Prospects for war in Iraq brought crowds of Canadian students into the streets to die-in for the first time. It won't be their last protest
I've heard that people cried when they saw our march joining the main rally. I don't find it hard to believe Ð almost 1500 high school and university students marching through the streets of Toronto in pursuit of peace was an incredible sight from every angle.
On that day (March 20, 2003) my angle was probably the most exciting; having participated in the first planning sessions for the student die-in, I could barely believe that everything had come off so well. A plan to take the intersection of Yonge & Bloor (one of the busiest in the city) during rush hour on the day that the war on Iraq officially began had been carefully thought out. We figured we needed about 200 people to pull it off safely, but when somewhere between 1,000 and 2,000 youth appeared, all plans were trampled into the pavement. When I arrived just after four, hundreds of people were already "dead" in the middle of the intersection. They had moved earlier than planned because there simply wasn't any more space left on the sidewalks for everyone who arrived. The endless rain did not dampen anyone's resolve. After blocking the intersection for about 45 minutes, we marched down Yonge Street and across to the US consulate, where we joined the main protest.
I was circulating around the edges, giving pamphlets to confused pedestrians and office workers on their smoke breaks. Their reactions were almost universally positive. To them, peaceful resistance must have seemed to appear out of nowhere. But nothing comes out of nowhere.
Stir It Up, one of the groups that organized the die-in, was formed in 2001 by a small group of high school-aged activists. One of their first actions was some street theatre staged on the day that bombs first fell in Afghanistan. A small group, dressed in black and carrying urns labelled "collateral damage," sprinkled ashes through Toronto's fashion district and the Eaton Centre. This action set a tone of creative resistance that continues today.
I wasn't there for the death march Ð in fact, for me, all of this started quite recently. In January a friend called to invite me to a peace rally. I realized that I had fallen out of touch with current events, and resolved to stop fence-sitting on Iraq. I spent a week or so reading different perspectives online before accepting her offer. It would be my first political protest.
I met my friends in a subway station near city hall, where the march would begin. As we braced ourselves against the cold and pushed out through grimy doors, we heard the roar of a crowd in the distance. As thousands of people came into view, a girl our age behind us turned to her companion. "Do you think there's a protest or something?" she said. I shouldn't have laughed Ð I was really only one step ahead of her. That day, I found out where the US consulate was, and saw police in full riot gear for the first time.
A pamphlet I was handed that day eventually led me to the Pan-Canadian Student Antiwar Conference, organized by Students Against Sanctions and War on Iraq (SASWI). There I met members of Stir It Up, and began to find myself a place in the peace movement.
Students around the world participated in the March 5th student day of action. Walk-outs and teach-ins were staged at high schools and universities in the US, UK, Canada, and Australia. Tens of thousands of students rallied in Australia.
Closer to home, Stir It Up made a big banner that said "High School Students Against Racism and War." At the rallies, we tried to get the handful of groups from high schools such as Oakwood Collegiate Institute and various teachers' unions to march together. The banner attracted a lot of attention. A teacher from Scarborough expressed her frustration at apathy she saw in her own students and was encouraged by us -- she took a picture of the banner to bring back to her school.
By this point, war seemed inevitable. It became clear that peace activists around the world needed to have plans in place for the day that the war on Iraq officially started. It would not be business as usual anywhere in the world. At Stir It Up, we wanted to organize a separate, distinct student action in Toronto. Only a handful of high school students were at the first few meetings, but as our plan took shape, interest grew. At our request, SASWI (mostly made up of university students) joined the action, and the pieces fell into place. As the inevitability of war upset us all, we were buoyed up by the knowledge that we would be heard.
March 20th was a day of mixed feelings. News of war made me feel helpless, but the great turnout at the die-in changed my view of high school students forever. Mal Baxter, a grade eleven student, also felt empowered. "It was amazing to be standing out in the rain with hundreds of people my age who felt what I felt É. It made me feel I can make a difference."
Youth at the die-in had diverse histories. Some of us were seasoned protestors, introduced to the world of political action by parents. Some had been involved a few years or a few months. Many others were at their first political action. There was a feeling that we were at the beginning of something really big, with youth united in a way that hadn't happened since the Vietnam war.
But we barely had a chance to catch our breath and reflect on that before we were on to another project Ð the Hungry for Change Youth Activism Conference. In partnership with the Toronto Environmental Alliance and the Youth Action Network, the conference was intended to build a city-wide network of young activists, to take the strength of the die-in to a new level.
The conference, on May 3-4, was an amazing success. Participants chose up to 7 of 28 workshops on a huge variety of issues, from the War on Iraq, to Violence Prevention, to Hip-Hop Culture and Resistance, to Civic Journalism, to Running for Office. The conference was almost completely run and organized by youth.
Just as I became involved at the SASWI conference, many high school students took their first tentative steps into activism that weekend. The network that was born is still developing, but one thing is sure: it will be a voice of peace and a force to be reckoned with, just as I and other young people intend to be. Youth are not just the peace movement of tomorrow; we are the peace movement of today as well.