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Anti-war activists planning mass demonstrations if U.S. attacks Iraq

Analysis

By Martha Mendoza
The Associated Press

12.24.02

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SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — If a major war breaks out in Iraq, the first thing Rev. Stuart Fitch plans to do is pray, sending love to everyone from Saddam Hussein to President Bush. Then he'll call his congregation to church for a service.

And then, perhaps, the 78-year-old Episcopal priest will get himself arrested.

"There will be plenty of people going to jail that day," said Fitch, who wears his stiff pastoral collar beneath a powder-blue shirt. "I'm thinking about joining them."

While the Pentagon has spent the past year training troops, building facilities and stockpiling weapons to launch a war against Iraq, the peace movement has been using the time to coordinate "emergency response plans" to disrupt domestic military activity, tie up commerce and get out its anti-war message.

Rally meeting places are posted, march routes set, protest signs painted, acts of nonviolent civil disobedience choreographed.

Activists in more than a dozen cities have announced where and when to meet on the first day of war — what they call "The Day Of." In Dallas, they plan speeches at City Hall; in San Francisco, they plan to block traffic in the business district; in St. Louis they will hold a candlelight vigil downtown; in Seattle they plan to march at the federal building. In New York City, organizers hope to crowd Times Square with protesters.

Some Bush administration supporters who believe war in Iraq will probably be necessary, think the demonstrations could be harmful to U.S. interests.

"They encourage the enemy," said Michael Ledeen, a foreign policy expert at the Washington-based American Enterprise Institute. "The Iraqis will look at it and say, 'Ah ha! The people are not with the American government on this.'"

But Ledeen said he also wouldn't want to hamper anyone's right to free speech. "If people want to be stupid, they can be stupid," he said. "They're entitled."

'It's not the fringe'
The long buildup to the war "is doing wonders for organizing," according to Scott Lynch, a spokesman for Peace Action, the largest anti-war activism group in the United States, which claims 85,000 members in 100 chapters around the country.

The yearlong prep time has also brought a broad array people to the movement, Lynch said. "Our community now entails a much more moderate and wider swath of America. It's not the fringe and it's not the old lefties and it's not the kids with purple hair and nose rings," he said.

The movement — which has already brought thousands of people to the streets in recent protests — has grown broader and more sophisticated, said UC Davis American studies professor Michael Smith, who studies activism in the United States.

College students and former anti-Vietnam War activists are a large part of the movement, but an incongruous coalition of business and corporate leaders, labor unions, minority advocacy groups, religious congregations, feminist organizations, environmentalists, high school students and veterans who fought in the Persian Gulf have been showing up at rallies around the country.

Twenty-three U.S. cities have passed anti-war resolutions, and groups ranging from the National Council of Churches to chapters of the Sierra Club and the National Organization for Women have issued anti-war statements.

"There are the usual suspects but there's also a much larger variety of people we haven't seen involved before," said Jen Geiger, national program director of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom in Philadelphia.

Technology aids organizers
Peace organizers also say new technology — e-mail distribution lists, Internet listserv Web sites, cellular telephones, pagers and other devices that help get the word out quickly — are helping their effort. There are telephone trees from Olympia, Wash., to Fayetteville, Ark., and e-mail lists at peace and justice centers around the country with thousands of people ready to be dispatched to demonstrations.

Bob Fitch, who has worked with anti-war organizations in the United States for more than 50 years, said the peace movement has never been better organized.

"I would say it might be a significant surprise to the government to see how well we are organized," said Fitch, who is not related to Stuart Fitch. Bob Fitch currently works with the Santa Cruz Resource Center for Nonviolence.

Anti-war activists such as Mike Yarrow of Seattle say the long lead time has allowed them to do some thoughtful planning.

"We're trying to be creative about civil disobedience," Yarrow said. "A lot of us want to show our commitment to a peaceful world but don't want to aggravate people by making their drive home more difficult."

Plans are not limited to the United States. U.S. embassies and consulates from Oslo, Norway, to Auckland, New Zealand, have been targeted as sites for rallies and demonstrations if a major attack occurs.

"I think we will see the most significant outpouring of U.S. opposition to this government since the time of the Vietnam war," said Gordon Clark of Silver Spring, Md., a leading peace activist.

'Disruptive' plans
While most activists plan peaceful, mostly legal protests, some are laying plans to disrupt government operations.

More than 5,000 people have signed pledges agreeing to engage in acts of nonviolent civil disobedience at federal buildings, congressional offices and military installations, according to the Iraq Peace Pledge organizers in Nyack, N.Y. Such disruptions would likely lead to arrests.

A loosely knit group of activists called the Military Globalization Project said it is preparing a "security zone occupation" at Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast, the site used by the Defense Department for all West Coast missile and space launches. Their plan: hike into the base and disrupt the global-surveillance and weapons- targeting systems used to guide bombers, gunships and military strike forces. The group declined to say how it would disrupt these systems.

A spokesman at Vandenberg said security officers are aware of the plans and are prepared. "Without going into specifics, base security measures are tailored to the current threat," said Master Sgt. Lloyd Conley.

Organizers and security experts say it is impossible to predict how many people will take to the streets.

Peace rallies around the United States and abroad on Oct. 26 drew 250,000 participants, according to law enforcement agencies. In some places such as Washington, D.C. — where police didn't dispute estimates of 100,000 marchers — officials said the crowds hadn't been that large since the Vietnam War era.

On Dec. 10, another day of protest, rallies were mostly smaller but took place in more than 100 communities in the United States, according to news reports. About 140 people were arrested at various sites for disturbing the peace.

A recent CNN-USA TODAY-Gallup poll found that 81% of Americans responding believe the only way to disarm Iraq is to remove Saddam from power. A little more than half favored using U.S. ground troops to accomplish that goal. The poll of 1,009 people had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

D.C. police: 'We're always prepared'
In Washington, where demonstrators have contingency plans in case streets near the White House are shut down, Officer Kenneth Bryson, a police spokesman, said police are not concerned.

"We're always dealing with demonstrations here in the nation's capital. This is something we live with, so we're always prepared," he said. "The bulk of the traditional peace movement has not been characterized with unlawful behavior."

At FBI headquarters, supervisory special agent Steven Berry said there is no routine surveillance of anti-war groups to learn their plans.

"We would only have cause to investigate groups if there is evidence that there is or will be a violation of federal law," he said. "We fully support all lawful protest."

David Jenest, a conservative community activist in Sacramento, Calif., said the protesters represent "a very small, small number of people given the vast support of this country for our nation's posture on curbing terrorism anywhere in the world."

Instead of protesting, Jenest said, people should sit down with their children and read the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence and "have a discussion about tyranny and explain that these anti-war protesters earn the freedom to disagree with our government's position thanks to brave men and women who have paid the ultimate sacrifice to preserve those freedoms."

As for Jenest? He may hold a counter-demonstration.

Related

Demonstrators sue city officials after protest
Anti-Bush protesters in Portland, Ore., condemn use of pepper spray, rubber bullets; in Eugene, police reach out to anti-war groups.  10.28.02

The First Amendment: A Wartime Casualty?
Analysis Civil liberties advocates fear government's history of trampling citizens' rights during times of conflict is being repeated.  02.15.02

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