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Day of Action: 5,000 protest in Pittsburgh streets against war in Iraq

Monday, January 27, 2003

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Five thousand people marched slushy streets under a steady snowfall yesterday in the culmination of a weekend of anti-war events in Pittsburgh.

Thousands of anti-war protesters march in the snow on Forbes Avenue in Oakland yesterday. More photos. (John Beale, Post-Gazette)

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On Super Bowl Sunday, it was a peaceful but unquiet afternoon with blaring loud-speakers and thousands chanting slogans. They spoke through the signs they carried as well: "Regime change begins at home," "Who would Jesus bomb?" and one everyone on wind-chilled Fifth Avenue could relate too: "Freezin' for a Reason."

The Oakland march and rally in a 6-degree windchill was the second one in the weekend Regional Convergence Against the War co-sponsored by the Thomas Merton Center, the Pittsburgh Organizing Group and many other organizations. There were no arrests during the march, the largest peace rally in Pittsburgh since the Vietnam War era.

It ended with a die-in, in which people lay down in the street to represent the war dead. The mass of bodies were piled not atop each other, but massed close together to resemble the effect of a bomb blast. The huddled mass on and beneath the snow made an eerie spectacle.

Disparate groups -- children, teens, senior citizens, long-time lefties, newcomers, anarchists, nuns, and veterans -- took part in the event. Their stories follow.

Claire Schoyer is so strongly against a war with Iraq that she was willing to die for it.

At least, to mock die.

Claire Schoyer, a senior at the Pittsburgh High School for Creative and Performing Arts and co-leader of PAPPY, the Pittsburgh Association of Peacemakers and Proactive Youth, was willing to die a mock death on 25-degree pavement, but not to be arrested. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Still, several onlookers admired her fortitude as she lay down in the deepening snow in the middle of Fifth Avenue in Oakland -- especially with temperatures in the low-20s.

This was during a "die-in" meant to depict war casualties held at the end of yesterday's leftist March Against the War -- from Bigelow Boulevard left on Fifth, left on Meyran, left on Forbes, left on Craig and left on Fifth again.

As the march started, the 17-year-old Schoyer found herself in the very front, and felt comfortable there, and not just because her mother had brought replacements for the boots she'd soaked during a morning of making signs.

The Pittsburgh High School for Creative and Performing Arts senior co-leads the Pittsburgh Association of Peacemakers and Proactive Youth, called PAPPY, a group for area high school students that she co-founded in the fall. As she put it: "Our mission is to get kids to have a mission."

She hasn't lacked causes to care about since she was a child and helped stuff fliers for the late Peace Institute, where her mom, Linda, worked. One she's very active in now is the Sierra Club. But lately, her main mission has been to help prevent a war with Iraq -- a mission that took her with other PAPPY members to march in Washington, D.C.

"People think teenagers are apathetic but we're not," she said as she struggled with a 10-foot sign that used an eye, a heart and a dove to spell out "I Love Peace."

Helping her was her 12-year-old sister, Lucy, who wasn't the only family member marching. Linda Schoyer, who came with her husband, David, said, "I think [Claire's] probably bringing us back to our old passions."

Claire Schoyer can be very articulate about all the reasons she disagrees with how the United States is dealing with Iraq, and knows there are as many agendas as there were different groups in the march. But she hoped that, besides being part of the overall peace, she and her peers could show other teenagers how easy it is to get involved -- in various ways.

True to form, she was among the last to get up from the die-in, only after organizers cheered them and warned of hypothermia. She emerged from beneath a pile of friends with frozen hair, red cheeks and a smile.

She said she could not get arrested -- her school finals start today.

-- Bob Batz Jr.

For all the demonstration's youth, loudly chanting their refusal to serve the "Empty Warheads," as one creative sign-maker dubbed the president and vice president, the march also turned out more than its share of graybeards who started fighting wars at home more than 30 years ago.

For Tom Rodd, 57, an attorney in Morgantown, W.Va., the threatened war with Iraq is deja Vietnam.

"I know what Vietnam did to my generation, but some have forgotten how hard war is on a country," said Rodd, who is Claire Schoyer's uncle and spent two years in federal prison for refusing to register for the draft and protesting in Pittsburgh against that war. "It ruined American politics and a lot of families. We should have learned our lesson then that crazy unilateral wars are bad for our nation."

Mike Kielman, 50, Vicki Guy, 58, Mike Mihok, 53, and Mel Packer, 57, emergency room doctors and physicians assistants at UPMC Shadyside, retraced old 1960s and '70s anti-war activist footsteps while stepping out for a new generation -- their children.

