on First Avenue hours later. The police barricaded off block by block of First Avenue as they tried in vain to keep the marchers from joining together. But, it was too late, Manhattan was already shut down. Hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets and all the police could do was stand back and let it happen, which they finally realized late in the day. Eventually they let go of the fences and the people tossed them aside and joined together in dissent.
In the aftermath, there was a true sense of victory. The police had tried to stop us and could not. We were able, even without a permit, to voice our dissent against a corrupt and brutal presidential administration bent on global domination. We shut down Manhattan for a day and made people throughout the world aware of the fact that many Americans do not want war with Iraq. Whatever the mainstream media says and whatever the Bush regime says, there are millions of people in this country that can find no moral justification for killing both innocent Iraqi people and our own military personnel for absolutely no reason at all. There is simply no reason for this rush to war.
That night, colder and more tired, but filled with a sense of accomplishment and high on the energy of movement, we returned to the Bronx and watched the world news. Reports from similar huge protests throughout the world filled us with even more joy. We could see that we were not alone in the world. The time had come when people everywhere were willing to stand up and be counted on the side of peace, not war.
What did all of it accomplish in the end? Maybe nothing at all. Maybe the war mongers in Washington are too far gone with their evil plans for us to make a difference. However, one thing that we did accomplish was to show those same war pigs that the all the people were not fooled by their propaganda. The huge size of the protests were far larger than any antiwar movement before the Vietnam or any other war. It took almost a decade of needless slaughter in Vietnam for the public to turn so vehemently against the war. If the Bush regime does continue to insist on war and the body bags start flowing back home filled with needlessly killed Americans (not to mention the hundreds of thousands of innocent Iraqis that will surely die) the size of the protests will only increase. That is enough to give any sane leader pause. It remains to be seen how sane Bush is and whether or not he can read the writing on the wall.
In the future, there will be more protests. If the Powers That Be in this country refuse to listen to the people, the protests will grow larger and more intense. February 15th was more of a starting point than a climax. The mixed age, color, religion and nationality of the protesters throughout the world ensure that the antiwar movement is stronger than ever before and is ready to take to the streets.
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