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Flashback: The day the war broke out

Blog posts reflect the views of their authors.

Halifax, March 20, 2003. Hundreds upon hundreds of people take to the streets to condemn the U.S. invasion of Iraq the night before.

Halifax, March 20, 2003. Hundreds upon hundreds of people take to the streets to condemn the U.S. invasion of Iraq the night before.

A chronicle of the response of Haligonians -- and authority -- to the first day of the war. Similar demonstrations take place in Shelburne, Wolfville and Antigonish and a silent vigil in Sydney, Cape Breton, as well as in Fredericton, New Brunswick (see below) and around the world. By the author, from reports submitted to Shunpiking Magazine and TML Daily.

(HALIFAX, 20 March 2003) – TODAY a mass democracy meeting broke out at Dalhousie University on Canada’s Atlantic coast against Bush’s barbarous war against Iraq, beginning a day of mass opposition and upheaval that swept across the nation, from east to west, continuing a wave of protest unfolding around the globe, first Oceania, then Asia, the Middle East and Europe and onto the Americas.

Beginning at noon, students united in Dal for Peace and Justice took a stand in front of the Student Union Building. They unfurled a large banner emblazoned with hundreds and hundreds of signatures of students and faculty opposed to the war. Students began to speak on a megaphone. It is cold, but the sun shone brilliantly. The sidewalk is broad and hopeful. There are but some ten youth to begin, but no-one is tentative or hesitant.

Others stop to listen and ask questions before proceeding to their next class or on to the cafeteria.

What is truly remarkable is that there is no “closed mike.” Everyone is encouraged to speak, to express their conscience.

Professor Isaac Saney declared that the war had proceeded on the basis of a big lie – the brazen ultimatum that “Saddam Hussein and his sons must leave Iraq within 48 hours” – but that anyone who had read Bush’s speech of March 17 could see that the US ruling circles had planned to invade, occupy and dismember Iraq regardless, as part of its geopolitical strategy to redivide the Middle East, attack the European powers and encircle China. This war, whether legitimated or not by the United Nations Security Council, is in clear violation of international law, the UN Charter itself and the will of the world’s people. Anarchy and might-is-right is unjustifiable.

Isaac speaks strongly and vigorously. Some more students stop to listen. The only path forward is to uphold the rule of law and build the people’s movement, including establishing a genuinely anti-war government in Canada and denying access to Canadian airspace and ports for foreign governments using our soil to further wars of aggression. He declares that the Chrétien government, instead of standing for peace, is participating in the US war with its naval and troop deployments to the Persian Gulf and, at the same time, drooling over the pickings from the booty of war in the name of “reconstruction of Iraq.” All Canadian troops and ships must be returned to Canada!

A history student said that Anglo-American and European powers give themselves all rights to dictate and control the resources and raw materials of the world, especially the third world. The double standards of the US and UK is very clear, when they justify the invasion of Iraq as a “humanitarian” measure. But bear in mind, he recalled, all the reports and documents that had been submitted to the UN earlier in the 1990s regarding the impending genocide which unfolded in Ruanda. It was these two powers who blocked any move to have the UN effectively intervene, and the greatest humanitarian catastrophe and holocaust of the 1990s ensued.

Spencer Osberg, a senior journalism student at King’s, condemned the “spin” of the monopoly media, especially CNN. They have one agenda they are “reporting” and another away underneath. “We need not only to read between the lines, to realize what they are not “reporting”, but look to and develop alternative, independent media which will spread real information.” Students started to exchange notes on what were the most reliable websites to pay attention to.

It seemed that the stronger and clearer the political stands being articulated, the broader the response. The consciousness and clarity about the forces in combat that was being expressed wasn’t something spontaneous or sentimental; I recognized a number of the students who spoke as having participated in the popular weekly Halifax Political Forums we had started well before the war – on the theme “Peace & Nations in the 21st Century: Understanding the Causes of War.” We had created our own space in order to collectively educate ourselves on the central issues involved. The war was prepared; our resistance must also be prepared and organized, with a definite program and objective. The battle of ideas, as some people call it, is one of the important fronts. Interestingly, apart from Prof. Saney, the university faculty was noticeable by its absence though any number had signed the banner. About seventy five students are now gathered.

