"Anarchy" in the streets of San Francisco

Police make record arrests as protesters try to shut down the city; meanwhile somber mood prevails at New York demonstration.

Published March 20, 2003 8:10PM (EST)

Streets in the Middle East, Europe and the United States filled Thursday with outraged protesters as the first big wave of bombs crashed on Iraq. As many as 100,000 people were reported at a protest in Athens, and in Cairo, a crowd of 30,000 took to the streets. In San Francisco, over 1,400 were arrested as they attempted to shut down the city's Financial District, and busy downtown intersections were choked off throughout the day by roving bands of protesters, while police helicopters hovered overhead. San Francisco's acting police chief called the day-long disruptions "anarchy."

Between 1,000 and 2,000 people shivered in an evening downpour in New York's Times Square Thursday night, the words on their antiwar signs turning into a soggy blur. While demonstrators in San Francisco were staging colorful acts of civil disobedience, including the deeply resonant vomit-in near the Federal building designed to show the sick-making effects of war, the scene in mid-town Manhattan felt somber and serious. Beneath the huge ticker-tape headlines lighting up the corner of Broadway and 42nd Street, shielding themselves from the rain with tabloids blaring "WAR," people expressed hope and defiance and all the rote language of resistance, but the mood was sad, and the cruel weather just made it worse.

The demonstration began around 5 p.m. with a kind of militant elation, as contingents of people converged from across the city. A group of several hundred left from Columbus Circle, marching 17 blocks downtown with arms linked as a cordon of cops kept them on the sidewalk. The chant was the usual "Drop Bush, Not Bombs!" accompanied by drums made of garbage can lids and plastic buckets, but there seemed to be a special hoarse urgency in it. As the throng neared Times Square, marchers seemed almost shocked by the city's failure to come to some kind of halt, and the chant changed to "Bombs are dropping while you're shopping!," delivered in an increasingly accusatory scream.

As the marchers reached Times Square, though, the police set up barriers, separating the crowd into smaller clumps and preventing many people from reaching the main protest. There were shoving matches on 44th Street and 47th Street, and rows of police in riot helmets or mounted on horses seemed ready for a fight. For a moment, it seemed as if people might push their way through, but in the soaking cold, the crowd's energy flagged, and eventually everyone obediently entered the pens. According to organizer L.A. Kauffman, around 25 people were arrested.

Kauffman blamed the weather for the relatively low turnout in New York, insisting the antiwar momentum across the country is not flagging: "Protests have happened all over the place today. The big event here in New York is on Saturday" -- when a major march has been called --"and it's gong to be huge."

While previous antiwar protests in New York have been suffused with the distant hope that war could actually be prevented, Thursday's demonstration served largely as a way for people to express their anger and their solidarity with demonstrators around the world. Some people protested to prove that protest was still possible. "I refuse to be passive," said Joan Hilty, a 36-year-old editor. "Silence is going to be mistaken for agreement. There's a sense of hopelessness among people who say there's nothing we can do to stop this. There's not a sense of hopelessness among those of us who come out in the rain."

And, in fact, the perserverance of the protesters was inspiring -- they stayed out for hours in the cold rain, marching down Fifth Avenue to Washington Square around 8:30 p.m.

Still, the crowd's fortitude was combined with sorrow and a deep alienation from the rest of the country, an alienation that's been building in New York for more than a year. "Do New Yorkers support this war?" a speaker shouted, and the crowd screamed, "No!" They're right according to a poll published February 21 on the Web site of New York 1, a local cable news channel, which found that only 46 percent of New Yorkers support the war, compared to 63 percent nationwide.

Nancy Goldstein, a 41-year-old non-profit consultant, said she felt "grief" at the way America had spurned the world. She wanted to show people in other countries that she's not an "isolated xenophobic American" with a "cowboy ideology."

Two young Germans in the crowd, Tim Lehmacher, 32, and Anne-Catherine Luke, 34, were thinking of leaving the country that they've called home for almost a decade. "It's Americans now who have to change their regime," said Lehmacher, a photographer. "It's turning into a totalitarian regime." Luke, who owns a shop in Brooklyn, added, "We were here for September 11, and we felt very connected to this country. Now we're much more disconnected. It's too much out of control."

Laura Turick, a 20-year-old student at the School of Visual Arts, held a candle flickering in a cut-off water bottle and said, "I donmt feel alienated from people here, but I do from people who use the American flag as a blindfold. Half the people in this country are brainwashed."

Her sense of a country wanting to shut people up was confirmed last night at an Ani DiFranco concert in New Jersey. The concert took place at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and was put on by radio and concert behemoth Clear Channel. The company barred political groups from setting up tables at the concert and, according to progressive radio host Amy Goodman, who introduced DiFranco, company officials threatened to cut the microphones if there was any political speech onstage. The show was delayed as DiFranco fought with Clear Channel.

Turlick, who was in the crowd, was disgusted. "People are afraid of the truth," Turick said.

Around her, the crowd chanted, "We won't be shocked and awed!"

And yet the Iraqi people are set to be. This realization spurred desperate demonstrations across the the world throughout the day and evening Thursday. According to Associated Press, hundreds of thousands of people marched on American embassies in Paris, Manila and other cities. The BBC reported a firebomb attack against a Citibank branch during a massive and largely peaceful protest in Athens. Tens of thousands demonstrated in Italy, and the police used tear gas to break up a crowd in Venice. And in the Middle East, where some sanguine pundits dismissed the notion of enraged Arab streets, protests have been large and occasionally violent.

