By Jenna Russell, Globe Staff, Globe Correspondent, 3/30/2003
While authorities estimated the crowd at about 25,000, no arrests were reported by Boston police. Hundreds of officers were mobilized to monitor the generally peaceful gathering, one of the city's largest in decades, which stretched over several acres on the park's north side. Dotted with handmade signs and rainbow flags, the crowd included students, parents with young children, senior citizens, and Baby Boomers, who said the scene reminded them of 1960s Vietnam War protests.
"We're here today to remind our country that by definition, war is a failure for the human race," Brian Corr, a leader of the national group Peace Action and the rally's moderator, told the throng as helicopters hovered overhead, the elegant brick architecture of Beacon Street behind him. "We're here today because we're serving as the conscience of our nation."
Away from the stage area, where spectators cheered a two-hour program of political speeches and music, some young people drummed on plastic buckets and played harmonicas, while families socialized, lounging on the muddy grass or in lawn chairs. Protesters came from Rhode Island and Maine, Cape Cod and Gloucester, and from college dorms across the street from the Common, bearing signs reading, "Shock and Awe and Shame," "Make Love Not War," and "Don't Give Smart Bombs to Dumb Presidents."
"This is my motherland, but if my mother kills, I'm going to have to take her to the authorities, because no one has a right to kill, even my mother," Boston City Councilor Felix Arroyo told the crowd.
Many protesters said they have little hope that Bush will hear their message, but came to express concern and anger anyway. "I want to look back and know that I did something, and I want the rest of the world to know that we're not all for the war," said Patty Grant, 52, of Boulder, Colo., who protested the Vietnam War as a college freshman, and came to Boston this weekend to visit her daughter, a freshman at Emerson College, who joined her on the Common.
Boston's largest war protest took place on the Common in October 1969, when Senator George McGovern was the featured speaker before a crowd estimated at 100,000 people. Since then, thousands have gathered in the park to protest US policy in El Salvador and the Gulf War. Last November, about 15,000 people came out against the threat of war in Iraq; since the war began 10 days ago, smaller protests have occurred throughout the city, leading up to yesterday's event.
Organizers said they were pleased with the turnout, which met their expectations.
War supporters appeared in much smaller numbers at the edges of yesterday's rally. Wearing a hard hat plastered with pro-war stickers, one man bellowed at the crowd from atop a lamp post.
"Did you forget 9/11? Our troops need support," he shouted. The man tumbled 15 feet to the ground after the plastic dome he was holding popped off the top of the pole. Some spectators cheered; one asked if he was hurt, but got no answer. Limping away, the man declined to give his name but identified himself as an iron worker from Chinatown who hurried over to the Common on his lunch hour. "America forgets too easily about 3,000 people they stole from us at the World Trade Center," he said.
Some protesters carried conflicting passions. Rebecca Love, 24, an insurance claims specialist from Brookline, worries for the safety of her boyfriend, Scott Countryman, 26, a lance corporal in the Marine forces who is participating in the charge toward Baghdad. Love said she supports war "when necessary," but joined yesterday's protest, her first, because she feels the United States has broken international law with its invasion.
"There are moments when you sit there and you're torn, because I want to support him, but I can't support this war," she said. "He's not allowed to speak out against this war, so I have to carry on with our rights."
Dressed in black and carrying signs that read "Rich People Lie, Poor People Die," three dozen members of the Peoples Global Action Network, wearing handkerchiefs on their faces, planned to engage in civil disobedience, but their plans were thwarted by a group of special operations officers from the Boston Police Department, who surrounded them.
"I've pretty much given up on the idea that simple manifestations of protest accomplish anything," said Evan Greer, a 17-year-old member from the Cambridge School of Weston. "Civil disobedience is a key way to go. The Bush administration does not listen to the people."
Organized by the Greater Boston group United for Justice with Peace, which decided not to seek arrests and instead obtained permits for the event from the city, the rally stayed on schedule, with marchers streaming out of the park promptly at 1:30 p.m. They headed down Beacon Street to Hereford Street before returning to the Common by way of Boylston Street. Some roads were closed to traffic for several hours, allowing hundreds of demonstrators to stage "die-ins" at several locations by lying down in the empty streets. Some lay quietly; others chatted on cellphones.
Near the die-in at Arlington and Boylston streets, about 100 young men, some of them veterans, screamed "Traitor!" and "Get Saddam!" at the protesters. But the two sides found some common ground: When the pro-government group started singing the National Anthem, several hundred antiwar demonstrators joined in.
When protest permits expired about 4 p.m., most die-in participants cleared the streets, but a handful refused to get up and blocked Charles Street between the Common and the Public Garden.
"I believe in peace," said Kate Crockford, 19, of Roslindale, as she reclined on the pavement, dressed all in black and wearing sunglasses. "I believe everybody should lie in the street. We can't all be arrested."
Told that she could face a hefty fine if arrested -- student members of the National Lawyers Guild were on hand to advise protesters of their rights -- Crockford decided to move along, as a line of police on horseback closed in. Another woman stayed on the ground despite the warnings, and was picked up and carried to the sidewalk by police.
With streets open again, dozens of protesters remained by the park into the early evening, chanting and crowding back into the streets every time red lights stopped traffic. Police lined the sidewalks on both sides of Charles Street, and pulled out plastic handcuffs, while officers on motorcycles and horseback forced the crowds back.
After the march, as the crowd began to disperse, about 70 Muslims dressed in white turbans and robes attracted onlookers as they removed their shoes, turned east in unison, and began to pray. The Muslim men held court on a patch of grass for nearly an hour as many people observed silently.
The Muslims appeared at the Common by coincidence, after many of them had completed a two-month "walk for guidance" from Mount Vernon, N.Y.
Megan Tench, Corey Dade and Douglas Belkin of the Globe Staff and Globe correspondent Ray Henry contributed to this report.