In The Streets, Against the War

The following are eyewitness reports from several RW correspondents on the scene at the powerful antiwar demonstration in New York City on February 15. Special to the

From RW Correspondents Bill Swain and Debbie Lang:

In freezing cold, half a million people poured into the streets of New York City to join with millions around the world to stop the U.S. war against Iraq. Over 100 feeder marches tried to make their way to a rally near the U.N. It was a beautiful, diverse crowd. The majority of the protesters were white middle class people, a large chunk of youth, as well as older people with their children. There were also smaller numbers of Black people, Latinos and immigrants from many countries. Some hadn't protested in 30 years and some had never protested before.

There were all kinds of signs, many homemade. One sign had a picture of ground zero of the bombing of Hiroshima and above it, "Awe and shock." Posters read "The world says no to war, Stop the oil war", "The War on Iraq -- not in my name," "I don't support the troops in Iraq," and "Free Palestine." There were signs in Chinese, Arabic, Spanish.

There was lots of drumming and at times youth dancing and yelling, "1234, we don't want your oil war, 5678 we don't need no duct tape." There were many pictures of the globe, lots of banners, all making the point loud and clear that there is nothing just about their war on Iraq.

For weeks leading up to February 15th the battle to protest the war was on. Organizers fought to get a permit to march. After a battle in the courts, the system refused to grant it. They claimed they couldn't let people march because it would "threaten public safety." A week before the protest the government announced the country was on "orange alert." With the Orange Alert in place for a week before, there were cops with rifles and dogs going on crowded subways and cops with automatic weapons standing in Times Square.

Local papers ran front page pictures of police in heavy riot gear and SWAT teams with dogs. This could have scared people away from the protest. Instead, the streets were filled with New Yorkers, people from across the country and the world whose voices joined together to let the world know that people do not support this unjust war.

And on the day itself, the cops were out in force, vans and buses filled with riot police ready to attack, cops on horseback, sharpshooters on the rooftops and police helicopters in the air. In Grand Central Station over the loudspeakers you could hear "If you are stopped by the police cooperate fully with the police."

Police tried to keep people on the sidewalks but as more gathered, people yelled "Whose streets? Our streets!" and poured first into one lane, then two, then the entire street. To stop people from getting to the rally, the police barricaded every side street for over a mile north to south.

At one point, dozens of cops with billyclubs blocked First Avenue. People screamed "Let them through! Shame! Shame!" The crowd was outraged. But people were determined to make their point. Whatever intimidation the officials tried to bring down on the people to stifle protest, it didn't work. The east side of midtown Manhattan was shut down, the anti-war message was made loud and clear. As people were packed together, they gathered around radios to hear speeches from the rally broadcast on WBAI Radio and reports of protests around the world. As reports were heard of 2 million in Rome and 2 million in London, people smiled and cheered.

On a few occasions during the day, youth tried to bust through the barricades. Some were dismantled and the pieces passed back through the crowd as jubilant protesters made their way towards the stage. Youth jumped up on phone booths, flying banners, and yelling chants.

Thousands did make it to the rally site. It began with a phone call of support from author Arundhati Roy, who called from India. Speakers included actors Rosie Perez, Susan Sarandon, Ossie Davis and Danny Glover; members of Families For Peaceful Tomorrows, whose loved ones died in the attacks on September 11th; singer Harry Belafonte; Rep. Sheila Jackson-Lee; Julian Bond, Chair of the NAACP; a former Israeli Army officer who refused to fight in occupied Palestine; Miles Solay from Not In Our Name; Richie Perez, National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights; Rev. Al Sharpton; Bishop Desmond Tutu; and Leslie Cagan, Coordinator, United For Peace & Justice. There were performances by artists like Richie Havens and poems from Steve Coleman and Suheir Hammad.

A young Iranian woman told the RW: "Today is people showing their power. People do have power. It's time for a majority to speak out. A minority is ruling the world and they want everything. They are after genocide. This U.S. war is a genocide. We don't want Iraqis to suffer. The U.S. is the main problem all around the world. Today is important because it is a global movement. People united can win. With foreign power, there is no liberation. You attack a country and you are a foreign invader."

An RW reporter from New York noted: "As I joined tens of thousands of others marching up and down the East Side avenues, it became clear that the entire East Side of midtown Manhattan was shut down! The NYPD had barricaded every side street for over a mile to prevent people from getting to the rally site. Subways were shut down. And the people did march! On every avenue protesters marched in the streets, as well as up and down the sidewalks -- oftentimes dodging police who were trying to disperse them.

I watched parents pose for pictures with their infant children holding protest signs while others pushed their children in carriages. Most did not understand why they couldn't get to the rally site and were upset they were not allowed to march in a peaceful protest. Many had never experienced mistreatment at the hands of the police before. Suddenly they found themselves having to show i.d. to walk down the street. They saw police move into the crowd, single out individuals and arrest them. They watched as people were attacked and arrested for not moving on fast enough. They saw police pepper spray people and charge into the crowd on horseback. A college professor and two of his colleagues were knocked down by police.

