Standing on the lawn in the Terry Shrunk Plaza, one Reed College student held high a sign that read, "Humanitarian Mission? Not!" The rest of the crowd, many also holding quickly scrawled placards, packed tightly into the concentric brick circles that encompass a small round pavilion. Along the northeast curve of the park, Portland Peaceful Response--a coalition formed after September 11, and the organizers of this protest--set up a PA system and hosted what was essentially an open mic for activists.
A dozen or so others paced the sidewalks with signs petitioning drivers to "honk in opposition." The squawks and bleats of car horns punctuated a series of informal speeches.
Yet, in spite of the impromptu nature of the demonstration, most of the speakers' voices were steady, and their messages well thought out. When two hijacked airliners rammed into the World Trade Center towers four weeks ago, some of the same people gathered in order to decide how to best react to the impending flexing of U.S. military force. At that time, voices cracked when speaking about the terrorist attack, and many hesitated to overtly criticize U.S. foreign policy, lest they be considered unpatriotic or insensitive.
On Sunday, that timidity was noticeably gone. A few sitting along the pavilion held signs that read, "Not Proud To Be An American." Yet, when one of the first speakers--a Pakistani American man--stepped up to the microphone, he chastised them. "You should be proud to be an American," he announced. "You stand for the true value of what an American is." He added, "The flag belongs to the people who fight for justice, not just for those who rule."
The open mic format was uneven. One Reed student read a lengthy poem, clearly dated from the Cold War era. Another speaker from the Pacific Green party declared "We are not the minority opinion," despite several opinion polls to the contrary. (A Washington Post poll found that 94 percent of Americans supported the bombing.)
But most speakers were much heavier on sensibility than rhetoric. The loudest cheers came when Jordana Sardo, of Radical Women, sorted out a bramble of issues: from feminism, to the World Trade Organization, to dealing with terrorism.
"Firing up the F-14s will not erase the global poverty that fueled desperate acts of terrorism," Sardo explained. She went on to sketch out broad outlines for a foreign policy that can best be summarized as "love conquers all"; including plans for delivering food supplies and empowering poverty-stricken citizens.
"Fighting capitalism and building an anti-war movement are connected issues," Sardo concluded.
Reduced by decades of war with the Soviet Union and staggering poverty, Afghanistan ranks as one of the most desperate nations in the world. Millions struggle with daily hunger and scrounge for food. In the days leading up to the bombing raids, Congress pledged more than $300 million in food and medical supplies. Although the Bush administration has announced that this aid must happen in conjunction with military strikes, that logic bought few supporters at Sunday's demonstration. On the outskirts of the crowd, one person handed out small signs that plainly stated, "Feed Afghanistan."
As the gray and dour afternoon began to darken, one protestor pulled unlit candles from her backpack. Walking around the audience, she handed out the candles and silently lit them. After two hours of speakers, the crowd marched towards the waterfront of the Willamette River, three blocks away.
On Saturday, October 13 at the PSU campus, Portland Peaceful Response plans to host a series of seminars on political organizing and foreign policy. For more information call 223-1399.