My day in New York City began in much the same way as it would end several hours later. Around 11 a.m. Saturday, I arrived at the First Avenue site of the massive “anti-war” rally organized by the Communist peace-front organization United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ). The expressed sentiments that I heard and read within my first three minutes there, would be echoed time and again by the many guest speakers addressing the crowd that day. As I headed toward a suitable vantage point from which to observe the afternoon’s scheduled proceedings, a large contingent of nearby demonstrators repeatedly chanted in unison, “We’re gonna beat-beat back the Bush attack!” Lots of “peace” literature was being handed out, things like leaflets condemning the Bush Administration’s foreign and domestic policies, and fliers advertising other upcoming rallies.
Among the many items available was Proletariat Revolution, a 24-page socialist pamphlet whose very first sentence was a harbinger of everything that would follow during that afternoon: “The working class and every opponent of imperialism must join in action to stop the murderous attacks on Iraq by the US imperialist war machine.” “War against Iraq,” the piece continued, “has been going on ever since the 1991 Gulf War. . . . [E]conomic sanctions deprived the Iraqi people of food and medicine.” Reading on, I learned that the United States is “the world’s greatest terrorist power” whose “war aim has nothing to do with Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction . . . [but] everything to do with conquering a major oil-producing country and asserting military dominance over the Middle East.” The Bush Administration, said the article, “is seizing the opportunity granted by Sept. 11 to show the world who is boss.” And for good measure, I was informed that “the undoubted crimes of Saddam Hussein” are dwarfed by “the misery and devastation [that] imperialism inflicts on the world. Any socialist worth the name would take sides in wartime against the imperialist enemy of humanity – in this case, in defense of Iraq.”
During the ensuing four-hour rally, not a single speaker would utter even a sentence contrary to any of those assertions.
It can be said with great certainty that the vast majority of the demonstrators in attendance thoroughly detest President Bush. They clearly deem him an illegitimate president who “stole” the 2000 election, a man of dreadful character whose motives for threatening war are firmly rooted in his own economic self-interest. Consider the slogans borne by some of the placards on display: “The Unelected Idiot Is Going to Start World War III”; “Bush, Stop Your Terror”; “Bush the Baby Killer”; “Illegally Installed, Immorally Behaved: He’s Not My President”; “President-Bush is an Oxy-Moron”; “George W’s War Drums Dishonor and Destabilize Lawful Democracies”; “Spoiled Fascist Cowboy”; “Bush Exploits 9/11 Tragedy for Dirty Oil”; “Bush Likes to Steal Presidential Elections and Iraqi Oil”; and “No More Lies: Regime Change Here.”
There were also numerous slogans crudely implying that the world would be safer with Bush not living, one of which read, “George, Pull Out, Like Your Father Should’ve.” Also attracting much positive attention was a much-larger-than-life, handcrafted figure of a sneering President Bush carrying a bucket of his slaughtered victims’ blood.
In the speeches that followed, this abhorrence of Bush was closely paralleled by a vehement hatred directed against the United States; a belief that our country has historically been, and continues to be, uniquely evil; a conviction that America, more than any other nation, threatens peace and justice on earth. Among the first to speak was a Christian minister who said, “We are the only nation to use an atomic bomb against another nation. For that, Lord, we ask your forgiveness.” He did not, of course, mention the historical context in which that weapon was used; the ferocity of the unyielding Japanese enemy we faced at the time; the alternative of sacrificing the lives of perhaps a million more Americans, not to mention ten to twenty million Japanese. Instead, he preferred to express how ashamed he was of America’s long tradition of wrongdoing, which he said continues to this day in the Iraq crisis. “Deliver our nation from this sinful and self-serving war,” he prayed. He then asked for God’s help “not only to end this war, but to end racism, oppression, and human suffering” – purportedly three of America’s most ignoble contributions to human civilization. He said nothing about anything sinful or shameful that might be occurring in Iraq.
Next, an American Indian donning a large, feathered headdress was introduced to the crowd as Chief Arvol Looking Horse.” He spent a couple of minutes intoning an incomprehensible series of chants, presumably in his native tongue. The crowd listened solemnly and politely, without understanding.
