"I was there..."

by Michael Steinberg


Market and 4th, March 20 2003 at 10:30 in the morning.

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January 18, 2003 anti-Iraq War demonstration in San Francisco

by Tristan Savatier

On March 20, 2003, tens of thousands of anti-war protesters took to the streets to advocate against the U.S. invasion of Iraq. This became known as the “battle of San Francisco” because of the intensity and scale of the protests. Protestors filled various intersections across the city, blocking the streets, chanting, drumming, locking themselves to plastic pipes, and confronting policemen. The first day of protests continued until 4am on March 21st, and throughout this time there were 1400 arrests. During subsequent days, the number of arrests rose to 2500. Yet despite the intensity of the protests, the U.S. invasion of Iraq continued.

On March 20, 2003 tens of thousands of anti-war protesters took to the streets of San Francisco as the U.S. began its invasion of Iraq with a massive bombing attack on Baghdad. There was no business as usual that day in San Francisco. Demonstrators answered Bush's unleashed weapons of mass destruction with mass civil disobedience that shut down the city's financial district and turned ordinarily NASCAR-like downtown streets into a parking lot and a liberated zone.

Organizers of Direct Action To Stop The War had been planning this mass action for months. People were urged to gather at the foot of aptly named Market Street, downtown's main thoroughfare, at 7 a.m. the “morning of the next business day after war begins.” From there affinity groups would fan out into the financial district to carry out nonviolent direct actions, blockading dozens of intersections, war profiteering corporations such as Bechtel, the headquarters of mainstream media such as CNN, and federal buildings such as the Federal Reserve Bank. Most of these targets are concentrated in a relatively small area of about 10 square blocks. As it turned out, many more thousands of protesters appeared and created free flowing spontaneous actions that augmented the pre-organized affinity groups, increasing their strength and effectiveness exponentially.

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March 2003 antiwar leaflet presented as a "menu" of choices for direct action.

People began gathering at the designated place before dawn. In the early morning light the historic clock tower of the Ferry Building on the nearby waterfront began to become visible, revealing hands frozen at 12 o'clock. The scene of the legendary 1934 General Strike, led by longshore union workers, the clock tower and its stuck time soon came to symbolize high noon showdowns all that day, in San Francisco and across the globe. The forces of war and peace, capital and true democracy, command and control, and uprising and insurrection commenced a battle that will go on long after the U.S. invasion of Iraq is history, and most likely long after all our lives are spent. But for this one day the answer to “Is another world possible?” was a resounding “Yes!,” with affirmative actions resonating all over the city and the world.

It is impossible for one, or multiple points of view to fully convey the magnitude or significance of a day such as this. But in relating what I saw and experienced in San Francisco on March 20, I hope to communicate a good part of what was happening and the better part of the spirit that was motivating it.

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Agitprop, March 2003, calling for a response in the event of war.

7:30 a.m. I take off on an old bicycle with one working brake near Baker and Fulton Streets, the geographical center of the SF, about three miles southwest of the financial district. I head east into whats now called the Lower Haight, once known as the Fillmore, the city's historic African-American community, now mostly destroyed by gentrification. I stop at a chain store on Haight to get a small notebook and some pens and a marker. On my way out I write “Rich Mans War” on a bus shelter and then pedal off.

7:45 Side streets in the Lower Haight are filled with diverted traffic unable to make its way downtown. Nowhere to go, nowhere to park.

8:00 At Gough and Oak, four blocks from City Hall, a crowd is standing in the intersection, blocking all traffic. Five cops idle on their motorcycles nearby. After a few minutes the crowd heads south on Gough.

A block north at Gough and Fell, eight people are locked down in the intersection. They're locked together with plastic pipes. Typically such pipes contain chains and/or cement to make breaking the human link more difficult and time consuming. Two persons bonds extend through an overturned garbage can. About 30 cops in riot gear, faces shields down and brandishing three foot wooden clubs, are surrounding the protesters. Fell and Oak are the main western thoroughfares in and out of downtown, as well as to and from the Bay Bridge.

