United for Peace, Justice & Busting Complacency

Maureen Curtin

Editor's note: On February 15, 2003, millions of people in some 600 cities around the world demonstrated to denounce the Bush Administration's call for war on Iraq. Hundreds of people from the Syracuse area went down to New York City _ some by car, others by bus (the Syracuse Peace Council and Peace Action jointly sponsored five buses; the Service Employees International Union [SEIU] sponsored one).

There were questions about what to expect. United for Peace and Justice, a coalition of more than 200 peace and justice organizations, had called for the demonstration. After much legal wrangling, they got a permit for a rally at 1st Ave. and 49th St., but not for a march on the streets.

People were everywhere. Marches (on the sidewalks) to the rally site grew with each step. Anti-war protesters were like drops of water, joining into streams and flowing into rivers. Signs and energy were abundant. Rally organizers estimated the crowd at 500,000.

Very few Syracusans made it as far as the rally site. Some made it to 1st Ave., where block-long "pens" awaited them. Others were stuck on 2nd and 3rd Aves., where protesters at times reclaimed their right to march in the streets. Police were everywhere _ some were friendly, others were dressed in riot gear and sitting atop horses. As Maureen said, "It's clear that even on the same block, people were having radically different experiences. What matters is that we were part of the struggle."

What follows is Maureen's experience in NYC; for more photos and details, see http://nyc.indymedia.org/

"Don't get your heads busted in tomorrow!" my brother signed-off on a Valentine's Day phone call.

It was like a public service announcement, warning women how to behave to prevent "being raped."

An English teacher, I choked on the passive voice, the diversion of responsibility. I yelled into the void, "Go tell it to the cops!"

Also in this conference call, my mom declared her support for war. Subtext: we're immigrants—don't rock the boat. We changed the subject. Later, she spoke of questioning one of her teachers. I warned her that people who challenge teachers become those who challenge governments.

Hours later, I carpooled with my own students from SUNY-Oswego at 4:30 am, Saturday, February 15. We boarded one of six Syracuse buses bound for the United for Peace and Justice demonstration at the United Nations. Enroute, some scribbled poetry, while others dreamed up posters, comprised of duct tape and little else. No doubt about it—in crisis and among strangers, duct tape makes great adhesive.

We reached New York City at 11:30 am, and seven of us plotted a course to 49th and 1st Avenue. As we exited the subway, the token booth clerk boomed: get your tokens now, "because later the lines will be two hours long." When we stepped into the bright street at 51st and Lexington, we pocketed our maps and followed the thick streams of protesters headed east. Many appeared unaffiliated with community organizations, attending with friends and families.

As we reached 51st and 3rd, we met a wave marching north past a police barricade. The police explained the crowds were too large at 1st Ave. We could join them, they said, if we marched north. We heard the same promise at 53rd, 55th, 57th, and 59th. The cops did not seem to be communicating with one another. We wondered whether and what the organizers knew. Intermittently, protesters screamed, "Whose streets?" and we responded, "Our streets!" Otherwise, we moved slowly in stubborn chaos. In each direction, we saw masses of people toting banners and posters.

At 61st and 3rd, the police relented briefly, and we turned east. We joined in song and dance, then squeezed onto 2nd, also barricaded. Herding us north once more, the police screamed at us, "return to the sidewalks!" But the crowds spilled past and overtook the street. From scattered radios, we heard fragments of speeches.

We pushed on, through the ever denser crowd. After twenty minutes deadlocked at 63rd and 2nd, we realized that police had barricaded progress north as well as east. By 1:00 pm, we were at the leading edge of a confrontation. At the southeast corner of the intersection, people crowded against a tall fenced-in patio, where residents looked on and, with cameras, recorded the scene.

Schooled by neighborhood peace-walks to Armory Square, some of us rallied the crowd with cries. Pockets of young men, meanwhile, shoved up against the barricades. Suddenly, two dozen protesters breached the blockade. But police quickly recovered and slammed us back. As little as fifteen feet away, we could not see but only felt this.

From the south and west, the crowd was pushing as we had. We circled arms around the elderly, protecting against a trampling surge. One block to the east, we were led to believe, crowds were massive, already penned in. Some of us began screaming among ourselves. A few were intrepid, though I was not among them. Our cluster of seven had fragmented.

The cops' nerves seemed raw, and the crowd's patience worn thin. Our seven formed a chain and, led by a 6' 1" dyke in fatigues, retraced our steps south. Shaken, we paused here and there to talk with those packed shoulder to shoulder. As we turned west, we saw paddy wagons careening in the direction from which we'd come. We later converged on our buses and discovered that only a handful of our companions had gotten close to the rally. On the ride home, we shared stories and read aloud from the early edition of the New York Times.

Within hours of our 2 am return, I discovered internet video clips of the confrontation at 63rd and 2nd. Several links document the breach we witnessed. I emailed the videographer for a timeline, and he explained that at 1:28 pm the police at our corner yielded. When the massive crowd marched to 1st Ave., he explained, they found only sparse crowds, nothing like the masses the police claimed to be diverting us from.

To review: we were denied the permit to march. Then we were denied access to the rally. The latter turned us into marchers and the city government into liars. But the NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg are merely petty players in the national sham that saw a fabrication trigger last week's national "Orange" alert. You need look no further to see how this "war on terror" has become an American theater for oil-field-liberation parties and fascism on the corner.

Faced with the latest faith-based initiatives, attacks on affirmative action, and incursions into civil liberties, we must intensify our challenge to injustice at home. At SUNY-Oswego, we will take some steps. On Wednesday, March 5, "People Opposing War" will sponsor a "Books, Not Bombs" walk-out across campus, inspired by United for Peace and Justice. When we return to the classroom, maybe "Power Point" presentations won't flicker so brightly, and maybe students will shed the passive voice.

Maureen is an assistant professor of English and Women's Studies at SUNY Oswego. Contact SUNY Oswego's student peace group People Opposing War at we_hate_war@yahoo.com or 312-2611.