Half a Million March Against the War in DC

Catherine Allison

I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Viet Nam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.

_Martin Luther King, Jr.

from "Beyond Viet Nam: A Time to Break Silence," April 4, 1967.

On Saturday, January 18th, three hundred people from Syracuse piled on to 6 busses to join hundreds of thousands of other women, men, students and children converging on the National Mall in Washington, DC to protest the threatened war against Iraq. Despite the predictions of frigid temperatures, organizers estimated 500,000 were present at what is being described as the largest antiwar demonstration since the Viet Nam War.

The march was scheduled to coincide with Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday. While the government and media laud him for his leadership during the civil rights movement, it is interesting to note that rarely is it mentioned that King also spoke out against social and economic inequality. He called for "radical changes in the structure of our society" to redistribute wealth and power. He asserted that civil rights are empty without human rights, and he accused the United States of violating human rights on a global scale. He connected the government's channeling of funds into the Viet Nam War to the problems of poverty and economic injustice within the United States.

Speakers and demonstrators echoed this sentiment at Saturday's main protest, as well as a smaller nonviolent civil disobedience on Sunday. Protesters carried signs highlighting the connection between militarism and the lack of funding for schools and jobs and social safety nets. People on the stage quoted King in their connections between imperialism abroad and poverty within. Many focused on the effect war would have on women and children in Iraq. Others carried signs to reinforce the diversity of those opposed to a war with Iraq.

And diverse it is. The march drew a broad cross-section of the population. Speakers commented that the turnout at the demonstration falsified any notion of widespread support for the war. There were students and young adults, Korean and Viet Nam War veterans, people who had attended numerous demonstrations and many for whom this was their first experience in a public protest. Organized labor was well represented, and there were clusters of people who had traveled from as far away as Michigan and Minnesota to participate.

After the march began, the crowd passed by two small sets of counter protests along the march. One, a handful of members from a college republican club holding "Hippies Go Home" signs from a balcony, was overshadowed by a group of Amnesty International students a few stories above them hanging an anti-war banner and cheering the crowd on. There was another small group of about ten counter protesters across from the marine barracks holding signs attacking protesters for their lack of patriotism and supposed support of terrorism. Their criticisms seemed empty and hollow, however; many who had gathered to oppose the war carried American flags and "Peace is Patriotic" signs.

The day after the official protest, protestors remaining behind in DC took part in nonviolent civil disobedience. The police were quick to show that while protest is tolerated and even welcomed within official confines and with a permit, dissent that hasn't registered in advance with the police department will still be dealt with violently. Several people were injured when police broke up a peaceful sit-down protest near Lafayette Park, including 80-year-old Clara Sinclair. Sinclair had to be rushed to the hospital after being knocked unconscious by a policeman who was not wearing his number. She has since been released and is recovering well.

Some surely say that the protesters invited it upon themselves by breaking the law. It is fitting, however, to point out the violence endured by civil rights protestors who broke racist laws while following higher moral ones. They were met with police as well as civilian brutality, and in some cases lost their lives while working for civil rights. James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner were murdered by a white mob in Mississippi in 1964 for organizing a Freedom School.

Mainstream media has characteristically diminished the importance of the protest in their amazingly low estimations of the numbers of people present. However, Saturday's march and Sunday's civil disobedience show that as the war machine continues to gear up, more and more Americans are willing to take vocal and visible stands against the proposed war in Iraq. Ordinary people are braving the tide of blind patriotism and "love it unquestioned or leave it" mentality to sound their dissent. It is becoming less and less "un-American" to criticize Bush and his policy of war. Our work is by no means over, but the protests in DC and around the world are giving us the momentum we need to build a strong peace and social justice movement.

Catherine, a student in Fredonia, is a member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows (see page 13).