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Friday, May 9, 2003 02:20 pm

A peace marcher’s progress report

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On February 15, I was in New York City for the international day of protest called "The World Says No to War." It was biting cold, and I had to double up on everything: two pairs of socks, long underwear plus my warm pants, earmuffs under a hood, finger gloves covered by mittens. The huge throng marching toward the United Nations Building on 49th Street provided a certain amount of insulation, even (maybe especially) when it was standing still. Crowd estimates ranged from 100,000 (the police count) to 500,000 (the organizers' estimate). Perhaps the numbers differed so widely because police sent some demonstrators back south or redirected them onto routes that were ultimately blocked.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the local courts wouldn't grant a parade permit. (My friend Mary later pointed out that the International Toy Fair Parade moved unimpeded the following day.) But that might have turned out to be a tactical error. Instead of having one orderly and manageable march, police had to deal with several marches winding their way through midtown Manhattan.

Unable to hold a unified procession, United for Peace organizers recommended that people gather in such landmark spaces as Grand Central Station and Union Square. Some subway stops were closed without notice, which irritated marchers and residents alike. Rebekah Law, an observer from the People's Law Collective, reported that she didn't see one nonviolent arrest (274 people were arrested). In one account, people who tried to aid a fallen marcher were pepper-sprayed by the police. At a Brooklyn news conference the next day, Bloomberg had to admit, "Not everybody was happy about the way the police controlled the crowds."

To actually see the speakers on 51st, you would have had to set out in the early morning. (The New York Times reported that the crowd extended for more than 20 blocks.) But since my resourceful friend Mary brought along a pocket radio, we were able to listen to snippets of speeches from notable folks, including Bishop Desmond Tutu ("Until there is justice for everyone, there is no hope"), Danny Glover ("We stand at the threshold of history and say, 'Not in our names' "), and Palestinian-American poet Suheir Hammad ("You are either with life or against it. . . . Affirm life"). The sheer abundance of inspiring words and likeminded people made for an invigorating experience.

But in spite of the high caliber of speakers, my most powerful memories concern simply being in the city struck by terrorists on 9/11, surrounded by young people and the elderly, families and clergy, so many different people wanting our government to reconsider its foolhardy policy of first strike, so many frightened by the terrible consequences of a preemptive war. We all wished the Bush administration would step back and thoughtfully evaluate the benefits of cooperating with the United Nations. One child rode atop her mother's shoulder. A sign behind her declared, "One World, One Heart."

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On Saturday, March 8--International Women's Day--a vigil will be held from noon to 1 p.m. in front of the Federal Building on Monroe between Sixth and Seventh streets. This event is intended as an act of solidarity with the thousands of women and men who plan to converge on Washington, D.C., to encircle the White House in a demonstration for peace. The Springfield vigil is one in a series held downtown on Saturdays at noon; it's sponsored by Pax Christi Springfield and the Iraq Peace Coalition. For more information, contact Diane Hughes at 544-3997.

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