The February 15 demonstration in New York was huge, exciting, exhilarating–despite the weather (brrrr) and the heavy hand of the NYPD (see below). It seemed like the whole city was there, and the suburbs too–all races, colors, creeds, sexes and genders, every age from stroller to wheelchair and every type from energetic Latino teens with the El Puente program in Brooklyn to elegant women in ankle-length raccoon coats. Costumes and props abounded: There was the Green Man with his ivy crown, Earth Be Weary of War sign and oddly fascinating praying mantis hand puppet; the rhinestone-drenched Fairy Godmothers of Peace and Jobs from Chicago; Take Back the Future with their fifteen-foot Constitution-devouring worm. Lots of variations on the theme of duct tape: One man was got up as a walking window covered in tape and plastic, another wore a suit entirely covered in duct tape and bearing the inscription Department of Homeland Security’s Spring Line. The Bread and Puppet Theater was in fine fettle with dozens of spur-of-the-moment extras (including me) and lots of musicians playing New Orleans jazz on instruments customary and strange. (Let me apologize for cranky words at the BPT’s expense last year. Maybe they need a big energetic crowd as background canvas for their large gestures and huge papier-mâché creations. Or maybe I just needed to wield a puppet myself.) Among the diverse collection of speakers, Desmond Tutu, the performance artist Sarah Jones, Tamina from the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (remember Afghan women?) and fiery Donna Lieberman of the NYCLU stood out. Mercifully, unlike in Washington in January, no imams warned us that we would be lost unless we found the true path of faith.
About that heavy hand. In a truly outrageous series of rulings, which violated not just the First Amendment but also longstanding New York political tradition, the courts upheld Mayor Bloomberg’s denial of a permit for a march down First Avenue past the United Nations, on the ground that it would be too dangerous to monitor for terrorist activity. Those orange alerts do more than boost sales of plastic sheeting, it appears. Never mind that there’s never been a problem with permits for the St. Patrick’s Day parade, which routinely results in drunken brawls and a few years ago even a murder, or the Puerto Rican Day parade, which three years ago ended in the molestation of dozens of women in Central Park. The NYPD’s Michael Esposito admitted that no permit had been granted for a political march since 9/11; the Justice Department filed a letter of interest urging that UN security be taken into consideration–who did they think would be marching? Osama bin Laden?
The result of this blinkered, timorous decision was a wild afternoon. Thousands, barred by police from the designated rally area on First Avenue and 49th Street on up, tied up traffic on Second and Third; thousands left, discouraged, even as others, unknowing, streamed forward and still others were penned by lines of cops and metal barricades into side streets. Mounted police charged into the crowd; more than 250 people were arrested, mostly on minor charges. (If you had a bad experience with the police, the NYCLU would like to hear your story at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Still, none of this dampened the sense of a global tide beginning to turn, as reports came in on handheld radios of similar manifestations around the globe–including a million or more each in Rome, London, Madrid and Barcelona, numbers that emphatically made the point that while Silvio Berlusconi, Tony Blair and José María Aznar may back the Bush Administration’s war plans, the citizenry have other ideas. When polls show 90 percent of Britishers opposed to invading Iraq, it’s no answer for prowar columnists to rail one more time against protesters as flower-powered dupes of Stalinists and Islamic fundamentalists. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the romantic humanitarian-imperialist scenario beloved of journalists–in which, without significant bloodshed, Saddam and his henchmen are ousted in favor of peace, secularism, democracy and prosperity, triggering similar transformations throughout the region–is a very long shot indeed for all kinds of reasons, one of them being the Administration’s lack of commitment to it. Even Kanan Makiya, the most prominent Iraqi advocate of “regime change” through invasion, is beginning to sense that Iraqi democracy is not in the Administration’s cards: In a remarkable cry of despair published in the February 16 London Observer he rages that US plans for postinvasion Iraq include the betrayal of the Kurds, the sidelining of the Iraqi National Congress and, beneath a top layer of US military brass, the continued hegemony of the Baath party–Baathism without Saddam.
Will the antiwar movement be able to thwart the ongoing move toward war? It’s hard to imagine: The troopships keep sailing, and Bush seems willing to go it alone if need be to protect, as he claims, the nation’s “security.” Still, as radio journalist Laura Flanders points out, the blizzard that blanketed the city two days later in a beautiful, deep and sparkling peacefulness can serve as a metaphor of how quickly change can happen.
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Back in May, I received brickbats, whatever they are, for a column titled “Regressive Progressive?” in which I pointed out Dennis Kucinich’s little-noticed 100 percent antichoice voting record and modestly suggested that if he wanted to run for President he would have to rethink his willingness to force pregnant women to give birth. A surprising number of readers felt pro-choicers should shut up about their silly little issue and embrace Kucinich in the interests of progressive unity. Fortunately, Kucinich is more sensible and less sexist than these benighted admirers. In recent abortion-related votes he has taken the pro-choice side and now, just in time for his announcement of his presidential bid, affirms Roe v. Wade on his website. National Review Online attributed this change of heart to “a tiny article” in The Nation (thanks a lot). I’d rather credit Kucinich’s own instinct for what is right and fair in a pluralist society. Better late than never!