8:20 Two blocks east, at Fell and Van Ness, a larger lockdown is blocking both southbound lanes on Van Ness, also know as state highway 101. Only a block south is one of downtown's major intersections at Market and Van Ness. The blockaders have chosen a strategically important location. Some 50 cops in riot gear encircle them. Sheriff and fire department personnel are here too. The police are blocking off Van Ness northbound lanes to deal with the blockaders, so traffic here is at a complete standstill at whats usually the height of rush hour. Vocal lockdown supporters clog surrounding sidewalks and cheer them on.

I hear a media guy calling in: “The cops are taking them to Pier 26 to process and do paper work. If it gets to overflowing there, they'll take them to precinct stations. The protesters are trying to take as long as possible with everything to tie up the cops.”

9:00 At Turk and Larkin on one corner of the Federal Building, 30 people are standing in the intersection. Cars and buses are stopped and abandoned. There are four cops on Turk standing around.

9:05 At Market and Fifth streets three Department of Transportation vehicles are blocking traffic from going further downtown. Only buses and police vehicles are allowed through. About 20 cops are lounging across the street, ostensibly guarding Abercrombie and Fitch.

9:15 Hundreds of people are choking off Market and Fourth. Generally numbered streets intersect the south side of Market, and named ones come in from the north. So at this intersection protesters are blocking off Ellis and Stockton streets as well. A call goes up from the crowd to march south to block the Bay Bridge. Several hundred break off to do that. Others are putting newspaper racks across Market to impede the uniformed former loungers, who are tramping this way.

9:20 At Market and Third and Kearny protesters are blocking Kearny, sitting on overturned news racks.

9:25 Another block down Market hundreds more people have all streets blocked at the intersections with New Montgomery, Post and Montgomery. More news racks are strewn across Market. All traffic is at a standstill. Commuters sit in their vehicles burning gas and going nowhere. A procession of about 30 members of the SF Bay chapter of Physicians For Social Responsibility marches by in white coats with a banner reading “Health Care Is Homeland Security,” while chanting “Make Health, Not War.” Meanwhile a couple people carry over a 10 foot potted shrub and deposit it in the middle of Market Street.

9:40 On Market at the intersection with First and Battery and Bush, hundreds of riot cops on both sides of Market are facing a huge crowd in the street. The cops advance, pushing the crowd off Market onto sidewalks. But then people go back into the street. The cops advance again and more aggressively shove the people back onto sidewalks. All hell seems about to break loose, so I choose this moment to pedal off on First. In a minute I encounter a roaring crowd marching towards the fray on Market after blocking an on-ramp to the Bay Bridge.

10:15 After taking a breather to ride along the waterfront, I head over to the Transamerica Pyramid highrise. On the way I see about 30 people gathered on Davis Street. I go over and find they are members of Jewish Voice For Peace (JVFP), and that they're blocking the Armed Services Recruiting Office. A couple cops are leaning against their cars across the street. The people tell me they've been blocking the office since 7. The office has been closed all that time, but one guy tells me that if you call the office you'll get a message telling you its open, but referring you to another recruiting office, in Daly City. A few days later I went by the site and saw that the office was boarded up with heavy plywood. I called the JVFP and left a message about that. A JVFP member left a message later telling me that after they left on 3-20 to join people in the streets, a recruiting officer came by and went in the Davis office. But the officer left the door unlocked, and other protesters came by and went in. They proceeded to trash the office, hence the heavy plywood. The JVFP rep told me in the message that since the protesters used violence, her group considered that action a failure. Subsequently mainstream media run stories about brisk business at the Daly City recruiting office, but no mention is made of the plywood over Davis Street site.

10:30 There is no traffic moving past the Transamerica Pyramid, at the intersections of Washington, Montgomery and Columbus. There four people remain locked down in tubes. In front of the Pyramid about 50 demonstrators are drumming, dancing and chanting “We Support Nonviolent Resistance To This War!” Protesters chose the Pyramid as a target because it is the West Coast headquarters of the Carlyle Group, that Bush-loving war profiteering corporation. Firefighters with a portable circular saw approach the four in the street. They put goggles on them and saw through the pipes as sparks fly. Then the cops move in, seize the four, handcuff them one by one, and force them onto city buses where dozens of cuffed comrades have already been detained for hours. As the cops haul each of the four away supporters sing out “Stay Strong, This War Is Long!”

