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Following the Flags in San Francisco 

Wednesday, Oct 30 2002
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I’d forgotten how much of a baseball town San Francisco is until I went to the big peace march there last Saturday. Giants banners hung from light poles, fan paraphernalia appeared in Union Square store windows, and places like Lefty O‘Doul’s were filled with the team‘s Halloween-colored balloons. Even some of the anti-war demonstrators’ signs were keyed to the World Series (“Beat L.A. Not Iraq,” “World Series, Not World Domination”) and a protest version of “the wave” rippled up and down the parade that day as it surged along Market Street.

An off-the-chart spectrum of protesters gathered in front of the Ferry Building and quickly laid siege to a nearby Noah‘s Bagel shop, which had lines running out onto the sidewalk for hours. There were Gray Panthers and stilt walkers; freaky young street actors performed nude or in nightmarish costumes, and neo-lefts exhaled old rhetoric from a stage. (“The days of the military-industrial complex are marked!” one woman screeched.) There were too many bullhorns and different drums being beaten to hear much from the stage, but the pleasant carnival spirit of the day was formed in this anarchic swirl of dissent and whimsy.

Around 12:30 the march finally headed up Market to the Civic Center. I’d been on this route before -- nearly 30 years ago, during a counterinaugural march protesting Richard Nixon‘s second term and the Vietnam War. As I remember, that mobilization drew 50,000 people???[ADD: ,] and last Saturday’s was easily as large. Its size demanded better news coverage than it received. The typical Saturday-night TV-news headline order was Rally Monkey, Peace Demonstrations, Sniper; the Sunday L.A. Times ran an 841-word notice on Page 17 ???[tr. 2]mostly focusing on the larger rally in Washington, D.C.

But the people in San Francisco weren‘t there for the TV cameras. They had come from ???[ADD: cities and towns from =OR= as far as San Diego and Seattle>> ]San Diego to Seattle to do what they could to stop Bush II from unleashing Gulf War II. They were here because the Feinsteins, Daschles and Gephardts had turned yellower than a garden of Texas roses when it came time to debate Bush’s imperial diktat. Quite a number of marchers held signs and banners honoring the late Paul Wellstone, a senator who, in the middle of a close re-election campaign, had stood up to the White House when the rest of his colleagues hid under their desks.

The demonstrators were a lively, happy and creative crowd that included Clowns for Peace, Historians for Peace and Grannies for Peace. Berkeley‘s Cheeseboard Collective Bakery had baked skinny loaves in the shape of peace signs, which they held aloft on poles. One homemade sign mischievously invited Bush to eat some pretzels, another read, “Fuck Oil, Burn Hydrogen.”

When the anti-inaugural protest had reached the Civic Center in 1973, we ???[had] heard speech after speech denounce a president who had been elected in a landslide and was winding down a war; this past Saturday???[ADD: ,] Berkeley Congresswoman Barbara Lee and others criticized a president who had not even received a plurality of the vote???[ADD: ,] yet is now poised to start ???[a war DEL 1 >>]one. (Another difference with 1973???[1973’s protest =OR= scene] was ???[not] having to constantly avoid bumping into oblivious protesters as they chatted into cells phones or videotaped everything in sight.)

About two hours into the rally???[ADD: ,] some 500 young marchers peeled off from the Civic Center and followed anarchist banners for a “direct action” down Market Street. This completely caught the police off-guard -- even though an online flier had announced the action and instructed anyone interested to “follow the flags.” Whereas an overwhelming LAPD presence had completely outflanked and contained a somewhat smaller march against police brutality a few days earlier, the San Francisco cops, who were comparatively invisible Saturday, had to catch up to the breakaway march and hastily form a short line separating the sidewalk from the protesters, who busily swarmed around stranded trolley cars. It was an ineffectual maneuver, as witnessed by how many times marchers would casually leave the parade to withdraw money from ATMs located directly behind the cops.

No one seemed to know where the march was headed or what would happen, other than that it was clearly stopping traffic and the SFPD was merely in tow. Around Market and Grant ???[ADD: Avenue] some demonstrators pulled up their black bandanas, and for a moment it seemed that the action was about to become very direct. Where would it go off -- The Gap? Old Navy? Montgomery Street? Nothing happened though, and the march simply snaked into the eastern fringe of the financial district‘s skyscrapers before heading toward the Embarcadero.

Earlier, a black-masked young man had confronted a clean-cut family who were holding small hand-lettered signs reading, “Support Our Troops” in front of City Hall. During their ensuing debate over Iraq, one of the pro-war family members, who probably was the same age as the apparent anarchist, said, “Why do you have to hide your face? That’s weak.”

The masked kid replied, “I‘m not hiding it -- the sun’s out and I‘m trying to protect myself.”

“Oh,” his hawkish opponent scoffed. “Well, that’s your prerogative. But it‘s weak.”

Lately, another kind of debate has swirled around the doctrinaire beliefs of the anti-war movement’s organizers. International ANSWER (Act Now To Stop War and End Racism), the group behind Saturday‘s march, is the creation of a Trotskyite sect called the Workers World Party, which noisily supports such pleasure domes as North Korea and Yugoslavia under Milosevic. Similarly, the Not in My Name project, which sponsored a celebrity anti-war petition campaign, can be traced back to the Maoist Revolutionary Communist Party ???[ (RCP) ], who, like the ???[either spell out name here, or insert “(WWP)” above on first mention>> ]WWP, has nary a discouraging word to say about Saddam Hussein -- or any anti-American tyrant and guerrilla movement.

While these concerns, expressed by ???[such people as DEL2]people like Todd Gitlin and Christopher Hitchens, are legitimate reservations, they miss the point. For 40 years nearly every movement ???[ADD: either] for labor unions ???[replace “and” with “or”]and against war and institutional racism in this country was spearheaded by the Communist Party, USA ???[ADD: (CPUSA) ] -- even as ???[ADD: that organization DEL: it >>]it blissfully endorsed a totalitarian and anti-Semitic Soviet Union. The peace movement against the Vietnam War was ???[tr. 2]largely mobilized by the “mainstream” Trotskyite Socialist Workers Party, as well as the CPUSA -- two groups that often worked side by side with the RCP on college campuses to organize effective support ???[ADD: for] the United Farm Workers???[’s] wine and grape boycotts. And the rhetoric of that time was far more incendiary than anything heard last weekend. (I can still hear Black Panther David Hilliard, speaking in Golden Gate Park in 1969, praising North Korea and declaring, “We will kill Richard Nixon, we will kill any motherfucker who stands in the way of our freedom!”)

The ???[dominant =OR= dominative>>] domineering role of such groups didn‘t, contrary to what people are telling themselves today, destroy the peace movement. The end of the draft, withdrawal from Vietnam and a little FBI program called COINTELPRO helped accomplish that. Critics of the new united front against war complain that it is overpopulated with people who hate America, but there ???[ital 1?]are things to hate about America. Besides, who else has -- or would -- mobilize a peace movement? The Democratic Leadership Council? Christopher Hitchens? The best way to isolate the sectarians is to participate in the peace movement much as they do -- which will, as it happened in San Francisco, push their own contingents to the back of the parade.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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