Among the 1,000 people at Saturday's march against the Iraq war: a Storm Trooper in full Star Wars gear; Mumia Abu-Jamal (sort of); and one wild-haired, wild-eyed Bible-brandishing guy attempting to yell over a featured speaker, the march's sole arrestee.
The main march began at the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh and featured spoken-word poetry complete with swear words that upset some in the Islamic center and some with children in the crowd, high school and college speakers, and an Iraq veteran speaking about terrible conditions in Iraq.
"Thank you for coming out today to support the troops," said Iraq vet Helen Gerhardt. "That's what you are doing." Gerhardt, who served a year in Iraq with the 1221st Transport Company beginning Feb. 2003, spoke of wearing Kevlar vests too old and dilapidated to stop a bullet, and standing in formation next to a man who collapsed as he passed a kidney stone without medical attention.
Gerhardt was momentarily nonplussed by a man attempting to shout over her. He waved a copy of the Bible and claimed he had as much right to speak as she did, and stood in front of her. As members of the crowd attempted at times to shout him down and at times to reason with him to quiet down, she continued speaking and did her best to ignore the spectacle taking place 10 feet in front of her. Police eventually arrested the man. While calls seeking his name were not returned by press time, the man referred to himself as "Reverend Stover."
"He wanted to get arrested," observed Jeremy Miles, an Army infantryman from the South Side who disagreed with the march and said "we're fighting Islamic fascists." Some said that Miles, questioning the anti-war slogans on signs and T-shirts, was egging the man on. Miles, who said he had not served in Iraq, had been challenging some in the crowd to explain precisely why their slogans said President Bush was a liar or murderer. But, he said, "I'm not here to disrupt. I'm only here to see what's going on. I just came to see what the opposition was like."
Miles and the arrested man were the only apparent dissenters, unlike in previous years when fraternity houses at Carnegie Mellon University -- not on this year's route -- had a large pro-war presence to greet marchers.
The march stepped off through Oakland with veterans in the front, followed by high school and college students, then the rest of the marchers; mounted police brought up the rear. It looped past CMU's Software Engineering Institute; through the University of Pittsburgh campus; past the recruitment station on Forbes Avenue, a frequent target for anti-war activism, ending in a rally on Pitt's campus. A feeder march that began at the VA Hospital with a rally for "Healthcare Not Warfare" joined in.
Matt Gordon of the South Side marched in a white Star Wars storm trooper outfit swathed in an American flag. "This is my way of expressing my dislike with the police state," he said. "I'm not happy. It's like a microcosm of the Bush empire."
Several people in the crowd carried large white cardboard cranes resembling origami, made by Merton Center members and distributed at the rally before the march began. Joe Guthrie of Murrysville was marching with his own take on the crane theme -- dozens of tiny, multicolored folded paper cranes hanging from wooden dowels alongside an American flag. "These are peace cranes," he said, meant to recall the story of a Sadako, a girl in Osaka who thought folding 1,000 of them could cure her of the leukemia brought on by the bombing of Hiroshima.
At the post-march rally, a recorded message from Mumia Abu-Jamal boomed over the crowd. "Don't think for a millisecond that recent Democratic gains means an end to the carnage in Iraq," the tape said.
Fred Logan of Black Voices For Peace, a group that has held a vigil at the corner of Penn and Highland avenues in East Liberty every Saturday afternoon for three years, spoke against the "war of American colonialism" and said the group presented "an ongoing visual against the war."
"The anti-war movement unconditionally supports the troops," said Paul Abernathy of Iraq Veterans Against the War. The pro-war crowd, he says, is only selectively supportive of troops, and not of troops like him. "We've been called traitors, we've been threatened," he says.
Enlisting at 17 for college money and with a desire to serve his country, Abernathy says, he didn't realize quite what he was getting into. "I was against the war all along -- then my reasons changed" after going to Iraq, he says. He served as a staff sergeant for a year beginning in January, 2003 in Baghdad, Al Anbar and Balaq.
"First and foremost," he says he objected to "the lack of a plan. The plan was to invade and just sit there so we might have permanent bases." He says he was further disillusioned by the version of democracy he saw in Iraq: "If Iraqi newspapers start printing anti US-occupation articles, they'll be shut down. This is the antithesis of democracy."
At the rally's end, Francine Porter of the anti-war group Codepink echoed a statement many in the crowd had been making: "Hopefully we won't have to march again next year."