10:45 On Kearny at Clay the wailing Brass Liberation Band and dancing supporters occupy the street near Portsmouth Square Park in Chinatown. Traffic is backed up for blocks behind them. After finishing one tune, the group heads up Kearny towards North Beach at a snails pace, playing “Wade In the Water.” The procession passes Holiday Inn, with cars crawling behind, where tourists look on incredulously.

11:30 At Market and Fourth the contest to determine who will stop traffic goes on. Another lockdown is in progress in the middle of Market. A small army of cops, maybe 100, blocks all cross streets. The fire department goes to work with its circular saw again. At noon people blocking a cross street at Market and Third are chanting, “Their War, Our Streets!” There is no police presence, as the cops are tied up tying up people and traffic a block away.


At 12:15 20 people are sitting in the middle of Market at the latter location. About 50 cops are standing around in five lines on Fourth and people are standing around in the intersection. All vehicular traffic in the vicinity is standing around too. The sitters move out of the hot sun to a shady street spot. Standing supporters gather around them. A cop on a bullhorn blares, “If you don't clear the intersection you'll be placed under arrest.” Protesters chant back, “Stop The Traffic, Stop The War!” In response a bunch of cops run over and surround the sitters. By 12:30 some cops have reopened traffic from Fourth while their brothers-in-arms have started to arrest the occupiers. Arrests continue and traffic begins moving downtown, allowing belated commuters to arrive in time for lunch break. The Brass Liberation Orchestra marches past an Old Navy store, still wailing. Everyone of the sitters been arrested by now, and the cops march away too, for now…

4:00 p.m. I take a burrito break and am on my way out of the restaurant on McAllister when a young woman missing a few teeth says shes hungry and asks me for some money. I give her 50 cents. Then she tells me shes trying to raise money to pay her daily rent. Shes holding a plastic flower with a damaged petal that shes trying to sell. She says she has to pay $10 rent a day but that today the landlord told her hell take $5. “I hope there's not a war,” she says then. I tell her its started, that's why there are all the protesters around. She says, “I guess that's why he said I could pay only $5 today. She says its harder to get money today. I suggest she go over to the Farmers Market at nearby UN Plaza to sell the flower. She says there's too many cops there. I tell her they're probably busy elsewhere today.

4:30 p.m. Throughout the afternoon Ive been checking out the Federal Building, four blocks west of Market and Sixth in the Civic Center. A line of protesters has been blocking the Turk Street side of the building, and cops have been maneuvering to keep people from uniting with them whenever supporters try to mass there. People periodically wade into surrounding intersections, chanting things like, “The War Stops Here, And So Does Traffic.” The front entrance on Golden Gate Avenue is closed, and other people block the exit to the buildings underground garage. A half hour before 5:00, when federal workers normally go home, I see thousands of people flocking into Civic Center Park a few blocks away. As they flood Larkin Street, one guy throws something at a hostile driver's vehicle. A cop come of nowhere, screams “Hey, what are you doing?” and tries to haul the guy away. The surging crowd surrounds the cop chanting “Let him go!”, people get in his face, and the guy gets loose and races into the crowd. The march turns into a brief rally. As soon as it ends a good part of the crowd marches onto Polk Street past City Hall and high tails it up to the Turk Street side of the Federal Building, unites with the blockaders and soon fills the entire block with fired up people thundering “No Blood For Oil!” The cops are outnumbered and overwhelmed and can only look on. Then everyone sits down in the street. A woman with a bullhorn leads the crowd in a cacophonous chant:








The cops look on, ashen-faced. They withdraw, then return, only to stand by helplessly again.

5:05 One of the organizers announces that people gathering at Market and Fifth and Powell need support. The fired up crowd begins to head that way. I bike over there. There's already a mass crowd and massive law enforcement presence. A line of California Highway Patrol guys stands guard in front of the nearby Flood Building on Market. In the middle of that line a menacing burly officer brandishes a tear gas gun, a dozen rounds festooned on him. Unlike the other officers in the line, he wears no badge or ID tag. Large numbers of cops are lined up on both side of Market, facing off the crowd. A dozen motorcycle cops roar by. Besides them there's no afternoon rush hour traffic. The cops are blocking all intersections to keep crowds on all adjoining sidewalks from taking the streets.

