NEW YORK — Policemen standing near Madison Square Garden were stocked with bags of plastic handcuffs just in case demonstrators got unruly, as they did at Thursday's rally in Times Square when 21 people were arrested.
In the end, their fears were justified. After the four-hour march from Times Square to Washington Square Park was over, hundreds of protesters refused to leave the park. They spilled into the streets, blocking traffic and causing riot police to take action. As of 6:45 p.m., 91 protesters had been arrested and more than 11 police had been sprayed with mace, officials said.
The agitators marred an otherwise peaceful and spirited demonstration that drew around 200,000 people who spanned 30 city blocks. The protesters were visibly appalled by the "shock & awe" campaign in Baghdad, but during the march they were there to be heard and seen, not to cause trouble. (Click for photos from the protest.)
And while there were plenty of eccentrics — '60s survivors with gray, bushy beards, a couple wrapped in fake bloody bandages, a woman on roller skates wearing a Raggedy Ann outfit and clown nose — most of the protesters were regular folks. Some had children on their shoulders, other dragged dogs on leashes. Most were in high spirits, smiling and making small talk as they marched through the sun-splashed streets. A few celebrities also attended, including singer Patti Smith and actors Roy Scheider, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, the Associated Press reported.
More than 2,000 police were on duty, and undercover cops carried cell phone-sized radiation detectors as Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly watched the march from 35th Street, the AP reported.
The march began in Times Square and progressed downtown to Washington Square Park. Protesters raised signs that said things like "Invasion is for Nazis and Martians," "George Bush is a weapon of mass destruction" and "Look daddy, I made a war." Many chanted catchy phrases like "Bombs are dropping while you're shopping" and "Bush and Hitler, just the same/ The only difference is the name."
"I came out today because I think this is our last option," said 20-year-old Rae Donovan, who contributed to an impromptu sit-in at 21st Street that temporarily stalled the march. "I don't think anyone will listen unless we actually come to the streets. It's the only thing we have left."
People of various ethnicities joined the march, including a large number of Arab Americans. "I think the whole notion of a 'shock & awe' campaign is terrible," said 26-year-old Jawad Saleh. "It's deliberately designed to frighten people and to kill large numbers of people and create a large amount of destruction in order to cower people. This is an evil policy. And the events have made things much more difficult for Arab Americans."
"This is not just a war about American imperialism and profit and a war for oil," added 22-year-old Laura Barisonzi. "It's also about attacks on our immigrants here."
Along the path of the march, a handful of Bush supporters dotted the crowd. Some exchanged angry words with protesters, but there were no physical confrontations.
"I understand there will be anti-war rallies," said 29-year-old Danny Tyminsky, who carried a pro-Bush sign. "You gotta have them. But they should happen before the war. Now that we're at war, people need to rally behind our troops and not forget what happened at the [World] Trade Center [on September 11]."
The day included a few light moments as well. Protesters giggled as one group chanted: "D-A-D-D-Y/ We know how you got your job/ Your daddy, your daddy/ Bush, it was your daddy." Another batch of marchers spoofed Ludacris' popular rap song "Move B----" by shouting "Move Bush, Get out the way." And at one point, in an area crowded with press cameras, a woman on the sidelines turned to her companion and said, "We might be on TV. Do you think your wife will see you with me?"
When protestors reached Washington Square Park, they were met by a policeman on a megaphone telling them to vacate the premises and go home. Many did, but thousands remained in the park waving their signs, cheering and blowing whistles. In one corner, two hippies playing a banjo and a guitar led the crowd in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land" and "This Little Light of Mine," while on the other side of the park, people with pots, trashcan lids, cowbells and drums staged a drum-in.
At 5 p.m. there were still demonstrators in the park, and police chased away some protestors who had continued protesting on a side street.
In Washington, a few hundred protesters marched through the streets, and then gathered in front of the White House chanting "No blood for oil." And overseas, tens of thousands of protesters in London, Japan and elsewhere continued to cry out against the war.
Pro-Bush rallies were staged in Lansing, Michigan, and in Millington, Tennessee.
Despite the growing anti-war movement, polls maintain that the vast majority of Americans now support the war against Iraq. And in the Bush administration, the anti-war cries seem to be falling on deaf ears. But that's clearly not going to stop the masses from gathering in the coming days.
"Change takes a while before everyone feels the effects of it," said 40-year-old Richie Richardson. "If we don't do this today, what about the next war? We may not be able to change this war, but we may have an impact that will shorten it. And we may have an impact that will tell our politicians that next time they think about doing something like this, the consequences might be different at the polls on election day."