A woman in her 40s told me: "I'm very upset about the fact that we were not granted a march, that we were dispersed. It was almost like divide and conquer, like it was militarily thought out to disperse us. The fact that we just could not have a peace march, it's just un-American to me." I saw one woman walking past a line of police giving the Nazi salute. As police moved their horses into the crowd one man shouted, "Get the animals off the horses!" In the midst of this confrontation dozens of leaflets about the demonstration started trickling from the sky and as I looked up I saw someone must have gotten 30 stories up to drop them down.

A woman carrying a sign "War on Iraq, Not in Our Name" who had never demonstrated told the RW, "I think this Bush doctrine. That's it, there's either you agree with us or you get run over.....It's horrible to even contemplate. I think we have nothing to fear. This is my first demonstration. I feel very strongly, I am horrified that we are about to slaughter so many people. I am thrilled to see so many people come out."

Her friend added: "They said we couldn't march. No! We're here. This huge demonstration can encourage the other people who are thinking this way but not doing anything yet."

A middle class woman in her 40s told us: "I think it's about empire. That's what really frightens me. There is really a shift. Bush is trying to destroy the world. I think we have an extremist government that was not elected.....We came because we wanted to show the rest of the world and the people in Iraq that there are many people in the U.S. who don't support these policies. I don't support the sanctions against that country. I think those children are suffering needlessly. I want the people of Iraq to know that it is not the American people. We have a rogue dictator or a rogue president....[If they invade Iraq] there's going to be terrible suffering. It's going to be horrifying. I want the Iraqi people to know that there are many people who do not support this. And I don't know what's going to happen after. I mean what have we done for Afghanistan? Where's the rebuilding? So we're going to destroy a country and then we're going to rebuild it? I don't believe it." As the rally ended, youth took off to continue the resistance into the night. Hundreds marched and sat down in major intersections. In course of the day over 300 people were arrested.

It was a day of powerful resistance, of non-compliance, of saying NO to their war against Iraq. The actions hundreds of thousands who filled the streets of midtown Manhattan made it clear there is a growing section of people in the U.S. who are drawing a line between themselves and this unjust war the government is trying to carry out in their name. They joined millions around the world to say, NOT IN OUR NAME will the US wage a war of horror on Iraq.

From RW Correspondent Osage:

In the days leading up to February 15 in NYC, the rally organizers were fighting for a permit as well as the right to march past the United Nations. Then the city denied the rally a right to march. But this turned into a huge rock the oppressor dropped onto their own feet because more than 60 feeder marches were organized! Hundreds and even thousands gathered at each of the different gathering spots in order to go together to the rally point.

The repression was definitely heavy - it was clear the city was afraid of things getting out of control.

Helicopters hovered above the city and vans and busses full of cops could be seen driving around in groups of five or more. At the youth feeder march, about 2,000 youth gathered downtown and then marched over 54 city blocks and five avenues to get to the rally! For the first 10 blocks, the youth defiantly jumped into the street, running across avenues, trying to outsmart the pigs (which actually isn't too hard). But then they cornered people under scaffolding and made some arrests.

The fire department was also there with their trucks and it seemed at times like they wanted to run us over. And meanwhile they made clear they were not on the antiwar side, shouting over their loud speaker, "Bombs away!"

The NYPD tried to bring their force down on our spirit - dozens of riot cops tried to push people onto the sidewalks, following us on the streets, trying to intimidate us with their horses. Since the Handschu agreement had been severely eliminated recently (and conveniently), the cops took advantage of being able to legally profile and photograph the protesters. All this and the day had hardly begun!

We heard the rally was over 12 blocks long and that the police were making people march 20 blocks out of the way. They made it really hard to join the rally.

Then, once we got there, stories trickled in to those of us penned in at the rally of people getting surrounded and attacked by police just blocks away. We heard about tear gas being used and pepper spray. At times, the cops on horses would charge through, trampling crowds they had cornered as other cops pummeled them with their clubs.

Examples of their viciousness were everywhere. Many people were there who had no idea that this was the nature of these pigs. At one point, we were herded onto a street corner and we saw a 70-year-old man get arrested who'd been in a crowd that'd gotten beaten.

Another older man who was in the crowd watching, started yelling at the cops, "How dare you! Who do you serve? You should be defending the Constitution! But we're out here defending the Constitution!" This was someone who clearly saw the police as "peacekeepers" and as those who keep their neighborhoods 'safe' and for the first time they got a glimpse of who the cops really serve and what they really do best. Some of us started the chant, "Hey cops! We know you, you kill innocent people too!" Later that night, you could see that old man on some TV stations being violently thrown to the ground by police, shoving their knees in his head, twisting his neck, as they handcuffed him.

