It was almost a typical Saturday afternoon in late October. Cars moved up Lindell, passing the occasional pedestrian huddled up against the cool air. Normally, a scene like this would continue as the afternoon moved into evening. However, this Saturday was different. Cries of "No justice, No peace!" began ringing through the air as a line of protesters marched down Lindell from the Saint Louis University campus to the Red Cross Building.
The marchers, approximately 100 strong, stopped in front of the Red Cross Building and began speaking about the aid workers and civilians threatened by the recent U.S. bombings in Afghanistan. Before them, the protesters held a line of protection a 200-foot-long banner symbolizing a shield protecting civilians threatened by the bombings.
The protesters' other stops included SLU's law school to protect the rights of U.S. citizens and residents whose liberties are threatened; the VA Hospital to protect U.S. soldiers from the impending ground war; and the Missouri State Social Service Center to protect people whose social services will be cut due to increased military spending.
"We realize that our (action) is a piece of what it will take to change policy," said Bill Ramsey, director of the Human Rights Action Service. Ramsey hopes that actions such as the one Saturday, as well as other programs (a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress, working in conjunction with groups in other cities and international pressure) will bring about a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
The day after the September 11 attacks, members of the St. Louis anti-war community began calling and writing their representatives and the White House, urging deliberation and restraint an approach rejected by the government so far.
No one is actually suggesting that the United States do nothing about the attacks. To the contrary, there are non-military steps that can be taken, such as applying pressure to other governments to hand over those responsible.
"The position of most international attorneys is that this should be brought before an international tribunal convened by the (United Nations) Security Council," said Ramsey. This tribunal, in turn, would try and convict those behind the attacks.
This approach has precedent: the trial and conviction earlier this year of Abdel Baset Al-Megrahi for the bombing of Pan-Am flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland in 1988. International pressure, including boycotts, eventually led the Libyan government to turn Megrahi and Al Amin Khalifa Fhimah (who was found not guilty) over to Scottish authorities.
"As they go around getting people 'with us or with the terrorists', they'll find the world is more complex," said Ramsey. "As this policy continues and there's no bin Laden to be found, the fruitlessness of the situation will cause the United States to change its policies."
Towards the end of Saturday's march, a man walked up the street and started shouting at the protestors. After being listened to politely for a few minutes, he stomped off and everything returned to normal. Seeing this begs the question, how difficult is it to actively protest a war that most of the country is for?
"You have to stand up for your beliefs, even if you're the only one standing," said Sr. Kitty Bethea, O.D., one of the protestors. "Sometimes the minority voice is the one that needs to be heard." Bethea also pointed out that even though they oppose the war, they still mourn for the victims both of Sept. 11 and future military actions. "Everyone is in grief and mourning, but we want to respond with different methods."
Being called unpatriotic doesn't necessarily upset them, either. "That's an example of either/or thinking," said Debbie Conley, another protestor. "My grief doesn't have borders. It doesn't begin or end in the U.S." Actions like this one help get their message out. "This is a good advertisement and statement, and it's doing something, which helps with the feelings of powerlessness."
Ramsey isn't surprised by people's reactions to his and other's efforts. "We're in the middle of the most heightened sense of patriotism since World War II. When you have the largest military in the world and a tragedy on the scale of Sept. 11 takes place, it's only natural for people to want to use it. If your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail," he said.
The key to getting the government to change its policies is to try to get people to see the horrors of the situation, said Ramsey. Ultimately, they want to let people know that there are choices available, and that they have the power to effect change.
Even as the letter writing campaign and actions progress, members of the anti-war community are taking other steps to help people affected by the current situation. Members escort Arab-Americans when they leave their homes to go to the grocery store or to classes. "So far, we've had no troubles that I've heard of, just some looks," said Anne Farina, one of the organizers of the accompaniment program.
Not everyone was unsympathetic to what they had to say. As the day progressed, more and more cars would slow down to read the banners and listen to the speakers. Several drivers honked their horns in agreement. As the action drew to a close, one driver slowed down for a while to take a long look causing some traffic to divert around her. Perhaps this woman won't change her mind, but she did take time to study the message. To those assembled, getting the message out is their goal. Conley expressed it best earlier in the day: "Even if one person questions their commitment to the war, it will be worth it."
Brian McCown is a technical writer for GEMS, a Clayton-based software company.