Another student said that “no MP in the Halifax metro area, whatever their party, had convened a meeting of electors in their riding and consulted with Haligonians as to their opinion. No one in the Parliament had listened. We are faced with an unpresentative democracy.” Her intervention opened up another vital aspect of the war.

But, another student quickly pointed out, it is the people who are listening and speaking, that is to say, they are opposing their marginalization by the so-called “decision makers.”

A woman from Dal Peace said only the anti-war movement was holding forums and assemblies such as this where people could express themselves on such an important issue. This is the path we must advance on, in renewing and building genuine democracy, where the people’s will actually becomes law.

Another student declared that no more will we submit to the calculated accusations that to oppose the U.S. is to be “anti American.” Millions of Americans are “anti American.”

A well-known vendor of a street paper for the homeless and of Cape Breton music, Jack MacDonald, spoke. He had been standing off to the side, listening avidly. I encouraged him to speak.

Jack, an older man, said the US invasion was the cowardly act of desperation and of a bully against the poor people of an independent country. He said that it may be economically hard for people like himself and the workers, but we all should boycott the US products and not kowtow to the blackmail of how our jobs depend on having a position with the US market.

Then I spoke too, from Shunpiking magazine as well as the People’s Front of which I am a member. On the question of the role of the media, I said that we must be very vigilant as we are faced and will be faced in the coming days and weeks not with journalism but massive information and psychological warfare in which anything goes. The truth will be what will work for the Pentagon, which is driving the coverage. The entire “story” of the “sudden target of opportunity,” orchestrated on prime time TV on March 19-20, with the whole world lined up to watch the clock ticking down, is unbelievable and fictional, he said. CNN has already trained 160 staff in “war training.” The “embedded” journalists and their anchors are already brazenly carrying justifications for crimes against humanity with their unsubstantiated “news” and “fears” that the Iraqi government is planning to use the civilian population as “human shields” against the advancing Anglo-American liberators. This is self-serving propaganda in the form of reporting, as Canadian Forces Halifax itself, the largest naval base in Canada, is situated right beside the North End, a working class civilian neighbourhood. The Iraqi people will resist with arms any foreign occupation of their land, which they have every right under international law to do. Any “regrettable” slaughter of civilians cannot be “conditioned” let alone justified.

Secondly, I declared that “the arrogant dictate of Chretien broadcast that morning to Canada that now is not the time to question the war and its cause at the very moment when the entire world is trying to fathom the rationale behind such a seemingless senseless war not only indicates his unity with Anglo-American aggression but the Canadian prime minister is threatening Canadians.

“It is an attempt to quell and divert the ‘anti-Americanism’ of Canadians and split them between ‘pro-American’ and ‘anti-American’; it indicates that all those speaking from conscience will be targeted as part of internal war measures in the name of ‘collective’ and ‘human security’. The Liberals have already authorized foreign units such as the FBI, CIA and Customs to operate in Canadian ports such as Halifax, the HQ of Maritime Command, where it has arbitrarily established “closed military zones” to shield US and Canadian warships from Canadian opinion.” These measures were on the path leading to the Security and Perimeter defence agreement between the USA and Canada being negotiated in Washington by John Manley, with the annexation of our country to be the result. The logic of events, as revealed later that very same day, would bring the criminalization of dissent to the fore faster than I thought at noon!

I could only hail the spirit of the student youth who had initiated the mass democracy and encourage them further. “We must be sober, avoid pessimism and rally ever more closely on a united path to peace and genuine independence for Canada, boldly defending the rights of all. No Harbour for War!

