| Women raise slogans in Texas, President George W. Bush’s home state, against a possible US attack on Iraq. (AP/PTI)
New York, Feb. 16: They came in hordes. Babies in prams, women in their 70s leaning on walking sticks and crutches, children with Cupid’s insignia painted on their cheeks, militant labour union activists and teenagers who reminded everyone of protests by the “flower people” of the 1960s.
They came in cars, buses and trains. Some travelled all the way from Miami and Boston, staying overnight in dormitories to take part in a massive protest here against the Bush administration’s preparations to attack Iraq.
They rocked to All You Need Is Love. One woman draped in stars and stripes chained herself to an iron fence in Manhattan, symbolising the attacks on civil liberties since September 11.
Most of all, there were New York policemen who were openly critical of the very restrictions they were told to impose in an attempt by this city’s Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg to foil what was planned as the biggest protests in the Big Apple since the Vietnam war.
They were part of the wave of demonstrations by more than six million people that swept 600 towns and cities from Cape Town to Chicago on Saturday. More than 200,000 people, some waving banners asking “How many lives per litre'”, kicked off a second day of protests in Sydney today.
Police erected barricades all over the east side of Manhattan, preventing tens of thousands of protesters from getting anywhere near the venue officially assigned for them to gather.
From morning, they restricted traffic from Queens to Manhattan so that protesters were discouraged from joining the chorus against war.
The high-handedness of the city administration had the opposite effect, however. Demonstrators began impromptu marches wherever they were stopped, converting much of the east side of Manhattan into a sea of small, separate anti-war rallies at each block and along different avenues.
Naturally, at the end of the day the city police were unable to provide any figures of the number of demonstrators. Unofficial estimates varied wildly from 200,000 to half a million.
Bloomberg had refused organisers of yesterday’s protest the right to march citing security threats. Attempts to challenge the decision were rejected by city courts.
Despite such provocation, the protest here was entirely peaceful. On a stage 10 blocks away from the United Nations, 83-year-old folk artiste Pete Seeger, singer Harry Belafonte, actress Susan Sarandon and her colleague Danny Glover addressed the crowd.
“Peace! Peace!” exhorted South African bishop and Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu. “Let America listen to the rest of the world — and the rest of the world is saying: ‘Give the inspectors time’.”
Black men and women carried placards saying: “A house slave is a shame on our race, Colin Powell”. It was a reference to Belafonte’s recent remark that President George W. Bush had taken secretary of state Powell into his house to do his bidding.
There were many placards urging Americans to “Buy French”, a reference to campaigns in the US to boycott French products following opposition from Paris to Washington’s plans to go to war.
Although New York was the epicentre of yesterday’s protests in the US, demonstrations were held in cities across America.
At a huge demonstration in San Jose, California, there was a war veteran donning the very uniform he wore fighting the Italians in World War II and carrying a sign: “I’m 84 and say no to war”.
In Chicago, thousands paraded along the city’s streets wearing skeleton suits and Uncle Sam hats, tooting horns and banging plastic buckets or aluminum pots.
Anti-war marchers gathered from Maine to Florida, from Colorado to Michigan in numbers big and small.
In Philadelphia, Quakers held a silent protest while Koreans who fled the war in their country banged traditional drums around the historic Liberty Bell.