Revolution #161, April 12, 2009
March 19th in New York: The Few That Must Become the Many
This article is reprinted with permission from The World Can’t Wait and available at worldcantwait.org. The entire article is reprinted here, and is serialized in the print edition of Revolution.
There have been many moments in history in which the minority—acting boldly on its convictions—has been on the side of truth and justice, while the majority—either acting in opposition to that minority, or standing passively to the sidelines—has been on the side of lies and injustice.
On February 18, 1688, four Pennsylvania Quakers—Garret Hendericks, Derick up de Graeff, Francis Daniell Pastorius, and Abraham up Den Graef—wrote the first anti-slavery petition in the colonies.
Those four men were right. And the majority was wrong.
A May 2, 1967 article in the NY Times began: “About 75 anti-Vietnam war demonstrators picketed the New York Stock Exchange yesterday afternoon for 70 minutes, while 1,000 financial district… [employees] jeered them from across the street.”
Yes, even at the height of the radical 1960s upsurge, forces fighting against war and oppression sometimes found themselves badly outnumbered. Nonetheless, once again, the minority was right. And the majority was wrong.
And on March 19, 2009, on the 6th anniversary of the start of the Iraq War—a war that has killed more than 1 million Iraqi civilians, and displaced millions more—50 to 100 people marched through the streets of New York City to demand an end to the U.S. wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, no wars against Iran, Pakistan, or Gaza, and a stop to ongoing torture of prisoners at Bagram, Guantanamo and other hellholes throughout the world.
In a city of 8 million people, the vast majority of New Yorkers did not act in a visible way on March 19 to resist these crimes against humanity. In one form or another, for one reason or another, that majority went about its business and pretended these crimes were not happening.
But, once again, the minority was right. And the majority was wrong.
Crimes Are Crimes, No Matter Who Commits Them
Together with actions that World Can’t Wait organized in Atlanta, Berkeley, Miami, Seattle, Washington, D.C. and several other cities throughout the country, we referred to the March 19 action in New York as being part of “The first national protest of the wars under President Obama.” Obama’s actions during his first two months in office have underscored the urgency of framing things in these terms.
Only one day before the March 19 protests, a front-page story in the New York Times reported that the new administration is considering a significant escalation of drone missile attacks on Pakistan, from targeting “tribal areas” to striking into the province of Baluchistan, despite acknowledging this would result in “high risks of civilian casualties,” as the Times put it. One month earlier, Obama ordered 17,000 more troops into Afghanistan, where thousands of civilians have already been murdered. Obama is continuing the criminal occupation of Iraq, where the U.S. military admitted to killing a 12-year-old girl at a checkpoint on March 16. Obama’s supposed withdrawal plan calls for 35,000 to 50,000 U.S. troops to remain in Iraq even after August 2010, and for U.S. forces to remain after December 2011 to conduct “targeted counter-terrorism missions.” Under Obama, the U.S is continuing to torture prisoners at Guantanamo, and to hold detainees indefinitely with no charge or trial.
“Is this the change we’ve been protesting and marching for all these years?” World Can’t Wait national director Debra Sweet asked the crowd of protestors before the march.
“No!” the crowd shouted back.
“Hell no!” Sweet emphasized.
During the past several years, the Bush Regime’s wars of aggression, torture, and indefinite detention are among the very crimes that caused millions of Americans to loathe their government. And yet, these very same practices are being widely ignored, or even justified, under the new administration.
“It just seems like people accept what Obama’s doing—because he’s Obama,” said Thaddius, a 16-year-old African-American student from Humanities Prep Academy who responded to World Can’t Wait’s call to walk out of school March 19th.
The truth of his statement made it all the more vital that a group of people stepped forward on this day to send a message that crimes against humanity are not any more acceptable under Obama than they were under Bush.
“You don’t know,” Sweet told the crowd of demonstrators early in the day, “how important you are.”
A Swagger That Comes With Doing the Right Thing
The afternoon began around 1pm in Union Square. Under gray skies and a light rain, about 50 people crowded near the subway entrance in the south end of the square, as Sweet and Mathis Chiroux—a member of Iraq Veterans Against the War who refused to fight in Iraq—together emceed a rally that preceded a march to the Times Square recruiting center. A group of youth held a large white banner with black letters that said, “You Can’t Win An Occupation.” Others held orange signs demanding “Stop Occupations and Torture for Empire! The World Can’t Wait!”
Among the speakers, performers, and participants at the rally, there was a spirit of defiance, resilience, and moral responsibility. Before performing “Nakba,” an angry condemnation of Israel’s history of genocide and persecution against the Palestinians, 24-year-old rapper Marcel Cartier told the crowd that he had recently renounced his status as an “army brat.”
“They didn’t get me,” Cartier said. “But I lived my entire life around the U.S. military until last year.”
