Cincinnati: Protest in the Heartland

Against the Current, No. 101, November/December 2002

Dan La Botz

THOUSANDS PROTESTED IN Cincinnati Monday, October 7. While President George W. Bush spoke inside, calling upon the American people to support a Congressional measure which would give him the power to carry out a war against Iraq, demonstrators lined the sidewalks in front of the Cincinnati Museum Center (the former Union Terminal) and for blocks around, chanting, singing and waving signs opposing the war.

“What an amazing peace rally that was last night! When I first sent out an e-mail one week ago to mobilize people, I had hoped to get 1,000 people to protest Bush’s speech for war. We estimate over 5,000 people gathered last night! It was beautiful!” said Sayrah Namaste, one of the organizers of the event. Local news media and NPR also reported “thousands” at the event.

Organized in just three days, mainly by email, leaflets and word-of-mouth, protesters came from dozens of churches, several universities and high schools, and from all walks of life. Carrying signs reading, “No war on Iraq,” “No blood for oil,” and just plain “Peace,” the demonstrators stood, marched, and danced for as long as four hours — first in the late afternoon and then into the evening.

When evening came they lit candles and turned on flash lights illuminating the streets throughout the area.

Churches and Students

The call for the demonstration spread through hundreds of social networks throughout the region. Pastors and preachers and lay activists organized their churches, which had large turnouts. The groups carried signs and banners identifying a wide spectrum of denominations: Catholic, Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, United Church of Christ and many others.

At an organizing event held in Cincinnati two days before, representatives of those and other denominations read statements from their national leaderships and local congregations opposing the war. Among those speaking out was Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, the well-known African American civil rights leader, who strongly opposed the war.

College students from Miami University carried a large, blue banner emblazoned with their opposition to the war. Other students from Earlham College in southern Indiana, wearing school sweatshirts and waving pompoms danced and chanted, snaking their way through the crowd. Others came up from universities in Lexington, Kentucky.

On the day of the march a group of 15-year old students distributed a thousand leaflets to 2,000 fellow students at Walnut Hills High School, and students from many other Cincinnati schools were there shouting and waving signs as well.

Everywhere one looked were young people, groups of African-American high school students, young people from the Muslim community and other Middle Easterners, as well as a few Latinos, a relatively new immigrant group in the area.

Labor for Peace

Dan Radford, executive secretary-treasurer of the Cincinnati Labor Council, put out an e-mail to union leaders and members informing them about the demonstration, and explaining the national AFL-CIO position:

“The President will be in Cincinnati at Union Terminal at 8 PM tonight. He is coming specifically to speak about Iraq to a group of people hand-picked by the Chamber of Commerce. The event is by invitation only, and no one is permitted to ask the President questions. This hardly seems the type of robust public debate called for.”

Several local labor union leaders and activists attended the rally, as well as many union members, though they mostly came as citizens.

Bob Park, a member of AFGE Local 3840 and that union’s delegate to the Cincinnati AFL-CIO Labor Council, wore the orange t-shirt of a protest monitor and directed demonstrators toward the Museum, explained that he was there because as he sees it, “The Bush administration is launching an assault in many fronts.”

“One front,” said Park, “is in world diplomacy and aimed against Iraq, trying to rearrange the whole Middle East situation. Another is the labor front with the threat to invoke Taft-Hartley [in the West Coast dock labor dispute], and their worry about shipping problems related to war. It’s also another example of modernizing the workforce, getting rid of unions, getting rid of workers. That seems to be one of their goals.”

There were other labor activists as well. Dick Wiesenhahn, a golf equipment salesman and the local volunteer organizer of the Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) boycott of Mt. Olive pickles, stood up at the front of the demonstration between the protesters, the police, and a handful of Bush-Cheney supporters waving little read-white-and-blue pompoms.

“I’m here because I thought it was absolutely important for people of all ages to be here and make a statement just by being there,” Wisenhahn explained. “If people don’t step up, then I think the war effort will go ahead, and I think it’s up to everyone to stand up for what they believe in, regardless of which side they are on, they should exercise their rights to dissent.”

“I think the whole idea of attacking Iraq is crazy,” Wiesenhahn continued. “It’s been there for a long time, and if we attack there it will make us something like the Nazis in Germany, just to attack anybody that doesn’t agree with you. Hopefully sanity will prevail.”

Diversity in Action

Many of those at the demonstration were themselves surprised at its size, its spirit, and its breadth. “I was really encouraged to see not only so many people at the event, but such a diversity of folks,” said Glen Brand, Midwest Regional Representative of the Sierra Club.

“Not just young activists, and anti-war activists, but also a broad range of people of all ages, classes, races. I found that very encouraging. It made me feel much less alone, and isolated. This was organized on a moment’s notice and it didn’t take much to turn out so many thousands of people.

“It just shows me and I hope others in Cincinnati and the nation that the public really wants the president to slow down, and to change course from bombing and attacking to non-violent peaceful means of settling the dispute.”

Groups instrumental in organizing the protest ranged from a local Christian community, the New Jerusalem Center, to the International Socialist Organization. At the center of the organization of the demonstration was the Inter-Community Justice and Peace Center (IJPC) that reached out to churches and schools in the area.

According to Sister Alice Gerdeman, IJPC coordinator: “IJPC was involved because people asked us to help find a way for them to express their opinions. People called to say, `What are we going to do? We have to do something.’

