January 2003: We said ‘NO!’

War was coming, and on Saturday the 18th an antiwar rally was going to be held in San Francisco. I hadn’t marched in a demonstration for thirty years, and I felt that my marching days were over, that I’d done my part—and for what? Things were worse now than ever before, and we seemed to be sliding into an Orwellian world of 1984, under a man who’d stolen the presidency.

Leave me out of this one. Couldn’t I just stay home today? No, I’d better go. I felt a moral responsibility to participate, and I didn’t have any excuse not to, especially since I lived just across the bay, in Oakland.

Somewhat reluctantly, I took a bus to the BART station, where I got on the train and found there was standing room only. Why was it so crowded? On Saturdays the trains normally ran almost empty. But on glancing around, I saw that many riders were carrying placards or had antiwar slogans written on their shirts. Practically everybody was going to the demonstration! That’s when I began to get some idea of how large this event was going to be, and for the first time in my life, I was glad to be standing.

This ride was turning out to be an experience in itself. A trainload of people—and this was probably only one of many trainloads on this day—all going to the same place for the same purpose. It was one of those mass events that you only read about in the newspaper—the huge gathering which the whole countryside flocks to. Like Woodstock back in 1969. It doesn’t happen often. In this age of TV, videos and other home entertainment, we don’t often seem to participate in real events.

A group of teenagers had a flag with a peace sign which they were passing around and signing, apparently as a memento for one of them. They also invited me to put my name and a few words on it; so I wrote: Daniel Borgström—Ex Marine against the war.

They asked me when I was in the Marine Corps, and I told them it’d been shortly before the war in Vietnam, and that later I’d taken part in the antiwar movement of that era.

The train goes through a tunnel under the bay, and on reaching San Francisco the first station is at the Embarcadero. That’s where people would be assembling for the march which would go up Market Street to the Civic Center, but the train didn’t make its usual stop at the Embarcadero—it was announced over the intercom that the station was already flooded with more people than it could handle from previous trains. So our train let us off at the next station, Montgomery, and I emerged from the subway onto Market Street to find myself in the midst of an incredibly huge mass of people. The march was already moving—they must’ve had to begin early because the starting place didn’t have room for so many demonstrators.

Market is one of the broadest streets in San Francisco, and it was filled from curb to curb with marchers. The sidewalks were packed as well with people carrying placards and waving banners. For a while I stood there gaping, overwhelmed by it all. Awesome! There didn’t seem to be either a beginning or an end to this sea of humanity.

Peace signs were everywhere—imagery of the ‘60’s, and the old antiwar songs were being sung: How many roads must a man walk down, Give peace a chance, and We shall overcome. There were also new songs that I hadn’t heard before. While some were singing, others were cheering, shouting or beating drums and other portable percussion instruments. It was an incredible cacophony of sound that was somehow marvelous.

All around were banners, flags and picket signs with slogans. "No blood for oil!" read some. Many were made in print shops, and others were hand lettered with comments like:

"If war is the answer, you’re asking the wrong question"

"How did our oil get under their sand?"

Finally I squeezed in and joined the procession, continuing to read the signs and banners around me. War was the central issue, but certainly not the only one. Many signs reflected on our endangered civil liberties, the Enron scandal, star wars, and the environment. Some slogans combined themes. "Go solar—not ballistic," read several placards, and many expressed anger directly at the man who’d dishonestly taken the presidency, represented corrupt corporations, and told us to exchange our traditional American freedoms for dubious safety. Some placards bit him with his own words:

"Axis of evil—Bush, Cheney & Ashcroft"

"Regime change begins at home"

I was seeing with my own eyes and hearing with my own ears that I was not alone in my wish to get rid of Bush, his wars and his corruption. This was a massive sharing of values, an expression of hope for the future, and it begin by renouncing the unelected president and all his works and all his ways.

Some groups carried banners of labor unions or other organizations. "Musicians for peace" read a banner being carried in front of a band which was playing a lively tune. Other signs or banners indicated that the bearers came from distant places. One group was from Alaska.

I conversed with people around me. One fellow, a retired postal worker whose name was Jeff, remembered the peace demonstrations of the Vietnam era. We exchanged experiences of those days and recalled that back in the 1960’s it had taken half a decade to build antiwar marches of this size. But this movement of 2003 had suddenly appeared, as if it had been quietly germinating for three decades like seeds in the ground, waiting to spring back to life. The idealism and the caring about what happens to our world—supposedly lost values—were suddenly back among us.

There were many middle-aged and elderly people like ourselves who must’ve remembered those days, but most marchers were much younger and many were teen-agers. Another generation was being introduced to the cause.

