Tens of thousands of protesters filled downtown San Francisco streets Saturday, demanding that President George Bush stop preparations for a war against Iraq.
With a crowd estimated by police at 42,000 and organizers at 100,000, protesters, who began their march at Justin Herman Plaza, took more than three hours to file into Civic Center Plaza. Among the demonstrators were veterans of the Vietnam War and related protests; youth sporting Mohawks and piercings; labor, environmental and gay-lesbian-transgender activists; public officials and candidates for office; socialists, anarchists and Greens; families with kids on their backs, in strollers and riding their parents’ wheelchairs. There were Muslim women wearing traditional veils, Nation of Islam men with bow ties, Jewish men with yarmulkes and nuns in jeans and blue T-shirts.
People came from as far as San Diego, Tucson, and Seattle and carried signs with serious messages, such as “hate makes terrorists,” and “collateral damage has a face,” referring to those innocents who will be killed in a war with Iraq, along with more subtle statements such as “regime change begins at home,” “The PATRIOT Act isn’t,” and “Drop Bush not bombs.”
A number of Berkeley groups made their presence known, including UC Berkeley’s Stop the War Coalition. The Cheese Board Collective shut down its business in North Berkeley for the day to join the rally.
A dozen UC Berkeley graduate students in social welfare came together. “War only creates more problems,” said Robert Vergera, who had organized the group. “Innocent people are the ones that get hurt. Water lines, and the infrastructure gets destroyed.”
Berkeley resident Tim Melton brought his three children. “It is important for them to go,” he said. “I want them to see the democratic process in action.”
Berkeley was also well-represented among the speakers: 91-year-old Vice Mayor Maudelle Shirek called for peace and 11-year-old King Junior High School student Samora Penderhughes spoke out: “The life of children in Iraq and Palestine is just as important as the life of a child in the United States.”
Hatem Bazian, lecturer in UC Berkeley’s Near Eastern Studies Department, reminded the crowd that the United States had sold weapons of mass destruction to Iran and Iraq. “Tell me if you don’t see hypocrisy here,” he said. “Our own UC Berkeley is responsible for weapons of mass destruction. The bomb was developed here before it was dropped in Japan.”
Speakers and sign-bearers pointed out that the cost of war takes funding from social needs. At a rally before the march took off, San Francisco Board of Supervisor President Tom Ammiano decried what he called “a war on the homeless” and a “war on tenants.” Nobel Peace Prize winner Dr. Helen Caldicott called for money for healthcare and housing and not war.
“We say healthcare/Bush says warfare,” marchers chanted. Nancy McLaughlin, of San Francisco, a member of the Presentation Sisters for Justice, was in the crowd with nuns in her order who had come from Los Gatos and San Jose. “Money should go for the homeless and the poor,” she said.
Another theme that dominated the day was the occupation of Palestine and the U.S. role in support of Israel. “Israel can’t wage war without bullets supplied by the U.S.,” said Ramiz Rafeedie, a speaker from the Free Palestine Alliance. The Middle East needs democratic change, Rafeedie said, but it must come through the people there. “No one has the right to impose regime change on our countries,” he said.
Former Berkeley school board member and Middle East Children’s Alliance Director Barbara Lubin, standing with her son Charlie and grandchildren on the speakers’ platform, chastised the peace movement of 20 years ago for not recognizing the importance of the movement for an independent Palestine.
“We cannot allow it to be put in the back of the peace movement,” said Lubin. “I fear that (Israeli Prime Minister) Ariel Sharon will use the cover of this war to do what he has wanted to do for more than 30 years, ‘transfer’ the Palestinians out of their homes and land once and for all.”
While the pro-war voice was not visible at the demonstration other than of a few signs calling for the death of Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, President Bush, speaking from Mexico, reasserted that the United States would lead a coalition against Iraq if the United Nations does not pass a strong resolution insisting Saddam Hussein disarm.
“If the United Nations does not pass a resolution which holds him to account and that has consequences, we will lead the coalition to disarm him.” Bush said, according to an Associated Press report.
Many at the rally remembered Sen. Paul Wellstone, an advocate for peace and liberal Democrat from Minnesota, who died with his wife and daughter in a plane crash Friday. Signs throughout the crowd memorialized him. One read: “Thanks Wellstone for teaching me to stand for peace.”
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, also lauded Wellstone. Among the 23 senators who stood up to the president’s “rush to war” was “the beloved Paul Wellstone,” she said.
Lee told the crowd that its presence, letters and e-mails were making a difference: “You’re making your voices heard. You are the American
Bush wants another war/We say no/We remember Vietnam/We say no./We remember Desert Storm/We say no/We remember El Salvador/We say no.
–Chanted by protesters at Saturday’s march against war and racism.