No letup for local war protesters

25 January 2009

(Seattle Post-Intelligencer)

For years, Fourth Avenue and Pine Street has been ground zero for peace activists of all stripes.

But this Saturday marked the first time in eight years that the usual array of banner wavers, ageing hippies, singing grannies, and kaffiyeh-sporting protesters had someone new to persuade.

One might think that President Obama -- who has already promised combat withdrawal from Iraq and axed the Guantanamo Bay detention camp -- would have an uplifting, placating, put-down-the-megaphone effect on Seattle's entrenched anti-war scene. That he might mellow activists out, somehow.

Based on the roughly 100 people standing in near-freezing temperatures at the downtown Seattle plaza Saturday, the answer would be no.

"We're hopeful we'll see a change in attitude in the administration," said Mohammad Kaddoura, a program manager from Issaquah. He was part of the Save Gaza Campaign, which had set up a traditional mourning tent and a collection of coffins outside the Sephora cosmetic shop.

"But it's too early to tell. He's still new. You can't judge a book by its cover."

Plus, even with the Israeli withdrawal a week ago, there was still much to protest. Humanitarian workers were struggling to get into Gaza with food and supplies, and many children had lost their families and homes, Kaddoura said.

Saturday's protest included Helen Von Erichsen, a 53-year-old programmer has stood vigil once a month for more than two years in support of 1st Lt. Ehren Watada of Fort Lewis, the first officer to publicly refuse serving in Iraq.

Watada's court martial ended in a mistrial in 2007, which his supporters say has left him in legal limbo. As with other peace movements in the city -- "no war in Iraq", "no bombing in Afghanistan", "land mines are bad" -- Von Erichsen and her group's cause has grown to include all war resisters.

"Obama should call Fort Lewis and say 'Just cut the guy loose,' and pardon the war resisters," she said.

Seattle has long been a hotbed for anti-war activism, including both massive, peaceful marches and violent demonstrations at the ports of Olympia and Tacoma as demonstrators tried to block military shipments to an Army Stryker brigade.

For some activists, the glimmer of hope in Obama's administration means more urgency for activists.

"It means we should be working harder," said Abie Flaxhammer, a public-health researcher and member of Jewish Voice for Peace,

Flaxhammer had been inspired by Obama's retelling of a conversation between legendary labour organizer A. Philip Randolph and Franklin Roosevelt. President Roosevelt had told Randolph that he agreed with everything he said.

But Roosevelt ended with the words: "I would ask one thing of you… go out and make me do it." That's what Flaxhammer intends to do. Sunday, he has another protest to attend -- a die-in he helped organize with Palestinian and Arab students at the Pike Place Market to protest the suffering in Gaza.

P-I reporter Vanessa Ho can be reached at 206-448-8003 or Read the P-I's military blog at