OAKLAND, Calif. – In the largest protest in East Bay memory, nearly 20,000 demonstrators thronged Telegraph Ave., April 5, as dignitaries and youth led the march from north Oakland’s Mosswood Park to a downtown rally at City Hall.

Tumultuous cheers rose as the crowd, reflecting the rainbow composition of Oakland and nearby communities, responded to veteran singer and civil rights activist Harry Belafonte’s call to “end war once and for all,” and Congresswoman Barbara Lee’s definition of the people’s economic security as true national security.

Speakers, from students to seasoned elected officials, stressed the connection between soaring war spending and the budget cuts now devastating working-class communities, especially communities of color.

An interfaith religious service preceded the rally. Religious leaders were also prominent in the rally program, together with representatives of labor and other social movements. Cultural presentations were an integral element, both at Mosswood Park and at City Hall.

In his remarks to the rally, Belafonte thanked the people of Oakland for their history of having “the courage, the strength and the moral will to stand up for justice, freedom and human dignity. We stand at the beginning of a movement to take back America for the people, to stand for the principles of peace, justice and racial equality,” he said. Belafonte called on progressive elected leaders such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) to “stop playing the game” of compromise and consensus.

“Our patriotism for our sons and daughters can be demonstrated in no greater way than it is being demonstrated here today,” he continued. “Let us now turn our attention to how to end war once and for all. … Let’s show the world what we mean when we talk about ending the use and the stockpiling of weapons of mass destruction by destroying our own,” and bringing our troops home not only from Iraq, but from all over the world.

Calling the crowd “the true patriots,” Lee said, “The economic security of every man, woman, and child in our country should be our national security strategy,” including health care and affordable housing for all, and the best possible public education. “But to do this,” she continued, “we cannot waste our resources on waging a war that is wrong and illegal. The Bush doctrine of pre-emption will do nothing to secure our country.”

New cheers and applause greeted Lee’s statement that, “In 2004, we must take back the House of Representatives, the Senate and the White House on behalf of the people!”

In the march, the ILWU Local 10 drill team led a labor contingent with banners including from the Alameda County Central Labor Council, the Contra Costa County Central Labor Council and Building Trades Council, as well as local unions. At the rally, Judy Goff, head of the Alameda County CLC, emphasized the urgency of bringing the troops — including members of affiliated unions — “home safe and soon,” while longshore union leader Clarence Thomas pointed out the relation between the war on Iraq and Bush’s attack on the trade union movement at home.

“We can’t turn back the sands of time,” said California state Assemblywoman Wilma Chan, “but we can turn our outrage into action.” Chan said President Bush has “turned a deaf ear” to concerns over California’s biggest budget deficit ever, and called on the crowd to fight for an agenda of taxing the rich, universal health care and preschool education, and funds for human needs. Oakland Vice Mayor Nancy Nadel said the community “stands with 167 cities across the nation” that have protested the war against Iraq.

Student activists were also prominent in the program. Samantha Hines, from Oakland High School’s Youth Power Club, said funds must be used for education instead of imperialist war, while Berkeley High’s Valerie Nicolas proclaimed that as long as the system exists, so will the activists.

Some marchers wore imaginative costumes, such as the giant mobile swinging bomb-shaped cutouts bearing the legend, “See through the spin.” Catwoman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman and Robin Hood formed a “superheroes for peace” contingent, while one marcher rolled along in a one-third scale model of a U.S. battle tank.

Prominent in the program were performers including Kahlil Jacobs-Fantuzzi, Balafo African Drummers, Liberation Brass Band and La Pena Community Chorus.

The march was organized in a month’s time by the April 5 Peace and Justice Coalition, and endorsed by over 170 elected officials, religious leaders, and labor, community, civil rights and student groups.

The author can be reached at cpusainternat@mindspring.com