"I think the movement is beginning to wake up," Valerie Mullen, an 80-year-old anti-war activist from Vermont, exclaimed as she surveyed the swelling crowd of people protesting against the economic, international and military policies of the Bush Administration.
While activists always like to declare victory when a decent crowd shows up to demonstrate for causes dear to their hearts, Mullen was not alone in expressing a sense of awe at the size of the crowds that showed up in Washington for weekend protests against corporate globalization, a seemingly endless "war against terrorism" and US military aid to Israel.
District of Columbia police officials estimated that 75,000 people from across the country joined four permitted protest marches in Washington Saturday, while San Francisco police estimated that close to 20,000 people took part in what local officials identified as one of the largest peace rallies that city has seen in years. Thousands more joined demonstrations in Seattle, Houston, Boston, Salt Lake City and other communities.
Official estimates are invariably more conservative than those of organizers, but there was a rare level of agreement among organizers and police chiefs that the weekend of diverse activism against US policies abroad had far exceeded expectations. "I'm just floored by the amount of people here today," said Mark Rickling, an organizer with the Mobilization for Global Justice that brought thousands to Washington to protest corporate globalization in general and the spring meeting of World Bank and International Monetary Fund mandarins in particular. Not far away, DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey agreed that the size of the crowds was far greater than had been anticipated.
The size of the protests is notable because they come at a time when most political leaders and media commentators remain cautious about criticizing US policies. Organizers across the country argued that the turnout at marches and demonstrations was evidence that there is far more opposition to US policy among the American people than the relative silence of official Washington would indicate.
"We cannot have peace without justice," the Rev. Robert Jeffrey of Seattle's New Hope Baptist Church told a rally in that city. "That people who are left out should just keep quiet and accept what happens to them, that just won't happen."
The demonstrators who came to Washington sought to deliver many messages. The Mobilization for Global Justice protests against the World Bank, the IMF, corporate globalization and third-world debt are a rite of spring in Washington. The A20 Mobilization to Stop the War at Home and Abroad -- a coalition that included hundreds of groups ranging from the United States Student Association to the American Friends Service Committee, Peace Action, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the Amarillo, Tx., Citizen for Just Democracy -- chose the weekend to mount the first large-scale protest in the US against Bush's proposals to dramatically expand the "war on terrorism," and with it an already bloated Pentagon budget. Opponents of US policies in Latin America marched in opposition to "Plan Colombia" aid to that country's military. The messages of the multiple movements came together in banners that read, "Drop debt, not bombs."
A surprise for many organizers in Washington and San Francisco, however, came in the form of the dramatic turnout of Arab Americans and others angered over continued US military aid for Israel at a time when Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is ordering attacks on Palestinian communities on the West Bank. The Washington demonstration was described by organizers as the largest show of support for Palestinian rights ever in the nation's Capitol, perhaps in the US.
Referring to US military aid to Israel, demonstrator Amal K. David said, "My beloved country is financing such death and destruction. I am so ashamed."
David, a Palestinian-American, arrived on one of the more than 20 buses that came to Washington from Detroit for the weekend demonstrations. As many as 50 buses came from New York, and large contingents showed up from as far away as Minnesota and Texas. They were joined by a substantial number of Jews – including several dozen Orthodox rabbis from New York – who marched behind banners that read "Not In My Name" and "Jewish Voice for Peace." "We're here as Jews saying that the values of Judaism do not support what Ariel Sharon is doing," said marcher Jacob Hodes.
Arab-Americans and Jews intermingled along the line of march, which eventually merged with anti-war and anti-corporate globalization marches and rallies. Organizers acknowledged that they often did not know where one protest ended and the next began. "There's a great deal of anger at Bush administration policies. Different people are angry about different policies," said Ben Manski, an organizer who was active with the Green Party's efforts to build support for various DC demonstrations. "What's exciting is that a lot of people are recognizing that when we get together we send a loud message."