Cartier said he “ruptured” with the military life after deciding he didn’t want to spend the rest of his days as an accomplice to crimes against humanity.
In addition to Cartier, other musical performers included the Bronx hip-hop group Rebel Diaz, and Outernational, which adjusted well to the lack of amplified sound by playing a stirring acoustic set.
Radical attorney Lynne Stewart, who in the past few years has felt the repressive force of the government very directly—in 2006 she was convicted of conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism and obstruction of justice merely for passing a message from one of her clients to his supporters—told demonstrators she would not be deterred in resisting the crimes of empire and that they shouldn’t be either.
“I think we have to ask ourselves, is Obama running out of his Kool Aid? Yes!” Stewart said at the beginning of her speech. “Are we alive and kicking? Yes!”
Sunsara Taylor, a writer for Revolution newspaper, said a great number of people in society are under the illusion that Obama will end wars for empire, despite his continuation of the occupation in Iraq, his escalation of the Afghanistan war, his intensifying of missile strikes in Pakistan, and his support for the Israeli massacre of Gaza.
“The only way this occupation and these wars are going to end,” Taylor said, “is through protest, through resistance, through people taking a stand like we’re doing today. Actually going and challenging other people to wake up and act on ‘What kind of future do you want to live in?’”
In her speech, Taylor took on some of the key arguments that are used to justify U.S. wars for empire. For instance, in response to the notion that these wars make Americans safer, Taylor said this reasoning is not only false but also unethical.
“It is immoral to say that American lives are worth more than Iraqi lives, are worth more than Afghani lives,” Taylor said. “A million dead in Iraq, I don’t care if it did make us safer. It’s not worth it. It is immoral, it is unjust, and it has to be opposed.”
Taylor also slammed the idea that the U.S. military is trying to liberate the women of Iraq and Afghanistan; she pointed out that Iraq was a secular country prior to the U.S. occupation; it is now a theocracy where a man can hire someone for $100 to carry out an “honor killing” against his wife or daughter.
Taylor said that people in the U.S. must put forth the message that, “We refuse to choose between Islamic fundamentalism and U.S. imperialism. They are both nightmares. Humanity needs another way, and you out here today are part of bringing forward another way.”
Taylor argued that truly bringing a permanent stop to crimes against humanity required bringing into being a radically different system.
“Most fundamentally, humanity needs revolution. Humanity needs communism,” Taylor said. “We need a whole different world. We don’t need just a new flavor and a new face on empire. This country, America, was founded on slavery and the genocide of Native Americans. It has committed more than 100 foreign invasions throughout its history, CIA-backed coups, and other occupations. It has cost us a million lives in Iraq—today there are 740,000 widows in Iraq. This system is committing crimes on a monstrous scale, and we owe it to humanity to get to the bottom of what kind of system this is, and what kind of change is truly possible.”
Many of those who took part in the March 19 action were high-school students who walked out of classes. A 17-year-old girl who attends Stuyvesant High School said that she and other students there had only made the decision to walk out a couple of days earlier; she said she previously knew a few people who had been involved with World Can’t Wait, but that generally the process by which the students decided to walk out was “pretty spontaneous.”
“The bottom line is people are dying, and more troops are being sent in,” the student said. “There’s more people being killed. As the student body, we don’t support it and accept it.”
The student said that one teacher at her school had been spreading the message—possibly to the school’s principal—that the students were simply looking for an excuse to cut school. She added that she wasn’t sure what consequences, if any, Stuyvesant students would suffer for leaving school. But she said that, exactly because many people view students walking out as unacceptable, it sends a very strong message when students go ahead and do it anyway.
Thaddius, the Humanities Prep student, said that Obama sending 17,000 additional troops to Afghanistan was one of the biggest factors motivating him to participate in the walkout and march. He said his teachers had reacted favorably to his decision.
“I told my teachers I was going on a walkout to protest, and they were completely fine with it,” Thaddius said. “One of them completely agreed with me.”
Thaddius said walking out was not a tough decision. “Once I saw what the cause was,” he said, “I didn’t see any reason why I wouldn’t come out.”
After the rally concluded, demonstrators set off on a march down 14th Street, west towards 8th Avenue. Several people, including some of the high-school students, responded to the call from organizers to join a contingent of “detainees” dressed in orange jumpsuits and black hoods, representing the many people who have been rounded up, indefinitely detained, and tortured by our government. These detainees marched in a line with large chains running between them.
Eight others participated in a “march of the dead,” dressed in all black with the exception of white masks. These mourners marched silently, with the names and ages of dead civilians and the dates they died displayed on their chests: “Sadia Bibi, Age 10, From Afghanistan. 01/12/06.” “Hussein Nawaz, Age 5, From Afghanistan, 1/12/06.”
