(YellowTimes.org) – From ten to thirty million people worldwide took to the streets on February 15th to express their revulsion at the White House’s war fever. It was without doubt the biggest protest ever. The rise of a world public was the necessary counterpart to the transformation of the U.S. into a world empire. Global protest was born earlier, but Saturday’s protest was the moment the masses of the world looked in the mirror and recognized themselves as members of one planet with one supreme interest, to live in peace with each other.
Running for president, George Bush described himself as “a uniter, not a divider.” On Saturday he united the people of the world against his irresponsible, greedy, pigheaded, destructive slouching towards mayhem. In New York City, even among the drivers who were stuck for hours in the traffic disruptions, there were many more expressions of support for the protesters than there were expressions of anger.
About 400,000 people protested in the streets of New York City. The rally organized by the United for Peace & Justice coalition stretched on First Avenue as far as the eye could see; thousands of protesters filled Second, Third and Lexington Avenues, too, as they marched towards the rally. The protest exceeded all expectations in size, diversity and energy. Peace was not just a slogan, but was in the air, on the faces of the people, in their body language. To paraphrase Isaiah, it was a day that brought together seventy year old grannies and teen anarchists, Vietnam-age radicals and suburbanite young mothers, body art aficionados and devout Muslims. It was a beautiful, exhilarating day. All the people who marched and who put their souls into making this protest successful, colorful, and energetic, braving the below freezing temperatures, the wind-chill, and the chilling attempts of the New York police to stifle the anti-war protest, deserve a standing ovation.
For many, it was also a day of radicalization. There were many for whom this was the first time in the streets, and many looked dazed as it dawned on them that the police were not there to protect them, but to scare and to silence them.
The police, in addition to denying the protest a march permit, used barricades to route all the rally attendants into a series of separate pens along First Avenue. The pens gave one the creepy feeling of being led into an industrial chicken coop. A visitor from Europe would find it hard to believe that this is how exercising free speech looks in the so-called “Land of the Free.” In stodgy “Old Europe,” such levels of police contempt for citizens would have led to violent riots. One need only browse the many photos from the worldwide protests to note that nowhere else did police try to barricade protesters in pens, not even in London and Rome, cities in which protests were many times larger than in New York City.
The attempts to muzzle the anti-war voices proved counter-productive. The rally itself was peaceful. However, over sixty participating groups, angry with the police, decided to have feeder marches without a permit. Instead of one big march, the police found itself facing sixty-seven marches, moving towards the rally at First Avenue on different routes all over the city. As the marches converged, the number of people was too big for the sidewalks, and marchers took to the streets, blocking traffic and confronting police barricades and horses all over the Upper East Side. The police were overstretched and officers were at times frightened. While many officers did their best to carry out the stupid orders they had been given with restraint, there was no shortage of crude brutality.
According to the New York City IndyMedia, 311 people were arrested. Most of those arrested were guilty of nothing beyond being at the front line of the marches as they were pushed back by police officers attempting to keep protesters off the streets and away from the rally. Many eyewitnesses reported angry, brutal cops attacking and beating protesters, smashing heads and ripping off puppets and signs. A few protesters were arrested as they broke through barricades or engaged in other kinds of civil disobedience. But, most often, police blocked the way and squeezed protesters to the point that the most vulnerable people were injured. A number of protesters were attacked and beaten by police officers as they made their way home at the end of the day.
The worst altercations happened on 53rd St. on both Third and Second Ave., where huge marches liberated the streets for long periods. Mounted police charged into packed crowds that had nowhere to move, trampling on people and causing injuries and panic. An unknown number of people were reported hospitalized.
The corporate media took more than the usual notice of yesterday’s protest. But the quality of the reporting and the disingenuous attempts to minimize the number of protesters, portray them as freaks, and hide the brutality of the police were shocking, as usual.
The New York Times, perhaps for the first time in living memory, reported a credible estimate of the crowd: 400,000 people. Unfortunately, this act of brave truth-telling exhausted the civic courage of reporter Robert McFadden. McFadden misleadingly conveyed the impression that there was no marching, only a rally with “spillover” into the nearby avenues. He described only a single incident in which people were arrested, the breaking through the barricades on Second Ave. between 53rd and 54th St., deftly using association and juxtaposition to insinuate that this was the work of a small number of pro-Palestinian demonstrators. The article thus created the false impression of a large peaceful anti-war rally spoiled by a few “rogue” protesters with a separate agenda. In fact, all the feeder marches ran into police blockades. Only a few of the over 300 arrests happened in that section of the march and none of those arrested there were Palestinian solidarity activists. Finally, Palestinian flags and signs were in the rally not as a separate agenda, but because many understand that there is a strong connection between the planned attack on Iraq and the repressive regime in Palestine.
A Palestine solidarity feeder march, in which I took part, had indeed reached the intersection before the altercation began. However, the pushing through the barricade happened when a much larger feeder march broke through from Third Avenue on 53rd Street, slicing our march in the middle and packing the intersection. I was standing about fifteen feet from the breached barricade, squeezed and unable to move at the center of a large crowd, mostly from the other march. Our most pressing concern was to avoid tripping and getting underfoot. We were squeezed by the police from all directions. Yet the crowd was peaceful and alert and people took care of each other’s safety, while the police were risking our safety in order to make a point about who’s in charge. So much for the concern for “security.”
Interestingly, McFadden or his informants could see Palestinian flags in that section of the avenue in which protesters filled the street and blocked traffic. Indeed, there were many. Yet he somehow failed to notice the mounted police officer who, about the same time, charged with his horse some fifty feet into the western sidewalk that was packed full with people who chose not to participate in civil disobedience, knocking people on the ground and trampling over them. It wasn’t a sight one couldn’t easily forget, unless apparently one is a corporate journalist.
So far, it seems that the corporate media refuses to acknowledge this or any of the similar life-endangering incidents that people reported. The silver lining of this story is that today, hundreds of thousands of previously innocent people know, from personal experience, that the American media is lying to them and that the police is used to intimidate citizens.
The obstruction of the First Amendment by police was nothing short of disgraceful. Officers lied and prevented protesters from reaching their assembly points, and steered protesters away from the rally. Unbelievably, at one point, officers ordered our march to stop chanting! In the days before the rally, detectives called people who organized buses to New York City and tried to intimidate them by asking for lists of all their passengers. The phone line of the protest organizers’ office mysteriously went dead just as the rally began. According to the New York City IndyMedia, two police officers were caught in action while yanking the phone lines of the radio station that was broadcasting the rally.
Yet we won a major battle. We showed our strength and our determination. We forced our opposition to the war onto the political agenda. Many go to protests out of a sense of duty but without real hope to affect the decisions of the plutocracy. Others stay home because of the same feeling of powerlessness. Not true. This anti-war movement, by starting so early and energizing itself so fast and so widely, really makes a difference.
Our presence in the streets on January 18th in Washington D.C. and San Francisco, and Saturday in New York City, London, Madrid, Rome, and over 600 cities all over the world, put the spine in the back of “Old Europe” politicians. They would have never dared to defy the White House without us. We have already contributed to stalling the war machine and we may yet stop it.
We must remain in the streets until we get the warmongers thrown out.
[Gabriel Ash was born in Romania and grew up in Israel. He is an unabashed “opssimist.” He writes his columns because the pen is sometimes mightier than the sword – and sometimes not. Gabriel is the Middle East Editor of YellowTimes.org’s News From the Front, located at the following URL: http://www.YellowTimes.org/nftf.html. He lives in the United States.]
Gabriel Ash encourages your comments: gash@YellowTimes.org
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