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Rumors of anti-war are heard

Jesse Tinsley
Plain Dealer Reporter

The once-scattered voices of Northeast Ohioans opposed to a war with Iraq have merged into a chorus that is growing louder and stronger.

Dozens of anti-war groups - as varied as religious groups, labor unions and individuals offering their bodies as human shields - have united in recent months as the Northeast Ohio Anti-War Coalition.

Since last fall, the coalition has united dozens of groups under its umbrella and staged two major demonstrations on Public Square on cold and windy days in November and December.

Yesterday, the group sponsored a daylong "Emergency Anti-War Conference" at Cleveland State University. It featured workshops and speakers who urged an auditorium audience of about 500 to exercise their patriotic duty to "dissent and protest," as speaker Amy Goodman, a syndicated radio-show host, put it.

Not since the Vietnam era has anti-war sentiment hit such a fever pitch so quickly, said Steve Cagan, a 50-year-old Cleveland Heights resident and participant in the coalition.

The bell bottoms and long hair that Cagan once wore have gone the way of the Lava lamp. Cagan is older, wiser and cleaner-cut, but he is as passionately opposed to war as ever as he works with a new breed of war protesters. They are well-organized: students and labor unions, lawyers and laymen, young and old, Muslim and Christian. And most are wired - plugged in to the Internet, which has sped up information sharing.

"These are not wild-eyed liberals who are waving daisies," said John Ryan, executive director of the Cleveland AFL-CIO, which opposes the war.

The protesters are people like coalition member Seville Streem, an 84-year-old activist who has been demonstrating against wars since she was a senior at Cleveland Heights High School.

"We are finally getting active to stop the war against Iraq," said Streem, who protested against dictator Francisco Franco during the Spanish Civil War in the mid-1930s.

Streem, a retired bookkeeper living in University Heights, is a self-proclaimed "third-generation activist" who said she would be heading to New York on Saturday for a national demonstration if her health were better. But her heart is with the coalition, which formed quickly last fall and evolved into one of the biggest anti-war fronts in Northeast Ohio since the Vietnam War.

"A lot of these groups are doing very good work in their respective spheres," said Greg Coleridge, a coalition coordinator and director of the Akron-based Northeast Ohio American Friends Services. "Now, these groups have come together and plan collectively."

Other war opponents have descended on local city halls to encourage passage of resolutions against military action in Iraq. Several cities have adopted the resolutions, including Cleveland, Garfield Heights, Cleveland Heights and Akron.

The cities have joined some 70 other municipalities nationwide. Oberlin College, a hotbed of political activism, Ohio University and the Cleveland AFL-CIO Federation of Labor have also adopted anti-war resolutions.

"It's unusual for so many important institutions in this country to be taking a strong anti-war position," Cagan said. "It's happening because people see through the pretext, that George Bush wants a war."

The Cleveland AFL-CIO voted to oppose the Vietnam War five years after it started and after many deaths. This time, the labor group acted quickly, "before a single shot was fired," Ryan said.

The union, he added, is working with religious and black community groups rallying against the war.

The Internet, Ryan said, has helped forge stronger bonds with faith-based groups like Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland, which is speaking out against war on behalf of the Intercommunity/Interfaith Push for Peace. On a recent Sunday evening, Antioch hosted an emotion-filled rally titled Voices Against the War that brought more than 1,500 people to their feet.

The main speaker was the Rev. Marvin McMickle, Antioch's pastor. He was joined by Khalid Samad of Amir Greater Cleveland Council of Mosques, the Rev. Joan Brown-Campbell and U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich. Like protesters everywhere, they called for the continued use of diplomacy with Iraq.

Coleridge, the Northeast Ohio Anti-War Coalition coordinator in Akron, says gatherings such as the Antioch rally bring people together and have war opponents "deepening our strategy, exchanging awareness and figuring out how we are going to network with one another better."

One strategy is to demand news coverage, through e-mail and phone calls. Protests around the country are attracting greater attention from the mainstream news media, said coalition member Nina McLellan. "The media was not covering all of this organizing at the grass-roots level, and barely even the national demonstrations were covered in the beginning," she said. "They were covering so much of what the administration is saying."

Goodman, who hosts Pacifica Radio's Democracy Now program, said the lack of coverage of the domestic peace movement is only part of the media's shortcomings. Americans, she said at yesterday's peace symposium, are also getting a skewed picture of what war wreaks.

"The media would be much more accurate if instead of portraying a target on the forehead of Saddam Hussein, they showed that target on the forehead of a little Iraqi girl," she said.

It's a difficult challenge to "take on the government's public-relations apparatus," said Coleridge.

Among those trying is Vicki Lovegren, a 52-year-old Cleveland State University instructor.

She is just back from Iraq. Last October, she signed an online petition at for academics opposing the war. Subsequently, Dr. Muhammed Al-Ravi, president of Baghdad University, invited her and other Westerners to a peace summit in the Iraqi capital. She was among 13 Americans to attend the January conference.

Lovegren returned convinced that there is no reason for the United States to launch a war against Iraq. She shares the views of those who believe the planned war is about oil and imperialism rather than a proclaimed quest for weapons of mass destruction.

As the threat of war nears, coalition members are fiercely clicking their computer mice and using the Internet to plan rallies, discuss strategy and post articles.

Diana Tittle, a Cleveland author, fears time is running out.

At first, Tittle was ambivalent about joining the Cleveland protest, fearing "what new horror might be wreaked if the U.S. did not act decisively to end the regime of Saddam Hussein."

But something clicked as she marched across the Detroit-Superior bridge to Public Square during the December protest.

"I came away with a growing conviction about the importance of speaking out that I gained from seeing 1,000 Clevelanders of all ages and backgrounds questioning our government." Tittle and others opposed to war fear that despite what they say is growing opposition, the United States government will carry out its planned war.

But anti-war protesters march on. On Saturday, dozens of area residents will board buses for New York, where they will rally with thousands of others from across the country.

Anti-war activists here have a sense of worldwide unity, as demonstrations grow overseas and war opponents in France, Germany and other countries pressure their governments to oppose an attack on Iraq.

"We still have a chance, and we feel the future to a certain extent is still in our hands," Coleridge said. "We have to do this . . . show up at conferences, be outside of the West Side Market, do all the things that people in Greater Cleveland are doing to protest."

2003 The Plain Dealer. Used with permission.

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