"The biggest thing for me now is my 12-year-old son, Dylan, who's asked me if he will have to fight in this war," said Kielman, who fought the Army's denial of his application for conscientious objector classification during the Vietnam War. "I can't answer him, but I know I don't want him dying for a gallon of gas."

"The youth of this country have been asleep, but this threat of war has awakened them and it feels great," said Mihok, who marched in Washington during the 1972 Nixon inauguration. "My son is draft age and I can assure you he will not fight in this war."

Veteran peace activist Molly Rush lies in the middle of Fifth Avenue during the "die-in" protest yesterday. (Martha Rial, Post-Gazette)

Molly Rush, 67, of Dormont, a longtime activist with the Thomas Merton Center in Garfield, said yesterday's demonstration showed off the skills of the youthful organizers.

"There are a lot of new people here, not just your usual suspects," said Rush, one of the Plowshares 8 who hammered on nuclear warheads during a protest at a General Electric plant in King of Prussia, Montgomery County, in September 1980. "The young are more sophisticated. They read the international press. They have access to the Internet for organizing help. They understand the global view of our nation's imperialistic policy."

Marty O'Malley, 61, of Forest Hills, took a different path to the steps of the Software Engineering Institute in Oakland where he was the first speaker yesterday. It started in Danang harbor where he worked for a year until December 1966 as a Navy lieutenant "keeping the harbor clear for ships carrying bombs and body bags."

"Our current administration is impatient with the progress of inspections, but that is not a reason to go to war," O'Malley said, as wind-whipped snow obscured the military campaign ribbons on his jacket. "I ask you to work for peace and negotiations and sanctions and commitment to the political process to bring this threat of war to an end."

-- Don Hopey

America likes to act as the world's policeman. In the eyes of some, it's one corrupt cop.

"We should stop supporting all the people who violate civil rights, whether they're Arab or Israeli," said Dr. Nadeem Iqbal, a Marshall resident and president of the Pittsburgh chapter of the American Muslim Council.

Members of Muslim and Arab groups yesterday criticized the United States for a foreign policy double-standard.

While vilifying Saddam Hussein, they said, U.S. leaders support an Israel that mistreats Palestinians and hold hands with dictators around the globe when doing so serves the national interest.

"Saddam used to be our friend," said Dr. Mazin Qumsiyeh, a Palestinian-American geneticist at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., referring to a period in the 1980s when the United States was at odds with Iran.

Ahmed Abdelwahab, of Forest Hills, right, questioned why U.S. policy failures in Iraq aren't at the forefront of the national agenda. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

"Why war?" said Ahmed Abdelwahab, a Forest Hills resident and vice president of the American Muslim Council's Pittsburgh chapter.

"America has a lot of homework to do," he said. "It has first to build a reputation as a soldier of human rights and peace."

He said that U.S. policy gaffes have contributed to the instability and repression in the region and eroded the nation's credibility worldwide. For example, U.S. economic sanctions against Iraq have devastated the Iraqi people, not Saddam, he said.

No discussion of U.S. policy failures is part of the national debate on Iraq, he and many of his companions said.

Like many involved in yesterday's march, Omar Slater sees an economic motive in a U.S. rush to war with Iraq.

Because North Korea's nuclear weapons program poses a bigger risk, conflict with Iraq must be about oil and "making the world safe for investment," said Slater, a Penn Hills resident and president of the Islamic Council of Pittsburgh.

-- Joe Smydo

For a protest that included priests, lawyers, students, anarchists and grandmothers, they lacked one thing: an exit strategy.

That found Hami Ramani, 19, Jonas Moffat, 20, and Brandyn Bold, 16, locked between a cold sky and a frozen pavement. The trio were the last of the 150 die-in participants left bundled under blankets and sleeping bags as a circle of 50 supporters passed them cigarettes, granola bars and words of support.

"We're leaving whenever they tell us we have to go," said Ramani, a student at the University of Pittsburgh.

"We're not looking to get arrested or anything like that. We're just waiting for them to say we should leave," said Moffat.

Across the barricade 50 feet away, a group of city police stamped their feet against the cold.

"Everybody's waiting for those three to get up," explained Lt. Scott Schubert.

It remained for Beth Thornton, who had stayed on to wait out the end of the protest, to explain that each side was waiting for the other to move. Police Cmdr. William Valenta decided to break the impasse.

"How are you guys doing?" he asked the three as they shivered on the street. Then Valenta asked them how long they planned to stay there.

"I'm just waiting for you guys to tell us it's time to leave," said one of the young men.

"It's time to leave," Valenta smiled.

A round of cheers broke out. Ramani, Moffat and Bold cheered the loudest of all. Valenta posed for a picture with Ramani, the street cleared and traffic returned to Fifth Avenue.

It was 5:05 -- plenty of time to watch the Super Bowl.

-- Dennis B. Roddy

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