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Rebuilding Iraq

Principled disobedience

Dozens arrested as antiwar rallies challenge the law

By Douglas Belkin and Joanna Weiss, Globe Staff, 3/20/2003

    Rebuilding Iraq

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Frustrated that some of the biggest rallies in US history have been largely ignored by a Bush administration focused on war in Iraq, antiwar protesters stepped up their activism this week by blocking streets and buildings until police dragged them away in plastic handcuffs.

In Boston yesterday, 26 protesters sat and locked arms in front of the JFK Federal Building at City Hall Plaza, before police arrested them and detained them for several hours. Ten others were arrested hours earlier at the Boston Stock Exchange, where they tried to shut down the street and sidewalk.

In the two days since President Bush announced his ultimatum to President Saddam Hussein of Iraq, dozens in New York, Toledo, San Francisco, and Salt Lake City have been arrested for trespassing, crossing police lines, or blocking buildings. And activists nationwide predicted much larger displays of civil disobedience -- from disrupting business in financial districts to blockading bridges and highways -- after war begins.

The arrests mark a new turn for this antiwar movement, which has so far avoided the anger and confrontation that marked the height of Vietnam-era protests. Yesterday, antiwar activists offered different reasons why they've eschewed lawbreaking in recent months: Some said they feared arrests might turn off potential supporters; others had hoped their rallies truly would avert an armed conflict.

But many said yesterday that they've concluded that bombing in Baghdad demands a more dramatic response than bullhorns, candles, and hand-painted signs.

"I pledged to myself that if war starts, I will get arrested at a federal installation," said Jonathan Cook, 42, a Brookline environmental activist who said he is between jobs. "It'll get my message across to those who are interested . . . that I am willing to put my body on the line."

In a sign of how divided the region and the nation remain, the early reactions to Boston's civil disobedience were mixed yesterday. The hastily-planned sit-in outside the JFK Building drew about 200 fervent supporters, some carrying posters shaped like coffins, a few beating drums. Many shouted "Shame! Shame!" at police officers as they wrapped plastic handcuffs around protesters who refused to move.

The mix of drums, signs, and police cars drew onlookers -- construction workers in nearby buildings, businesspeople passing by -- and a fair share of them yelled catcalls at the peace activists and cheered the police.

Jerry, a construction worker and veteran from Wakefield who would not give his last name, spied the protest from his job site on Cambridge Street, got into an argument with an activist, and blasted protesters for not being at work. "Oh, they're all on welfare," he said.

The officers were businesslike, and seemed unmoved by the protesters' jeers. As soon as the transport vehicles carted the arrested to Boston lockups, the crowd dispersed.

A few hours after leaving the protest, Greg Banks, 33, of Jamaica Plain, sat in the lobby of the South Boston police station, waiting for his friends to post bail. He was glad the protests had finally taken this turn, he said, but added that he is worried about terrorism -- and doesn't want to drain the resources of the police at such a crucial time.

"To be honest, I haven't come to terms with that yet," he said.

But fellow protester Jason Kurian, sitting nearby, said he felt no qualms.

"This is a way to remind people who otherwise might forget about how wrong everything is," said Kurian, 23, a Northeastern student. "Is it going to affect anything? I doubt it. Masses of people have been speaking out against the war with no response by the government. But this is the only thing we can do."

Yet some see the increased civil disobedience as a sign that the protests have been successful, encouraging activists to take more personal risks because they know they're not alone.

"The success of their efforts to raise voices in opposition is generating a sense of power," said David S. Gutterman, professor of politics at Willamette University in Salem, Ore.

Still, as war approached, some activists were debating the costs of breaking the law as they tried to attract more people to their cause.

"The more people we have, the more ideas we'll have, and the better able we might be to actually start changing something," said Andrew Sawtelle, 21, a senior at Brown University. "What we don't want to happen is that we turn into small groups of people who go get arrested at the State House and basically alienate everybody else."





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