Shortly thereafter, NAACP chairman Julian Bond took the microphone to denounce, in plain English, America’s “pursuit of empire, not world peace.” He called Bush’s Iraq policy “a political strategy designed to win the recent mid-term political elections.” Bush’s talk of launching a pre-emptive strike, he said, is “erasing our moral standing across the globe.” Bond then confidently asserted that Saddam “does not represent any imminent threat, while bin Laden still does.” He did not say how he could be certain that the Iraqi dictator is, and will remain for the foreseeable future, harmless to our country. Instead, he shifted his focus to the price tag of war, a cost he believes would be better spent elsewhere. “This war will cost billions of dollars,” he complained, “at a time when funding for education, the environment, and health care are already at risk.” He condemned President Bush’s plans for a war that would cause “the deaths of thousands and thousands of innocent Iraqis.” “If we really believe in regime change,” he said to thunderous applause, “we ought to begin right here at home.” He concluded his address by pronouncing, “We need peace, not war.”
Following Bond to the podium was a Staten Island Muslim named Khalid Khalil, who said he could not support “a war which will leave hundreds of thousands of civilians dead or wounded . . . all for the gain of a few powerful and wealthy people.” He condemned the “racism, homophobia, and extremism” that allegedly run rampant in the US, though he said nothing about the existence of any of those phenomena in Iraq or elsewhere in the Muslim world. “This war,” he warned, “will further hatred between the Muslim population and the American people.” A joining implication of Khalil’s words, of course, is that if we would just allow Saddam to escape with impunity from twelve years of violating UN Resolutions, we could win back some of our lost goodwill in the Islamic world. Still another implication is that relations between Americans and Middle Eastern Muslims are strained only as a result of American missteps, and never the outrageous actions of regimes like the one in Baghdad.
Next, Phyllis Bennis of the Washington-based Institute for Policy Studies proclaimed, “The war that George Bush is threatening is not a war against weapons of mass destruction. If it happens, it will be a war for empire and for oil.” She then had the temerity to utter these words: “We stand with the United Nations as an instrument of peace, and not a tool of war.” Presumably she never heard about Saddam’s twelve years of defiance, years that have already rendered the UN nothing more than an instrument of idle chatter.
The crowd was then treated to the oratory of New York City Councilman Charles Barron, the self-described non-racist who recently announced that he would like to slap a white person “just for my mental health.” As is his wont, Barron chose to assess the Iraq situation from a “black” perspective. “I want to say on behalf of black youth in New York and the Latino youth of this nation, we will not go to war for a selected president who wasn’t even elected!” “We don’t care if you [Bush] put forth Condoleezza Rice or Colin Powell,” he continued. “They do not represent the black community.” In the eyes of Barron and his ilk, Rice and Powell are mere mascots exploited by racist Republicans, inauthentic blacks who are traitors to their race.
When Barron was done, a man introduced as a poet recited his most recent work: “Our country has been wrecked by barbarians . . . like Trent Lott and Katherine Harris, [who] killed democracy in Florida” – a reference, of course, to the disputed 2000 election of “hanging chad” fame. “It’s not just a war dance” that Bush and his aides are performing, said the poet. “They have a plan. It’s inherited through history. They destroyed the native tribes. Now each July they celebrate their victory.” In short, his message was that Bush is but the most recent in a long line of oppressors that have led our nation throughout its purportedly sordid history.
Shortly thereafter, a New York University professor explained the importance of protecting the world’s children from American aggression. “Children should learn their ABC’s,” she told her listeners. “They should not be killed [by U.S. bombs].” Those words earned her a loud ovation. Notably, she did not mention the thousands of Iraqi children who have been imprisoned, tortured, mutilated, and even slaughtered in retribution for their parents’ real or imagined disloyalty to Saddam’s regime.
The parade of platitudes continued with the founder of the group Courage to Refuse, which consists of some 500 Israeli army officers who refuse to serve in the Occupied Territories. “The best way to neutralize your enemy is to make him your friend,” he said. “We have to remove the reasons for hatred.” The theme was consistent: If only America would do things differently, Saddam, bin Laden, and other such barbarians would no longer want to blow us off the globe.
Every rally has its superstars, of course, and this was no exception. It was now time to hear from the mastermind of the Tawana Brawley fraud; the man whose vile rhetoric and frivolous charges of racism are legendary; the man who referred to the late Khalid Muhammad, whose racist diatribes were even too incendiary for Louis Farrakhan to condone, as “a very articulate and courageous brother.” Yes, presidential candidate Al Sharpton stepped to the podium to warn that Bush “is pursuing a manifest destiny plan that will not secure America, but will put the whole world at risk.” It is wrong, he said, “to send our children to foreign soil to protect oil interests.” It is immoral, he emphasized, for Bush to pursue his “philosophy of international domination.”