Another group of protestors carried a giant black shroud through the streets of Manhattan to represent mourning for the millions of innocent civilians massacred during U.S. wars for empire. The protestors carried the shroud to the Times Square Military recruiting center in order to bring this symbol of death and destruction to the literal doorstep of those responsible for it.
As the procession left Union Square, the marchers chanted “Stop the Torture! Stop the War! This is What We’re Marching For!” Other chants along the way included: “Out of Afghanistan! Out of Iraq! Out of Palestine! Don’t Come Back!” and “Six Years! Say No More! It’s Up to Us to Stop the War!”
The march was followed by a large and uninvited police escort. As protestors arrived at Humanities Prep to join up with more high school youth, chanting, “What are they recruiting for? Murder, rape, torture, war!” many students were watching on the opposite side of the street ,weighing whether to join in; several of them did. The march stopped again at Lab High School, also in Chelsea, to pick up more students.
Bystanders – the Passive Audience We Must Activate
One of the most interesting elements of the March 19 action was the reaction of New Yorkers on the street who watched the march pass by. Conversations with several of them suggested that, while political disorientation and demoralization may be prevalent—and the Obama Kool Aid potent —popular sentiment against the wars, torture, and other crimes of this government remains very pervasive in society. Several people World Can’t Wait spoke to along the march route expressed being appreciative of, and inspired by, the march.
“It’s too bad. The people are dying, dying, dying,” said a 55-year-old Latino man as he watched the procession go by. Asked what he thought of the protest itself, he replied, “That’s what we have to do.” He commented that he hoped the action would receive coverage in the major media. (It did: the New York Times had rather extensive coverage on its Web site.)
As he looked at the World Can’t Wait flyer for March 19, which depicted a hooded detainee, the man pointed to the image and said, “You see this? It’s horrible.”
Further along the march, in front of Flannery’s Bar at 14th Street and 7th Avenue, a 36-year-old woman who was born and raised in the Dominican Republic said she was particularly moved by the sight of youth taking part in the march.
“Right now, when I saw those young people doing something like that,” she said, “I just wanted
to cry. They show me that they’re thinking about others.”
She went on to say that she was in “complete agreement” with the call to stop the wars.
“It’s Gonna Turn a Couple of Heads”
Further north, in Chelsea, Gloria, a 62-year-old woman, stood on the sidewalk with her 9-year-old grandson watching the march of the dead, pointing to the procession as she explained its meaning to him.
“It’s a sad situation,” the woman said. “Children are getting killed. Soldiers are getting killed. For what?”
A moment later, she added, “We gotta put more effort to stop this war, to stop these soldiers from going there.”
“I don’t think it felt good,” her grandson said, when asked his reaction to seeing the names of murdered children roughly the same age as himself. “I saw some signs that had the ages that were really young.”
As the march neared the recruiting center, Noble—an African-American man in a wheelchair—exclaimed, “Fight the Power! Always Fight the Power!”
“I think stopping the war’s a good idea,” Noble said. “My personal perspective—I’m not no politician, but from my standpoint, the United States government just wants to keep troops out there to police Iraq.”
Asked why he had been moved to yell out, “Fight the Power,” he responded: “ ’Cause that’s exactly what needs to be done—you gotta fight the powers that be!”
Accompanying Noble, a woman in her 30s visiting from Canada was unequivocally enthusiastic about the protest.
“I’m in total support of this march, and it’s great to see it,” she said. “The whole city should be marching. The whole country should be marching. All of North America should be marching. The crimes that have been committed are unforgivable.”
The woman added that the small size of the march did not diminish its importance. “It was a fairly short one, but it’s still significant,” she said. “If there were several of these in different parts of the city, I think it would have as much impact as one huge one.”
The march even commanded the attention of those who opposed—or were lukewarm about—its message. A 19-year-old white woman on the corner of 21st Street and 8th Avenue stood and watched from the opposite end of the street.
“This is terrifying,” she said, referring in particular to the march of the dead. “That’s really freaking me out.”
She asked what the purpose of the black attire and white masks was, and when she was told that it was to symbolize the civilians murdered in U.S. wars for empire, the woman replied, “Wow. If that’s what they believe in, they’re definitely drawing attention.”
However, the woman went on to say that she believed civilian deaths in these wars was the fault of terrorists who used them as shields.
“America, I’m sure, doesn’t want to be killing civilians,” the woman said.
Meanwhile, in front of Humanities Prep, an 18-year-old student was hanging out in a park when he saw the orange jumpsuit contingent and moved to the street to get a closer look; at first, he said, he thought the “detainees” were actual prisoners.
The student said that while he was against the war, he did not consider himself a “political person” and didn’t feel the war directly impacted him.
“None of my family members are in it, so I don’t care that much,” the student said.
Still, he described the protest as captivating. “I don’t know if it’s gonna make any moves, but it sure moved me,” he said. “It’s gonna turn a couple of heads.”
