Despite sub-freezing temperatures, men and women of all ages arrived with bundled up children at the white-domed U.S. Capitol to protest what they say is not an inevitable war with Iraq.
Sol Kelly Jones of Wisconsin, who drove hundreds of kilometers to be in Washington, D.C, said “we are being told that it is unpatriotic to speak out. We're being told our voices don't matter, but they do. We can really stop this war by letting our government officials know that this is not what we want.”
The January 18 rally took place in honor of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King junior and his legacy of non-violent resistance.
Colorful signs proclaiming "Peace is Patriotic," "No Blood For Oil," and "I Never Voted For an Empire" filled the streets of Washington, as more than 100,000 people gathered peacefully.
The rally was one of dozens organized across the United States in more than 20 cities by the group International ANSWER, or Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. The group says hundreds of thousands of protesters from nearly all 50 U.S. states converged in the large demonstrations held in Washington in the east and San Francisco in the west. The protests are part of an ongoing peace movement that began once there were signs of another possible war with Iraq. At first, the movement was made up mostly of fringe groups who don't like any war and were hostile to the Bush administration.
However, Phyllis Bennis, a member of the liberal-leaning Institute of Policy Studies, says a broad band of mainstream Americans has joined the protest. “There are people from across the United States with a huge demographic and professional and racial and gender and geographic mix. The African-American community probably has the highest number of anti-war feelings of any part of the country. You have women's organizations, you have main stream churches including the Methodists, the Lutherans and the Catholics. You have a huge contingent of Arab and Muslim participants. So you have an extraordinary range of voices and vantage points that provide an incredible richness of what the activism looks like” she said.
Veterans are also speaking out against war with Iraq. Charles Sheehan-Miles, a combat veteran of the 1991 Gulf war said “I'm hoping it will make the administration slow down and maybe work with the U-N a little more.” Some members of President Bush's Republican Party also oppose the war.
Phyllis Bennis says a recent advertisement campaign by Republicans reveals cracks in the support of the President's policies. “When you have a full page ad in The Wall Street Journal of Republicans against the war, including a couple who has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Bush election campaign two years ago and who are now saying 'Let's be clear, we supported the Gulf war a decade ago, we supported the war in Afghanistan.' And they went on to say, 'We don't think this made the grade. You haven't made the case, and we feel betrayed. We want our money back and we want our country back.' That's incredibly strong language coming from a group of conservative Republicans donors who are at the heart of the Republican Party,” she said.
President Bush was at Camp David the day of the protest and did not witness the demonstration. A White House spokesperson said the President believes such a protest is a time-honored tradition of American democracy. The people of Iraq have no such right, said the President.
Condoleezza Rice, the President's national security adviser, welcomed the protests as an expression of American freedoms. She said "it contrasts so greatly with the situation that people in Iraq find themselves in, where your tongue can be ripped out for criticizing the regime.
International ANSWER, the organizer of the rally, lined up a few speakers who could be considered on the radical fringe. One called U.S. leaders Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld the real "Axis of Evil." Another said, "as revolutionaries, we have to resist American imperialism."
But this radical rhetoric was overwhelmed by mainstream voices that declared, "Peace Is Not a Fringe Movement," and "Don't Assume I Support Saddam Hussein."
Mary Ann Sheridan of Florida, whose cousin was killed in the September eleventh attack on the New York World Trade Center, says President Bush is using the tragedy as an excuse to strike Iraq. “I believe there is no connection with Iraq's regime and the terrorist attacks. I believe for the last two years this country has been flipped upside down, and it seems we are making more enemies left and right every day. The people's voice has not been heard. Our government officials are not doing what we elected them to do, ” she said.
Protestors also voiced their concern that a unilateral U.S. strike against Iraq would set America on a dangerous path. Peter Lane, a 63-year-old Quaker from Pennsylvania, said “I would like to see a foreign policy that went more through the U-N and went through peaceful channels to try to solve things.
Counter-demonstrations of less than 100 people supported the Bush administration. John Goodwin, a 29-year-old veteran, said “I am here to show a different point of view. I support these people's right to march, but I also believe that the point of view that we are going to need to use force to remove Islamic dictators before they get weapons of mass destruction and kill millions of Americans needs to be represented and that is why I am out here today.”
He says the best way to help the Iraqi people is to free them of Saddam Hussein. He attended the rally with the hope of changing the protester's minds. “We might be able to get through to some people, or at least add to the dialogue. I do feel war is inevitable and I hope we start it sooner rather than later and free the people in Iraq. The longer we wait, part of the war will go into the summertime, and I understand it will be a lot harder for our troops out in the desert in the summertime than if we get it done before then.”
Anti-war protests also took place in other parts of the world including New Zealand, Japan, Pakistan, the Middle East and Europe. About five thousand people marched in downtown Tokyo, carrying toy guns filled with flowers and wearing masks of President Bush. The next large-scale anti-war protests in the United State are planned for mid-February.
Despite the large numbers who came to Washington and San Francisco, public opinion is still divided on war with Iraq. The most recent polls show most Americans oppose unilateral U-S action against Iraq, but a slight majority would support military action if backed by the United Nations and other allies.