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Front Page > Issues > 2003 > February

Over 20,000 Portlanders march for peace

Portland joined the ranks of a handful of American cities that held major peace demonstrations on Jan. 18. Associated Press reporters estimated turnout in the Rose City at a record-breaking 20,000 people, while some march organizers placed the number closer to 30,000. Over 50,000 people demonstrated in San Francisco. Despite bitter cold weather, nearly 500,000 turned out in Washington D.C. With the exception of protester-police skirmishes in the nation’s capital, peace events around the country took place without incident.

The Jan. 18 event was the culmination of two months of intense planning and organizing by Portland’s peace community. Portland Peaceful Response Coalition, American Friends Service Committee, Peace and Justice Works and others involved in putting the march together, hoped to build on the momentum achieved by two earlier marches. A growing sense that war with Iraq could occur as early as the end of January — just when with the eport by the U.N. weapons inspectors would be presented—moved organizers to try for a significantly larger protest in the first few weeks of the new year.

Organizers also had to address growing community calls for broadening the message of the demonstration beyond one of just “no war.” Progressive critics pointed to the lack of participation by communities of color, organized labor, and other groups. The Jan. 18 march did that in part by providing a more diversified program of speakers, including speakers from Portland’s Palestinian community and from organized labor. There were also clear outreach efforts to these and other groups that showed a higher level of commitment than in the past even if the results were still a largely white, middle class turnout.

People began gathering in the South Park Blocks shortly before noon. Organizations sponsoring the event had set up information tables along the edge of the blocks earlier that morning, but by 12:30 p.m. the crowd had become dense enough that only those on the edges could reach the tables. While speakers worked to build energy in the crowd, the impacts seemed largely lost beyond the first city block. Most people were talking among themselves or slowly circulating to connect with friends and comrades. The exception was when John Linder took the stage. The Linder name and its evocation of the memory of Ben Linder, the volunteer community worker killed by Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s, immediately drew people’s attention. John, who many felt was the most eloquent speaker of the day, called on people to follow their conscience and remain committed to opposing the Bush administration’s policy of aggression.

The march started at 1:45 p.m., about 30 minutes behind schedule. The crowd slowly moved out along SW Salmon St. and snaked through southwest downtown before returning back to the Park Blocks. The head of the march reached the starting point again before the last several thousand marchers had exited the park.
The police presence was minimal—a small contingent of motorcycle and bicycle police—and no demonstrator-police conflicts occurred. Some march participants reported seeing the police tactical unit in riot gear deployed out of sight of the crowd.

Another group of several hundred activists staged a “non-permitted radical feeder march” from the North Park Blocks around 1:00 p.m. that linked with the main march as the latter wound through downtown. Participants in this march were made up of local Leftists, including Wobblies, anarchists, socialists and others. Their messages also reflected the composition of the crowd, calling for an end to capitalism and imperialism, linking Bush’s war on Iraq with his war on working families, and the oppression of people of color and those who dissent. What this group lacked in numbers they made up for in a liveliness that was in stark contrast to the more somber permitted march.

That liveliness was probably responsible for the much larger police presence. Unlike the previous “radical feeder march” in November which drew few police officers, this march was shadowed by a heavy police detail that some participants said appeared to be looking for a reason to intervene. If true, that reason did not present itself and the marchers were able to connect with the larger march unimpeded.

While the confluence of the two marches went smoothly and there appeared to be no noticeable friction between a largely liberal crowd with the smaller radical one, a sour note was reported by Indymedia. According to a Jan. 18 posting, an Indymedia reporter was refused press material at the larger march’s media table. The rejection was accompanied by disparaging comments from the person staffing the table suggesting Indymedia was not “real media.” An organizer of the march thought the refusal to turn over press material was based on an effort to make sure enough press packets were available for all the media outlets and that more than one Indymedia reporter had requested a packet.

In the wake of their most successful march yet, organizers are now faced with what happens next. The chances of war breaking out within the next month now seem less likely with European resistance growing to Bush’s saber-rattling. Progressives outside the peace community will most likely be pressing for escalation of action beyond teach-ins and marches. While many of the 20,000 who marched on Jan. 18 may be new to activism, a significant number of those who participated could be ready to make the leap to non-violent direct action provided the proper leadership. There will also be calls for energy to be applied to diversifying the existing movement. Progressives inside and outside the peace movement will all be hoping what has been built since Sept. 11 is strong enough to withstand these centrifugal forces.

Dave Mazza is editor of The Portland Alliance.


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Last Updated: January 29, 2003