February 16, 2003, New York—Maybe the best makeshift protest sign came as we rounded the corner on to the demonstration site on First Avenue. Someone—we couldn’t see the bearer—had duct-taped a large padded manila envelope on a stick and printed across the envelope, “Stolen Office Supplies for Peace.” In the canyons formed by midtown Manhattan’s apartment buildings and office towers, it seemed like a perfect protest for the place.
The shadows at dawn
This was not a rally with auspicious beginnings. We wanted to march past the United Nations, but the city said found this altogether too dangerous a possibility in these days of orange alerts. Instead the New York Police Department set up “pens” all the way down First Avenue north of the U.N. for the demonstrators. Unfortunately, these pens filled quickly and this slowed the arrival of most of us to the site of the demonstration. Eventually, the NYPD gave up on the pens entirely and let us in.
The police estimate put us somewhere over 100,000 people yesterday; the organizers said half a million. Cops on the scene told reporters a quarter of a million. Whatever it was, the city was not adequately prepared. It took my group an hour plus, some three and a half hours to arrive on site. Some gave up entirely. People shouted, “Whose streets? Our streets!” When NYPD officers appeared on horseback and in riot gear, many first-time protesters were frightened. But though there were scattered altercations when both demonstrators and police got frustrated, mostly everything stayed peaceful.
Not forgetting the human cost
My little group had started the day at Holy Name Church on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where a priest with the interesting name of Fr. Simon Arak, SJ, spoke to us about the devastation Iraq endured after the Gulf War and as a result of the U.S.-led sanctions. He has traveled in that country as part of delegations of a group called Voices in the Wilderness, that was nominated for a Nobel peace prize.
Father Arak told stories of modern medical care bombed back to primitive conditions, of families torn apart, of starving children, and reminded us that none other than UNICEF declared two and a half years ago that sanctions had resulted in the deaths of 500,000 children that would not have died otherwise. His point was that another round of bombing the country’s infrastructure in the service of war, no matter the political intentions, will result in great suffering and death among the civilian inhabitants of Iraq.
The last Bush we listened to…
If this prelude reminded us of the human cost of war, the demonstration focused us on the Administration driving our nation toward it. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, veteran of the struggle against apartheid in South Africa, led the crowd in a chant of “no” to war, “yes” to peace, and expressed the hope that President Bush would indeed listened to “the voice of the world.”
Placards and signs overwhelming targeted the president, including, “Drop Bush not bombs,” “Impeach Bush,” and “Empty Warheads Found” with cartoon pictures of the heads of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, all with heads open and empty. And there was the familiar humorous reference to the Bible, “The last time someone listened to a Bush, they wandered in the desert for 40 years.”
The human tapestry
The diverse crowd—of every race and age imaginable—listened to songs by Pete Seeger and Ritchie Havens, speeches by Susan Sarandon, Danny Glover, playwright Tony Kushner, and writer and activist Angela Davis. Union leaders and politicians came to support the cause. College students, 60’s activists reawakened to the cause, and solidly middle-class suburbanites were all very visible in attendance. I found myself next to a woman in an expensive fur coat at one point, and at another next to a man wielding a sign that read, “Queers for peace.” This was everyone united for one cause: to stop the war.
And so we bore the frigid cold together (one placard: “freezing my ass off for peace”) through the afternoon, united with other freezing protesters in Moscow, Berlin, and London, and with considerably warmer folk in Johannesburg and Kuala Lumpur. About 3:30 p.m. I spied a sign I hadn’t seen before: “Let’s try pre-emptive peace.” Sounded good to me.