Gandja Montiero has traveled around the world since she was six months old, she said. Italy, Egypt, Mexico, Jamaica, Jordan, all over Latin America. She’s been “exposed to the truth of what’s going on.”

What’s going on, she said, is the imperialism of the United States, and the evil it’s committing in the name of its citizens. And that’s how she found herself dancing against war at Wednesday’s protest rally in Washington Square Park. Around her, other dancers surged and swayed, and the drummers — often making do with old water cooler bottles and buckets — beat out an infectious rhythm and chanted.

It was a beautiful fall day, and most of the 2,000 to 2,500 people at the rally — organized by Not In Our Name and A.N.S.W.E.R. (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism) — were students from the city’s universities and high schools. But the war was not the only thing they protested. They called for the United States to abandon the Middle East entirely, for oil companies to disband, for an end to globalization and for a Latino Studies department at NYU. They chanted. They sang. They burned draft cards.

And they fired up the rhetoric.

“What the government is doing is grossly illegal under international law,” said Diana, 38, a lawyer who declined to give her last name. “And you cannot arbitrarily say you can lock anyone up on the government’s say-so. There are rules and laws.”

“It’s really important at this time that people take a stand against this war,” said another student, who declined to identify himself. “We need to take a stand against the injustice and murder that the U.S. is committing on our behalf.”

But this speaker summed up the general feeling of the crowd with the best line of the day: “Bush, Cheney and Rumsfield and all those other motherfuckers are illegitimate and have no right to rule the planet!”

Well, OK.

Look, it’s not that I’m not sympathetic to the protesters. I am. War is bad. But the hard left seems dominated by sclerotic thinking that endorses statements like this one from Montiero: “Cuba,” she said, “is more democratic than the United States by far. 99.9% of the people there vote! Sure, it’s a one-party country, but still.” (I’m sure José Orlando González Bridón, who was imprisoned by Castro, is thankful for that.)

OK. She’s 19. I don’t hold her idealism against her. But there are very good reasons for not invading Iraq that aren’t being raised by the left: It’s destabilizing to the region, it’s likely to produce more Muslim rage, there is only a small likelihood that the United States will really support democracy in Iraq and it’s probably illegal under the United Nations charter. (For the record, I also don’t believe the “weapons of mass destruction falling into the hands of terrorists” reason given by the right, because if we attack Iraq, there’s a good chance Pakistan could fall to the Islamists and with it, nuclear weapons.) There are other ways to deal with Saddam.

The left isn’t raising these (valid) reasons because on some level, I think, they believe the U.S. got what it deserved on 9/11 and any response is just more bullying and/or imperialism. (I wrote about this in October 2001 in my essay “A Cold Look at the Left.”)

The sad fact of the world is that if Saddam is not dealt with in some way, he likely will acquire nukes, dominate the global jugular vein in the Persian Gulf and put a choke-hold on the world’s economy (not to mention wipe out the Kurds and Shi’ites and fill his prisons back up with political prisoners.) And if that happens, these middle-class kids who can afford to go to Marymount Manhattan College and NYU won’t have the luxury of cutting class to protest U.S. imperialism because they’ll be blue-collar kids looking for work to help their parents pay the bills.

A simple statement

At least The Man seemed well-behaved toward the students, with cops taking an almost indulgent stance. There was a serious show of force starting around 3:30 p.m. or so, but they didn’t seem inclined to mass arrests or busting heads. It helped that the protesters were peaceful.

“I would hope it’s peaceful,” said one NYPD captain. “They’re anti-war.”

At least one man was arrested, though. The rally originally converged on Union Square Park, but the lack of a permit and the prior existence of a green market forced the protesters down Broadway to Washington Square Park. The man arrested led the marchers into the street where they “shut down Broadway” as Montiero said. After he was arrested the marchers continued on to the other park. The group’s permit lasted until 6 p.m., and when i went back at 5:30, everyone was already gone. The few stragglers said the demonstration ended peacefully.

So was it a good day for the anti-war movement? In part, that verdict will depend on the turnout from other cities, since this was billed as a National Day of Youth & Student Action. But Marah Lieberman, 18, from Marymount Manhattan College and a member of, thought Wednesday a success.”We’re very pleased with the turnout,” she said. “It shows the unity of people across the political spectrum against the war.”

Well, I don’t know about “across the political spectrum,” since everyone there was leftist, but the idealism and earnestness of crowd, even if a little off target, was a tonic even for a cynical son-of-a-bitch like myself. These kids, bless ’em, think they could do something to change a cynical and hard-nosed administration. And it didn’t matter if they were preaching to the choir and that few media organizations showed up. They believe in the possibility of a better future, which for me was shaken and practically tumbled on 9/11. And that’s a very good thing.

“It always starts like this, small,” said Montiero. “The anti-Vietnam movement started like this. At least now, you can feel there are people who feel the same way as you do.”

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