Antiwar protesters back in the streets

March 24, 2010

PROTESTERS IN several cities across the country marked the seventh anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq on March 20.

In Washington, D.C., thousands turned out to a demonstration, called by International ANSWER, against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan across the street from the White House early in the afternoon.

Well-known antiwar activists such as Cindy Sheehan, Cynthia McKinney and members of Iraq Veterans Against the War took the stage to denounce the Obama administration's continuation of George Bush's "war on terror." "We can't make more excuses for the government," said Sheehan. "We can't make any more excuses for the president, no matter what party that president comes from."

The sentiment was widely shared by demonstrators. "Obama is the president. He's the leader of this war effort, and we're going to oppose it," said Bruce Wolf of U.S. Labor Against the War. Wolf has organized a weekly vigil outside Walter Reed Memorial Hospital since 2005.

Jessica Rua, who came from Atlantic City, N.J., agreed, saying that Obama's election had "no effect at all" on the prospect of ending the wars. "Our kids don't deserve this hell," said Rua, whose brother is missing in action in Afghanistan.

The crowd was notable for its diversity. Veterans of antiwar movements since the Vietnam era mixed with a sizeable student contingent. Immigrant rights activists took part, as did Muslim and Arab American organizations.

Chants of "Bush, Obama, same old drama!" and "No justice, no peace! U.S. out of the Middle East!" filled downtown Washington as demonstrators took to the streets. Some carried coffins painted with the flags of Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as Palestine, Yemen and other countries targeted by the U.S. Others held photos of the wars' victims. Marchers ultimately circled back to their starting point, where at least eight people were arrested after laying coffins near a fence outside the White House.

This year's march was at most slightly larger than last year's, and much smaller than those in 2003 to 2006. Nevertheless, it showed that there remains a layer of people committed to actively opposing U.S. imperialism. Whether this opposition can draw others into activism will depend on the movement's ability to confront the image of Obama as a "peace president."

"Unfortunately, a lot of people after the election felt like that was all they had to do," Wolf noted. "Clearly, that's not true."

In San Francisco, more than a thousand antiwar protesters turned out at the Civic Center on March 20.

The demonstration took place just two weeks after the statewide May 4 Day of Action, when students and teachers lead protests as part of the ongoing battle against cuts to California's public schools. Some activists who had participated in the March 4 actions were prominent on March 20, and they brought with them the defiant spirit of those demonstrations.

Solidarity was the theme of the day, with unions playing an important part. "It was great to see rank-and-file members making connections between service cuts and the obscene money spent on war," said Larry Bradshaw, a member of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and part of a reform slate that recently won union office.

Also clear among protesters was frustration with the Obama administration and Congress. Bailouts and increased Pentagon spending weren't the changes that people envisioned when they voted for the Democrats in 2008.

The economic crisis is a constant threat to workers, while the bankers, health insurers and defense contractors profit in good times and bad. "There's an undeclared war in Washington, D.C., against working people," said Alphonso Pines, a field representative for UNITE HERE Local 2. "It's kind of like dropping bombs on us--they're killing us, but it's a slow death."

After the Civic Center rally, protesters marched to the heart of downtown San Francisco. At one point, 100 protesters formed a picket in front of the boycotted Hilton Hotel in solidarity with UNITE HERE hotel workers.

Protesters from various groups, including One Struggle, One Fight, the California Nurses Association, U.S. Labor Against the War, the California School Employees Association, Code Pink and others, moved in and out of the picket for a half an hour.

When asked about the significance of demonstrating, Carly Tirre of One Struggle, One Fight, who recently became an activist, said, "We can all come together and know we're not alone, and people outside of here can know they're not alone."

In Portland, Ore., 350 demonstrators marched through the streets on March 20 to demand an end to the ongoing occupations of Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine, and an end to the U.S. presence in Latin America. A student feeder march, led by activists from Portland State University, demanded funding for public education and not the Pentagon.

Although the protest was smaller than in years past, the crowd was spirited and took up chants of, "They say bailout, we say troops out!" and "Iraq, Haiti, Palestine, occupation is a crime!"

Students United for Palestinian Equal Rights joined with other forces, including Portland Central America Solidarity Committee, Portland Cross Trade Solidarity, Peace and Justice Works and many others, to make the case for an anti-imperialist approach to building the movement. Headed up by a marching band, the demonstration wound its way through the streets to the First Unitarian Church, where activists gathered for a teach-in and activist fair.

In Carbondale, Ill., some 50 Southern Illinois University students and community members gathered to protest the war in the Carbondale Town Square before marching to the Armed Forces Career Center across from campus, where they picketed and held a speakout against the war.

Protesters demanded an immediate end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, an end to military recruitment on campus, and money for jobs and education instead of war. As Georgann Hartzog of the Peace Coalition of Southern Illinois argued, "If you just think of what's happening in the state of Illinois, we're laying off teachers, we're cutting back social services, and that money could easily pay to keep our society going."

Becca Lewis and Adam Turl contributed to this article.

Further Reading

From the archives