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200,000 in S.F. Protest War Buildup

Demonstrators fill the financial district in the city's delayed participation in Saturday's widespread antiwar event.

February 17, 2003|Joseph Menn and Rone Tempest | Times Staff Writers

In what may be the largest U.S. protest against war in Iraq to date, at least 200,000 people massed in San Francisco on Sunday as activists tried to build on the momentum of Saturday's turnouts around the world.

From World War II veterans to mothers nursing their children, the demonstrators filled the broad avenues of the city's financial district as they marched from the waterfront to the plaza across from City Hall.

Police estimated the crowd at 200,000, while organizers put the figure at around 250,000.

Mixed in the crowd were thousands of children, including many toddlers in strollers. More than 50 people were arrested in a secondary demonstration, police said.

Bambi Menes, 46, a doctor with Kaiser Permanente's South San Francisco Medical Center, carried a small sign that said: "Byrd for President." She said she had been moved by the anti-war sentiments of West Virginia Democratic Sen. Robert C. Byrd in a Feb. 13 speech from the floor of the Senate. Byrd, one of the strongest voices in Congress against the war, called on President Bush "to calm his rhetoric, repair our alliances and slow the charge to war."

"I found what he said intelligent, reasoned," said Menes, mother of a 6-year-old daughter. "This is not just about a war with Iraq, it is about starting a war without provocation."

Demonstrators such as Menes seemed to outnumber more hard-core political activists, although there were many of those as well, including chanting representatives of the communist Spartacist League and several militant pro-Palestinian groups, some chanting, "No justice, no peace, U.S. out of the Middle East!"

Also marching were 20 members of the Jewish dissident Tikkun community, which was at the center of some friction earlier in the week when the Berkeley-based Tikkun leader, Rabbi Michael Lerner, angrily claimed that he had been banned from speaking by International Answer, one of the four organizing coalitions. Marisa Handler, 26, national organizer for Tikkun, said the marchers experienced no problems Sunday. "The most important thing is expressing opposition to the war," Handler said.

San Francisco's rally was delayed by a day because of a conflict with Saturday's Chinese New Year's parade.

Organizers of the two events agreed that the antiwar demonstration would be held on Sunday, and some of the New Year's revelers agreed to participate in the peace march.

While the compromise left San Francisco out of sync with the protests in cities around the world Saturday, it gave demonstrators far better weather. The New Year's parade went on in wind-whipped rain, and the sun shone Sunday.

"It's very obvious God wants peace -- it didn't rain on this parade," California Senate President Pro Tem John L. Burton (D-San Francisco) told the crowd. "Our message to the president is very, very simple: Let's give peace a chance."

Other officeholders who spoke included Bay Area congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) and Tom Ammiano, a member of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors.

The Rev. Amos Brown, president of the San Francisco NAACP, drew one of the largest roars, speaking as if he were preaching a Sunday sermon.

"No blood for oil, no war in Iraq," he intoned to cheers. "Let there be peace, and let it be now."

For star power, activists brought out blues singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt, author Alice Walker and co-master of ceremonies Danny Glover, actor in the "Lethal Weapon" films.

"This is a movement for justice and democracy," Glover said during a break backstage. "We're not going to leave it up to unaccountable politicians."

More marchers carried hand-lettered signs than mass-produced placards, and many were very personal.

Fran Johns, 58, bore one that identified her as a "Marine Mom Against the War."

The Chicago advertising executive said she had stopped in San Francisco on her way to a business meeting in Los Angeles to join the protest.

Johns said her son had been working as a recruiter before he was deployed to the Middle East last month on the amphibious transport dock Dubuque. "He's afraid," Johns said. "He doesn't think the military supports the war."

Pat Vaughan, 89, carried a sign reading "World War II Vet -- Four wars is enough." The former Navy quartermaster said he had come to protest because he believes, like many at the rally, that oil is at the root of the conflict.

Surveying the crowd, Vaughan said it was "much, much larger than what we had during Vietnam. I haven't seen anything like this since '34, the general strike."

Homemade signs identified librarians, psychologists and even "mushroom people" against the war: This last was carried by David Rust, 54, president of the Mycological Society of San Francisco, a group of amateur students and gatherers of mushrooms.

A man wearing a suit and tie declared himself to be "Another Straight White Professional Taxpaying Father Against the Illegal War."

Speakers congratulated the participants for joining in the largest wave of protests ever held against a war that hadn't started.

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