March 5, 2013
“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.” – Voltaire
I can remember it like yesterday. I was in Chicago at a Centers for Disease Control conference for work and it was going to happen – we were going to war in Iraq, a war based on lies.
That night, after the day’s events at the conference, I went out into the unseasonably warm Chicago night to find an anti-war protest. I found one in Grant Park that was just finishing. I asked a few people about it and they said Joan Baez had just played. I saw a vendor packing up who had ‘No War’ pins for sale. I went over and bought one so I could wear it at my conference the next day and register my dissent over this illegal and very costly foreign policy blunder on which my country was about to embark.
That night I stayed glued to the television and watched the drumbeat of War. I watched as the media became a cheerleader and gave up any semblance of objectivity. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
I still remember to this day the first news conference many months before when President Bush stopped talking about Osama Bin Laden and Al Qaeda and started talking about Saddam Hussein. Why was he mentioning Saddam Hussein, I remember thinking at the time. It was Al Qaeda who attacked us on 9/11. It was clear to me at that moment that the Bush Administration was going to pull a bait and switch. They wanted to prosecute a war on Iraq and needed a context.
For a while I thought that our institutions like the media, Congress, U.N. weapons inspectors, the global community – and even some people in the administration (Colin Powell came to mind) – would never let this come to pass. The clear truth that Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks on the 9/11 would become obvious and prevent any possible war with Iraq, I had thought. I watched in dismay over the months leading up to the invasion as all those institutions failed to prevent an administration that had already made up its mind to go to war.
The next day at the conference I could hardly pay attention to infectious disease. The government of my country was doing something so destructive and I was powerless to do anything about it. I thought about all the civilians that would die, the U.S. soldiers who were being put into a combat situation for less than noble reasons, and the exorbitant costs to my country in human and monetary terms.
I left the conference and went up to my hotel room to watch the news coverage. CNN was talking about the ‘great American War Machine’ crossing the desert in Iraq.
The following day I skipped most of the conference sessions and watched the news. One interesting thing that was coming through the coverage was some of the war protests going on around the country. It appeared that in my home city of San Francisco, protesters had succeeded in blocking traffic and shutting down parts of the city. There were pictures of protesters on top of cable cars and in busy streets. My city was fervently registering its dissent.
I couldn’t wait to get back to San Francisco. I opposed the invasion from the start. I never bought the idea that Saddam was a threat any more than he had been over the past 20 years. I never believed that 9/11 had changed the context. I was never fooled into thinking that we were interested in freeing the Iraqi people or even finding ‘Weapons of Mass Destruction.’ I saw the invasion for what it was: a neoconservative, geopolitical chess move; an opportunity for the United States to gain strategic control over a country with the largest reserves of untapped oil. We were being lied to about the reasons for the war, its prospective costs, or that there was even a plan to win the peace after the invasion.
The next morning I left Chicago and flew back to San Francisco. When I got to my apartment I threw my suitcase on the floor, grabbed my video camera, and headed down to Market Street and Powell. I had heard that the protesters planned to march around downtown. I was going to be a part of history and express my opposition to this national disaster. I also wanted to film the events for the sake of recording history.
When I got down to the protest, it was definitely chaotic and there were a lot of police. The vibe felt ominous. I found a smaller group who were marching on the sidewalks around the financial district. As I followed the marchers up Kearny Street, we turned onto Sutter and then I felt something I had rarely felt in my adult life, completely powerless as I was pushed by police into other people, many of whom were screaming. Eventually about fifteen officers in riot gear had surrounded a small group of about twenty people in front of the Galleria Park Hotel. They pushed us hard and in the process snared a few tourists who were just walking around downtown. I was rattled. I didn’t even understand why they decided to arrest us as we were actually walking on the sidewalk, not blocking traffic, and protesting peacefully. I learned later that the police were so overwhelmed the day before that they were clearly over reacting on this day.
They held us there for a while and eventually put the plastic cuffs on each of us. They took our video cameras, put tags on them and placed at least ten of them in one large mesh bag. They proceeded to load us onto a bus and drive us down to their ‘holding’ center, which was set up in a pier on the Embarcadero. I had never been arrested in my life so I was scared. They booked us and unloaded us into holding pens.
After about three hours they gave us water and bologna sandwiches. How apropos for the stuff we were being fed about this ‘War.’ Some protesters arranged the bologna into a peace sign in our cell. To pass the time we chanted and played ‘holding pen’ soccer with our empty water bottles. I met a lot of brave and patriotic people which made me feel like I was in the right place. I later came to find out the plan was to arrest protesters and hold them until dark so they wouldn’t go back out and protest. There were many police just standing around doing nothing. They did finally let us go just after nightfall.
After the ordeal, I wrote to Matt Gonzales who was the President of the Board of Supervisors at the time about what happened to me. He said he was holding a hearing and taking public comment about the events of that day. I was thankful to get a chance to speak publicly about what happened. The charges against most of the protesters were eventually dropped although then-Supervisor Tony Hall did attempt to charge the protesters for the Police Department’s overtime.
Ten years has elapsed, but those events are vivid in my mind. The invasion of Iraq taught me some interesting lessons. One important lesson for me is that many institutions in our society failed when it came to preventing this debacle. To this day, no one in the Administration has been brought to justice for lying us into a war. George Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Condoleezza Rice, Paul Wolfowitz and, yes, even Colin Powell are war criminals and yet they walk around free from prosecution as if nothing happened. I believe this fact will come back to haunt our democracy.
On Iran and Syria, the Iraq Invasion should help guide the discussion. Can we trust intelligence claims of imminent nuclear capabilities in Iran? Will military intervention in Syria really improve the humanitarian crisis there? What are the true costs of such interventions?
It is also important to think about some of the precedents set by Iraq. Ten years later the supremacy of Executive Power has been cemented in our country. The Bush Administration set a precedent with its illegal war, torture, and indefinite detention policies. Unfortunately the Obama Administration continues dangerously on this path by justifying the ability of the President and the CIA to target and kill people without any sort of judicial review. This goes against our Constitution, our system of checks and balances, and most importantly violates human rights.
On the positive side, I take real pride in my city because many people here spoke out. San Francisco has always been an important voice on the national stage and during the Invasion of Iraq it was loud in its opposition. Dissent is an important component of democracy. I’m proud to call this City home.
I still carry my arrest citation in my wallet and have the simple blue ‘No War’ button I purchased in Chicago on the eve of the invasion. Unfortunately I will still need that button until our country learns important lessons about the need to hold powerful people accountable for their actions and the absolute futility of wars of choice. Let’s not forget what our country did ten years ago because if we do we are doomed to repeat it.