The Civic Center was only a mile away, but it took three hours to get there. It was a vast, slow-moving and wonderfully immense foot-traffic jam—one I was glad to be in, and it didn’t seem like three hours, although my watch indicated that it took that long.

When we finally reached the Civic Center, the plaza was already so full of people that there wasn’t room for more of us, but huge numbers were still pouring into the streets around it. I squeezed my way through to the center of the plaza and saw for myself how packed it really was. The plaza covers an area of two full city blocks. How many people does it take to fill it to overflowing like this?

(The size of the gathering was debated during the days that followed. Police initially estimated 55,000, then later revised it to 150,000. I think that number was also low; 200,000 was the estimate I found most believable, though some said it was twice even that.)

A rally was going on here; it had probably begun as soon as the first marchers arrived. Speakers took turns with singers, then more speakers. Huge sound amplifiers carried their voices out across the plaza and into the surrounding streets. Among the speakers was Congresswoman Barbara Lee, who, a year and a half earlier, had been the only one out of 421 members of Congress to stand up to Bush and say ‘No!’ when he demanded a blank check to wage war.

"It’s not too late for the administration to heed our call," said Barbara Lee. "It takes leadership to resolve conflicts peacefully. It does not take leadership to drop bombs."

Actor Martin Sheen, who plays the role of a US president in the TV series West Wing, also spoke, as did several labor leaders, including one from the longshoremen’s union, the ILWU. One of the singers was Joan Baez, who had often sung at antiwar events back in the Vietnam era. Another who sang was Bonnie Raitt.

The people in the central part of the plaza were listening to the speakers, chatting among themselves, or just taking in the atmosphere. Others, along the periphery, gathered in groups around musicians and danced. There were also dozens of literature tables, set up and manned by a wide spectrum of organizations, both secular and religious. A plethora of Socialist groups was there, representing many ways that Marx can be interpreted. There were also anarchist groups, environmental groups, civil rights groups, grassroots neighborhood advocate groups, as well as Buddhists, Muslims and Christians. In short, there were a lot of people getting together in various ways and organizing to continue the struggle beyond this day and into the future.

Sometimes there were chants and cheers, and there were also humorous incidents. At one point, between speeches, it was announced that some fellow had "lost his wife." Would the lost woman—they said her name—please come to the speaker’s stand where her husband was waiting for her?

Being there made me feel young again, and I went home that evening tremendously uplifted by the experience and by news of similar rallies elsewhere. On this same day there’d been demonstrations in cities around the country, as well as around the world. In Washington D.C. alone, 500,000 people had marched. Some of this had been announced at the rally, and more was reported later on news programs. One thing was very clear—our rally was part of a major international peace movement.

The mainstream media gave unexpectedly good coverage to the event. The San Francisco Chronicle had banner headlines reading: "Huge protests for peace." Under it was a magnificent color photo, and inside the paper more than two full pages were devoted to stories covering the event. The Oakland Tribune also had favorable articles. Both dailies gave the antiwar movement more coverage during the days that followed.

Up till this time the media had been terribly pro-Bush. Despite the crookedness of the 2000 election which put him in power, the newspapers and the TV had deferred to him as if he were the legitimate president, and, after the 9/11 terrorist attack, they’d presented him to us as though he were our country’s savior.

So it was a pleasant surprise to find that we were getting this kind of sympathetic reportage. But I’d learned long ago not to trust the media; I just wondered how long their favorable coverage of the antiwar movement would last.

There were of course several progressive journals which had never bought into the lies of the Bush regime. On the national level there were The Nation, The Progressive, Z Magazine and others, while a local weekly newspaper, The San Francisco Bay Guardian reported on Bay Area events.

Meanwhile, discussions seemed to be going on everywhere around me, even among people I met in cafés, in stores and on trolley cars. Nearly everyone was anti-Bush, and what amazed me most was that this was in spite of months and years of pro-Bush propaganda by the media. The media had been telling us one thing for over a year, ever since 9/11—that Bush was the defender of the American people, but now people were thinking along different lines.

"He stole the presidency." "We did not elect him." "He was appointed by the Supreme Court." —these were the things people were saying. It was like a massive, outpouring of pent-up ongoing ritual rejection of everything we’d been hearing on the TV for over a year now.

The titles appearing in bookstores—the independent bookstores at least—were reflecting a shift in thoughts and suspicions. Following 9/11, numerous books on the Middle East, foreign policy and domestic politics had been appearing in print. Many of the first titles to appear had generally been supportive of the Bush regime. Those that followed were somewhat critical, such as Lessons of Terror by Caleb Carr. Now I begin to notice an increasing numbers of books by Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn , Gore Vidal, Molly Ivins and Michael Parenti. Many of these were older authors who’d been around for decades; their latest books were out and their older writings were being republished in new editions. Others were new names on the scene. They didn’t just criticize the war as though it were an aberration, they went to the causes of the war and the corrupt system behind it, as well as the evils that came with it. Some studied the corporate media which control most of the news we get, others and others looked at the regime’s attack on our civil liberties. Some looked at the corporations.

