News: War Cries in Cincinnati

The commander in chief draws a crowd

Oct 10, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Matt Borgerding

Only selected guests were allowed to attend President Bush's speech on possible war.

If President Bush is correct in seeing Cincinnati as the nation's heartland, let him take heed: 2,000 to 3,000 protesters greeted his war speech Oct. 7 in Cincinnati.

The first surprise is the numbers. Cincinnati is lately a place with many protests but usually few protesters. For Bush's visit, however, perhaps four times as many people attended the demonstration as attended the presidential address.

But then Bush's speech at Union Terminal was by invitation only, and that at the courtesy of the Greater Cincinnati Chamber of Commerce. If that seems fitting, note also the path the protesters had to traverse to get to the scene, walking past what's left of the public housing projects in the West End. Poor people were on one end of Ezzard Charles Drive, the President and his guests at the other.

The second surprise is the diversity of the uninvited. Cincinnati City Councilman David Crowley wasn't the only sixtysomething at the protest. More than one sign warned that war isn't healthy for pensions or other economic things.

Professors for Peace, Franciscan friars and nuns, Quakers, Hamilton County Commissioner Todd Portune, students from Earlham College, union members, Baptist ministers and lots of people with signs quoting the New Testament were in attendance, as were a giant Jesus puppet and several dozen Muslim women in veils.

Color and sound abounded, but civil rights attorney Bob Newman had the only bow tie in sight.

"I'm not a pacifist, but this is the wrong war at the wrong time," he said.

The third surprise was the vigor of the protesters. Police cordoned off all entrances to Union Terminal, leaving hundreds of people crammed onto narrow sidewalks on an expressway overpass. The wonder of such events is that a crowd of 3,000 could overrun 300 cops with relative ease, yet it seems never to dawn on anyone to try. So far, anyway.

Pre-emptive protest
Just as Bush didn't declare war in Cincinnati, the nascent anti-war movement didn't start here. But the behavior on the ground was telling.

This movement shows signs of being well advanced on tactics and crowd discipline. Human rights activist Michael McCleese called up the memory of the peace movement during the Vietnam War.

Instead of growing as the war dragged on, as happened during Vietnam, this anti-war movement seems mobilized from the start. After all, the White House announced Bush's visit here just four days in advance.

"If Bush starts a war, we have to be ready — activists and peace-lovers — to do what we did 40 years ago," McCleese said.

That's why what happened at Ezzard Charles Drive and Western Avenue at 8:30 p.m. is significant. Hundreds of protesters surged into the street and took control of the intersection, drumming, chanting and dancing dervishly. But this was more than the political playfulness that's come to mark the anti-globalization movement.

This street action worked; it accomplished a small but measurable goal. While dozens of police stood guard, the protesters succeeded in delaying the departure of Bush's guests.

The Rev. Damon Lynch III, president of the Black United Front (BUF), stood on the sidewalk facing the police barricade line. Juleana Frierson of BUF was in the street with a bullhorn, reinforcing the chant, "Whose streets? Our streets!"

A group of 10 protesters, including Susan Knight of the Coalition for a Humane Economy, sat in the middle of the intersection while protesters reveled in the illegal occupation of the intersection in front of Union Terminal.

At 8:52 p.m., police on horses blocked the crowd from the south side, while squad cars inched forward from the north. Still the protesters reveled, chanting, "Hold the streets!" and "This is what democracy looks like!"

At 9:15 p.m., police ordered demonstrators back onto sidewalks. At the northeast quadrant of the intersection, protester Brian Garry tried to pet a police officer's horse. The officer — Cincinnati Police Department badge No. 388 — reached for a can of chemical spray and yelled, "Get off!"

About an hour later, after the crowd had been pushed away from the area, police arrested Garry and several other stragglers. Garry was charged with assaulting a police horse and obstructing official business.

Unpleasantness for the cause
Dozens of Bush supporters stood outside Union Terminal, carrying signs supporting the U.S. military. One man carried a sign saying, "My son leaves in February." Another sign said, "Campus conservatives, you are not alone!"

Perhaps not, but on this night they were plainly outnumbered. And they had to endure such impertinent messages as, "The President lacks grey matter" and "Imperialism is for assholes."

Bush's speech itself was resolute and low-key, not dynamic. He knew this was friendly territory. He was interrupted by applause twice — once when he said, "We will act as necessary and we will prevail" and again when he said, "We refuse to live in fear."

The tone was reminiscent of an opening night at the Aronoff Center for the Arts, when the audience is primed to be appreciative regardless of the performance: A standing ovation at the finale is de rigeur.

The setting was ironic, the President talking beneath Winold Reiss' mosaic murals of working people who built the city — and the nation. Bush said lots about how evil Saddam Hussein is and what a threat he represents, but not much balance of concern with what war would mean to the American people in the long haul.

Guests were told to arrive at 5:30 p.m., more than two hours before the speech. Members of the audience got three warnings about "no cell phones, no pagers, no electronic devices, no cameras."

After standing in one of six lines on the sidewalk in front of the Museum Center, guests had to show tickets and driver licenses for comparison to a master list. Three metal detectors were in operation.

In all, guests had to spend four hours of effort to hear a 30-minute speech.

RICK PENDER contributed to this story.