Congressman Dennis Kucinich was also on hand. He began by quoting an astronaut who once said, while in space, “Look, the whole world is reflected in the iris of my eye.” From there, Kucinich asserted that “the whole world is watching us to see what is reflected in our eyes, the light of peace or the fires of war.” “We [demonstrators] carry a vision of human unity,” he said soulfully. “We see the world as undivided . . . The whole world is watching to see whether our morality is greater than the power that would unleash our weapons . . . [Will we offer] a fist or an open hand?” He wrapped up his speech by calling for American “leadership in global disarmament.”
Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee spoke next. “The UN inspections are working,” she announced. “The thousand tons (sic) of chemical warfare (sic) that Saddam Hussein had is doubtful.” Having thus assured us, with a wave of her verbal magic wand, that all the worry warts in the Bush administration should lighten up, she shouted that we ought not waste our money on disarming Saddam. “We need health care!” she declared. “We need education!”
For a slight change of pace, a Muslim American Society representative complained about how “tired” he and his fellow Muslims are “of being discriminated against” – not in the oppressive Islamic world, of course, but right here in the US. “We are tired,” he said, “of having our kids come home and saying, ‘Mom, Dad, I was called a terrorist today. . . . Why are our friends not playing with us anymore? . . . We are tired of our Muslim members of our community telling us that they have been detained without any charges. . . . We are not the first Americans to be held guilty by association. The Japanese in 1941 were put in internment camps. Yesterday it was the Japanese. Today it is the Arabs and the Muslims. Who knows who is going to be next?”
A short time later, UFPJ co-chair Leslie Cagan, who had not been expected to attend the rally due to illness, made a surprise appearance and, with a raspy voice, managed to shout a stream of invectives against New York’s mayor and police department for having denied her request to stage a protest march, rather than a stationary rally. “Shame on the police department!” she shrieked.
Another well-known speaker who addressed the crowd was Ruth Messinger, Manhattan’s former borough president. “A war [with Iraq] will cost us $200 billion,” she said, money that would be better spent on education, housing, and environmental protection. She did not, however, discuss any environmental hazards that could result from a chemical, biological, or nuclear attack against our country. America’s war chest, she said, could “feed the 30,000 children around the globe who die from hunger every day” an assertion that earned her a loud ovation. No one seemed to care that the US already provides fully 60 percent of food aid around the world. Such details would only have spoiled their rollicking hate fest.
Before long, it was time for the denunciations of U.S. foreign policy to expand far beyond the borders of Iraq. Harry Belafonte took the occasion to condemn America’s past military actions specifically in Vietnam, Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba, “and many [other] places in the world.” Thereafter, two speakers representing New York’s People of Color Against War extended their “warm, militant greetings” to the crowd, and spoke about “the impact of US militarism on freedom in the Philippines.” A Colombian woman named Vividad Cordoba proclaimed, “I’m coming from a country that is a victim of US foreign policy.” Still another speaker blamed America for its “unjust” policies in “Cuba, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile, Grenada, Vietnam, and Yugoslavia.” The director of the Southern Peace Research and Education Center said that not only should the US not attack Iraq, but that it was now time to put the Saddam issue behind us and “lift the sanctions on the Iraqi people.” America’s “three vices [of] militarism, materialism, and racism,” she said, preclude our country from claiming any moral authority to decide who should possess the weapons of genocide.
New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman focused more on perceived domestic atrocities. “We are here today to talk about the other war,” she said, “the Bush administration’s undeclared war on our civil liberties.” With that, the crowd erupted with cheers. A Florida woman shared her own story of oppression as well. “I can tell you as a Jewish woman, a grandma. . . . It’s not just the black people who were denied their [voting] rights in Florida.” A homeless New Yorker took the microphone and expressed her deep concern “about the war on poor people in this country, the war on working people in this country.”
The day’s loudest, most frenzied greeting was reserved for the infamous Communist and black revolutionary “Sister Angela Davis,” as she was introduced. Describing herself as a former “political prisoner” in the United States, Davis mocked Colin Powell’s recent assertion before the UN Security Council “that he represented the world’s oldest democracy.” A true democracy, explained Davis the Communist, would have allowed the demonstrators to march that day, rather than to just peacefully assemble. Charging that the Bush administration is “specifically targeting immigrant communities,” she casually dismissed any concerns about Saddam’s suspected stockpiles of hidden weapons. “Have we forgotten,” she asked rhetorically to a loud ovation, “which country claims the largest nuclear arsenal in the world?” She accused the U.S. government and American corporations of supporting war solely for the purpose of taking over Iraq’s oil fields. Boasting that she was not worried about possible attacks from any external enemies, she expressed concern only “about attacks against single mothers, about structural racism, about homophobia,” and [about] the oppression of “political prisoners like [cop killer] Mumia Abu Jamal.” Shouting over the cheering throngs, Davis denounced America’s “prison-industrial complex and the military.”
