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Rebuilding Iraq

Protesters snarl downtown streets

Antiwar demonstrations largely peaceful, police say

By Michael S. Rosenwald, Globe Staff, 3/21/2003

    Rebuilding Iraq


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Thousands of antiwar demonstrators descended on downtown Boston yesterday, blocking traffic and creating chaos, in the largest of several spirited demonstrations around the state.

Though most of the protesters were peaceful, there were scattered skirmishes. Three people were arrested and several others were detained and then released by police officers who flooded downtown on motorcycles and on foot.

Boston officials said they had approved two protests, for 5 p.m. and 7 p.m. But about 4,000 people, including college students who sat on and shut down the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge over the Charles River, arrived in the city several hours ahead of time.

The protesters, who at times clashed with outnumbered supporters of the war, gathered at Copley Square and then marched through nearby streets, temporarily blocking traffic.

They then headed to City Hall Plaza and the JFK Federal Building, banging on drums and chanting "No blood for oil!"

The demonstration was one of several around the state. Protests were also held in Northampton and Great Barrington. At the US Army Systems Center in Natick, 18 people were arrested for forming a human blockade and refusing to leave.

The state protests were matched by others around the country, including most prominently in Washington and New York City. About 250 people huddled in a cold rain at Union Square in New York City for the first protest there since military action began. In Washington, hundreds marched, chanted, and beseeched Bush to stop what they called an immoral war against Iraq.

Bridges leading into Washington were blocked by protesters during the morning rush-hour. Elsewhere, traffic to San Francisco's financial district was choked off, and college students in Chicago took part in protests.

Early in the day, Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino sent a stern message to protesters, saying: "We urge everyone to work within the rules. We're not going to allow people to take over this city."

Around 5 p.m., several MBTA bus routes were diverted to avoid the pack, and motorists in the heart of the city were stuck idling in their cars as protesters streamed through the streets. A number of streets around Government Center were closed just before the evening rush hour.

While Boston officials had issued permits for a 5 p.m. rally at Government Center, and a 7 p.m. march down Boylston Street, they were forced to adjust to the protesters' more scattered gatherings and more spontaneous tactics, such as the Massachusetts Avenue bridge sit-in.

State Police troopers in tactical gear were also called in. Workers in downtown office buildings watched the rallies unfold from their office windows.

"This is the greatest thing that has happened since the Vietnam protests," said John Monteriro, 59, of Roslindale, who watched the scene near Boylston Street. "I love it."

Around 8 p.m., a group of the protesters tried to descend the ramp to the Massachusetts Turnpike near Newbury Street, but police set up a phalanx of cruisers to block them from walking onto the highway.

Police officers on motorcycles quickly parted the crowd, and parked their bikes to form another barrier. The officers dismounted and pushed the jostling crowd back about 30 feet.

The largest gathering of the day by far was at Government Center, and it was peaceful. Dozens of people broke out into interpretive dances, banging with sticks on whatever they could find: plastic bottles, bongo drums, trash cans, the walls of buildings.

At one point, about 100 people collapsed, pretending to be dead.

Others carried signs that said "Orwell was right" and "Drop Bush, not bombs."

Most of the protesters had spent the day declaring their opposition to the war. About 600 students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1,200 at Harvard, and 400 at Emerson walked out of class and gathered on their campuses to hold peaceful rallies, according to campus police officials.

At MIT, students toted a papier-mache likeness of Bush while others unfurled a 30-foot-long banner on the side of a nearby building that read, "MIT says no blood for oil."

Hugh Gusterson, an associate professor of anthropology and science and technology studies, told the gathering that war wasn't the right word for what had commenced in Iraq.

" `Slaughter' might be a better word than `war' for what we're embarking on," he said.

Robers Armand, 17, a student at Cambridge Ringe and Latin High School, walked out of class at noon with more than 50 others to participate in the march.

"This war is about profit," he said. "I don't think it's about morality."

However, along the way downtown, the demonstrators met some opposition.

Peter O'Brien, 33, of West Newbury, stood on the back of a pickup truck waving American flags in Cambridge, and entered into occasional shouting matches with the antiwar demonstrators.

"I back our president 100 percent," he said. "I support our country and I want our troops to come home as soon as possible, but we have a job to do. I don't think these people realize that it's nice to be able to walk down a street. I don't think some of them realize where they're from."

The protesters marched in different parts of Cambridge, moving from sidewalks to the street. At about 2:50 p.m., on the Mass. Ave. Bridge, several people began shouting, "Sit down, sit down."

One man shouted, "This bridge is closed until the war stops." Later, a large swath of Massachusetts Avenue was also closed.

About 4:10 p.m., when the procession reached the corner of Boylston and Arlington streets, a man in a long gray trenchcoat dove into the crowd and a scuffle broke out between him and a protester. He was immediately handcuffed and taken away.

On the corner of Copley Square, Liza Gallagher, 24, a Navy veteran from Weymouth, stood with a sign supporting the war.

"This rally," she had written in black marker on poster board, "is brought to you by the 30,000 troops in the Middle East protecting your right to free speech!"

Hers was a hastily planned counterprotest; she was downtown for the day, saw the antiwar signs, and rushed to a CVS to buy some poster board, she said.

The Natick demonstration, which was organized by the Sherborn-based Peace Abbey, began at noon when about 100 people gathered at the Natick Common.

As the group marched a half-mile down Main Street toward the entrance to Natick Labs, they were greeted mostly with jeers as people pumped their fists out their car windows, yelling things like "Move to France!" and "You are an embarrassment to our country!"

"The feeling you get from some people is that you're not with the troops," said Bill O'Brien, 82, who received a Purple Heart in World War II. "I'm definitely with the troops, but to bring them home. Because this war, it's not justified."

Among the 18 people arrested in Natick were a grandmother, a student at Harvard Divinity School, and a former Marine.

"I know that by doing what I'm doing today, it's the only way I can be truthful to my faith, my reasons, and my beliefs," one woman said before she was arrested. "I will not be still until peace prevails."

In Northampton, older activists stood alongside children, local business owners, and college students to protest the war. By 5 p.m. more than 200 people holding both umbrellas and antiwar signs lined both sides of Main Street.

Joanna Weiss, Douglas Belkin, Mac Daniel, and John Ellement of the Globe staff and Globe correspondents C. Kalimah Redd, Peter DeMarco, Rima Arnaout, Stefany Moore, Kim Foley MacKinnon, Heather Allen, and Matt Viser contributed to this report.

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