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Saturday, Mar 19, 2011, 5:32 pm

Unhappy Anniversary: Protesters Take to Streets 8 Years After Invasion of Iraq

By Matthew Marienthal

(Photo by Matt Marienthal)

CHICAGO—On Saturday, the eighth anniversary of the United States’ invasion of Iraq, protesters across the country took to the streets, demanding an end to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Chicago, anti-war activists gathered at the intersection of Michigan Ave. and Congress Parkway to voice their opposition to the Obama administration’s military actions abroad and unjust economic policies at home.

The rally began with music and politically charged spoken-word poetry, followed by speeches from individuals representing the anti-war movement, labor and faith based organizations. The speakers led the crowd in chants such as “Fight the rich, not their wars!” As a representative of Vietnam Veterans Against the War delivered the final address of the opening rally, an Iraqi refugee—allegedly not given the opportunity to speak—drew her own audience by yelling through a megaphone from the side of the stage. The confrontation provided the protesters with a poignant symbol of the struggle to establish a unified anti-war movement.

Protesters proudly and loudly marched down Michigan Avenue, flanked (and maybe outnumbered) by a steady stream of Saturday shoppers and tourists, many of whom were scrambling to record the demonstrations on their smart phones. Andy Thayer, of the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism (CCAWR) and one of the many organizers of the rally, estimated that there were 750 people in attendance, less than fellow organizer Joleen Kirschenman had hoped for.

The crowd was diverse, vibrant and optimistic, ranging from a Dada inspired clown to a nineteen-year-old Iraqi, whose mother calls her a “protest junkie.” Basil Ali, a speaker from American Muslims for Palestine, attributed the high morale to an “electrifying jolt of defiance” from successful protests in the Middle East. Others drew on the Wisconsin protests for inspiration, carrying signs that supported collective bargaining and the "Wisconsin 14" (the 14 Democratic state senators who fled to Illinois to stymie a vote on legislation stripping public-sector workers of most collective bargaining rights). In addition, the protesters seemed to be marching through sympathetic streets: onlookers flashed thumbs up, and I caught a policeman covertly singing along with “War (What is it Good For?)”

The objectives of the rally reached well beyond simply withdrawing from Iraq and Afghanistan, connecting militarization to economic troubles plaguing American citizens. Mary Zerkel, of the American Friends Service Committee, reminded the crowd that 60 percent of the federal budget is spent on defense, and pointed out the absurdity of focusing on social service cuts to reduce a federal deficit accumulated, in large part, by war spending.

For John Beachman, the Chicago Coordinator of ANSWER, realizing that “war is a means for billionaires to hold onto their economic enterprises” is essential to “deepening individuals understanding of the anti-war movement.” This perspective views the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as symptoms of U.S. imperialism, rather than anomalies in an otherwise just social order.

The protesters were united in their belief that the Democratic Party is not capable of implementing their ambitious anti-war agenda. Steve Edwards, president of American Friends Service Committee Local 2858, expressed this sentiment most bluntly when he proclaimed, “The Democrats are where movements go to die!” To complement the speakers’ disillusionment with the Obama administration, the crowd wielded signs that compared the president to warmongers such as George W. Bush and Rambo. Thayer, of CCAWR, explained, “the Obama election was a sucker punch to the anti-war movement,” as it absorbed the movement’s resources without helping to accomplish its goals.

The march ended with a festive rally in front of the Water Tower, in which a variety of charismatic speakers addressed the drumming and dancing protesters. After a Chicago hip-hop artist began his performance, an aggressive police officer asked, “when did we transition from a demonstration of first amendment rights to a rap concert?” This provoked a slight smirk from Thayer, as he explained that music was an expression of first amendment rights.
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