NEW YORK, OCT. 20 -- Seven young soldiers and reservists who today announced their refusal to serve in the Persian Gulf helped lead an anti-war march of thousands down Broadway's theater district calling for the president and Congress to "Bring the troops home."
With delegations of students and veterans waving fluorescent yellow banners in the breeze, the march may have looked like something out of the 1960s -- but it had a definite 1990s twist. Activists were doing brisk business selling $1 buttons emblazoned with Bart Simpson, his arms crossed defiantly, saying, "Hell no, we won't go."
Marches and rallies also were held today in 19 cities, including the District of Columbia, Atlanta, Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, Houston, San Francisco and Seattle. They signaled the first organized opposition to the U.S. deployment in the Persian Gulf, where the United States has sent more than 200,000 troops in the aftermath of the Aug. 2 invasion of Kuwait by Iraq.
In the District, an estimated 250 to 500 persons were involved in a demonstration in front of the White House during which some of them sat down in Pennsylvania Avenue, forcing the temporary closing of the street.
A Metro spokeswoman said buses on the 80 and 30 routes that traverse Pennsylvania Avenue were diverted to other streets between 2:20 p.m. and 4:25 p.m.
D.C. police said seven women and nine men, including longtime anti-war activist Daniel Ellsberg, were arrested and charged with incommoding public space in connection with the protest.
The protest platforms in New York and in the other cities called for a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the gulf crisis and for spending money currently financing the military on housing, education, health care, AIDS research and veterans' benefits instead.
"If we go to Saudi Arabia we'll be fighting the wrong war," Air Force reservist Ronald Jean-Baptiste, dressed in a suit and red tie, told a cheering crowd gathered before the march at Columbus Circle just west of midtown Manhattan. "There's too many wars to fight here first."
Jean-Baptiste, who lives in Brooklyn, was ordered yesterday to report for Middle East deployment, and refused. He and several other military members on the podium at the rally are officially absent without leave (AWOL) from the service, and could face military discipline. Some have applied for conscientious objector status and are waiting for the military to consider their cases.
Stephanie Atkinson, an Army enlistee who plans to refuse her orders when she is called for active duty Monday, drove to the rally from her home in Murphysboro, Ill. "You people are totally bigger than my whole home town," she said, speaking to the crowd at the rally.
As often happens with such events, the organizers and the police offered markedly different crowd estimates. Organizers announced from the podium that 10,000 people were in attendance, later upping the estimate to 15,000. The New York Police Department's press office estimated the crowd at between 2,500 and 4,000.
About 50 people took a bus from the District of Columbia this morning at 6:30 to make the New York march. John Steinbach, who came with a contingent from the Gray Panthers, an advocacy group for the elderly, said: "We feel this is an Arab problem. It's going to demand an Arab solution and a U.N. solution."
Former U.S. attorney general Ramsey Clark told the crowd: "We're here because we have an imperial presidency as unrestrained as any military dictatorship that ever lived. . . . We're here because we have a paralyzed Congress."
Clark referred to Iraq as Mesopotamia and reminded the crowd that the Middle East has a long history of conflicts and invasions that have been resolved by the area's indigenous people. "Alexander the Great died in Babylon, George Bush," Clark said in a seeming address to the absent president.
Bishop Paul Moore, a former Episcopal leader of New York, recalled his experience fighting in the 1942 battle of Guadalcanal, where he was wounded. He returned to the site of the battle last year. "The image came back to me of hundreds of people lying dead rotting in the sun," he said. "If you've ever been in a war you know it cannot be an option. The problem is our leaders are divorced from that tragedy and that violence."
After the rally, which included speakers representing a potpourri of causes -- from AIDS to Korean unification to Palestinian rights -- the protesters marched through Manhattan, blocking traffic already stopped by police.
"Is this an anti-war march?" Jack Gordon, 69, a real estate agent in New York, asked a passerby, who told him it was. "Good. Very good," Gordon said, with a wink. "We don't belong in the Middle East. In short, we should mind our own business."
Staff writer Martin Weil in Washington contributed to this report.