On Jan. 18, 2003 a thick fog had just started to lift in the Sacramento Valley. It was both a real and a symbolic fog for me, because after a long time, I was going to a peace rally in San Francisco where my country of origin was not the focal point of concern. Rather the motivation was initially not overwhelming. But as a reporter I had already committed to meeting someone in San Francisco who was in the process of producing the first Pakistani-American feature film. We had been trying to connect for a long time, so my interest in visiting his set was certainly present. And while planning to be in the city on that day, I decided to report on the biggest event happening there. A group called “Act Now to Stop War and End Racism” or A.N.S.W.E.R. for short was holding a protest against the looming Iraq war at the Civic Center.
Not knowing what to expect I drove via Interstate 80 to the Bay Bridge. Just before the tollgate, small bumper sticker-sized banners appeared, bearing the likeness of Osama Bin Laden and urging our leadership to “go for it” (war, that is). That his persona provides much motivation for going to any war in America today would be an understatement. But now let us move on to the other side of the Bay Bridge.
The parking situation was atrocious in San Francisco’s downtown area—when I arrived to pay $15 (some people will profit from anything!) for the All Day parking close to the Civic Center. While driving I had already seen people carrying placards and signs coming to this gathering from a couple of miles away. But still, the sheer size of this event surprised me. I read later that A.N.S.W.E.R. had estimated the crowd at 200,000 and that the San Francisco Police Department at 50,000. If I could possibly hazard my own guess, it seemed that a figure of 100,000 would not be far off the mark. There were people everywhere, even up in the trees, which were without leaves, this being the winter season. The numbers were a reminder of the huge rock concerts that are sometimes held in California. The topic here was much more serious this time but the environment in parts was not. The familiar aromas, dancing, and the selling of trinkets were not different. But instead of music, speeches dominated this stage adorned with a picture of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the words “Only the People Can Stop the War.” The hour long journey to get close enough to the stage area to get a photograph or two was very interesting.
The thousands present were from all walks of life, races and just about every national origin imaginable. I never knew that so many Hispanics were also against this war. The African-American community was also heavily represented along with the Asians. But the mainstream white community was in the absolute majority here and aside from the Palestinian presence, it was clear that other Muslims or Pakistanis were surprisingly few in number. It appears that the “Patriot Act” and INS Registration is already having an impact on our community in Northern California. Instead of thousands, our numbers were probably in the low hundreds, although it is difficult to be really accurate.
Away from the crowds I came across two hooded figures in black playing dark angels with a sign “Death is the Only Winner in War.” They got plenty of attention. Another twosome chatted under a banner equating the message of Allah and Jesus with Love.
“Inhumanity is a Weapon of Mass Destruction,” said another placard from within the crowds and a table under “Free Mumia Abu-Jamal” helped spread the word about an African-American activist held on what are perceived to be dubious grounds. And there was no lack of alternative lifestyle promotion. There were groups of people arguing for non-gasoline powered automobiles (some brought such vehicles to display with them). There was a strong showing of anti-SUV sentiment throughout this rally. Some were even expressing their disapproval of circumcision. But mostly there was a strong environmental and human rights presence with a decent turnout for a variety of causes including that of Palestine. There were also a number of Jewish voices against the war present. People were extremely polite as I made it all the way to about a 50 yards from the stage. I heard Representative Barbara Lee make a very impressive speech and started back soon after she finished because I did not want to take another hour to get back to the periphery of the crowd again.
It would not be off the mark to write that there was absolutely no sympathy for Saddam Hussain at this rally. It was the basic fact that wars in general cause much death, destruction, and human suffering that brought many here. And we did not for a moment forget that our own American men and women in uniform remain in harm’s way throughout this Iraq conflict.
They have families too, as do the ordinary people of Iraq who will suffer immensely. I came across a young lady whose placard asked a simple question “Why War?” A great question to ask on any given day, even though one may be also be in agreement with those that carried signs saying, “Regime Change in Iraq.”
I left the rally and finally connected with the Pakistani film writer-producer-director just outside Golden Gate Park. The camera crew was busy as was the lead actor who was being filmed, riding his bike down the street. After taking a few photographs and briefly chatting with the movie participants, I walked to the park.
One can sit for hours in this beautiful enclave to observe and reflect on both the wonders of God and the creativity of man. I thought of the girl no more than 8 who came to the rally and was finally too tired to carry her sign that stated “War is Not the Answer.” My thoughts went back to almost 29 years ago when I first landed in America. Many Pakistanis had just been through the Bangladesh war and sought alternatives. When in San Francisco I made it a point to seek out people who stood for peace, the remnants of the “Flower Children,” right here in this park. I remember these “Hippies,” the chanting Hare Krishna’s and the Jesus People of that time. And now in post 9/11 America I reflected on how life has changed. With a family of my own and very appreciative of what this country has done for me, I write this piece for the people who seek peace in the world. My own dualistic existence sometimes asks difficult questions. I once came in search of peace and flowers here in San Francisco almost three decades ago. And no matter what the coming days bring (peace or war?), I want to convey my thanks to the 100,000 or so people at this rally for strengthening my faith in this country.
Ras H. Siddiqui is a Pakistani-American writer in California.