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Marchers' message: Give peace a chance

Sunday, January 26, 2003

Catholic priests walked next to communists. Housewives and attorneys mixed with World War II veterans and full-time peace activists. Grey-haired grandmothers and teenagers with body piercings chanted anti-war slogans side by side.

Protesters move down East Carson Street on the South Side yesterday. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

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And they all marched together down Carson Street yesterday afternoon to the beat of anarchist drums, collecting pink balloons from gay-rights groups in a colorful and peaceful display of opposition to a potential war with Iraq.

The only hint of trouble came after the official event, when about 70 people, mostly anarchists costumed as "Steelers fans for peace," returned to Station Square by marching down one side of Carson Street, blocking traffic. They refused to move to the sidewalk despite repeated requests from mounted police, but no one was arrested.

The crowd was notable not only for its diversity, but for its size. The Post-Gazette counted about 1,300 people passing Carson Street at 22nd Street.

Police estimated the crowd at 1,500 to 2,000, and organizers put the crowd size as high as 5,000. By any count, the march was likely Pittsburgh's largest anti-war protest in 30 years, although non-political events, such as the March for Jesus, have drawn far larger crowds.

South Side residents going about their daily business marveled at the numbers.

"I'm surprised to see that [anybody] believes in anything," said Ron Molinaro, co-owner of Pizza Vesuvio at 15th Street, who was assembling a pie.

Too many Americans, he said, are numb and unwilling to hold their leaders accountable. "As long as they can go to Ikea and to fast food chains and to strip malls, they're content."

This story was written by Post-Gazette staff writer Lori Shontz based on her reporting and that of staff writers Bill Heltzel, Ann Rodgers-Melnick, Milan Simonich and Bill Schackner.

Although the "Parade for Peace" was part of the Thomas Merton Center and Pittsburgh Organizing Group's Regional Anti-War Convergence, most of the participants hailed from the Pittsburgh area, as evidenced by this sign: "Yinz Guys are War Pigs."

Some did come from as far as Boston, including a line of drumming anarchists with bandannas drawn over their faces. Asked what they did when they weren't marching in demonstrations, one replied, "Practice to march in demonstrations!"

But many of the local people who dominated the march said it was their first protest. Gordon Denny, 39, a Canadian business executive who lives on the North Side, said his girlfriend brought him.

"But I don't think it's the right time to go to war," he said.

The Rev. William Hausen, 64, a parochial vicar at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Shadyside, is a protest veteran. He marched with Martin Luther King in Washington, D.C., and has marched there annually against abortion. Pope John Paul II, he noted, has strongly opposed an attack on Iraq.

South Side residents and business people weren't sure, beforehand, what to make of the march. "It's a big hype for nothing," said Albert Vogt, sitting behind the counter at his hardware store 30 minutes before the scheduled 3 p.m. start. "They're talking about thousands of people here, but it doesn't look like that."

Janice Dreshman of Regent Square watches as protesters are reflected in the window as she has a coffee at Starbucks on East Carson Street. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

And it didn't, not at first. With temperatures in the mid-20s, people didn't start congregating in the parking lot outside Hooters in Station Square until 15 minutes or so before the march. Gradually, dozens of people turned into hundreds.

Two police officers on motorcycles, Robert Zwier and Raymond Strobel, led the marchers onto Carson Street at 3:10 p.m. Zwier exchanged friendly words with any peace advocate who approached him. The marchers included his brother-in-law and sister-in-law.

By the time the demonstrators reached 11th Street, they were encountering spectators -- and free hot chocolate, served by the owners and employees of Ethnic Artz and Diva's. Half a block away, Alex Ward, an Englishman from Coventry who is working here and living on the South Side, watched the proceedings.

"I can go two ways," he said. "If there's a bully in the school, you've got to go and stop him before something happens, before he kills people. But at the same time, I feel so sad that we're sending hundreds of thousands of our boys over there to possibly die for something nobody's really done yet."

As the march neared its midpoint, Paul and Sibyl McNulty, a fiftyish software technician and attorney from Mt. Lebanon, looked back down Carson Street to see protesters as far as the eye could see.

"It's a lot bigger than I expected," he said. "If this is going on all over the country, it should make a difference."

The street scene transported some to another time, and the experience was a sobering one.

Inside The Bead Mine at 17th Street, Karen Paulsen's voice trailed off as she stood with a few other women, talking about war's carnage and how it changes the way a country is seen around the world. As she spoke, the marchers under police escort passed the window where she stood.

"It just brings back memories of Vietnam, and it's upsetting, " said Paulsen, 58, of Decatur, Ill., a dental hygienist who was stationed with the Air Force in Turkey during the Vietnam War. "I'm for the people marching and I feel sorry for them, too."

So was Regis Schnippert, 79, of the South Side, a former Navy signalman who served on an aircraft carrier during World War II. He picked a spot on Carson near 20th Street and stood perfectly still as shouts and chants wafted for blocks in either direction

"I think they should stand up and be counted," he said. "This is what this country is supposed to be about, isn't it?"

Had a case been adequately made for an invasion of Iraq?

"No, not in my opinion," he said. "I'm not convinced that this thing can't be settled peacefully."

Not everyone agreed with the marchers. Daniel Mross, 24, of Knoxville, stood on a corner near 25th Street and used a bullhorn to heckle marchers. He contended that they are naive to think a dictator such as Saddam Hussein can be left alone. "I support our president," Mross said. "War is necessary at certain times."

Sister Louise Olsofka was among the protesters on the South Side. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

A bearded peace advocate stepped in and momentarily cut off Mross. "Bush loves idiots," the man said before darting back to the street. Mross said the taunt did not bother him, and that he is prepared to go into the armed services if called.

Joe Longo, 27, of Brentwood, also ridiculed the war protesters, whose chants of "give peace a chance" puzzled him. "Are we supposed to forget the twin towers?" Longo asked of the terrorist attack on New York City.

But even people who disagreed with the group's position supported their right to protest. "Saddam did wrong, and we've got a right to fight," said Rich Gainer, 24, who was carrying take-out food back to his home on Mary Street. He gestured at the protesters. "But everybody's got a right to do what they want."

The march continued past its planned end at the Birmingham Bridge because the city offered to make PAT buses available at 33 rd Street to carry protesters back to Station Square. Some protesters decided to walk when told that the bus site was near the FBI building. But Tim Vining, executive director of the Merton Center, expressed his gratitude.

"The local police have been extremely cooperative," he said. "We feel we've been allowed to exercise our right to free speech and to make our message known."

The march reached the Slovak Catholic Sokol Center, 2912 Carson St., less than an hour after it began. Many of the demonstrators had already peeled off to return to their cars. A few hundred people lingered for another 10 to 15 minutes, as a drum corps pounded out a beat and demonstrators chanted slogans, like "We love Pittsburgh, We hate war," in call-and-response fashion.

The last group of protesters then headed back down Carson Street. Their chants became more profane, and some pulled masks or bandannas over their faces. Mounted police officers surrounded the group, using their horses to push the protesters toward the sidewalk.

The group dispersed as it approached Station Square, after nothing more serious than some verbal sparring with police.

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

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