Record numbers protest Bush, Iraq war

An estimated 400,000 people marched Aug. 29 against the Bush administration on the eve of the Republican National Convention in New York City. They also expressed strong objections to the war in Iraq.

Five weeks after the Democrats convened in Boston, the mammoth protest in a sauna-like Manhattan heralded a bitter contest between two very different visions of what America should be and its role in the world.

The convention began Monday night with Bush scheduled to appear Thursday to accept his party’s nomination. That will mark the start of the final two months of the campaign before we vote on Nov. 2.

The river of humanity stretched for miles along Manhattan streets, but there was little of the anticipated violence as the march moved past Madison Square Garden, where a small group of Bush backers watched and some responded to the protestors. There were about 200 arrests, mostly for things like blocking roadways and some for assaulting police. More protests and arrests are expected as the convention continues.

City officials estimated the number of protestors at 100,000 or more, and organizers estimated 400,000.

For the most part, though, the marchers followed a route laid out by New York authorities and peacefully dispersed at the end of the march. There was plenty of evidence of the anger against Bush, which was manifest in many of the signs carried by marchers. Some said: “Bush lied, thousands died” and “Bush: Empty Warhead.” Some Bush photos were defaced, and there was derision aimed at Bush’s family and background. Many chanted “No more years.”

“It was the largest demonstration since the war began,” said Bob Wing, the national chairman of United for Peace and Justice, organizers of the protest. “We feel like we succeeded in combating the rhetoric the Republicans will be issuing from the convention.”

The long column of marchers took nearly five hours in the sweltering heat of August to snake its way past Madison Square Garden in midtown. Before Sunday, the biggest protest at a national party convention was in Philadelphia the day before Republicans met there in 2000. Then about 12,000 protestors marched for a variety of causes. In 1968, protests at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago involved several thousand demonstrators and triggered a police riot.

The major theme of the Sunday march was opposition to the war in Iraq. The lead organizer, Leslie Cagan, told the marchers: “We want the troops brought home now. Not tomorrow, not next week. Now.”

Republicans said earlier they would try to tie any violence at the march with the Kerry campaign, but Kerry’s team has distanced itself from the protests, which started on Thursday of last week.

A sign at the head of the march had a twist on Kerry’s well-known denunciation of the Vietnam War 30 years ago. It read: “How do you ask a soldier to be the last person to die for a lie?” Kerry had said: “How do you ask a man to be the last man to die for a mistake?”

Sean O’Connor’s stepfather died on the plane that struck the Pentagon on Sept. 11. “Bush has been disastrous for our country, especially the arrogance of his foreign policy,” O’Connor said. “He’s fighting wars we don’t need to fight.”

Bush campaign spokesman Steve Schmidt had a different view. “For most Americans,” he said, “those out on the street today represent a viewpoint that is outside of the mainstream.”

Recent polls, however, show a majority of Americans believe the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, and even more are highly skeptical of the chances for peace in that country.

Tension expected when the marchers reached the convention site did not materialize. Though some protestors said they would march on to Central Park, they were turned back by a wall of police across the street. Central Park is considered the town square of New York City and was closed to the protestors because of “technicalities.”

“It’s been very peaceful,” said Deputy Police Commissioner Paul Browne. “We all along felt that if there was any vandalism, it would be from small groups not connected to the marchers.”

Asked if he would back Kerry, Philip Greenspan, 78, of Spring Valley, N.Y., gave a thumbs down sign. “He’s worse than Bush,” Greenspan said. “He wants to bring in more troops. I’m not going to vote for anybody. No matter who wins, the same policies will be implemented.”

Ruben Israel, a Bush backer from Los Angeles, was highly irked at the marchers. “They’re a bunch of left-wing, pinko Communists, and that is about a blunt as I can get,” he said.

Jimmy Breslin, columnist for Newsday out on Long Island, was there. He watched as rows almost 1,000 flag-draped cardboard caskets were carried along the street. Breslin said the sight turned the onlookers absolutely silent as the marchers moved by.

He talked with Sarah Kruger, a 20-year-old junior from Washington State University in St. Louis. She and her brother, Winston, were carrying one of the caskets. “It is important for us to honor people who don’t get any,” she said. “Nobody seems to care about them.”

At 20th and Broadway, the street sign said “Theodore Roosevelt Way.”

Breslin wrote: “And here, as Sarah Kruger passed under the street sign, were the words Roosevelt thought should be commonplace in the country. ‘To announce that there should be no criticism of the president, or that we are to stand by the president, right or wrong, is not only unpatriotic and servile, but it is morally treasonable to the American people.’ And you could hear in the air his cry for lovely young Sarah Kruger as she passed under his name, carrying a casket: ‘Bully!’”

Sources: The Boston Globe, Newsday, National Public Radio and the Chicago Tribune.

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