The fifth anniversary of the Iraq war on March 19 will spur a range of protests over the coming weeks, from marches to a proposal to cage military recruiters.
The latter approach is the brainchild of Pittsburgh Organizing Group, which has protested military recruitment at more than 60 pickets since 2005. In its statement, POG says it will protest on Mar. 19 by holding "a torch-lit march" to its favorite picketing target, Oakland's Forbes Avenue recruiting station, at 6:30 p.m. "If the station remains open," the statement says, "we intend to evict it and everything inside of it, occupy the location, and transform it into something useful for the community. We'll also be bringing a movable cage in which to confine military recruiters until they no longer pose a danger to friends and neighbors."
Well, not really. "The whole thing was meant to be ironic, as an expression of what should happen to these people who come into our communities and lure people into going to fight for corporations and a corrupt government," explains POG member Mike Avallone of Bloomfield, admitting that the recruiting station will likely be closed at that hour anyway. "We may not even get to the recruiting station," he adds. "There are so many other potential targets in that area -- war profiteers and research[ers]."
In any case, Avallone says, "We're not going to go putting someone actually in a cage," which, rather than functional, will be what he terms "protest art."
But the very thought of incarcerating recruiters has generated a firestorm online. Following coverage by Fox News' Brit Hume, right-wing blogger Michelle Malkin and others in the anti-antiwar movement, POG has received an onslaught of hate mail.
"You sound an awful lot like a domestic enemy," says one of 1,500 such e-mails POG had received by March 16. "It is hard to believe that people as stupid as you and your group have the ability to breathe," says another. "It is people like you that will be responsible for the deaths of your children at the hands of Godless Muslims," says a third. POG has posted some highlights of the response on its Web site, www.organizepittsburgh.org, which has seen an almost tenfold increase in traffic since the cage protest was announced.
"We are just astounded at how hysterical the right has been with threats of violence and death in response to what we thought was a rather obvious joke," Avallone adds. "From what we've been hearing, it sounds like at least some people will be showing up" to protest POG.
Peace activists, meanwhile, are planning a series of antiwar events 10 days later.
"This whole decision to speak out against the war ... has a strong faith grounding," said the Rev. Randy Bush of East Liberty Presbyterian Church, announcing a March 29 Oakland rally, march and memorial service. "For the Christian community, if they're listening to the words they're actually reading" on Palm Sunday (March 16), he said, "the message is one of peace. ... The challenge for a faith community is to listen to the true message of this week [and] to honor the troops by no longer sending the troops forth ... through failed policies."
Bush spoke before a small March 14 gathering in Garfield's Thomas Merton Center, which has sponsored the larger antiwar protests since an initial march of 5,000 people in February 2003.
He also announced that a memorial service would take place the day after the 4,000th American war death, which may come soon.
Vanessa Wills, a University of Pittsburgh graduate student from Lawrenceville and a member of Pitt's student antiwar group, says students from a number of local colleges would join the March 29 events.
"It's important for students to speak out because we're among those most affected in a direct way" by the war, Wills says -- from the number of Iraq veterans sharing their classrooms to the expense of the war, which has cost the economy billions of dollars, if not trillions (by some recent estimates) and tightened student-loan availability. "What we really need to do is build a mass movement ... that really puts pressure against the war," she said.
One Iraq war veteran, Sgt. Helen Gearhardt, explains why she plans to speak at the Oakland events on March 29. "I have to take real responsibility for the damage that has been done in Iraq," she says. "The Iraqi civilians, its infrastructure, they are so much worse off for our efforts." She blames the civilian war planners.
The Highland Park resident says she enlisted in the Army National Guard in May 2000 because she was deep in debt from a "healthcare disaster" in her family and wanted financial help to return to school -- a contract the army has been slow to finish fulfilling, she adds. Gerhardt served as a trucker in Iraq from June 2003 through July 2004, and remains in the reserve until next month.
"What I'm most ashamed of are our violations of the Geneva Conventions," she says, citing the use of torture. "We have used that buzzword, terrorism, to destroy people who had no part in what happened on Sept. 11," she added.
Merton board and antiwar committee member David Meieran noted that the March 29 rally, like the pre-war rally in 2003, will include a stop at Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute on Fifth Avenue, since the Institute develops products that aid the war effort.
"Hopefully, this time this will be the last time we have to go to SEI," Meieran concluded. "At least for this war."