By Dennis Welch
and Tracy Kurtinitis
East Valley Tribune
Thousands of banner-waving demonstrators, energized by musicians and political speakers, took to the streets of downtown Phoenix Saturday to challenge America's countdown to war with Iraq.
The peace rally was part of a world-wide series of protests denouncing the looming conflict in the Middle East.
The day started at 10 a.m. with heavy clouds over Patriots Square
Park as nearly 3000 people assembled near Washington Street and Central Avenue for a speakers' rally before marching into the streets.
The crowd included a diverse group of college students, senior citizens, anarchists, Christians, Muslims, doctors and construction workers. They sang, waved signs that criticized President Bush's foreign policy, and expressed sympathy for the Iraqi people.
"I'm for peace," said Dr, David Willbirt of Tempe. "This is the personal agenda for a few people who want to control the oil supply."
The Rev. Scott Ritchy, a minister at the Scottsdale United Methodist Church, was the first to address the protesters and drew loud cheers from the crowd when he proclaimed "war is not a family value."
Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Democrat candidate for governor, finished the ally by declaring the Bush administration has presented no compelling reason for war.
Not everyone who attended the rally agreed with the speakers' agenda. A group of about 20 people gathered on the north side of the park to support the president's policy towards Iraq.
"I believe in the rights of the Iraqi people," said Greg Iannelli, 21, of Gilbert. "We are the most powerful nation and we can't just sit back and do nothing."
His roommate, Eric Sprattling, added, "Saddam Hussein is a dictator who has no right to sit on the world's oil supply."
After the rally, protesters marched about 2 ½ miles along the streets of downtown Phoenix as police closed some intersections to traffic. A contingent from the Phoenix Anarchist Coalition dominated the parade front, wearing all-black clothing and dark bandanas covering their faces.
Beating drums, the crowd chanted antiwar slogans with obscene phrases and wrote statements in chalk on the pavement.
Don Clouse, a photographer from southeast Phoenix, held an American flag upside down with white gloves.
"It's a symbol of distress," the 61-year-old said. "I think our country is in a state of distress."
Clouse said he wore the gloves because he didn't want to show disrespect to the flag.
Phoenix police in riot gear were deployed in large numbers and attempted several times to divert the demonstrators from their planned route. At First Avenue and Roosevelt Street, officers blocked the intersection with motorcycles and bicycles as they tried to direct the crowd east toward Central Avenue.
After a brief pause, the crowd pushed past the make-shift barricade and continued north.
One anarchist waving a black flag led the protesters as they continued to ignore police instructions at two more street corners and ended the march where they planned – in front of a military recruitment center at First and Washington streets.
As officers stood in front of the recruitment center, angry protesters called for an end to the "police state".
"Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but some day we will shut you down," one man said.
Authorities arrested six people outside the recruitment building for undisclosed reasons.
Most of the demonstrators returned to Patriots Square Park for more speeches and music. But about 25 people danced and taunted police officers near the corner of Washington Street and Central Avenue. Police in riot gear tried to push the group north onto Jefferson Street.
However, most refused to budge and chanted antiwar messages as motorists beeped their horns and flashed peace symbols.
"The story here really is that there is this outpouring of protest for a war that hasn't even started yet," said Barry Vaughn, 38, a philosophy and religious studies professor at Mesa Community College. "Wait until you see the public outcry once young Americans come home in coffee cans because thy had to be cremated in Iraq due to the risk of biological contamination.
Gary and Christine Guerin, who marched with their basset hound, Archie, said they participated in rallies in the late 1960s that opposed the Vietnam War and supported the civil rights movement. The Guerins said Saturday's protest was subdued by comparison.
"It's a lot less radical," Christine Guerin said.