One title was Selling Out: How Big Corporate Money Buys Elections, Rams Through Legislation and Betrays Our Democracy by Mark Green. Another, which came out later in the spring was Pigs at the Trough, by Arianna Huffington.

Books like these were being read and discussed by people around me. It was like some American renaissance. There seemed to be a widespread, common desire to examine every aspect of the system, root out the evil, and find some way to get our country back on track.

The following month another round of mass rallies was to be held throughout the world on the weekend of February 15th and 16th. Those in California would be on the 16th. That was a Sunday, so normally there wouldn’t be much in the way of public transportation. But BART announced that it would run all its trains as on a weekday, and even posted notices saying: "To avoid long lines at Ticket Vending Machines we are urging customers to purchase tickets prior to this weekend."

Usually the authorities aren’t very supportive of protest activities. Some people said BART wasn’t doing it to be supportive, that they were doing it to make money on a day when there’d be a lot of passengers. Maybe so, but it still amazed me. I’d taken a couple of BART leaflets home and saved them as mementos.

Even the media were announcing the local event; on the TV news they showed maps of where the march was going to be held. Where to go and how to get there. As in January, the march was to assemble near the Ferry Building at the north end of Market Street and then march to the Civic Center Plaza.

But not everything the media had to say about our demonstration was encouraging. Homeland Security had announced a terrorism alert for the weekend and warned that the next day’s antiwar rally could be a target for the terrorists. Of course by this time there’d been numerous terrorism alerts, all of them unfounded, and this one looked like yet another case of the boy who called "Wolf!"

Well, I thought to myself, count on the Bush regime to use terrorism for all it’s worth in every way they can.

Bad weather was also forecast for the following day, which in contrast to the terrorist warning, sounded credible. It did in fact rain quite heavily that night. But morning came and the skies cleared. The sun was out as I headed to the BART station..

As in January, there were trainloads of people going to the big event from all over the Bay Area, and once again the train ride itself was part of the experience. There was a sense of community and common purpose; people were exchanging comments, thoughts and news. A woman sitting next to me was carrying a picket sign. We began a brief conversation.

"Did you hear about what happened yesterday in New York?" she said with an enthusiastic smile.

"No. What happened?" I asked. I could guess from the tone of her voice that it must’ve been something pretty good.

"The police tried to prevent an antiwar march, but the number of people who showed up was so huge that the police lines couldn’t contain them, so they marched anyway."

When the powers-that-be try to prevent a protest event from taking place, and then fail to do so, it always becomes a triumph, and a source of encouragement for the rest of us.

It was about a thirty minute ride to San Francisco, and this time I’d gotten a seat, not because there were fewer people, but because there were more cars in the train. BART was better prepared this time, and I was able to get off at the Embarcadero which was the starting place. As the marchers were assembling, people of various antiwar groups had set up tables where they were selling literature, buttons and T-shirts. I bought a bumper sticker which read: "If I support an unelected president, then the terrorists have won." I wore it across my backpack.

Along the march I spoke with people around me. One young fellow and his wife had placards of Bart Simpson, saying "No war." They’d made these on their computer, they told me. This was the first time they’d been in a peace march, and they asked me how it compared with those of the Vietnam Era. I told them it was the same in many ways, the same songs, etc. But I also saw some important differences; back in the 1960’s there was an element of youth rebelling against an older generation—which didn’t seem to be happening this time around. Young people in this march seemed to be taking up the values of previous generations and were defending the traditional liberties that Bush and Ashcroft have been working to destroy.

Another distinct difference was the leadership of the nation being targeted as the enemy. Back during the Vietnam Era, many Americans admired Ho Chi Minh and considered him the legitimate leader of the Vietnamese people. In today’s antiwar movement, nobody liked Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden. Nevertheless, sympathy and support were expressed for Arabs and other Islamic people who were simply caught in the middle of all this. "The Children of Iraq are not the enemy," read many signs. Others compared Hussein to Bush: "Two unelected presidents," read one sign with pictures of Bush and Hussein side by side.

"No blood for oil," was about the most common placard sign in this rally as well as the previous one. Others denounced "Bush the warmonger," the attack on our civil liberties, and abuse of the environment. Many were pre-printed, but there were also a lot of handwritten ones and some were especially creative. When I saw ones I really liked, I complemented the persons who carried them. Some of my favorites were:

"A village in Texas has lost its idiot."

"Bush is the jackass of evil"

"Help! My president is a thug and a terrorist."