Contradictions That Must be Transformed
Both among the bystanders and the protestors themselves, there were definite contradictions in terms of how people were seeing the current political terrain. Not surprisingly, this was most evident when it came to the question of how people viewed Obama. Several people who spoke very passionately about the immorality of U.S. wars for empire and the righteousness of resisting them were nonetheless failing to confront Obama’s role as commander in chief of these same wars.
Thaddius, the 16-year-old Humanities student who lamented that people are accepting things under Obama that they would not accept under Bush, also said he had a high opinion of the new president.
“I still feel really good about Obama,” he said, adding that he thought it was the responsibility of the people to remind Obama of the need for change, so that he didn’t lose sight of the people’s will.
The 36-year-old woman in front of Flannery’s Bar said she was willing to give Obama a year to implement change; if, after that point, nothing has changed, she will declare him to be “just another politician.”
Gloria, the woman watching the march of the dead with her grandson, was also still holding out hope. “I pray that he’s gonna make a difference,” she said, “and bring these soldiers back home.”
The idea of anyone looking to George W. Bush to end wars at the same time as he was escalating them is so difficult to picture that it conjures laughter. And yet, many people in this society are still, in essence, hoping that when Obama talks about escalating wars in Afghanistan or Pakistan and continuing the occupation of Iraq, he is actually just joking.
“I Woke Up Again”
On the other hand, a conversation during the Union Square rally with Elise, a 24-year-old white woman, showed the potential for these sorts of illusions to be overcome when they run up against reality pointing sharply in the other direction.
Elise said she had attended a huge anti-war protest in London on February 15, 2003.
But then, after the Iraq War started, “I just kept working and stopped paying as much attention,” Elise said.
In fact, she said, her attention had been focused on responsibilities such as paying rent and bills. “I got lazy as well,” she admitted.
On election night, Elise was excited about the nation’s first Black president, and hopeful that Obama would stay true to his campaign slogan of “change.”
“I got swept up in it,” she said. “I fell for the change thing. It was really empowering to see people come together, and now you see that he’s not delivering anything.”
One of the first developments that caused Elise to become disillusioned in a major way is when Obama announced he was sending 17,000 more troops to Afghanistan.
Soon, she was online researching the history of other U.S. wars, discovering in the process that this country has a long history of going to war on fabricated pretexts.
“There’s so much information,” Elise said, “that we don’t know.”
Now, Elise said that she struggles with people who are enthusiastic about Obama to thoroughly research Obama and his cabinet members, and their histories.
Elise described feeling newly empowered. “It seems sometimes that it’s such a huge battle that I’m not going to be able to do anything on my own,” she said. “I woke up again.”
The Minority is Right…But We Don’t Want to Remain a Minority!
The 50 to 100 people who marched through the streets of New York on March 19 are to be commended; what they did was right and just, and it made a difference, even if—in the immediate—it was on a much smaller scale than what is needed.
Of course, our goal is not simply to be right. It is to be part of radically changing the world.
So now, the question becomes: How do we wake up the many other Elises around the country and the world?
How do we move people all over the country like the woman in front of Flannery’s bar—not just to tears, but to action?
How do we connect with the Nobles of this world, inspiring them to not merely exclaim “fight the power!” but also become an active part of a movement that is waging this fight?
How do we mobilize youth like Thaddius, for whom there is “no reason” not to sacrifice a day of school in order to resist crimes against humanity?
It is highly unlikely that there is one simple, magical answer to these questions. But it is important, as a starting point, to recognize that these are questions anyone desperate for a world free of wars, torture, repression, and oppression must constantly be asking ourselves and posing sharply to others.
And the more that we are out there, as we were on March 19th, boldly and unapologetically speaking the truth—that crimes against humanity are continuing in our name, that it is the Obama administration that is now carrying out these crimes, and that these crimes are no more acceptable under Obama than they were under Bush—the closer we will get to answering these questions.
We must act in a way that demonstrates moral clarity, thereby spreading that clarity to others. We must inspire people to move from saying “resistance is needed ”—in an abstract sense—to proclaiming “I will resist”—in a concrete sense.
In that light, it seems fitting to close with a challenge that Sunsara Taylor issued to the crowd in Union Square:
“When anybody tells you that protest doesn’t make a difference, you tell them sitting on your ass for six years sure didn’t make a difference. Voting for Obama sure didn’t make a difference… Step out into the streets, and go back and challenge everyone you know that this is the only way that history has ever changed. It always starts with a handful. It always starts with a minority. Then you go back, you challenge your friends, you challenge your teachers, you challenge your parents, and you get them out in the streets with us. You hook them up with the World Can’t Wait movement. Another world is possible. But it’s our responsibility. It’s only through struggle that we can make it real.”
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