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Protesters in Bay Area Mark War Milestone

About 400 demonstrators rally in San Francisco and Oakland on the first anniversary of the invasion of Iraq.

March 20, 2004|Lee Romney and Bob Hollis | Special to The Times

SAN FRANCISCO — In a prelude to today's nationwide antiwar rallies, small groups of protesters gathered here and in Oakland on Friday, the first anniversary of the bombing of Iraq, to commemorate the dead and decry the profits Bechtel Corp. has earned in reconstruction contracts.

Half a dozen protesters were arrested Friday morning for blocking the entrance to Bechtel's corporate headquarters in the heart of San Francisco's financial district -- which was paralyzed last year when thousands took to the streets in protest as the first bombs fell on Baghdad.

About 13 others were also cited and released Friday as they broke off from the San Francisco protest to occupy an abandoned building in a statement on housing inequities. But the events -- which attracted no more than 400 people on both sides of the Bay -- were otherwise peaceful.

They marked a workday dress rehearsal for today's marches, which are expected to draw larger crowds in cities across the country. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union announced Friday that its members will take today off at all Bay Area ports, Oregon ports and two Washington ports. The union's contract with the Pacific Maritime Assn. provides for one "stop work day" a month for members to meet. The union arranged to switch its customary meeting day to today so members could attend antiwar marches, said Jack Heyman, Local 10 business manager.

Heyman said Southern California ports will not be affected.

Port of Oakland spokeswoman Marilyn Sandifur said that port is accustomed to the monthly stoppages and is "not anticipating any significant impact."

San Francisco police and prosecutors had prepared for Friday's events for days, concerned about a large turnout. Some downtown companies even told their employees to take the day off or work elsewhere. Dozens of police in riot gear guided office workers into Bechtel's offices.

Some who congregated at San Francisco's 7 a.m. protest Friday wore pink tutus. Some beat drums. Many vowed to risk arrest to condemn what they described as "war profiteering" by Bechtel, which has received about $3 billion in government contracts for Iraq reconstruction. The protesters say the company has profited by its close ties to the Bush administration and that it hasn't notably improved conditions in Iraq.

But others -- grandmothers, teachers, ministers and veterans -- said they felt compelled to voice their opposition to a war they believe is draining resources from education and healthcare in the United States while exacting an undue toll on Iraqi civilians and young soldiers.

"I think the war is wrong and immoral and should be stopped now, and the administration of Iraq should be turned over" to the United Nations, said Kristine Anstine, 37, of Berkeley, who is expecting her first child next week."I'd really rather be somewhere with my feet up," she said. "But the war's not going to go away and I don't think even [presumptive Democratic nominee John] Kerry and the Democrats will respond unless we get out into the streets."

Protesters toted banners and signs that read "Corporate Hands Off Iraq," "Health Care, not Warfare" and "Shut Down the War Profiteers," among others.

Half a dozen protesters were quickly taken into custody as they blocked the pathway, said San Francisco police spokeswoman Maria Oropeza. But unlike a year ago, when thousands of financial district employees were blocked from their offices, there was only a brief disruption to the workday Friday. "I'm all for allowing people to demonstrate, but they shouldn't block other people from doing their jobs," said Leah Nanni, a 47-year-old Blue Shield marketing director, as she waited for police to allow entry into her workplace.

Bechtel spokesman Jonathan Marshall said he made note of an "Education, not Occupation" banner and thought "they've got the wrong target.

"I found the message as stale as the tactics," he said. "I think deep down, even the protesters would have to favor the kind of work we're doing in Iraq. We're reopening ports and bridges so humanitarian relief supplies can get in, restoring power and water treatment facilities so people can lead healthier and more productive lives, and we refurbished more than 1,200 schools so a million children could get to classes last fall."Across the bay, in Oakland, a more sedate demonstration played out in front of the federal building as organizers poured 10,500 tiny BBs into a stainless steel bowl. Each pellet, they said, represented a life lost: More than 500 American dead and, they contend, 10,000 Iraqis. Organizers with the Western States Legal Foundation and a long list of religious organizations also read the names of the dead aloud.

"We're here to draw attention to the human cost of the war -- the death and injury of people, not only Americans but especially the Iraqis," said Western States Executive Director Jacqueline Cabasso.

Liam Curry of San Mateo was moved to tears. A former Navy submariner stationed in San Diego, Curry said he is proud of military personnel. But his sign accused Bush of lying and noted that not a single weapon of mass destruction has been found.

"Our responsibility is to remember the people who have come back dead, and also the living," he said. "If we can stop one more person dying, then it's worth it."

The group later marched to Alameda County Superior Court, where an afternoon hearing was scheduled to set a court date in the misdemeanor prosecution of 25 protesters arrested last April in an action that shut down the Port of Oakland. Police that day fired rubber bullets, wooden dowels and other projectiles into the crowd. Protesters and longshoremen who allege that they were injured in the incident have filed a lawsuit against the city of Oakland.

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