"Stop mad cowboy disease."

"Sometimes the French are right."—a reference to the French refusal to go along with Bush and Powell in the UN. Other signs said good things about "Old Europe" which was reluctant to go along with the war.

"Vive la France," read some, and one said: "Drink French wine." Among the banners was the French Tricolor.

Duct tape was also a theme of many signs. That came about as a parody of a terrorist warning that the FBI had issued a few days prior, in which everybody was advised to have duct tape on hand for emergency use. One placard had a picture of Bush with duct tape over his mouth.

Corporate corruption was denounced in signs like, "Enron—the crooked E"

And so, once again, Market Street was packed, and the Civic Center Plaza was overflowing. And, as before, this was part of a world-wide phenomenon; during this same weekend, some ten million people marched in other cities of the US and around the world, from México City to Tokyo to Paris to Madrid. Practically every city with a plaza had a rally.

The next day I went through the newspapers to see how they’d reported our rally. As in January, the coverage was good. I was especially impressed by a front-page photo in the Oakland Tribune, showing a mile long stretch of Market Street packed with people all the way back to the Ferry Building.

But even more importing to me was to see what the New York Times reported on the demonstration in New York. I wanted conformation of what I’d heard about the banned march having taken place anyway. Two and a half pages were devoted to the protests of that day, not only in New York, but around the world. Most of the coverage was favorable to the demonstrators.

But I had to search through a large mass of print to find what I was looking for. Finally, on page 17, near the end of a lengthy article, there was this revealing 46-word description:

Walking cross-town to the rally, tens of thousands of would-be protesters encountered a maze of barricades and a huge police presence blocking their way. Banging drums, chanting "Whose streets? Our streets," the surging crowds spilled off sidewalks onto jammed streets and avenues on the East side.

And a little later in the article:

Under a federal court order, the demonstrators in New York were prohibited from staging a march, which city officials had said might be dangerous to the protesters…

…5,000 officers were involved.

…one of the most intense national security alerts since the attacks of 9/11.

So, using the pretext of protecting people from terrorism, the authorities had attempted to deny protesters their First Amendment right of free speech. Fortunately they had failed and the demonstrations had marched anyway. That was the gist of what had happened in New York that Saturday, but if I hadn’t looked for those brief paragraphs, I might’ve been led to believe that the march hadn’t been banned at all.

Later, I came across Starhawk’s account of that day in new York

The denial of the march was only one feature in a campaign of harassment, that included the circulation of a rumor on the day before the rally that the event had been cancelled, a Code Orange terrorist alert that stationed military guards in the subways armed with automatic rifles, the denial of permission to rent portable toilets for the masses expected at the rally, the mysterious rerouting of subways and busses on the morning of the rally, the cut-off of the phones in the United for Peace and Justice office during the rally, and a repressive, heavy-handed and sometimes brutal police presence that penned the official rally behind barricades and prevented thousands from even getting there.

But very little that was recorded in the New York Times. The irony was that nearly all of the lengthy coverage that the NY Times gave to the protests of that day was favorable. They gave huge amounts of detail about the demonstration, but buried and abbreviated the story of how it took place despite the ban.

"Do you think Bush will listen?" someone had said to me at the San Francisco rally. And I said, "No, he won’t. But the rest of the world will."

The rest of the world did indeed seem to be listening. For some months now a major part of the struggle had been focused on the U.N. Security Council, where Bush was trying to get authorization for his war which would otherwise be illegal, but the French were strongly opposing his plans. The Germans and the Russians were also joining the opposition, as were numerous smaller countries.

What little international support Bush still had for his war was waning. Bush seemed to be isolating himself, both abroad and here in the U.S. By early February, 66 cities, towns, villages and counties as well as two state legislatures (Maine and Hawaii) had passed antiwar resolutions. This number eventually grew to 150 and included large cities across the country, from Philadelphia in the east to San Francisco and Oakland in the west. All of this interacted with and was encouraged by the demonstrations which had gone on world wide as well as here in the Bay Area.

Bush’s war project had stirred up a huge amount of opposition that would’ve seemed unthinkable in the days and weeks following 9/11. For about a year at least, Bush and his evil ones had very successfully presented themselves as our saviors while stealing our liberties.

Even now the media, including the PBS NewsHour, continued to give uncritical presentations of the Bush regime and their case for the war on Iraq. But all around me people were rejecting it and calling it a fairytale world of make-believe—"The Emperor’s new clothes," it had been called at the rally. "Bush is naked!"

So what was going to happen now? I wondered. War, possibly followed by martial law? Or could the Bush regime somehow be brought to a halt? Everything seemed to be hanging in the balance.

Daniel Borgström
Spring of 2003