Isaac Saney then came back to declare that the attack against Iraq is an attack against the entire Arab world, especially the resistance movement of the Palestinians who, with their steadfast opposition to the US-Israeli “new Arab world order”, had been the main factor for peace in the Middle East. Israel has stationed some 20 per cent of its air force in Turkey and has troops operating with US forces in Jordan. “We defend the rights of the Palestinians for self-determination as we oppose US aggression against Iraq!” His statement was loudly applauded.

Another student said that, while the opinion of the world’s people, had failed to stop this war, the struggle to establish a genuine and meaningful peace is a long and worthy path on which everyone should all proceed.

By 12:45, as student after student and members of the community came forward to speak on the war and express their deep concern for peace, the number of students had grown from ten to well over one hundred and fifty.

Many other students also spoke, either in brief or at length. They expressed the pure and profound sentiment of humanity. They made practical proposals to expand the movement. Everyone listened with attention. The organizers encouraged their fellow students to speak their minds, to speak out. Every intervention, however halting or brief, was warmly applauded. By actively occupying such space, people can act against and confront this unjust war and Canada’s conciliation and end their marginalization. It is the people who are sovereign, not the war makers and their Canadian quislings. By creating such space as happened today at Dalhousie, the first new day of Bush’s war, we can definitely bring about change.

* * *

2003.3.20.Halifax.Can'tBeNeutralTHE STUDENTS marched through and out of the Dalhousie campus, shouting anti-war slogans and proceeded to downtown Halifax, assembling at the Public Library. Here everyone was to gather at the end of the work day. Other groups of youth had assembled early that morning beginning at 8:00a.m. in the North End under the banner of the anti-imperialist Bloc Against the Empire, slowly making their way downtown, as they made numerous stops to rally. At every stop, such as the Halifax Armouries, they gave a resounding NO! to the U.S. war plans and Canada’s collusion. Here everyone was to gather at the end of the work day. But it was still mid-afternoon. Now numbering two hundred and more, all the groups forming as one marched across the downtown onto the US Consulate secreted high midst the glitz of a waterfront office tower and Sheraton’s casino, their slogans resounding through cavernous streets. A number of youth again spoke and recited poetry, then headed back to the Public Library, where the main rally was to commence at 5 p.m. In front of the Exxon/Esso building, everyone stopped as another youth gave a speech about the involvement and predatory aims of the giant American oil corporations in Bush’s war.

Less than a block away from the Library, twenty police, armed with batons and taser guns, made their move with a hastily worked out pretext. It was as if Chrétien himself, the liberal democrat who grabs protestors by the throat, had given the order. As the demonstration swung around the corner from Barrington Street onto Spring Garden Road, the police suddenly demanded that the peace protestors immediately move onto the sidewalk. It was crazy. All along the youth had been marching on the road – escorted by these same police! When some of the youth did not move fast enough for them, policemen started to violently seize one young activist. The protestors demanded that he be released as he had violated no law. And they sat down right then and there, chanting “release him! release him!”, refusing to move an inch.

Scores of police cowardly descended on the youth, using baton and taser guns (electric shock), arresting eleven youth in all.

Said journalist Jon Elmer, “they targeted youth who were active on the bullhorn shouting slogans or who were giving speeches as we went along. They knew exactly who they were arresting.”

Journalist Simon Helweg-Larsen added, “Not only was the selective, and seemingly targeted, nature of the arrests suspicious, the tactics used by the police far outweighed the threat posed.”

Another older man – on the sidewalk, and not on the road – started to vigorously question the police, asking them to justify their violence. “Look at what they are doing!”, he declared to one policeman. He was quickly hit in the chest, grabbed by his long grey beard and physically dragged to a police car. Two very young girls were badly and brutally mistreated. One youth said he was tasered three times.

The police attack was entirely uncalled for. Or was it?

It can only be explained as creating a pretext to give credence to the line of the establishment that the anti-war movement is full of “violent protestors” and “terrorists”, to deliberately criminalize dissent right on the very first day of the war and drive a wedge between the movement and the Canadian people, as if they are two separate entities. Such is the confidence of the government in its positions. Such is its apprehension about the response of the Canadian people.

