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THE NATION

Antiwar Activists Join Forces

Tens of thousands rally in Washington, San Francisco and elsewhere against policy on Iraq.

January 19, 2003|David Willman and Charles Piller | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON -- Tens of thousands of protesters gathered peacefully Saturday in bitterly cold weather here to denounce President Bush's preparations for a war against Iraq. The demonstrations were replicated in San Francisco and on a smaller scale across the nation and in Europe, the Middle East and Asia in what antiwar activists hoped would mark a turning point in rallying public opinion against a possible war.

The coordinated protests came as the Bush administration continued a military buildup in the Persian Gulf and expressed confidence it can make a "persuasive" case by the end of January that Saddam Hussein is not cooperating with United Nations weapon inspections.

The largest turnout was in Washington, where the rally and march attracted a wide spectrum of demonstrators, from sign-toting grandmothers to college students to gay activists to parents with babies in strollers. Organizers estimated that more than 200,000 people converged on the Mall. Authorities would not confirm that number but said the crowds were larger than last fall's antiwar protest here.

Regardless of the exact numbers, the scale and the passion -- given the 20-degree conditions -- evoked strong emotions and memories of the anti-Vietnam War movement.

Many of the demonstrators and most of the speakers -- including the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, Vietnam War veteran Ron Kovic and former U.S. Atty. Gen. Ramsey Clark -- were united in questioning Bush's motives for threatening a new war. "This is a great day for America," said Kovic, who was carried to the open-air stage. "I lost three-fourths of my body [in Vietnam]. You will find strength. You were born to take this country back! ... No blood for oil."

One major difference between political conditions now and in the 1960s is the effect of Sept. 11, a factor that many of the speakers alluded to, if indirectly.

Sharpton, who plans to file papers Tuesday declaring his candidacy for the Democratic Party's nomination for president, criticized Bush for negotiating with a nuclear North Korea while readying for war with an Iraq that remains open to U.N. inspections.

He asked, "Are we talking about weapons of mass destruction? Or are we talking about a political game of mass distraction?"

Jackson, who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1984 and 1988, said protesters represented "many more people at home" who are unpersuaded by Bush's stated basis for threatening war.

"Most Americans are not convinced that this is about our security, but [that it is] about our politics, and about hegemony, about the oil, about defense contracts," Jackson said in a brief interview.

One of the day's loudest crowd reactions came when a figure from the Vietnam era, former Atty. Gen. Clark, called for articles of impeachment to be brought against Bush. The president was at Camp David for the weekend.

"Let's impeach him!" shouted the 75-year-old Clark, who served under President Lyndon B. Johnson and who more recently has represented a string of high-profile criminal defendants. Afterward, Clark said "the evidence is there" for articles of impeachment but that he would not "prejudge" whether it merited Bush's conviction by the Senate and removal from office.

The San Francisco crowd rivaled the Washington showing, with throngs of noisy but peaceful protesters converging on the Civic Center. Police estimated the crowd size at more than 40,000, but Richard Becker, a march organizer with Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, said the number was closer to 200,000.

Becker attributed the turnout to "a growing disenchantment with the Bush administration [and] an urgent situation, because Jan. 27 could be a deadline for war."

A preliminary report by U.N. arms inspectors in Iraq is due on that date.

Donna Sheehan, who organized a recent photo of Marin County women spelling out the word "peace" with their naked bodies, brought a more modest protest. Her group dressed in black plastic and black-fabric hoods in mourning for victims of war.

Environmentalists conducted a separate march of an estimated 5,000 people, with 100 electric and hybrid vehicles, to underscore the view that any war on Iraq would be a play for control over Middle East oil. Marc Scruggs, a retired property manager, said he hoped the demonstrations would help "push all the alternatives to get us off the big oil addiction we have."

Scruggs said he became an activist after seeing the horrors of war firsthand as a soldier in Vietnam. "It's extremely important for the people who believe that war is wrong to see how many other people are prepared to come out and say it," he said.

In Washington, Academy Award-winning actress Jessica Lange argued that the administration is planning "an immoral war," adding: "What I'm saying to you, Mr. Bush, is we don't want these sins visited upon the heads of our children."

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