There was definitely a lot of back and forth among people about the cops. People who were penned in began to knock over the barricades and they were told to "be civil" by some fellow protesters and others in turn argued that we are civil because we're not the war makers and we don't need barricades to be peaceful At one point, as we chanted, "Fuck this police state," one older woman came up to the youth and was clearly a little upset by the language, but then one of the youths told her, "Why should we be polite? They're getting ready to murder hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and these police kill innocent people here. In fact, they're beating up people now!" And that woman immediately began chanting, "Down with the police state!" Someone else told the cops, "you're not heroes to me anymore!"

For most of the day, you could be walking through the streets of NYC and see dozens of pockets of people with signs or buttons against the war - it seemed like the whole city was against the war today! Some people raised their fists from inside their cars (some even abandoned their cars), even while we blocked the streets, and people hung out from their windows, chanting along with us. Of course, there were times when pro-war people yelled at us, threw water or even eggs, but they were clearly in the minority and knew they couldn't get away with much.

The RW received the following correspondence:

This was quite an amazing and inspiring thing.

The number, and broadness of people that turned out was, remarkably, a step up--even from January 18 in D.C. It was a striking mix of particularly middle class people and youth, lot and lots of youth.

What was so inspiring was the commitment of people to take to the streets. It was cold, the police had thrown up as many barriers (real and metaphorical) as they could muster, and the juggernaut coming out of the political power center has aimed at making this war seem inevitable <in spite> of that people turned out and were undeterred.

I have never seen such a demonstration in New York City. At one and the same time there was a massive rally and many massive marches. The East Side of Manhattan from 42nd to 72nd from Lexington to 1st Ave. was the demonstration site. For anyone not familiar with New York City this would be akin to a major demonstration in the downtown's of say 10 mid-sized cities simultaneously. People came from all over the region, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Upstate New York, Vermont, as well as from every neighborhood throughout the five boroughs.

Stopping this war, seeing it as wrong, seeing the killing of the Iraqi people, seeing the U.S.

government as the aggressor, even "terrorist" came out clearly in chants, and signs and more fundamentally people's determination to be heard. And there was a keen sense--as we've talked about before--that many many people feel they are not being listened to in what is supposed to be a democracy--so people are taking to the streets.

This was most striking in the way this demonstration manifested itself. There were 50 feeder marches set to stream into the rally site. These marches were given greater prominence by the city's refusal to let people march and rally as they requested in permits.

There's seemed to be a level of hubris, particularly on the part of the NYPD, that seemed to have contributed to the way this played out. The police's attempts to contain and "order" this actually contributed to it being out of their control. (though they exercised harsh control at key points, arresting nearly 300 people).

Last year at the demonstration against the World Economic Forum they implemented a model of letting people march to a penned in rally site, and thus had a lot of control over people's movements. They implemented a similar model here--the pens on the higher streets of 1st Avenue were atrocious--literally penning people in, with no site of the stage, and not sound from the stage--but the number and temper of people was such that it could not be contained. And people couldn't follow the rules the cops had laid down anyway, because there were so many people trying to get to 1st avenue.

At the start I followed two feeder marches up 5th Avenue across 49th street onto Lexington, and suddenly realized, as I was marching up Lex--that we were in the street--we had taken the street. That would characterize things for the next four hours.

The police attempted to drive people away from direct access to the rally (moving people north)--because the pens on the lower streets were full--and what ensued were numerous skirmishes where people were getting pushed by cops. One middle class man at 53rd and 3rd told me how he'd come with two professor colleagues of his and had been knocked down by police, he was outraged, saying "it is just unnecessary." I saw one woman walking past line of police giving the Nazi salute, saying "Heil Hitler!" At 53rd and Lex, as police were moving their horses into the crowd one man shouted, "Get the animals off the horses." Then, in the midst of this confrontation dozens of leaflets about the demonstration started trickling from the sky, and as I looked up I saw someone must have gotten 30 stories up to drop them down--it reminded me of the Chairman's anecdote about "they're organized."

The rally had just ended and a number of youth in the crowd were shouting "Times Square!" which I took to be a call to regroup so I headed in that direction.

As I turned the corner from 5th Ave on to 42nd street on my way over to Time Square I saw that people were indeed marching on 42nd Street (come and hear, those dancing feet...). The celebratory edge to this was exhilarating, people were moving unfettered, chanting against the war. They turned south onto Fifth Avenue and marched a few blocks when they were confronted with line of police, backed up by another line of police. People then sat down--and this was mainly youth--in the street. After a 15-20 minute standoff the police proceeded to arrest 6 or 10 people before the crowd moved back onto the sidewalks. It was just striking the courage and determination displayed here.

So that's by way of a snapshot of some things I saw.