Sinan Antoon, a 35-year-old Harvard graduate student doing research in Egypt, spoke to Salon from Cairo, where he'd just returned from the demonstration at Tahrir Square. Antoon, a native Iraqi and a war opponent, estimated the crowd there at around 30,000, and said the police were preventing many more people from joining it. At one point, the demonstrators broke through security and charged toward the American embassy, throwing stones as they went, only to be beaten back by police. There were Islamist chants, a few posters of Egypt's arch-nationalist former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, as well cries of rage against both the Bush administration and the Egyptian government of Hosni Mubarak. Still, the mood wasn't exactly anti-American. Antoon notes there were 20 or 30 Americans in attendance, including a woman who was carried aloft by the crowd. Antoon says he also saw a handful of other Iraqis.

"It's very volatile," he says. "People are very angry. Almost everyone is very angry at what's happening. People all feel kind of violated. They're tired of these wars and the hypocrisy behind them."

"It was all very spontaneous," he says. "The Arab street is making a statement."

The biggest antiwar eruption in the U.S. took place in San Francisco, where protesters had vowed to shut down the city, and the police reported making more arrests than any time during the past two decades. The protests began during the morning rush hour, when activists used duct tape for purposes that Tom Ridge at the Office of Homeland Security would never recommend: blocking the intersection at Battery and Columbus, while handing out stickers that said "No War in My Name."

During the morning rush hour, the city's Financial District was shut down by human blockades that stretched from the Embarcadero to Van Ness Avenue, stopping cars and bus traffic for hours and provoking a wave of arrests.

One key protest target was the Bechtel Corp., the mammoth global industrial and development company that is reportedly competing for a share of the multimillion-dollar contracts to rebuild Iraq. Twenty-two yoga practitioners spread out their mats on the sidewalk across the street from Bechtel on Beale Street, where protesters conducted a sit-in to block employees from entering at all the entrances.

Throughout the afternoon, San Francisco antiwar protesters took downtowns intersections between Civic Center and the financial district, by sitting-in and marching in the streets.

A woman dressed as an angel with white wings offered grapes to protesters from a collander. U.C. Berkeley students cheered the news that the adminstration building at their school had been taken over by a sit-in of 200 protesters. And an elementary school boy stood screaming in Market Street: "No blood for oil!"

Up and down the commercial artery Market Street, police in riot gear -- both on foot or on horse -- would succeed in clearing an intersection, only to have the next one up taken over by the roving protesters. On the lawn in front of City Hall, a meditation circle of about 30 had posted a sign inviting all faiths to joint their silent circle of resistance. The Scientologists even tried the win the protesters sympathies, hanging a notice in front of their San Francisco storefront reminding the activists that they stood for a "civilized world."

"Protesting this war is the best way that I can think of to support my husband and the rest of the troops in Kuwait," said Lisa Zwerling, a Venice, Calif. pediatrician attending the protests, whose husband, Ron Birnbaum is a Navy doctor serving with a Navy Mobile Construction Battalion.

As a group of about 200 protesters on foot and bicycle moved through the low-rent Tenderloin district, four Muslim shopkeepers stood in front of their grocery store giving the peace sign to the passing throng.

By 4:30 p.m., several thousand protesters began sitting down at the busy intersection of Fifth and Market, where police began carting off dozens of them to a MUNI bus that had been commandeered as a paddy wagon.

In front of a Gap store at the corner of Powell and Market, three knitters sat on the sidewalk under a sign proclaiming them "Crafty Bitches Knitting for Peace." A San Francisco woman who identified herself as Camilla, who was almost finished knitting a hat, explained that the Crafty Bitches is a knitting club that meets at the Mission District lesbian bar, the Lexington. She said it was important to remind shoppers that you could do it yourself, and not just conduct "business as usual on a day like today."

But the mood was not always so lighthearted. Tempers flared as motorists were blocked by protesters at busy intersections. When a Yellow Cab was stopped at Fourth and Market by several demonstrators, the taxi driver tried to break through the line by edging his vehicle forward, but others came and joined the protesters' ranks and kept the cab from driving through. Dozens of cops were posted just a block away, but it took them a full 10 minutes to intervene. Meanwhile, across the street, a clean-cut San Franciscan named Ken (he wouldn't give his last name) waved an American flag and shouted, "Get out of the street, you fucking hippies!" Ken, 25, explained he'd stepped out for lunch and was so enraged by the sight of antiwar groups "stopping people's ability to conduct their lives, so I bought a flag to show my support for our country." Then he went back to yelling at the protesters.

Finally, the police arrived, and the traffic-blockers dispersed on cue. The lone protester remaining on the corner was Dana Carson, 47, who'd taken the afternoon off to protest the war. Dressed in black bike shorts and a black T-shirt, he was carrying a colorful sign in the shape of a tombstone, reading: "Here lies American Democracy: July 1776-November 2000. It was a great run." As he explained his reasons for opposing the war, an Aryan-looking skinhead in red suspenders spit at him, hitting him in the side of the face.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

This story has been corrected since it was first published.

By Katharine Mieszkowski

Katharine Mieszkowski is a senior writer for Salon.

MORE FROM Katharine Mieszkowski

By Michelle Goldberg

Michelle Goldberg is a frequent contributor to Salon and the author of "Kingdom Coming: The Rise of Christian Nationalism" (WW Norton).

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

George W. Bush Iraq Iraq War Middle East San Francisco