The Reverend Vernon Williams, a Baptist minister, thereafter gave a brief talk whose general theme was, “No blood for gas!” Actor Danny Glover received many rousing ovations during his scathing denunciation of the US, particularly when he asserted, “Our right to dissent . . . has been hijacked by this administration of liars and murderers” A City University of New York student shouted, “CUNY students of conscience reject this war, we reject its budget, and we reject its repercussions. We want to learn. We do not want to go and kill our sisters and brothers in Iraq. We choose books over bombs!” As another woman put it, “We’ve got to feed the children in our cities, not drop bombs.” Betraying the fact that not even the proverbial “smoking gun” would persuade any of these activists to endorse military action, another speaker stated defiantly, “Whatever Bush says, or whatever evidence Colin Powell steals from a grad student, this war is unjust, it’s immoral.”
There were numerous others who spoke as well, including folk singer Pete Seeger, actor Ossie Davis, and playwright Tony Kushner. A representative of the Socialist Organization of New York was received especially well, as was the International Secretary of the Black Radical Congress. Susan Sarandon introduced a man who, though he lost his son in the 9/11 attacks, exhorted President Bush to “stop the headlong rush to war, anger, and destruction.” Though he did not explain why a twelve-year wait for Iraq to comply with its obligations should be defined as “a headlong rush to war,” he chastised America for not promoting “the equitable sharing of the world’s resources among all peoples.”
Reverend Martin Luther King III added his voice to the cacophony of clichés, reminding us that “you do not stop terrorism by terrorizing others”; “only nonviolence can stamp out violence”; and “just because you have the biggest gun does not mean you must use it.” Larry Holmes of A.N.S.W.E.R., the “peace” front linked to the socialist Workers World Party, said, “We don’t want to fight a war for oil. We don’t want to fight a war for colonies. We don’t want to fight a war for imperialism.” As an aside, he added, “We [also] got to get that blockade against Cuba down.”
The day’s final speaker took the occasion to publicly denigrate the hundreds of police officers who, in a thoroughly professional manner, had made certain that everyone attending the rally was safe. “When you leave here,” he told the crowd, “you can expect that the police will probably attempt to do something to try to provoke you.” Referring to the officers as “fools with guns,” he continued: “They will attempt to manipulate you in order that you might fall into their plans. We’re not going to fall into their plans. . . . Don’t engage in the foolishness that the police are gonna try to provoke you into. . . . We want to shame the police!” The crowd responded with roaring approval.
National Organization for Women president Kim Gandi was, notably, the only speaker during the four-hour demonstration to utter even the most trifling criticism of Iraq’s brutal dictator. But even that was diminished by what she said in her next breath. Though she acknowledged that indeed “Saddam Hussein is an evil, maniacal tyrant,” she quickly proclaimed that our government should combat “poverty, homelessness, and [street and domestic] violence” before meddling in foreign affairs.
The overriding anti-American venom pervading the entire rally manifested itself not only in the rhetoric, but also in the remarkable dearth of American flags. I observed only one such flag on display at any point during the day, whereas I saw tens of thousands of placards denouncing the US and the Bush administration.
This crowd was characterized, as much as anything else, by its steadfast refusal to make moral distinctions between Saddam Hussein and George Bush, or between the Iraqi regime and the American government. One particular placard illustrated this point quite graphically. Featuring side-by-side photographs of Bush and Saddam, it read, “Two of a Kind, Hussein and Insein, Both Unelected, Both Psychotic”; Bush’s face was adorned with a Hitler-style moustache, the hairs of which were formed by black letters spelling the word “Florida.” In a similar vein, another sign read, “Germans Did Not Stop Hitler. Will Americans Stop Bush?”
On the few occasions where the demonstrators did make moral distinctions, they actually depicted Bush and the US as worse than their Iraqi counterparts, as evidenced by the speeches heretofore referenced. And as one placard bluntly put it, “Drop the Bombs Where They Are Made” – a curious suggestion indeed from a champion of “peace.” All in all, the day ended much as it had started. The writers of Proletariat Revolution, who so passionately denounced the “imperialist war machine” of “the world’s greatest terrorist power,” would have found many thousands of kindred spirits in this crowd.