Help PMA grow | Petition forms | Site map | PMA main page
Thousands March in San Francisco Protest: at least 20,000 decry Bush's Mideast policy and Israeli actions
21 April 2002
In one of the largest Bay Area protests in recent years, at least 20, 000 people marched through San Francisco yesterday in opposition to U.S. policy in the Mideast, transforming 2 miles of city streets into a sea of red, green, black and white Palestinian flags.
The demonstration was billed as a march against "the real axis of evil: war, racism, poverty," but one cause overwhelmed all others: support for the Palestinian cause.
The four-hour protest, which began at noon in the Mission District and ended at City Hall, caused widespread gridlock and prompted the Highway Patrol to close the Fell Street Central Freeway off-ramp for 45 minutes.
"It's one of the biggest protests in the past five years," San Francisco police Cmdr. Greg Suhr said. "It's not often that you see one where a crowd has formed in Civic Center but there are still people in Dolores Park who haven't started marching."
Busloads of marchers came from as far away as Los Angeles, Fresno and Yuba City in Sutter County. Organizers said demonstrators might have numbered 50,000, but police estimated closer to 20,000. A similar march in Washington, D.C. , yesterday drew 35,000 to 50,000.
The San Francisco march included many Americans of Palestinian descent and immigrants from other Arab countries who became politically active after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Kais Menoufy said he arrived from Egypt 18 years ago, while Riad Morrar said he came from 27 years ago. Both are now citizens and own technology companies in the Sacramento area.
"There is nothing else I can do but tell President Bush: 'You are wrong. Stop killing my people,' " said Morrar, as he marched with his wife and four children.
"I spent 20 years avoiding the news, avoiding conflict. It is too depressing," Menoufy said. "I love America. But I'm embarrassed and angry that my country is supporting genocide."
A handful of counter-demonstrators carrying Israeli flags confronted the first arrivals at Civic Center Plaza. Marchers nearly surrounded the group until police intervened and took the pro-Israel group inside City Hall before dispersing them.
"It was for their own safety," police Capt. Alex Fagan said. "There are thousands of people here on the other side, and I couldn't guarantee their safety. So they made their point and then I asked them to leave."
Many generations in March
Perhaps the oldest marcher was Dave Smith, an 89-year-old member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, an American group opposing nationalists in the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39.
"I am proud to fight fascism and oppression, whether it's in Spain, Nazi Germany or Israel," said Smith.
The youngest demonstrator might have been Hanif Amanullah, a 4-month-old from Oakland who slept in his father's arms.
"I'm marching for this little guy," said Shahed Amanullah. "I want him to grow up in a world without this kind of violence."
Osha Neumann, a longtime peace activist from Berkeley and veteran of protests since the 1960s, said that for decades the Palestinian cause divided many Bay Area Jewish liberals and leftists who did not want to oppose Israel.
"Twenty years ago I was with a group of Jews protesting at the Israeli Embassy, and it was lonely," said Neumann. "I am happy that Jews especially and the other progressives are no longer blind to oppression by the Israelis."
Many participants had T-shirts, buttons or signs saying, "Another Jew against the oppression of the Palestinian people."
That theme also hit home for Julie Lehman, whose boyfriend is a Moroccan immigrant.
"I feel that as someone Jewish, I need to speak out against the Israeli government when I see what they are doing is so wrong," said Lehman, of San Francisco. "I'm proud to be around so many other Jews today who agree with me. We have to be honest."
Many other causes were represented. Protesters denounced the World Bank, globalization and corporations that included the Gap, Enron and Microsoft. Signs advocated saving the Earth, saving the Arctic caribou and saving the redwoods -- as well as ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Placards called for U. S. troops to leave Colombia, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Marchers urged Americans to "stop killing" people from Afghans to Canadians to African Americans.
Colourful street theatre
Street theater was everywhere, with mammoth puppets of Uncle Sam, Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. There were other creative demonstrators, too, including a Rottweiler festooned with the colors of the Palestinian flag and a pit bull with a sandwich board saying "Sharon: Stop Mauling Palestinians. "
Police generally kept a low profile and reported no arrests. At one point, a police captain confiscated lighter fluid from several demonstrators about to burn an Israeli flag.
"It's not a free speech issue - it's a safety thing. I don't want you lighting this on fire with a crowd around here," said Fagan.
Minutes after Fagan stepped away, protesters still managed to burn an Israeli flag.
Most backers of Israel stayed away yesterday and did not stage a counter protest, although the conflict was not far from their minds.
Protests have their place, said Cantor David Bentley, religious-school director of Congregation B'nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, who attended one in San Francisco last week. Overall, though, marching in the streets tends to polarize people rather than unite them, he said.
"We should be reaching out with humanitarian efforts toward people on both sides of the conflict," said Bentley, whose students have been sending postcards to keep up the morale of Israelis.
"We're Jews," he said. "Israel is our homeland. . . . Every sovereign nation has a right to defend itself. That's all Israel is doing."
Jim Herron Zamora, with contributions from staff writers Tyche Hendricks and Jason B. Johnson