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Anti-war protestors converging here

Organizers expect the varied activities this weekend will attract the largest war protest since Vietnam

Wednesday, January 22, 2003

By Lori Shontz, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As they marched through Washington, D.C., in October to protest a potential war against Iraq, Tim Vining and Alex Bradley had similar thoughts.

"We realized that the only thing that can stop this war is a massive mobilization of people in the streets," said Vining, executive director of the Thomas Merton Center. Such a mobilization is happening this weekend, when organizers stage what they believe will be the largest anti-war protest in Pittsburgh in 30 years.

The Regional Convergence Against the War, which Vining and Bradley -- a member of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group -- started planning after the October march, continues a series of protests that appear to be gaining strength in the United States and abroad.

That October protest was the largest such event since the Vietnam War years. The one last weekend attracted an even larger crowd. Organizers want to keep the momentum going with continued events in other cities.

A large variety of activities will be centered in the Oakland area beginning Friday evening and continuing until Sunday afternoon.

Groups have committed to come from Boston, Connecticut and Lansing, Mich., and a hip-hop musical act from California is traveling by Greyhound bus -- a 2 1/2-day trip -- to perform for free.

There will be Friday night concerts and Sunday morning church services. Movies, lectures and teach-ins. Socialists and anarchists. Women knitting, a gay rights pink block (yes, everyone will wear pink), people dressed as Steelers fans and animal rights activists with their dogs, which Vining calls "puppies for peace."

"People need to be able to get involved the way they want to get involved," Bradley said. "If you try to fit everything into a homogenous box, which is what society tries to do. ... That's not the world we're trying to create."

Each of the weekend days has a signature event. On Saturday, there will be a Parade for Peace, starting at Station Square at 3 p.m. and proceeding down East Carson Street, probably all the way to the Birmingham Bridge. On Sunday at 1 p.m., there will be a March and Rally Against the War starting at the William Pitt Union.

Afterward, some participants will stage a die-in, showing graphically the costs of war. Others will pursue "mass nonviolent direct actions and autonomous actions." They want the weekend's activities to make Americans question "why the life of an Iraqi child is less valuable than an American solider."

City of Pittsburgh police met Monday with representatives from other law-enforcement agencies --state, county, Port Authority, Carnegie Mellon and University of Pittsburgh -- to plan for the weekend.

"For the most part, I believe most people attending will be demonstrating only," Chief Robert W. McNeilly Jr. said. "We know that there are some who have already expressed a desire to be arrested, and we know that there will be people in attendance who will attempt to take advantage of the situation with the numbers of people and all of the confusion it's created."

McNeilly said the officers' primary responsibility would be to "maintain everyone's safety." Officers from several law enforcement agencies also will videotape the proceedings to maintain a record of what occurs in the event that laws are broken.

The organizers didn't plan the convergence to end the day before U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq make their report to the United Nations. That is just a welcome coincidence.

The planning began long before the U.N. set its timetable. At that time, the organizers were more concerned with avoiding Martin Luther King Jr. Day and having enough time to pull together such a wide variety of events.

They wanted to make sure, too, not to limit themselves to Western Pennsylvania. "We had to have larger numbers," Vining said. "Three hundred or 400 people was not enough, even for Pittsburgh."

The organizers took care of everything down to the smallest details. In the e-mails sent to solicit people willing to house out-of-town protesters for the weekend, they asked people to be specific about everything down to whether they permitted smoking or owned cats.

Bradley was the first to suggest calling the event a "convergence," a term everyone liked because they think it reflects a "bottom-up" style of organization rather than "top-down."

Among the events are a teach-in at 5 p.m. Friday called "The Day After: A Public Discussion," a town hall meeting at 11 a.m. Saturday called "Working People Against the Wars" and a forum at 6 p.m. Sunday titled, "U.S. War on Iraq: Impact on Palestine?" There will be several peace vigils, including the weekly vigil at Penn and Highland avenues in East Liberty, and medical, legal and direct action training for anyone who wants it.

The concerts, which will be held at indoor locations in Oakland, will feature 28 bands, all of which are performing for free.

"It's so people have something to do at night," said Toni Bartone of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, who is coordinating the music. "If they're not from the area, this is something that will be close."

"It's also about community, having a shared experience," Bradley added. "We want people to go through the same types of things."

Lori Shontz can be reached at lshontz@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1722.

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