“What I thought was wonderful was that the opinions that were expressed were a whole variety of concerns, but the one thing in common was: no war. But the reasons and how people came to that came from many different places.

“Some people came because of their religious convictions. Others were concerned about the economy. Others worried about Iraq and the human issues of suffering. Some people concerned about new `preemptive war.’

“There were people concerned about the whole Middle Eastern situation and the escalation of violence that might come from such a war. Then there were the pacifists who always oppose war.”

Gerdeman was delighted with the demonstration. “I was particularly gratified by the number of people who told me they had never been to a demonstration, but they said, `I have to go to this one.’

“I think the energy level there was so positive, it was so enthusiastic, caring and very non-violent. People were living out of the model they hope our government can learn to use. They respected differences and were willing to express their opinion.”

“It was particularly exciting to see so many young people, not only college students but also high school students, many of whom were at their first demonstration ever. It was great to see them experience the power that groups can have when they come together to protest,” said Sherry Baron, a physician who attended with her two sons, 11 and 15.

There were young people everywhere. “My son Connor who is 11 very much wanted to participate in opposing the war, and he urged me to go,” Barb Boylan, a public health worker, who was at the demonstration with her son.

“I think that this call for war is very premature and I find it kind of scary. Frankly, I think that the president is using this as an opportunity to win some elections in the fall.”

Civil Rights Activists Join In

Many African American civil rights activists participated in the protest, among them Jackie Shropshire, a boxing coach and a founder of the Cincinnati Black United Front. Shropshire explained why he was there:

“My point of view is that we need to come to a meeting of the minds without war. We have to find a way to start settling our problems without going to war and causing death — that’s on both sides. All indications are that this will be more a war about oil than about the safety of the citizens of the country.”

Said Shropshire, “They were supposed to be zeroing in on Al Qaeda, and where did that mission go? I think we should address the problems in our homeland first, and get our own house in order before we can deal with other parts of the world. Until this country is willing to face up with the domestic terrorists here like the KKK, we have to deal with them.”

Taking Heart in the Heartland

Cincinnati was chosen by Bush for his war speech precisely because it is one of the most conservative cities of the Midwestern heartland, perhaps one of the most conservative in the country, and yet thousands poured into the streets. How is this to be explained?

First, of course, the size of the demonstrations indicates the broad and deep opposition to the war within many sectors. Major organizations from the Roman Catholic bishops to the AFL-CIO to the Sierra Club have taken positions opposed to a unilateral, preemptive war on Iraq.

They have done so because President Bush has failed to convince the public of his contention that “Saddam Hussein is an imminent threat and all other options have been exhausted.”

Many people in the United States (as elsewhere) believe that the United Nations should be involved first in attempting a peaceful resolution, before there is a turn to war. Many believe that Bush is pushing for war now because of the coming mid-term elections. As one protester’s sign said, “The imminent threat is November 5.”

Another group believes that Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney represent the oil companies who want to dominate Middle Eastern and Central Asian oil. In any case, the antiwar opposition has many arguments, and wants to be part of the debate.

Many people in Cincinnati were outraged that Bush called a town hall meeting where he chose the town, chose the hall, and then had the Chamber of Commerce fill it with Republicans (and conservative Democrats) who support him and the war. Around the country, people see little public debate on the war, largely because of the cowardice and passivity of the Democratic Party.

What is democracy without discussion and debate? Perhaps that’s why one of the most popular chants was one taken from earlier anti-globalization protests in Seattle a few years ago: “This is what democracy looks like.”

After most of the protesters had returned to nearby Laurel Park for a closing rally, a group of a few hundred blocked the exit from the Museum Center parking lot, keeping several hundred of Bush’s audience from leaving for up to an hour.

Officers on horseback rode through the crowd attempting to disperse it, and eventually the group broke up. Police arrested half-a-dozen demonstrators.

Improving the Political Environment

While the widespread opposition to the war accounted for the unprecedented turnout, there were also some local factors. This Cincinnati antiwar protest, the largest in decades, can also be explained in part by two years of almost continuous activism in the city.

The new activist climate began in November 2000 when the Coalition for a Human Economy (CHE), a local global justice group, began protests against the Trans-Atlantic Business Dialogue and then carried on by organizing against the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

When Cincinnati police shot and killed an unarmed African-American youth, Timothy Thomas in April of 2001, those mainly white activists joined with African-American community organizations, such as the Black United Front, in protest rallies and demonstrations.

By June 2, 2001 local civil rights activists had organized a March for Justice that involved 2,500 marchers, the largest integrated demonstration in Cincinnati’s modern history. Later many of those activists formed the Coalition for a Justice Cincinnati (CJC), one of several groups calling for a boycott of the city because of its history of economic apartheid and police racism and violence.

All along activists for social justice had to deal with a repressive city government and police force that attempted to suppress their movement, sometimes violently. Police used shotguns loaded with beanbags to shoot mourners at the Timothy Thomas funeral, and met other protests with massive numbers of officers in riot gear.

But in those two years, Cincinnati social justice activists won the right to march and protest, and made it a legitimate part of the city’s political life. At the same time, organizing for the protests created a dedicated core of local activists.

But above all it was opposition to the war that brought some 5,000 people to fill the streets near the Museum Center, chanting to peace, opposing war, and denying Bush the approval he had wanted from what was once the Midwest’s most conservative city. Seems like it isn’t any more.

ATC 101, November-December 2002