Actor Penn, Rep. Lee Appear at Town Hall Meeting on Iraq War
Hundreds gather in Oakland to discuss how to get U.S. troops home
OAKLAND -- Oscar-winning actor Sean Penn was the star attraction at a town hall meeting today in Oakland, where hundreds of people gathered to denounce the war in Iraq and call for an immediate withdrawal of American troops.
Neither Penn nor Rep. Barbara Lee, the Oakland Democrat who has opposed the war since before it began four years ago, offered much in the way of specifics for ending the conflict, and they were largely preaching to the choir. The enthusiastic and occasionally boisterous crowd of 800 or so crammed into the Grand Lake Theatre wildly cheered as Penn excoriated President Bush.
"You and your smarmy pundits -- and the smarmy pundits you have in your pocket -- can take your war and shove it," Penn said. "Let's unite not only in stopping this war, but in holding this administration accountable."
The town hall meeting came six days after peace marches were held nationwide to mark the fourth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and one day after the House of Representatives voted 218-212 to withdraw combat troops by Sept. 1, 2008.
Penn reiterated a point often made by opponents of the war when he said he supports the troops but opposes the war.
"Let's make this crystal clear: We do support our troops, but not the exploitation of them and their families," he said. "The money that's spent on this war would be better spent on building levees in New Orleans and health care in Africa and care for our veterans. Iraq is not our toilet. It's a country of human beings whose lives that were once oppressed by Saddam are now in Dante's Inferno."
Lee was among the California Democrats who voted Friday against the $124 billion war spending measure that President Bush has promised to veto. Lee is a member of the "Out of Iraq Caucus" that includes Democrats Lynn Woolsey of Petaluma and Maxine Waters of Los Angeles.
"We can't afford to spend one more dime or lose one more American or Iraqi life on this illegal and unwinnable war," Lee told the crowd, which offered several rousing standing ovations.
Lee introduced Penn to the crowd as movie star and temporary journalist for The Chronicle, referring to his dispatches published in the newspaper when he visited Iran in 2005. Penn also has visited New Orleans as part of the post-Hurricane Katrina rescue effort.
After the meeting, everyone from grandmothers and students to veterans and mothers pushing strollers marched along Lake Merritt to Oakland City Hall for an afternoon rally at which Lee again spoke.
As she took the microphone, the crowd chanted "Barbara Lee told you so. Bush's war has got to go."
"The only thing this government needs is for the people to be silent and then they can do whatever they want," said Joan MacIntyre, a 74-year-old great-grandmother from Oakland. "As long as the government keeps doing what it's doing, I'll be out in the streets."
MacIntyre, like many who attended today's events, was no stranger to anti-war protests. She has marched in numerous rallies since the Iraq war started in March 2003 and on Monday was arrested during a San Francisco protest on Market Street. It was her 41st arrest, she boasted proudly.
"At least I can hold my head up and say that I tried," she said.
At the rally, which was organized by a coalition of Oakland community groups, folk singers led the crowd in song and a rapper rapped about violence in the streets. There were calls for impeachment of the president and for troops to be brought home and pleas for federal dollars to be spent on schools rather than on the war.
Rodney Brown, a 30-year-old Oakland substitute teacher, said he would have liked to see more people attend the protest. While organizers said between 500 and 700 attended the rally, many remarked that the crowd seemed significantly smaller. Police declined to provide a crowd count.
"Money needs to be going to our schools and the communities here instead of funding for this war," Brown said. "And we need to have more events like this and get people out here and taking some action."
Hava Ratinsky, a native of Israel who now lives in Oakland, attended the protest with her 6-year-old son, Aviv. She wondered whether, after four years of protesting, people were just too tired of not seeing any change.
"There's a war going on and it's mind-boggling to me that people can continue to live their daily lives and not pay attention," she said.
Chronicle staff writer Henry K. Lee contributed to this report.
© 2007 Hearst Communications Inc.