For over five hours in bitterly cold weather under leaden skies, the peace activists thronged a 20-block area north of the United Nations Plaza, singing, chanting, and dancing as they roared "no war in Iraq!" The crowd was a mixture of college students and young professionals, families with small children and throngs of gray haired marchers, many of whom said they had demonstrated against the war in Vietnam.
The marchers were gay and in good spirits and many of them joked and chatted with the police officers manning intersections. Some sang old songs and chants, like "Give Peace a Chance" but many of the younger marchers didn't appear to know the words.
This was a demonstration run by cell phones and organized by e-mail and fueled by designer coffees. All along the routes, which host some of New York most exclusive shops, marchers fueled up in expensive coffee shops and fancy delicatessens.
Police officials at 57th Street declined to give a crowd estimate, but by early afternoon the protestors blocked traffic on First, Second and Third avenues between 50th Street and 57th Street. Certain stations of the Lexington Avenue subway were closed temporarily, including the 50th and 57th Street stations, in an apparent effort to keep more demonstrators from congregating.
The planners of the march said they expected 100,000 to attend and though the crowd was uncounted, the numbers appeared to be more than police had expected. It tied up at different times four key north and south avenues on the East Side and city buses parked because they could not move north filled five city blocks from curb to curb.
Eric Hegstrom of Hunterdon, N.J., said he didn't know if worldwide peace demonstrations like this one would stop Bush's plan.
"We can only do a little and hope all those little bits add up to something." Hegstrom remembered his first peace march was in 1972 from the Hunterdon High School to the courthouse in Flemington, N.J.
Ralph Gwynn of Braintree, Mass., said "this march is only the beginning" and he planned to attend a demonstration in Washington on March 1 timed to the next report of the U.N. arms inspectors.
However, at several points were small demonstrations in favor of Bush's plans. One young group of men at 47th Street carried a sign that said "100,000 Kurds can't be wrong," referring to claim that Saddam had massacred Kurds over the last decade.
The peace marchers gathered under the watchful eye of New York Police and National Guardsman on new patrols because of the high alert status announced by the federal government on Feb. 7.
Demonstrators came by bus, train, car and plane. New York's famous Grand Central and Pennsylvania railroad stations became rally points for groups gathering their members.
Police blocked off the United Nations Plaza backed by a federal court order, but have issued a permit to One Dag Hammarskjold Plaza a few blocks north. The crowd quickly spilled out of that and was permitted to march north and south over several avenues.
Although the crowd was easy going, there were several arrests at 53rd Street and Third Avenue due to pushing, shoving, and crowding as police-mounted patrols came through.
The impending war with Iraq has revived the moribund U.S. peace movement. Planners say the day's protest in several countries will involve 10 million people.
The New York rally will be followed Sunday by a major demonstration in San Francisco and rallies, marches or peace events in hundreds of cities around the world.
"This is a kind of a last big push to prevent this war," Alex Cheney of Boston Mobilization told United Press International. "We're really running out of time. It seems like a race to see who can build more support the quickest."
In other cities as far afield as Christchurch, New Zealand, and as close to the White House as Alexandria, Va., there have been town meetings, vigils, and church services against the war.
The New York peace rally began at noon at 49th Street and First Avenue several blocks north of the United Nations where Friday U.N. weapons inspectors reported Iraq was cooperating on some issues and a push began to give them more time to finish their work.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg refused to negotiate with the demonstrators. The city, target only 16 months ago of the worst attack in history on U.S. continental soil, is tense with the new threats of danger reported by Washington.
Jones said she wouldn't "second guess" the police and found for NYPD's contention that "it cannot responsibly undertake the facilitation of this march without great risk to the participants themselves, the public and its own officers." Lawyers for the demonstrators pointed out that on March 17 the city will allow the St. Patrick's Day Parade where annually a 100,000 or more gather.
Whether the numbers of demonstrators will issue a political warning to Bush may not be as important as the signs that a new antiwar movement, from labor unions to college students, to housewives to senior citizens is beginning to form. For most of the 1980s and 1990s, the antiwar movement was dominated with what New York's Village Voice called then the "hard left." Earlier marches and outcries have been dominated by such figures as former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, who has represented Iraq and other major opponents of the United States.
The new coalition looks a lot more like the Vietnam era. United for Peace and Justice is the umbrella group managing the worldwide demonstrations. It has participants like the World Council of Churches as well as major colleges and participants from old-line labor unions. The Internet is clearly a modern tool of organizers, allowing worldwide coordination in a way that was not possible during the Vietnam era. Each peace group has a Web page and issue instructions, keep their faithful informed and recruiting new members through the World Wide Web and e-mail.