Area protesters join tens of thousands at National Mall
Sunday, January 19, 2003
BY CHRIS MEEHAN
WASHINGTON — Noah Dillard raised his fist and let out a whoop as he and thousands of other anti-war protesters got their marching orders Saturday afternoon on the National Mall.
Coordinator of a contingent of 224 peace activists who left in four buses Friday night from Kalamazoo for the nation’s Capitol, Dillard was responding to remarks made by Detroit Democratic Congressman John Conyers.
In his speech, Conyers said only American citizens, through civil actions such as that taken on the streets Saturday, can stop this country from waging all-out war on Iraq.
“These speeches are great,” said Dillard, a Kalamazoo College graduate whose activist mother once helped close a nuclear power plant in Maine.
“It’s really nice to see how galvanized everyone is,” he said as one of the largest peace marches in recent history began to form for a raucous, two-mile walk to the Washington Navy Yard.
“We’re not out here fighting United States democracy. We’re fighting the export of U.S. capitalism.”
Police said 30,000 marched through the streets, part of a much larger crowd that packed the east end of the National Mall and spilled onto the Capitol grounds.
The message on the Mall — plastered on the signs, painted onto banners and announced from the stage over a massive sound system — was a passionate criticism of U.S. military and economic policy on a day when smaller protests occurred across the country and worldwide.
People descended on Washington in buses, cars and vans from across the country to offer an alternative voice to the Bush administration’s push for a war to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
After gathering on the Mall, they marched to the military installation. On the way, some stood in front of a group of Washington police officers at the Botanical Gardens and Observatory and chanted anti-war and anti-violence slogans.
“The speeches got everyone pumped up,” said Jarek Marsh-Prelesnik, 19, a Kalamazoo Valley Community College sophomore, as he joined others in the trek to the Navy Yard. He wasn’t one of those denouncing the police.
“Definitely we have to ask questions about things that are going on in this country,” said Marsh-Prelesnik. “I supported going into Afghanistan, but I don’t see it in Iraq.”
Among those walking in the bitter cold under sunny skies was Sister Joyce Ann Hertzig, a gray-haired Dominican nun from Grand Rapids. Wearing a bright red windbreaker, her cheeks rosy from the chill, she said she was glad she had made the 12-hour trip on the bus.
” I don’t like conflict; I’m here because of the truth of what is happening in Iraq,” she said. “I’m only one voice, but I represent 300 Dominican sisters in Grand Rapids. We need to let peace have a chance.”
Tying the peace protest into the national celebration of the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, speakers talked about nonviolence as a way of life and about peace as the only path to take.
They recalled King’s legacy as one that began with civil rights and then, before his assassination, become much more inclusive.
“Dr. King taught us that blood is more important than oil,” said the Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network.
“If Dr. King was here today to celebrate his birthday, he wouldn’t be inside preparing for a military buildup. He’d be outside with us saying, ‘Give peace a chance.'”
In his short speech at the end of the nearly three-hour rally on the Mall, the Rev. Jesse Jackson exhorted the cheering, sign-waving crowd to “choose life over death, hope and healing over hate and hostility.”
Among the speakers before the march was former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who made a passionate plea for Americans to consider impeaching George W. Bush.
While former President Bill Clinton was impeached for personal improprieties, the current president is about to launch an attack on a country and its people when the threat Iraq poses remains questionable.
“We can no longer stand by when the world is in maximum peril,” said Clark. “We need to demand Congress do its duty.”
One after the other, speakers forcefully rallied the crowd to the cause.
“They can rob us of health care by spending millions of dollars on smart bombs to use in a dumb, dumb war on Iraq,” said Mahdi Bray, a national Muslim leader and co-chair of the rally, which was sponsored by ANSWER, Act Now to Stop War and End Racism.
“Jesus Christ didn’t say, ‘Blessed is big oil, Enron and all war mongers,'” Bray shouted, his voice booming across the packed Mall. “Jesus said, ‘Blessed are the peacemakers.'”
Actress Jessica Lange took the stage as a mother who needed to speak out, she said, and one who was no longer “mesmerized by terrorism, the Patriot Act Ç which are eviscerating our civil liberties.”
As the military buildup increased along the borders of Iraq, the demonstrators especially wanted to call attention to an overall U.S foreign and domestic policy that they said seeks to bolster the rich and oppress the poor. In the case of Iraq, argued speaker after speaker, the goal is oil, not just to get rid of Saddam Hussein.
“We are beginning the extraordinary process of renewing our country here today,” said Ron Kovic, a Vietnam veteran and author of the autobiographical bestseller “Born on the Fourth of July.”
“When you don’t give up, when you’re willing to endure, there is always rebirth and redemption. We are shouting out today, ‘No blood for oil!'”
Despite a long bus trip, little sleep and only snack food to eat, the peace protesters from Kalamazoo marched heartily along Independence Avenue on the way to the Navy Yard.
All around them stood national monuments and signs and symbols of the United States and the foundation of freedom on which the nation was built.
“I’m here as a thinking person,” said Bobbe Taber, a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Kalamazoo. “I’m exercising my right to take a few steps here in the hope that we find another way.”
Paul Kolon, a Kalamazoo-area geriatric social worker, was there for much the same reason. His last peace march in Washington was during the 1991 Gulf War. He didn’t like it when the first President Bush went to war in the Middle East, and he’s even more bothered by it now.
“I see this as an impending Holocaust,” he said. “I’ve got a son who is 21. I’m upset to think this whole thing has gotten so far with so many people in this country going (with Bush’s approach) like lambs.”
Police reported few arrests in the rally.
President Bush, who was at Camp David, Md., believes that protesting “is a time-honored part of American tradition and it’s a strength of our democracy,” White House spokeswoman Jeanie Mamo said.
Three dozen people stood by the Vietnam War Memorial to show support for Bush’s policy and offer a contrary voice to the blitz of demonstrations.
“The protesters don’t understand the threat” of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, said Scott Johnson, 55, a Navy veteran from Minneapolis. “It’s a war of liberation for people.”
Peta Lindsay from International Answer, the main organizers, exhorted anti-war protesters: “We stand here today, a new generation of anti-war activists. This is just beginning. We will stop this war.”
“We don’t want this war and we don’t want a government that wants this war,” said Brenda Stokely, a New York City labor activist. A sign branded America, not Iraq, a “Rogue Nation.” Another said, “Disarm Bush.”
As with any big Washington rally, the main cause made room for other causes.
“Free Palestine” was one of them. Racism and genocide were others.
“The underlying motives for this government’s actions have always been greed and racism,” said Moonanum James of United American Indians of New England.
“In the spirit of Dr. King, in the spirit of Crazy Horse,” he said, “no blood for oil.”