LOS ANGELES – Twenty thousand people of every race and nationality filled the streets of downtown Los Angeles on Jan. 11 in what many are calling the largest city protest against the war in Iraq in our nation so far.

Most notable was the participation of significant numbers of people who do not ordinarily attend such demonstrations. In its story describing the protest, The Los Angeles Times said, “There were baby buggies and suburbanites in khaki shorts mixed into the crowd, some of them looking as if they’d taken a wrong turn on their way to the mall.”

Media stories following the protest were filled with interviews of Los Angelenos who had never attended a rally before. President Bush’s announcemnet that the U.S. would deploy thousands more U.S. troops to the Persian Gulf convinced many that they must march. Families, neighbors and co-workers carpooled or hopped on the Metro to send a message to President Bush that war with Iraq is not in the interests of the American people.

“Are you willing to die for Exxon?” asked the button of a first-time protester. “Iraq never closed my health clinic,” read signs carried by others.

Prominent leaders and celebrities led the one-mile march that ended with a rally in front of the Federal Building. Among them were Martin Sheen and Bradley Whitford, stars of the popular television show, “West Wing.”

“A lot of people have been silent for a long time but that is ending,” Sheen told the cheering crowd. “We are telling the world that we are patriotic Americans but we do not support going to war with Iraq.”

During the march, Sheen pushed the wheelchair of Ron Kovic, a Vietnam War veteran who came home to lead anti-war protests and whose autobiography was made into the movie Born on the Fourth of July. Kovic told the World the Los Angeles protest, the largest peace demonstration in the city since the Vietnam War, would launch “one of the greatest anti-war movements in the history of the United States.”

Singers Jackson Browne and Slash of Guns n’ Roses were among the artists who performed. Other prominent leaders who marched and spoke included Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, State Rep. Jackie Goldberg (D-Los Angeles), Maria Elena Durazo, international vice president of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union, Los Angeles Urban League President John Mack and Rev. James Lawson of the Interfaith Communities United for Peace and Justice.

“I am here with you today because I want to send a message: I am not afraid of George W. Bush,” Waters said, stirring up the rally. “I do not support a strike on Iraq. I do not support a first strike anywhere!”

Reverend Lawson, who fought at the side of Dr. Martin Luther King for civil rights, received thunderous applause when he said, “We must resist! We must help people understand that this is the beginning of a protracted struggle until we change what governments are to what governments ought to be.”

“Health care not Warfare” was the message on the banner of 50,000-member Local 660 of the Service Employees Internationnal Union (SEIU), one of the most prominent contingents in the march.

“I’m marching because President Bush is wasting money on war to kill children, instead of providing funds for health care which saves lives,” Patty Margaret, a registered nurse and SEIU member who has worked in health care for 28 years, said.

“The poor who have suffered deeply from the recent closures of eleven clinics, are the same people who’s sons will be the ones who are killed in war,” Alejandro Stephens, Local 660 president, told the rally. “Just one B-2 bomber costs $2 billion – the amount could solve the entire LA County health crisis.”

Other large contingents represented immigrants of many nationalities and women. Over a third of protesters were youth.

Among the sponsors of the protest were the Coalition for World Peace, the Interfaith communities United for Peace and Justice and Not in Our Names.

The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com