Published on Sunday, April 6, 2003 by the San Francisco Chronicle
Thousands Rally at Anti-War Gathering in Oakland
Demonstrators say war costs are draining funds for social services
by Pamela J. Podger, Jim Herron Zamora, Kelly St. John
People of all ages and ethnicities gathered in the East Bay on Saturday to rally against the war in Iraq -- and to put their objections to its cost, which they feel is diverting money from social programs, in the spotlight.
The speakers at Civic Center Plaza shared a theme: that the war in Iraq is diverting government money and resources from critical problems in Oakland and other American cities.
"Stop building bombs and start building schools," said Rep. Barbara Lee, D- Oakland. "Stop giving tax cuts to the wealthy."
Lee has gained popularity among peace protesters since casting the lone vote against Bush's global campaign against terror.
But the rally's loudest applause was saved for singer and activist Harry Belafonte.
"I've just come from five weeks touring all over Europe. At each and every place I have been, I have been asked what Americans are doing about cleaning our own house," the 77-year-old Belafonte told the crowd. "We stand here today as the beginning of a movement to take back America to the place where it belongs, to the people."
"This is a very mellow crowd," said Oakland police Lt. Dave Kozicki, who was stationed nearby outside Oakland City Hall. "We have had absolutely no problems. I wish they were all this easy."
Omar Yassin, 34, of Oakland, said he hoped the diverse ethnicities represented by the marchers would convey an important message.
"We're people of color. We're not the progressives or white people, and we need to show that we're all against the war," he said. "There are so many things we could be spending money on that are better, are positive, and would enrich people's lives. It's crazy."
Similarly, Martha Benitez, 28, of Oakland, said the government should be spending money to improve the quality of life, not to wage war.
"I think the U.S. can take the role of global police once everyone in our country is guaranteed health care, quality education, access to living-wage jobs, child care and other social support that doesn't exist right now or are being cut dramatically," she said.
Organizers said they specifically held the event in Oakland to attract low- income people and minorities who, according to polls, are the most likely to oppose the war in Iraq even though they have been less likely to attend anti- war events in San Francisco.
The crowd marched down Telegraph Avenue, drawing curious stares, occasional jeers and many waves of support from local residents and merchants.
One shop owner smiled and said she couldn't remember ever seeing a protest in her neighborhood, then added, "I think it's great."
One contingent was full of high school students.
"All that money he's using for war, (Bush) could be using to save the schools or keeping kids away from drugs," said Reyna Matthews, 15, a freshman at Far West High School.
Tashia Holloman, an Oakland High senior, said, "One thing you'll never see is rich people on the front line."
She added, "If we were Bush's kids, would he send them to schools like ours? No."
Marcus Wilson, 29, was likewise angry at Bush.
"For just a tiny fraction of what it costs to send all those Marines over there, we could not only bail out Oakland schools, we could improve them," said Wilson, 29, holding the hand of his 7-year-old daughter. "In Oakland, the schools are bankrupt, the homicide rate is going up and kids are selling drugs because they can't find jobs.
"And Bush wants to rebuild Iraq. If we had oil, maybe we could get Bush to invade here, too."
A number of others also had brought their children with them.
Maria Morales, 34, of Oakland, was accompanied by her son Pablo, 10, and daughter Adriana, 4.
"It's good for the kids to do something," she said. "They get afraid watching TV or listening to other kids."
While the bulk of the marchers started at Mosswood Park, about 250 students gathered at UC Berkeley's Sproul Plaza.
Before they embarked up Telegraph Avenue, they were confronted by about 20 students from the Berkeley College Republicans, carrying pro-troops signs with slogans such as "I hate war but I hate Saddam more."
Kate Sassoon, a freshman, faced off against senior Kelso Barnett, who was holding a "God Bless America" placard.
"I believe we're killing the Iraqi people," Sassoon said.
"We're actually liberating them," Barnett countered.
Seth Norman, who helped organize the Republican contingent, said he had recently enlisted in the Army in hopes of serving overseas.
"I respect their First Amendment right to be here, but at Berkeley, everything turns anti-American," the 21-year-old Norman said. "The reason we came out was to show support for the troops."
Vietnam War veteran Richard Sanderell, who wore a T-shirt showing a picture of himself in his U.S. Navy uniform after boot camp, confronted the pro-war demonstrators and asked them how many had ever talked to a veteran about war.
"When I went to Vietnam, I thought I was supporting freedom," Sanderell said. "History has shown it was a big lie. These students . . . need to ask serious questions about what they are really supporting. You may spend years trying to live this down."
Chronicle staff writer Suzanne Herel contributed to this report.
©2003 San Francisco Chronicle