Report From New York City Anti-War Demonstration
By Mike Marqusee
16 February 2003
I have been in New York City this week working with United for Peace and Justice, the umbrella group that organised the big demonstration here on 15th February.
The organisers issued an early estimate of 400-500,000 but I suspect that the crowd was actually larger. Much of mid-town Manhattan was swamped with anti-war protesters. In any case, there's no doubt that the rally represented a major breakthrough for the US anti-war movement, which the media and the political establishment now know is a force that must be reckoned with.
United for Peace and Justice is a new, broad-based umbrella group with a simple focus: stop the war. The emergence of UFPJ is a big step forward for the US anti-war movement, which has been bedeviled by division and sectarianism. However, it is still early days for UFPJ and the organisation as yet lacks much in the way of structure or resources. SEIU 1199, New York's health workers union, provided office space for UFPJ in the run up to the demonstration, and an army of volunteers materialised out of nowhere to make the thing happen. The leadership is diverse and non-sectarian, but no one is too sure what the future holds. I suspect the enormous success of the demo on the 15th will, however, enable significant progress to be made.
I spoke at the demonstration on behalf of the Stop the War Coalition (as agreed by the STWC officers) and in my one and half minutes (they're very strict about time limits here!) I was able to announce our two million strong mach in London, rebut the charge that European anti-war sentiment is 'anti-American' and stress the global character of the movement. Later speakers (there were sixty of them), repeatedly mentioned the two million in London and two million in Rome and the huge turn outs elsewhere to emphasise the theme of the rally - which was 'The World Says No To War'. Throughout the day I did my best to feed the figures from the marches in Europe to the organisers, who then announced them from the platform. All were greeted with tremendous enthusiasm.
The people attending the rally were a marvelous cross-section of New Yorkers and Americans - multi-racial, heavily working-class, young and old. Despite the intense cold (worse than London) and attempts by the police to disrupt the rally, people were amazingly patient and disciplined.
Speakers included a wide range of religious and political figures. Julian Bond, national director of the NAACP - the longest established civil rights organisation in the USA - unequivocally opposed the war with or without UN support; it's important to remember that the NAACP never spoke out against the Vietnam war. I would say that more than half the speakers were people of colour - including African American (Al Sharpton, Martin Luther King III), Latino, Korean, Philippine, south Asian, Palestinian. Perhaps the most militant speech was given by actor Danny Glover - who called for 'the gang of liars and murderers running this country' to be ousted and who ended his speech quoting Paul Robeson.
Three trade union leaders spoke: Dennis Rivera, leader of SEIU 1199 (health care workers), Larry Cohen of the Communications Workers of America, and Brenda Stokely of AFSCME (public sector workers). Stokely talked about the train drivers in Scotland and argued that in the end we would need industrial action to stop the war. The NYC demonstration was supported by some 25 local labour movement bodies - a more than respectable showing.
The proceedings were kicked off by Richie Havens singing 'Freedom' (the song he invented at the Woodstock festival in 1969). He told me he's touring Britain in May and would be happy to do something for STWC.
Again and again, activists have indicated to me that our demo in September kick started the process that led to this huge and historic outpouring. The British anti-war movement has a strong reputation here. Many people told me that they felt we were the key to stopping the war: if Blair could be forced out, Bush would be left naked and would relent.
The New York Times, like nearly all the media here, is vigorously pro-war, but was compelled to run photos of the rally on the front page under the headline: 'From New York to Melbourne, Cries for Peace - vast, far-flung protest against war on Iraq'. Everyone in the USA is now aware that there is sizeable and growing anti-war feeling across the country, and the media will no longer be able to pretend otherwise. My own impression is that in New York, most people oppose the war. Anti-war badges and posters are seen everywhere and expressions of hostility towards anti-war leafleters are rare - a big change from a year ago.
The city administration and the police made every effort to halt or wreck the protest. The City refused permission for a march (a worrying precedent) and allowed only a static assembly - lining up hundreds of thousands in a narrow column stretching northward along first avenue from 51st Street, and corralled behind steel barriers. Huge numbers were unable to reach the demonstration and filled both second and third avenues. There were several police attacks; I watched cops on horseback charge up and down Lexington Ave batoning anyone they could reach. These were not 'anarchists' seeking confrontation but the usual mix of protesters, mostly New Yorkers, and many were clearly shocked by the Cossack-like tactics and abusive behaviour. By the end of the day some 300-400 arrests had been made, mostly of young people; many were held for hours, hand-cuffed in police vans, then released without charge. There's no doubt that the attack on civil liberties here is ferocious and frightening and is getting worse all the time. The Muslim communities are terrified - detentions are routine, vilification in the media even worse than in Britain. The success of the demonstration, with a strong Muslim presence, should give people confidence but the high level of state intimidation will continue to make it difficult for many Muslims to take part in the anti-war movement. The reports of the 'special registration centers' - where immigrants from Muslim countries must register with federal agents - are horrifying: people are routinely threatened with deportation, accused of all kinds of crimes, and just to add insult to injury, the centers do not even bother to provide Arabic or Urdu translators.
All telephone lines at the UFPJ office were mysteriously cut off on the morning of the march.
During the run up to the march I attended a wide range of meetings. There was a press conference organised by New York City Labour Against the War, at which officials representing health workers, transit workers, public sector workers, communication workers and writers/journalists spoke about why the labour movement should oppose this war (I gave a report from Britain, quoting the call for reconvening the TUC and noting the scale of trade union opposition to the war here). Union bodies representing some one quarter of US union members now oppose the war (see list below). It should be remembered that there was no significant union opposition to the Vietnam War until five years into the conflict. Much of the work on this vital flank of the movement has been spearheaded by Michael Letwin, who spoke at our march in November, 2001, and who repeatedly cites the British movement as a model. Unfortunately, as a result of his consistent opposition to the war on terror, Michael lost his fight for re-election as president of his union local - but his success in building anti-war activity within the US labour movement, from an extremely difficult starting point in October 2001, is phenomenal.
I also spoke at a large meeting of students at New York University and at a 'Campuses Say No to War' rally organized by Columbia students (attended by some 700 people). The student movement has also now taken off in a big way, and I was impressed by both the enthusiasm and the discipline of the younger activists. Politically and organisationally, they are way ahead of where their counterparts were in the late 1960s.
My impression is that the anti-war movement here is hungry for international contact and exchange. I've discussed with Michel Letwin the idea of us organising a fairly high level labour movement delegation to tour the USA - people seem to think this would be a real service to the movement here.
We should also consider organising a tour of US anti-war speakers in Britain and Europe ('the real America speaks out...'). Judging by the response to Michael Moore, Chomsky, etc. I think there's a big interest in dissident US voices.
I hope we'll make a real effort to sustain and expand our contact with the US anti-war movement. They need us and we need them.
By Mike Marqusee