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The Qualm Before the Storm

A year later, rain-drenched protesters question the bombing of Iraq

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"Has the parade started?" one riot-ready city police officer asked another, lounging amid a dozen squad cars, paddy wagons and an empty Port Authority bus on Roberto Clemente Drive in Oakland. They were waiting for anti-war marchers to get out of hand during the March 20 rally, but it was 2 p.m. and the peaceful crowd had already passed them by. In fact, most of the police had just missed the only "violent" act of the afternoon: State Sen. Jim Ferlo and other rally leaders snatching "Bush-Cheney" campaign signs from half a dozen high school kids who had suddenly joined the head of the march as it started.

 

That November's presidential election was an issue among marchers was just one sign of how much had changed in the year since 122 Pittsburgh anti-war protesters were arrested Downtown at the start of the Iraq War. Another sign was the crowd of perhaps 1,000, by some organizers' estimates. About a fifth identified themselves as first-time protesters.

 

"It's a slim crowd compared to last year," said Ed Hostetter of Shadyside, standing on Oakland's Flagstaff Hill as marchers gathered beginning at noon that day. "I think there's a general reluctance to question authority. A lot of people get caught up in respect for war -- that once you start it you can't question the policy." Driving rain soon forced him to tear a hole in his umbrella to accommodate the stick of his sign, which featured a multiple-choice test: Has the war decreased or increased terror? Has the war made Al Qaeda more or less involved in Iraq?

 

The crowd, which stood in the mud cheering speaker after speaker, seemed clear on the answers. "We feel safe standing up to the Bush regime today," Matt Balotta, one of the "Pittsburgh 122," called to the crowd, "because we know that we stand with millions of people around the world."

 

One of those standing in the rain with her two little daughters was Rebecca Reid, wife of long-time Pittsburgh peace activist Vincent Eirene. Fittingly, Eirene spent this anniversary protesting in Iraq itself. According to Reid, who's been in frequent contact with her husband, most Iraqis want an immediate end to the occupation, and have little faith that the Americans will be able to restore order to the country: "He sees no rebuilding evidence at all," she said. Living conditions are bad: "He went to a hospital in Iraq, they lack equipment, there are dying children. The poverty of the people, it's very desperate ... there's 50 percent unemployment."

 

It took more than five minutes for those at the head of the chanting crowd, which took off quickly past Flagstaff Hill toward Forbes Avenue at 1:45, to realize that members of the North Allegheny Teenage Republicans were holding Bush signs beside the lead march banner's message: "Pittsburgh Still Says No to War!!" After removing their signs, Ferlo led the youngsters to a police officer who stood with 18 other bicycle cops. "Just sit tight here a couple of seconds," said the officer, while the kids protested. "You're too young," the officer began, then seemed to think better of it. He let them go after the head of the march had safely passed.

 

"I think it's funny that they're against the war and for peace and they attack us," said Evan Scott of McCandless, a member of the North Allegheny group. He shadowed the march to the end.

 

March participants were not a monolithic group. Yaron Rachlin of Point Breeze -- formerly of Israel -- was surprised to hear so much said against Israel's treatment of Palestinians during the pre-march speeches.

 

But many were like Gen Davidson of Regent Square -- regular participants in programs run by Garfield's Thomas Merton Center, the main organizer of this march and other local anti-war activities. Davidson has been helping to hold a peace vigil at the corner of Forbes and Braddock avenues once a week for months. "We get a lot of honks on the corner," she says. "We didn't used to."

 

"I'm here to support my boyfriend," said marcher Erin Baldauf, 20, of Warren, Pa. Her boyfriend, she said, is a 24-year-old member of the National Guard serving in Iraq. "They never expected to be deployed," she said. He agrees with her march participation, she says: "We're on the same political grounds."

 

Pitt student Derrick Cephas, 18, of Baltimore, said his father, an Army soldier, recently returned from Iraq. His adjustment hasn't been easy, Cephas said; he doesn't seem to want to talk about his experience: "What he says could be summed up with 'This country doesn't know how to take care of its own.'" But "there was a positive change," Cephas added. "He realized how beautiful the people were there, and the richness of the culture. He loved the architecture; he saw the temples of Babylon. He would've liked to have gone for a vacation, not an occupation."

 

The march's few spectators had mixed reactions. "Well, what are they for? Are they for dictatorship of Iraq?" asked Fred Pellegrini of Oakland, standing in a Craig Street doorway, smiling at the crowd. "You know what all these kids need? They need two years in military service. They need to be drafted. That's the best thing that ever happened to me."

 

One man on the porch of the Pennsylvania Athletic Association building on Fifth Avenue, in suit and tie and gold name badge, settled for offering the crowd his finger.

 

Other spectators joined the protest. Rolf Klemm and daughter Kirsten had journeyed from Baltimore to visit the University of Pittsburgh, since Kirsten is considering an application. Rolf had never marched before, but said he had long sympathized with the march's purpose: "There are many other rulers one could make the same arguments [about]," he says of Saddam Hussein. "We certainly chose to apply our military selectively."

 

As the march ended at 2:20, the crowd filled the long block of Bigelow between the Cathedral of Learning and the William Pitt Student Union. A dozen county police on horseback looked on, waiting to follow sit-in participants to CMU. 

 

"It was a very large police presence" -- larger perhaps than even the group that watched the trouble-free march in January 2003 that drew 5,000 protesters to Oakland, said Lai-San Suto, ACLU program coordinator in Pittsburgh, who led of a group of 15 march observers. "From what I saw, they were mostly hands off," she adds. "We didn't see any arrests. We didn't see any serious confrontations." City police confirmed the afternoon was trouble-free.

 

Concluded Tim Vining, head of the Merton Center: "This is the largest anti-war event since the war started. We're not going away. We're going to be here until this war is over."

 

The mostly young crowd, exulted protest veteran Marty O'Malley, means "this peace movement in Pittsburgh is going to be around for a long, long time."

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