February 17, 2003

Cornellians Protest in NYC Against U.S. Plans for War

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More than six busloads full of Ithacans, Cornellians and Ithaca College students attended an anti-war rally in New York City on Saturday.

“There are a million people here,” noted an NYPD officer Saturday, referring to the positive turn-out at Saturday’s anti-war rally in Manhattan.

The numbers actually reported ranged from 100,000 to a half-million protestors, who were part of an international day of action against a war on Iraq. Protests occurred on the same day all over the world with numbers reaching into the millions in Europe. New York Times estimates range from half to three-quarters of a million for Hyde Park in London, England, and 200,000 for Berlin, Germany.

“Someone told us that there had been a million in London, two million in Rome, and half a million in Berlin. Figures from the BBC the next morning confirmed more or less those numbers, summarizing that about eight million had demonstrated in 600 cities around the world. Right now, my feeling is that this might actually make a difference,” said Jim Rundle, Labor Education Coordinator at the school of ILR.

“There were even protesters in Thailand and Japan. There were literally millions of people around the world standing up for peace and justice,” said Dio Tsitouras ’05.

While at least 500 people from the city of Ithaca, Cornell and Ithaca College attended the rally in Manhattan, a march was held in Ithaca to coincide with “The World Says No To War” day.

“It was a really historical event, because if you look at the numbers of people that were participating all over the world, it was approximately 11 million … people were condemning the U.S. and condemning our president,” said Alicia Swords grad.

“I had no idea it was going to be so huge. There were literally people everywhere, three avenues and 20 blocks long. I have never been to a protest before. So it was quite a first time experience. Demonstrating is not given much credit in our country as an organizational tool. But, Saturday the amount of dissent around the country was amazing, not to mention the world,” Tsitouras said.

The rally was centered on the east side at 49th St. and First Avenue where the organizers, primarily the activists’ coaltion, United for Peace and Justice, had set up a large stage where a litany of singers, actors, writers and politicians spoke and performed. The organizers had hoped for a huge march to Central Park following the rally, which began at noon. However, the city of New York refused to grant them a permit for such a march, even after the American Civil Liberties Union sued the city for not granting the protesters the permit.

“Three avenues were taken over for about twenty blocks. Other avenues and streets were filled with people moving toward or away from the demonstration. We were constantly amazed at the size of the crowds everywhere we went. It was obvious that it was way over 100,000. The crowd was mostly good-natured, but the mood of the cops got much more serious as we got into main demonstration. We saw a scuffle and a few people dragged away,” Rundle said.

At the New York City rally, interspersed with speakers who urged the U.S. government not to attack Iraq, performers like Pete Seeger and Richie Havens sang songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Freedom.”

“Peace! Peace! Peace!,” said South African Bishop Desmond Tutu. “Listen to the rest of the world– and the rest of the world is saying ‘Give the Inspectors Time.'”

Martin Luther King III declared, “Just because you have the biggest gun doesn’t mean you must use it,” from the stage.

Other local politicians spoke on the pending war.

“As people of conscience we are responsible for what our government does. We are here exercising that responsibility. We will continue to be heard, to stand strong, to speak truth to power, to say no to a unilateral pre-emptive war,” said former Borough President of Manhattan Ruth Messinger, President of the American Jewish World Service.

While thousands of people watched and listened to the main stage, many thousands more were unable to get to First Ave. where the action was occurring. “We got there at 11 am and stayed until 5 pm and could not get within ten blocks of the UN. The cops were basically diverting us and telling everyone try on 51, try on 67, maybe 72, maybe … etc. It was ridiculous. We never really made it to first avenue except for a brief time around 5 pm,” said Tara Hatami grad.

Alex Bomstein ’04, of the Cornell Anti-War Coalition had a similar experience. “We got down to 2nd Ave, down to 48th st, they kept shoving us north. We got to be a big crowd. There was a big crowd of us trying to get to 1st Ave. We were slowly going up 2nd Ave, and when we got stuck in the 50’s somewhere people started to chant ‘Whose Streets? OUR STREETS!,'” he said.

Bomstein’s group never made it close enough to the rally to hear the speakers.

Many protestors had similar experience with police, who were attempting to control the growing crowds and keep traffic flowing simultaneously. While initially only First Ave. was closed to traffic, protestors took over Second, Third and Lexington Avenues at various points in the day for twenty blocks in either direction of the rally.

“At one point we got in a large group of people on 63 and 2nd where people started to get angry, and started to chant “let us through” and “make a right for peace” in an attempt to get past the police barriers,” Hatami said. “Some people broke down the barriers on the side of the pen. There was a bridge somewhere over First Ave., and under the bridge, people were drumming, singing and meditating–saying “Ohm”– in a circle that grew to 50 or 60 feet wide in diameter.”

As the crowds grew, police reacted to the disruption of traffic.

Many protesters became disillusioned with the confrontations that ensued. “Police were representing the worst forms of brutality and control by keeping people cut off in pens,” Swords added.

“They were trying to subvert the whole thing, trying to get us to go home,” Bomstein said. Estimates of arrests ranged from 50 to 100 protesters who came into conflict with police.

“A small bunch of people made it through [the barricades], one protester was hit in the face by an officer and another was pushed against a building and arrested,” Hatami said.

While news sources reported several hundred counter-protesters on the West side of Manhattan, a few were intermingled with the crowds on the East Side. “There were two coutner-protesters up in an apartment building with signs that said ‘We support our government,'” Bomstein said. “It’s very unlike wars in the past where people were proud to fight for their country.”

While the protesters were broken into smaller groups and separated by street and intersection, there was solidarity among the crowds. “[They] was [sic] extremely diverse both by race and age. Signs ranged from humorous to somber to didactic to slightly obscene. Some had reproductions of Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ with ‘Bagdad’ written over them. I expect the generally upbeat mood will change drastically if the bombs start to fall,” Rundle added.

“Part of the fun is the various shows of support you get spontaneously along the way. For example, the tour bus industry and the piano business seem to be pretty solidly anti-war. People riding the buses would wave and shout from their seats on the top level as they rode by, but the best part was the tour guides lined up at one of the stops, all in bright red coats, who cheered us, stomped their feet, and joined our chants. But the really bizarre display was in the window of a Balwin Piano store where, in a floor-
to-ceiling plate glass window on the second floor, three salesmen, in white ties, waved at us with both arms,” he said.

While many were enlightened by the greater than expected numbers who came out to protest against the war, others were disillusioned by the force with which they were kept away from the main rally and other police actions.

“I was upset that for me the protest turned into something different. I went protesting our governments decision to go to war with Iraq. I left feeling as though I was part of a fascist regime, where not only was my government going to war unjustified, but my government was also taking away my freedom and my constitutional right to protest, and even to walk in the streets of MY city, and not allowing people to tell the truth,” Hatami said.

She explained that the fault was not necessarily that of individual police officers.

“The police department should not be blamed, but the government should be. I am more disgusted now then ever before. I am dissappointed that I did not get to be aprt of something more peaceful, like listening to Pete Seeger play “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” Hatami said.

Tsitouras felt that Saturday’s rally was only the beginning of a growing movement.

“Once the war is underway. The number of people attending protests and contributing to the anti-war movement will at least double, I think,” he said.

Archived article by Aliza Wasserman