Tens of thousands of protesting Americans took to the streets and hundreds were arrested yesterday as anti-war demonstrators shut down the San Francisco Bay Bridge, rallied on college and high school campuses and invoked the memory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in Atlanta.
The dramatic wave of demonstrations, both organized and spontaneous, reflected the anxiety of a country torn about the wisdom of war with Iraq. Their common message, as one protester's sign at a rally in Los Angeles put it, was for President Bush to "wage peace" even as the clock ticked past the United Nations' deadline for Iraq to withdraw from Kuwait.
Strategies of civil disobedience were employed frequently, and demonstrations proved largely peaceful, despite a large number of arrests. Speakers noted the war deadline also marked the birthday of Dr. King, the slain civil rights leader, who practiced non-violent protest.
The largest demonstrations since the Vietnam era left some wondering whether the peaceful mood would prevail if war began.
Beyond pushing, shoving and some vandalism, there were few altercations in San Francisco. Police made more than 500 arrests as demonstrators first blockaded the downtown federal building and, emboldened by that success, marched onto the lower deck of the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, closing the bridge and disrupting traffic for two hours.
San Francisco's protests stood out among scores of often theatrical demonstrations across the country.
In Eugene, Ore., protesters carried a 10-year-old girl inside a body bag to the front door of the federal building as a symbol of war's innocent deaths. At Stanford University, protesters laid a symbolic grave for the 100 U.S. servicemen who have already died in connection with Operation Desert Shield. In New York, protesters burned a U.S. flag outside the U.N. building.
In Missoula, Mont., more than 1,500 protesters braved freezing rain and ankle-deep slush for an anti-war rally at the University of Montana. In Des Moines, Iowa, two anti-war demonstrators disrupted Iowa Gov. Terry E. Branstad's state-of-the-state address. "It's a desperate time," said Des Moines protester Brian Terrell.
In Washington, National Park police arrested 55 demonstrators who sat and lay on the sidewalk in front of the White House.
They were taken to National Park Service headquarters and released without being charged, according to Maj. William Spruill.
In New York, more than 5,000 people gathered outside the United Nations for a demonstration sponsored by the African American Coalition Against U.S. Intervention. At least 30 people were arrested, police said.
In San Francisco, more than 850 demonstrators had signed pledges saying they would allow themselves to be arrested yesterday. As the morning wore on, Sister Mary Kay Hunyady, one of the organizers, called on people who had vowed to be arrested but had not yet challenged the police to do so.
"Getting arrested is one of the strongest messages," the Roman Catholic nun said. "It's saying, 'I'm willing to be put in one of those lousy cells for what I believe.' " She said she was especially proud of a nun in her order who, at age 62, was arrested for the first time yesterday.
More than 425 arrests were made at the San Francisco Federal Building as police struggled to keep Van Ness Avenue open.
About 1,000 demonstrators then marched two miles east onto the lower deck of the double-decked Bay Bridge, effectively blocking Interstate 80.
San Francisco police and the California Highway Patrol, caught off-guard by the spontaneous demonstration, quickly had to block off traffic on the upper, westbound deck of the bridge to allow police units to drive officers in front of the marchers in an effort to turn them around.
Protesters in San Francisco and elsewhere advanced an array of social agendas. The money that would be spent on war, they said, could be better used for education, health care, housing and other concerns.
The national scope of demonstrations at least in part represented months of organizing by a national coalition of anti-war groups. Organizers seized upon the irony that Dr. King's birthday and the war deadline coincided.
More than 1,000 protesters in Atlanta, the city that is home to Dr. King's birthplace and grave, marched in a driving rainstorm for a religious service at the church of the fallen civil rights leader, known for his persistence in seeking non-violent solutions to crises.
In tone and style, the march resembled a cross between the anti-Vietnam War demonstrations and the civil rights rallies of the early 1960s. Demonstrators, an overwhelming number of whom were college students too young to have participated in either of the earlier protests, sang, "We shall overcome" and chanted, "Peace now."