5:30 I ride down to Fourth, turn down it and then turn onto Jessie Alley in mid-block. There a group of homeless people are gathering to spend the night, spreading their belongings on sidewalks and in doorways. Maybe they feel secure in knowing the cops are otherwise occupied. When I come out on Third I see 18 police motorcycles lined up across the street. I get back to Market and Powell just in time to hear the cops give another warning about being arrested if you go in the street. The cops have Market occupied, but while they're occupied doing that thousands of people have already started to march up Powell Street. The crowd quickly swells to over 10,000 with people joining in as they get off work. At Powell and Ellis a traffic officer quickly withdraws as hes engulfed by the mass. The march goes on to Union Square, the city's premier high-end retail district. Parts of the march choose different routes, turning away from the cops each time the latter try to block progress at an intersection. 6 p.m. The crowd I'm with marches down Post towards Market. We pass a California Federal bank loan office where some female employees are working late. They flash us peace signs, as does a firefighter on a hook and ladder just down the hill. The march crosses Market at Second. Its anybody's guess as to how many thousands of us there are now, and the word goes out that were headed south for the Bay Bridge now. Soon the huge crowd is approaching two bridge on-ramps off Harrison Street, but the cops have already blocked them off. After a brief stop, the crowd moves on. At the bottom of a hill ahead, I see hundreds of protesters confronting another line of cops blocking a freeway off-ramp at Harrison and Fremont. A few people are lofting what appear to be wads of paper at the cops. The march turns left at Fremont and starts to head back to Market. Im near the end of it as we make that turn. Suddenly a line of motorcycle cops appears at the very end of the march, sirens screaming, edging provocatively into the people. Anyone who protests their behavior is summarily seized, beaten and dragged away. In the face of this brutality the crowd turns back and sits in the street facing the cops, chanting “Peaceful Protest.” The situation cools down. A police officer comes over to the motorcycle cops and they turn off their sirens and stop their attack. Then they withdraw.

People get up and begin moving down Fremont towards Market again. But a little ways more down the street a bunch of people jump over a parking lot fence and zoom up the Bay Bridge off-ramp that feeds onto Fremont. The motorcycle cops tear after them but theyre too late. Foot cops race into people on Fremont who have nothing to do with the ramp romp and start beating on them mercilessly. I find myself with dozens of others between two lines of brutal cops, in a panic situation, but some of us manage to squeeze by on a sidewalk and escape.

People call for us to withdraw from the area and rejoin the march. While doing so I talk with several young women. One shows me a friend holding her head where shed just been whomped by a cop with a club. I hear a guy saying how he was part of a group that almost got onto the bridge but got pepper-sprayed away by cops. Despite these assaults their spirits are high.

But now the cops have disappeared. Nor are they in sight when we march back onto Market a little after 7:00, chanting “Whose Streets? Our Streets!” We take that street and keep it all the way back to Civic Center Park.

I hang out there until a little after 8:00. There's a candlelight vigil, free edibles courtesy of Food Not Bombs, and indescribable feelings of excitement and liberation.

Across Polk Street more lines of police are guarding City Hall, and on the other side of the park a bus full of disgruntled, weary cops waits to be sent to the next imminent eruption of civil disobedience.

The Battle of San Francisco goes on in the streets until 4 a.m. On March 20 there are 1400 arrests. On the next day the battle continues, though with reduced numbers of protesters. The police resort to mass illegal arrests, and I'm caught up in one of their snares while performing my duties as a journalist. As the days wear on, protests continue, arrests in the city eventually increase to over 2500, and the U.S. devastation and occupation of Iraq comes to pass.

But those of us who've survived in the streets of San Francisco and elsewhere around the world are still staying strong, because we know that the battle is still on, and that our war, like Bush's, is long.

Feb. 15, 2003 Demonstration

RETORT Communiqué, Feb. 03

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