February 19, 2003

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On the march
In San Francisco, hundreds of thousands hit the streets.

By Camille T. Taiara

WEATHERCASTS HAD PREDICTED rain, but we emerge from BART to blue skies. The sun, as if by divine intervention, had chased away the gray cloud mantle. So many people are packed onto Market Street for the antiwar demonstration that the crowds can barely inch forward at a snail's pace.

We are greeted by drumming and street theater and all manner of placards condemning the impending war against Iraq. Middle-class suburbanites march alongside crusty punks. Aging grandmothers fall into step with Black Muslims. Inner-city youths of color lay down spirited beats. Progressive Jews call for peace in the Middle East, and a Filipino contingent shouts chants in Pinoy. Cheers turn into a roar that seems to stretch for miles. It's enough to put a lump in the throat of even the most weathered activists: we are not alone.

As we make our way forward, a woman holding a poster reading "Japanese-Americans Say Never Again – No Scapegoating" catches my attention. I approach her and ask who she is, why she's here. She introduces herself as Lina Hoshino, a 35-year-old graphic designer. "The war is really about oil," she says. "It has nothing to do with our safety. I think it's going to make the world more insecure." In addition to the countless lives sure to be lost should the Bush administration continue with its war plans, Hoshino worries about the backlash against immigrants in the United States – which she says parallels the imprisonment of more than 100,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II. "We're seeing that happen again with the INS detentions," she says. "Thousands of people are being deported."

I talk to many more protesters: an Afghan American college student from Alameda holding a Palestinian flag, a middle-aged Chicano Vietnam War veteran attending the rally with his wife and kids, a curvy transsexual in a tight red dress and high heels, a 55-year-old Unitarian Universalist who grew up traveling the world with his military family and has been fighting American militarism for more than 30 years.

Although the particulars of marchers' messages varied, the overall sentiment was the same: the time has come to expose the true interests propelling this drive to war and to focus on the increasing problems we face locally.

Oakland resident Morgan Pegus-Thomas worries about the repercussions of the Bush administration's policies on her community. "People are forgetting that the death rate in Oakland is still climbing," the 21-year-old says. "Our economy is at one of its worst [points] right now.... Public education is being cut by $200 to $300 per student."

The weekend bore witness to the largest globally coordinated protests yet. Somewhere between 8 million and 11.5 million people protested against war on Iraq worldwide, according to Agence France-Presse. The marches, called for by a coalition of antiwar organizations at the European Social Forum in Florence, Italy, last November, took place in at least 60 countries from throughout Europe and the Americas, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, and as far away as Antarctica. They attest to the growing sophistication of a global movement in resistance to policies that place more power in the hands of a shrinking group of war hawks and their corporate honchos.

On Feb. 15, British prime minister Tony Blair, the Bush administration's most outspoken ally outside the United States, suffered a resounding rebuke in London, where organizers report one million people protested against war with Iraq – the largest demonstration in Great Britain's peacetime history. The most massive protest by far took place in Rome, where organizers say as many as three million antiwar activists hit the streets. In New York, up to 400,000 demonstrators defied a federal court ruling banning a march.

Locally, several northern California cities held demonstrations against the impending war for the first time. Between 200,000 and 250,000 protesters participated in the San Francisco demonstration, according to police and organizer estimates.

What's more – despite San Francisco Chronicle stories to the contrary – organizers have proved themselves more than able to place their individual politics aside and work together.

By 3 p.m. most marchers have arrived at the Civic Center rally point, and a group of mostly black-clad, anarchist youth are gearing up for a demonstration of their own. I follow along behind a banner reading "Bring the Noise! Unpermitted March." By the time we break away from the main rally, there are close to 1,000 among our ranks. Contingents of police follow alongside and behind us on foot. Others speed ahead on motorcycles, blocking streets to the west to prevent us from heading to Union Square.

The mood is spirited, rebellious. For these protesters, the streets are their stage, and they take them over with gusto. People begin setting off small, colorful smoke bombs and graffiti-ing nearby walls. Several youths climb atop a trolley car stopped at Powell Street. On Market, others begin pummeling the windows of Old Navy with rocks and throwing paint on those of Abercrombie and Fitch. The crowd rushes the San Francisco Shopping Center, and a few dozen make their way inside before police secure the entryways. They try to break some windows and throw black paint on the floor before heading out the side exit.

By now, the police are in full riot gear – and they're losing their patience. A showdown ensues when police trap protesters on Market between Eighth and Ninth Streets and threaten to arrest everyone who does not disperse. But they leave only a small opening to the east, by the mounted police, through which protesters can escape, and chaos ensues.

Police and protesters vie for control of the streets. Cops lunge at protesters with their billy clubs, pulling some out of the crowds and spiriting them away in handcuffs. I spot a police cruiser with the driver's side window smashed out and the windshield caved in, a white anarchy sign spray painted on the hood and a flyer that says "Stop Shopping" pasted on the front window.

"The fact that hundreds of youth are angry and frustrated that their government is not listening to them shouldn't be a surprise to anybody," says Not in Our Name organizer Jeff Paterson, who warns against categorizing demonstrators into "good" and "bad" protesters. I'm reminded how such youth have played a role in every mass movement – from antiwar efforts to struggles for civil rights and against police abuse and global free-trade policies.

By 7 p.m., 46 protesters have been arrested. As of press time, five remain in jail facing several felony charges.

Looking back on the day, I remember the response of Marius Worsfold, a seven-year-old boy at the rally, when I asked him why he was there. "War kills people," he said. For him, that was reason enough.

E-mail Camille T. Taiara at camille@sfbg.com.