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Against the War at Ground Zero

by DAVID LINDORFF

 

New York City.

The first thing I noticed as I walked up from the 38th Street ferry pier towards the Broadway march assembly point was row upon row of police buses–the paddywagons used for mass arrests–lined up along 12th Avenue.

As I walked past the entrance to the Lincoln Tunnel, another jarring sight greeted my eyes: clusters of National Guard soldiers in camouflage uniforms, M-16 assault rifles at the ready.

The image was of a city in the grip of war.

Until I reached Broadway. There, the mood was entirely different. Stretched from Times Square at 42nd Street, down to almost Herald Square at 34th Street, the entire Great White Way was jammed, elbow to elbow, with a still growing throng of anti-war demonstrators.

The day was sunny, the temperature was heading for the 60s, and the mood of the crowd was upbeat but determined.

It was an astonishing display. Even as the nation was engaged in a ferocious assault on the nation of Iraq, and as the first reports of American casualties in that war were coming in, what was shaping up as one of the largest peace demonstrations in the history of the New York was getting set to march through the heart of the very city where this new round of global violence had started. New York, N.Y.

That the march was happening at all was a remarkable testament to the power of protest. A month earlier, the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg, reportedly under pressure from the Bush Administration and with the support of a compliant federal district court and appellate court, had denied amarch permit to the coalition seeking to march past the United Nations to protest the looming war. That time demonstrators, who numbered between 100,000 and 400,000, had been penned in and in some cases brutalized by police on horseback. Several hundred had been arrested.

This time the city, which had suffered an enormous public relations black eye for its handling of legitimate protest on a day when much larger protests had gone off peacefully around the world, had agreed to grant a march permit,, allowing demonstrators to walk from Times Square all the way down Broadway to Union Square at 14th Street, and then on down to Washington Square in Greenwich Village.

But nobody, either the police and the city or the march organizers, had anticipated how enormous this demonstration would prove to be. At 11 am, an hour before the lead marchers–a group of World Trade Center Survivors and families of trade center victims–were to step off, police, who had set up barricades limiting the march to only half of the width of the street, realized that this would not work. They pulled the barricades over to the sidewalks, surrendering all of Broadway to the mushrooming throng.

In the end, when the march finally got moving, the densely packed but orderly crowed reportedly stretched for 40 blocks–a distance of about three miles.

There were no speakers, either during the march or at its start or terminus. Demonstrators were left to convey their messages via signs, which were both focussed and creative. “Bush, pull out like your daddy should have!” was popular. So was “Money for jobs, not for war.”

Some people carried fake tombstones with the names of young Palestinians killed in the Intifada. Others wore berets and hoisted baguettes, in honor of the French, who had led the successful campaign to block U.S. efforts to gain Security Council approval for the war on Iraq. One man carried an elaborate 3-D mural of a red, white and blue elephant defecating missiles onto a map of Iraq.

The remarkable thing about this march, which one police officer said police were estimating at 100-200,000, and which CNN put at 175,000, but which rally organizers estimated at over 400,000, was how little opposition it engendered. From my vantage point in the rough middle-point of this stream of humanity, during the entire course of the march I saw only three individuals along the sidelines holding signs in support of the war or heckling marchers.

Among marchers, the sentiment of supporting the troops was widespread. I saw no signs criticizing American soldiers, but many signs saying things along the lines of, “Support our troops. Bring them home.”

As a veteran of the October 1967 mass march on the Pentagon (when I and hundreds of other peaceful protesters were arrested and carted off to the federal prison in Occaquan, VA, where we faced criminal trespass, resisting arrest and various other charges), I found both the sophistication of the marchers, and the non-antagonistic, even supportive response of bystanders, simply astounding, particularly in a city that had been the target of such a horrendous attack only a year and a half earlier–an attack which the U.S. government has been trying to link to America’s current wartime foe, Iraq.

While marchers expressed support for U.S. soldiers, and appeared for the most part to get along with local police lining the route, there was considerable unconcealed anger at the mass media, however.

When an NBC camera crew set up a video camera atop a van at Herald Square, for example, demonstrators in the surrounding area pretty much deep-sixed any chance of favorable coverage by hoisting their middle fingers and chanting “NBC–National Bullshit Corporation!” A similar angry reception was given to a young woman and cameraman from WB’s local Channel 1 News.

Fox TV — the network owned by the openly pro-war News Corp. of Rupert Murdoch — came in for special rebuke. A reporter attempting to interview one marcher had her microphone repeatedly brushed aside as she tried to ask him why he was demonstrating while American troops were overseas fighting.

For the most part, the 2000 police who lined the march route were relaxed and even, in many cases, friendly with marchers, though at certain points, particularly in the various open areas such as Herald and Union Squares there were numbers of officers dressed in riot gear as if prepared for the worst.

The only incidents came at the end of the march, when some demonstrators decided not to disperse as ordered by police, but to remain in and around the area of Washington Square.

At about 5 pm, an hour after the parade permit had expired, police attempted a pincer move to trap a group of over a thousand demonstrators on the block running along the north of the park. With police and police vans blocking a rear escape, a large contingent of police in riot gear began advancing on the group from the other end of the street. It started to look tense, and some mace was sprayed (both sides accused the other of spraying it). Then a 75-year-old woman stepped forward and confronted the advancing officers. “Why are you doing this?” she asked them. “We are being trapped here.”

Confronted with a choice of moving forward and arresting the woman or backing off, the police relented, and allowed the protestors to move forward.

There were, however, several dozen arrests as the march was breaking up. As one young black woman was dragged off, handcuffed, by police, she shouted out several times, “I have the constitutional right peaceably to assemble.”

In New York City on March 22, 2003, apparently, only until 4 pm. As another demonstrator nearby me who was watching the incident commented wryly, “She obviously hasn’t heard about the changes Bush and Ashcroft have made in the Constitution.”

Dave Lindorff is the author of Killing Time. He can be reached through his website.

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Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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