While the Chrétien government is complaining that the main issue with Saddam Hussein and Iraq is one of chemical weapons, it is simultaneously using electric shock weapons against Canadian citizens just as at the Quebec Summit in May, 2000 it used tear gas, tazers, rubber bullets and water cannons against 75,000 Canadians demonstrating against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas.

There was not a single example of violence by the youth who, in the face of all the police intimidation and provocation, maintained their cool and an incredible self-restraint.

(Yet, without exception, the entire Halifax media, including the CBC, later changed the facts and said that the Police had only moved after the youth resisted. Was the response of the media also worked out or instinctively authority sympathetic?)

Despite the arrests the youth regrouped, defying the violence and the disinformation that they are troublemakers and finished their march to the Public Library.

Group after group arrived one after the other from different locales throughout the city, including contingents of postal and other workers, trade unionists and political and religious personalities, swelling the crowd to over two thousand people.

A speaker immediately denounced the police attack, showing that the police provocation had fallen flat. The people marched as one through the downtown streets once again onto the U.S. Consulate. Iraqi Canadians flew their national flags proudly. Haligonians in their hundreds and thousands voiced their opposition to Bush’s war. Chrétien may whistle Dixie into the wind but Canadians across this land denounced the U.S. empire for its crimes against humanity. Only after the main demonstration dispersed did the police release the ten anti-imperialist youth and the elderly man from the gaol, without a single charge being laid.

The sun began to set, and a full moon emerged in the eastern sky over the Atlantic Ocean. Sometime today winter passed into spring. A season of transition, but to what?

Fredericton takes to the streets

We are posting below a report from Martimes Indymedia by Ryan Pollard on the March 20 anti-war demonstration in Fredericton.

* * *

TODAY in Fredericton, 200-300 people showed up downtown at City Hall to protest the beginning of the illegal military invasion of Iraq. At 5 o’clock, when the emergency rally was supposed to begin, it appeared as though turnout may be sparse, as though word had not reached many that an emergency protest was to happen. However, just as the preliminary speeches were about to begin, the throng began to swell, as late comers showed, and passersby spontaneously joined. All ages and backgrounds were present. Some preliminary speeches were given, including a Robert Burns poem. It was decided by group consensus to take to the streets, and traverse the Westmoreland Bridge to the North Side. As the group approached the ramp onto the bridge, the Fredericton Police kindly blocked traffic and escorted us. Most drivers were patient, if not gleefully supportive. Honks and shouts of encouragement outnumbered birds flipped ten to one, by my count.

Halfway across the bridge, the front rank broke and raced to the back, giving the word that the march would backtrack across the bridge. The police didn’t miss a beat, and escorted us back. Those driving taxis, transport trucks, families in mini-vans, seniors and teenagers honked, waved, and flashed the two-fingers for “Peace” in support.

Once off of the bridge, the march turned back onto Queen Street, and back towards City Hall. The crowd gathered round, some more speeches were given, and a dialogue initiated. As the war has now begun, it may be discouraging, and easy to think that the peace effort has ultimately failed. The crowd talked about where to find alternatives to mainstream media, and how efforts can be made, both individually and as a community, to try and dampen the war effort. Also, the plight of the coalition soldiers themselves was discussed. Further, there was also a petition circulated to bar George Bush from visiting Canada, as is scheduled in a few months.

There were similar demonstrations in Shelburne, Wolfville and Antigonish and a silent vigil in Sydney, Cape Breton.

Meanwhile the CBC reports on March 20 that “the navy in Halifax is dusting off its rifles while police keep a special watch on government buildings.”

Further actions are planned for Fredericton in the coming weeks, including ongoing vigils, and a Code Pink demo on March 29.

On Saturday, March 22, almost 2,000 people in Halifax again demonstrated against the war on Iraq in open sympathy with the Iraqi people

On Saturday, March 22, almost 2,000 people in Halifax again demonstrated against the war on Iraq in open sympathy with the Iraqi people

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Tony Seed maintains a weblog at http://tonyseed.wordpress.com/

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