Syracuse Takes to the Streets Against War

Jessica Azulay

When the US government launched its latest massive attack against the Iraqi people, anti-war protesters all over the world responded immediately with large, grief-filled and angry demonstrations.

Some of the largest protests were in San Francisco and Chicago where demonstrators shut down parts of those cities with massive nonviolent civil disobedience and in New York City where almost half a million demonstrated.

Yet, it wasn’t just large cities that erupted in anti-war protest. Demands for peace could be heard from hundreds of smaller towns and cities across the nation and over 50 countries worldwide.

Here in Syracuse, the Syracuse Peace Council’s emergency response demonstration brought several hundred Central New Yorkers into the downtown streets in a loud and defiant protest against war. Chant leaders and drummers rallied the crowd as more and more people joined us. As the crowd in Clinton Square grew, so did the feeling of solidarity and collective power.
It was a feeling expressed well by the Marge Piercy poem read to demonstrators:

“...A dozen make a demonstration.
A hundred fill a hall.
A thousand have solidarity and your own newsletter;
ten thousand, power and your own paper;
a hundred thousand, your own
media;
ten million, your own country.

It goes on one at a time,
it starts when you care
to act, it starts when you do
it again and they said no,
it starts when you say We
and know you who you mean, and each day you mean one more.”

We didn’t have enough for our own media or our own country, but we had enough to take the streets so that’s what we did. Organizers lead protesters into Salina Street (Syracuse’s major street downtown) and hundreds of us marched, yelling “What do we want? Peace! When do we want it? Now!” There was tangible excitement as we wondered how long we would be able to maintain our control of the streets. Though the march was unpermitted, city police were outnumbered and ineffective in their limited attempts to get demonstrators back onto the sidewalks.

Over and over, traffic negotiators, carrying stop-sign-shaped signs reading “STOP the WAR,” stepped into intersections and halted traffic as the march wound its way to Armory Square, around the federal building, and back to Clinton Square. Faces were animated as protestors yelled, “This is what democracy looks like.” Though George Bush claimed war was necessary because “diplomacy had failed,” what had really failed was democracy at home and abroad.

For marchers, the sadness and outrage about the war being waged in our name mixed with the thrill and empowerment of freely expressing those emotions with hundreds of others in our city and millions around the globe.

“It was truly inspiring and energizing to be a part of taking the streets of Syracuse last night! The sounds of our passion filled downtown with anger at the war and joy in life,” wrote Cindy Squillace the morning after the march. Protester Lizz King agreed, “I think it was inspiring. I felt much better after the rally than I did when I woke up that morning.”

In the days and weeks leading up to the emergency response demonstration, the Peace Council staff and volunteers had struggled with how to plan an appropriate response. As the time drew closer, it became clear that whatever the action plan, we needed a space to express both our grief and our anger in a more intense way then we had been.

All of us were enthusiastic about the idea of attempting to march through the streets of Syracuse. We wondered if it would be possible. Would there be enough people? Would those who attended be determined enough? How would the police react? How would we and others react to the police?

One of our most pressing desires had been to provide a space for all levels of protest, for all emotions. We had recognized that people had varying levels of rage, grief, determination, and desire/willingness/ability to take risks. We had decided that we could accommodate most of those feelings by facilitating an event that would empower people to march in the streets, accommodate those who did not want to risk being in the streets, and provide support for anyone who might choose to stay in the streets if the police ordered us out.

So, people volunteered to help make that happen. There were police liaisons to negotiate with the police, mediators to de-escalate confrontations with potential counter protesters or any internal conflicts, march coordinators designated to help the crowd keep moving and stay together, support people and legal observers for anyone who might get arrested, and traffic negotiators to help stop traffic for demonstrators. There were people ready to help pass out materials, transport equipment and signs, and make green armbands. Then we had crossed our fingers in hope that the massive military invasion of Iraq would not come and our preparations would not be needed.

But our wishes for peace, even though they joined millions of voices from around the world crying out against a massacre in Iraq, have been answered with bombs raining down on Baghdad and troop invasions of Iraqi territory. Just before we marched, a counter-demonstrator came through the crowd yelling, “The war has started. Go home!” Yes, the war has started, but we will not go home. We may not have been able to stop the war, but there are still plenty of things to say and do. We must make sure that the space for debate and dissent in this country remains open to everyone. We will not be silent until the war on Iraq, wars on other countries around the globe, and wars on our own communities are ended. And we must be bold enough to hold our government accountable for violating moral and international law, assaulting Iraq unprovoked and without justification, and advancing an atmosphere of violence and hate in the world.

Jessica is an activist, writer and ZNet Commentator from West Virginia. Currently, she lives in Syracuse and works at SPC.