An article in last week's Time magazine captured Bush's current war ethos well. “In recent speeches and statements,” writes journalist Karen Tumulty, “Bush has come closer and closer to saying that anyone who raises questions about his policies is reckless and even unpatriotic.”
In a Bush-centric world, then, a bunch of reckless turncoats assembled downtown Sunday to protest the resolution authorizing war against Iraq that, as it looks now, will fly safely through Congress sometime this week, thanks to a recent assertive pro-war stance by Democrats.
Organized by the San Diego Coalition for Peace and Justice, the protest sought both to assert opposition to a potential war with Iraq as well as prod Bush's underlying motivation for a pre-emptive strike.
“It's always good to engage the argument behind the argument,” noted one protestor. Whether it's family honor (“He's the man that tried to kill my dad,” Bush has whined of Saddam), oil politics or another chance to snub his nose at U.N. regulations, the 43rd president was put through the ringer on Sunday.
Balmore Alvarenga, a student from San Diego City College had it all figured out. Holding a sign that read “Alto la Guerra” (Stop the War), Alvarenga mused on Bush's apparent effort to set a precedent. “[U.S.] strategy is to establish the right to go into other countries if any country tries to compete,” he said. Alvarenga added that he's been a bit disturbed by the indifference of his peers in taking a stance on the war. “I don't think there's any City College students here,” he said, glancing around.
No City College students, perhaps, but the turnout indeed surprised event organizers.
“This is new for San Diego,” said one woman to her male companion.
“The city is changing,” he acknowledged.
The gathering crowd started out on the south side of Broadway near Horton Plaza until that sidewalk filled, forcing the overflow crowd to take up positions across the street. For good measure, a significant number of sign carriers spread out to the adjoining street corners. “Heil Bush,” “Democracy not Autocracy” and “Bush is Malodorous,” some of the signs read.
A couple of local TV news crews wove their way through the crowd, and at one point police ceased to try to clear a path on the sidewalk and instead stood on the fringes to observe-as noted later by an evening news report, it was a “peaceful” protest with no arrests.
When the group reached a critical mass, a series of speakers took turns at a mic set up in front of the Horton Plaza fountain, their talk carried by a lo-fi P.A. system and impeded slightly by the constant honks of support from passing cars and busses.
Whereas arguments in support of the war hinge largely on speculation-what Hussein might have; what Hussein might be capable off-speaker Stephanie Jennings' stand against the war was driven by tangible firsthand experience. In 1997 Jennings spent time in Iraq on a humanitarian aid mission organized by a group called Conscience International.
“I went to Iraq,” Jennings told the crowd, “I met with ordinary Iraqis and they are dying from the [U.N.] sanctions.
“I want to urge everybody to fight the lies, fight the propaganda,” Jennings emphasized, her voice rising with each word.
Afterward, she spoke in detail about what she saw during her trip to Iraq, where she spent most of her time visiting hospitals with her husband, a doctor. “I talked to mothers while their children were dying,” she said. “It's haunted me ever since.”
War requires an enemy-an objectified “other” that we, on a somewhat unconscious level, view as less than human. Jennings' goal Sunday was to inform people that Iraqis are just like the rest of us. “I can't impress enough how wrong the stereotype is of people in the Middle East,” she said. “They're very sophisticated, educated and informed of world affairs. Family is very important to them.”
Iraq, especially Baghdad, was a pretty neat town before the United States, as Jennings put it, “bombed them back two centuries.” Now potable water is hard to find and dehydration is one of the leading causes of death among children. In one hospital Jennings saw two babies hooked up to the same I.V.-the only I.V. bag in the entire hospital.
“The idea that we're saving the Iraqi people is lunacy,” she said. It's [the] sanctions, she added, that are doing as much harm as the current regime.
Jennings has been vocal with her criticism of U.S. policy and was asked recently to share her views on the KPBS show, These Days. Producers, however, said the segment would be a go only if they could find someone from the military to speak for the other side. Perfectly balanced journalism, perhaps, but, Jennings wonders, what's so wrong with an open look at that current anti-war movement.
“[Politicians] tell us we're all in agreement, and we're not,” she said. “It's such a ruse. For once, can't [KPBS] have a show where we can give our message to the people?”
Around 3:30 p.m., organizer Larry Christen, on an admitted whim, invited the crowd to march 10 blocks down Broadway to the harbor, where the annual Fleet Week celebration-a tribute to San Diego military personnel-was taking place.
As the crowd dispersed, a stocky guy with a crew cut stood in front of a folding table laden with flyers and manned by Scott Cossette and Craig Mace from the International Action Center. The guy with the crew cut was a corpsman who found himself in the middle of a protest with which he didn't necessarily agree.
Cossette sympathized with the young man, having spent 16 months in the Marines himself before he opted to leave. Now Cossette counsels military personnel who find themselves questioning their government's actions. Last weekend he and Mace set up their table at the same spot and were approached by five servicemen who said they wanted out of the military due to conflicted beliefs about the war.
The young corpsman said he'd go to Iraq if called but not with a totally clear conscience. “I don't know where I stand,” he told Cossette.
“You have a moral question to ask yourself,” Cossette replied.