A look back at 2003 Year of Street Heat

WASHINGTON – Let’s take one last look back at 2003 as recorded in the photos on these pages. Many would say it was the “worst of times” marked by George W. Bush’s unilateral, preemptive war on Iraq, which he justified with lies about non-existent “weapons of mass destruction” and Saddam Hussein’s links to al-Qaeda.

But these photos tell the other side of 2003, the year millions marched and rallied to protest the war. It reached floodtide Feb. 15, 2003, when 750,000 protesters defied New York Police Department harassment and frigid cold to rally near the United Nations under the slogan, “The World Says No to War.”

The chief sponsor, United for Peace and Justice, estimated 13 million people around the world marched that day. It was such an awesome outpouring that a New York Times editorial called it the emergence of a “second superpower.”

Now the peace movement is drawing support from the families of GIs trapped in the nightmarish occupation of Iraq with the toll of dead and wounded GIs and Iraqis rising steadily. The hog’s share of $87 billion approved by Congress to “reconstruct Iraq” flows into Halliburton and Bechtel coffers while the Iraqi people suffer.

Under cover of the “war on terrorism,” Attorney General John Ashcroft kept thousands of innocent Arab and Muslim men imprisoned. But more than 230 cities, towns and counties approved City Council resolutions calling for repeal of the repressive USA Patriot Act in whole or in part.

The AFL-CIO’s Immigrant Workers Freedom Ride last autumn was a sharp and militant answer to the administration’s anti-immigrant hysteria. The 2003 “freedom riders,” like the civil rights freedom riders of the 1960s, rode buses from 10 cities across the country, stopping at over 100 towns and cities for solidarity rallies. They ended with big protests in Washington, D.C., and New York to demand legalization and a road to citizenship for all immigrant workers.

Another dramatic highlight of 2003 was the “Battle of Miami” when thousands of union members, family farmers, human rights activists, and environmentalists converged on Miami to protest the so-called Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) that would facilitate export of thousands of jobs to regions of low wages and no benefits. Miami police tried to crush the nonviolent protests against FTAA. But the Bush administration failed to win completion of FTAA despite this brutal repression and its arm-twisting of other nations.

Democratic state legislators in Texas staged a boycott of the Legislature in Austin, fleeing across the border to Ardmore, Okla., to deny Republicans the quorum they needed to draw new congressional district lines to add eight GOP seats to the Texas delegation in the U.S. House of Representatives. The driving forces in this blatant power grab were House Majority Leader Tom De Lay (R-Texas) and Bush adviser Karl Rove. Ultimately, the Republicans succeeded, but the bold walkout galvanized a fightback in Texas.

Similarly, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) poured $2 million of his personal fortune into the petition drive to recall California Gov. Gray Davis. Rove orchestrated the drive that installed Hollywood muscle-man Arnold Schwarzenegger as governor. But the photo on this page shows that organized labor and its allies waged a heroic battle against the recall. California voters defeated Proposition 54, Ward Connerly’s deceitful “Racial Privacy Act” aimed at destroying affirmative action.

A few days later, 70,000 grocery store workers in Southern California went on strike or were locked out in their protest of Safeway’s drive to take away health care benefits. Calls for a nationwide boycott of Safeway have cut sharply into the company’s profits in this continuing battle.

The Alliance of Retired Americans staged Capitol Hill rallies calling for defeat of the Bush prescription drug scam enacted just before Congress adjourned. While providing little or nothing in benefits for seniors, the bill, which passed, fattens the profits of the pharmaceutical corporations and opens the door to privatization of Medicare.

On Dec. 10, “Human Rights Day,” the AFL-CIO staged marches, rallies, and vigils in Washington, Wall Street and scores of other locations to protest the Bush administration’s “war” on the rights of workers to organize unions. There were also angry blasts against Bush’s attempt to strip 8 million workers of the eight hour day under the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The $200 billion in local and state budget deficits caused by trillions in tax cuts for the rich began to erupt with layoffs and cutbacks in education and public safety in places such as Baltimore, Cleveland, Chicago, and California. This crisis is just now rippling across the nation and is certain to worsen in the months ahead.

Last year’s battles were a dress rehearsal for even more explosive confrontations in 2004, an election year in which labor and its allies are determined to defeat George W. Bush and break the Republican stranglehold on the House and Senate. Look at these photos. Measured by the degree of street heat, 2003 was “the best of times.”

The author can be reached at greenerpastures21212@yahoo.com.