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Antiwar protesters plan to blockade federal buildings, businesses

WASHINGTON—If U.S.-led forces attack Iraq, anti-war activists around the country plan to blockade federal buildings and disrupt major business districts with large protests and nonviolent civil disobedience.

Many organizers have kept their intentions under wraps so police and officials at targeted sites, including large corporations and U.S. military bases, will be caught off guard. But drafts of some plans have appeared on Web sites, and training sessions on topics such as "nonviolent blockades" are under way.

Civil disobedience, which implies the refusal to obey certain laws, has a long history. But protest tactics have evolved in recent years, aided by the coordinating powers of the Internet and by tactics designed to foil police. Instead of staging docile sit-ins, some demonstrators now link hands by putting their arms through pipes and handcuffing their wrists together.

"Since Vietnam, a number of groups have added levels of sophistication to how they protest, from Greenpeace and the environmentalists on the left to anti-abortion activists on the right," said Bruce Cain, a political science professor at the University of California-Berkeley. "But it hasn't been mass scale. Now they are taking those tactics and bringing them to the debate about the war."

Some disruptions have already started: Eight anti-war protesters were arrested in Seattle on Feb. 18 after blocking the eastbound lanes of Highway 520, halting the morning commute.

In California, dozens of protesters plan to infiltrate Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central coast, hoping to disrupt work. A San Francisco-area collective called Direct Action to Stop the War plans to blockade the TransAmerica Pyramid, the Pacific Stock Exchange and the Federal Reserve in San Francisco.

In Philadelphia, more than 1,200 people have signed a pledge to protest at the Philadelphia Federal Building two days after the war begins, said Robert M. Smith of Brandywine Peace Community.

"We will attempt to shut it down," he said. "We plan to block every entrance into the facility through people using the strength of their presence and their bodies in the tradition of King and Gandhi."

Protesters in Washington, D.C. may focus on the White House. A spokesman for a national group, Peace Action, said plans call for activists to gather at 5 p.m. on the day the United States goes to war, or at that time the following day if an attack begins at night. Scott Lynch said protesters would probably block one of the White House driveways. "If you stop moving and sit on the sidewalk, they're going to arrest you," he acknowledged.

During the Gulf War in 1991, protesters shut down the Bay Bridge that links San Francisco and Oakland for two days in a row, creating major traffic jams. This time, the focus is primarily on federal sites and large corporations that activists believe have a financial interest in a war with Iraq.

"My real hope is that the war doesn't start," said David Taylor of Direct Action to Stop the War. "But if the Bush administration goes ahead despite worldwide popular opinion, then our goal is to shut down the capitalist machine that drives the war."

Veteran activists warn that deciding to take part in civil disobedience is serious.

"You have to be willing to risk arrest and willing to suffer the consequences of that, be it jail time, a trial, bail or lawyer's fees," said Chris Chupp, a professional non-violence trainer in Chicago.

Among the tips from activists: It's easy to get arrested if your muscles are tense but harder for police to drag you away if you go limp. Drink water beforehand to avoid dehydration. Bring change for phone calls—and know the number of a lawyer.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Tosin Sulaiman contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.