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Rebuilding Iraq

Peace activists work to cross boundaries of class, geography

By Joanna Weiss and Douglas Belkin, Globe Staff, 3/29/2003

    Rebuilding Iraq


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The activists showed up with antiwar signs and the will to get arrested. The police had plastic handcuffs and a look that said ''we mean business.'' But the most dramatic tension at last week's rally at the JFK Federal Building wasn't between the protesters and officers. It was between the protesters and the men in hard hats from a job site across the street.

The construction workers had spied the protest forming, and poured outside to watch. And as antiwar supporters shouted "Shame!" at police, the hard hats piped in with shouts of their own. "Good job, officer!" some yelled, as others asked why the activists weren't at work on a weekday afternoon. When officers with billy clubs and riot helmets arrived, one worker quipped with glee, "Here comes the all-star team."

It was one sign of a divide that has marked local protests in the first weeks of war in Iraq. Though national polls have found that antiwar sentiment crosses demographic lines, Boston's most prominent rallies have drawn largely from a few groups: professionals, students, and longtime liberal activists. And across the area, the line between demonstrating for and against the war has paralleled longstanding boundaries of ethnicity, geography, and class. It is the difference between Cambridge residents and South Boston natives; between professionals and trade union members; between private college students from the center of Boston, and state college students 30 miles away.

Now, as war opponents try to increase their numbers in a country that overwhelmingly favors the conflict, some say their success will depend on how, and whether, they can bridge those old divides. Brian Corr, a longtime organizer, said the peace movement has to expand beyond its traditional centers in Newton, Brookline, Cambridge, and Jamaica Plain.

"This really raises a lot of issues around class and race that are not unique to Boston but are a lot stronger here," said Corr, one of a handful of African-Americans who have spoken at local rallies. Here, he said, "it's really hard to pull people together."

At today's demonstration on Boston Common, organizers hope to see the fruits of a deliberate drive to broaden the antiwar movement, and reach out to minority and veterans' groups. Scheduled speakers at the rally include representatives of City Life/Vida Urbana, a Jamaica Plain-based housing advocacy group, and Teen Empowerment, which organizes city youths. Today's march will be led by members of groups called Veterans for Peace and Military Families Speak Out.

And leaders of United for Justice With Peace, the group organizing the rally, decided to discourage law-breaking, partly because they wanted to make broad groups of people, even those new to protest activities, said spokeswoman Jennifer Horan.

Opposition to the war has helped to bring together groups that haven't always worked together in the past, said Eric Weltman, organizing director of the activist group Citizens for Participation in Political Action.

"We've made tremendous efforts, and they're starting to pay off," Weltman said.

Since the war began, there have been other, scattered signs that the movement has spread beyond traditional boundaries. At the St. Patrick's Day Parade in South Boston two weeks ago, a march by a group called Veterans for Peace drew a cascade of jeers and boos -- but the group's leader was a South Boston native.

Still, dozens of South Boston residents turned up in the streets on Thursday to wave flags in support of the war. And some antiwar activists said this week that they still sense a divide between the city's intellectual elite and its working-class population.

"We're more upper-class," said Dan Kantoff of Brighton, an activist with the group Food Not Bombs. "The more educated you are, the more you're going to see, the more you're going to be aware of what's going on."

Even on college campuses, attitudes toward the war can vary dramatically, depending on the school. Some of Boston's $30,000-a-year private colleges, such as Harvard, Tufts, and MIT, produced the bulk of the crowds for Boston's biggest marches. But at commuter-heavy Bridgewater State College, antiwar students say they've been heckled and jeered by fellow students. Samantha Clark, 24, a Bridgewater State commuter from Dorchester, said she got dirty looks when she walked through the cafeteria in an anti-war T-shirt. And students Courtney Fisher and Lauren Berthel said they drew suspicious whispers this week when they spread the word about a planned antiwar demonstration.

Meanwhile, on Ivy League and other private college campuses in the Boston area, war supporters who say they've felt equally isolated have tried to band together. At Brandeis University and Harvard Law School, students who back the US action in Iraq have formed small advocacy groups of their own. "We felt like the antiwar side was the only side that was getting attention," said Anthony Gaughan at Harvard.

Even some critics of the war have chafed at the festive mood of the student protests. Last Thursday, as hundreds of Emerson College students marched toward Copley Square, a trio of college-aged men strode down Boylston Street beside them, holding up a placard of their own: for the band AC/DC.

"We're trying to make a mockery of all the rich white kids in Boston," said Ian Stuart, 20, who does odd jobs and sings in a band. He opposed the war, he said, but he opposed the rally, too. "I think a lot of people are just looking for a cause."

That's exactly the stereotype activists in communities farther from Boston are trying to dispel with their homegrown protests.

Last week, as war opponents stood in a circle on Bridgewater's common, a man who had often yelled at them from his truck approached on foot, and demanded to speak. He had lost friends in the September 11 terrorist attacks, and wanted to know if the protesters cared. After a conversation, the man left on friendly terms. And though they might not have won a convert, the protesters were cheered.

"I think by doing it, and shaking his hand, he saw we weren't crazies out there," said Vernon Domingo, a geography professor at Bridgewater State who has helped organize war opponents. "He saw us as regular people."

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