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30 years ago resistance to the US War in the Gulf was heating up in Grand Rapids

January 6, 2021

In the summer of 1990, it began clear that the US government was beginning to marginalize Iraq, with the intent of going to war with the Middle Eastern nation.

The US was claiming that Iraq’s border dispute with Kuwait was an act of aggression and by late Summer of 1990, the US began a military build-up against Iraq, getting Saudi permission to use their country as a base in which to begin an invasion.

Activists in Grand Rapids began holding weekly demonstrations in front of the federal building in downtown, sometime in September of 1990. The weekly demonstrations grew in size between September and the New Year, as the Bush Administration began to ramp up campaign to justify an invasion of Iraq.

The US news media was going along with US government’s propaganda and also began to beat the war drums. CNN, which was a fairly recent player in news market, became the first 24 hour news platform and made the US build-up to the war in Iraq its main focus, providing daily coverage of US military press briefings and creating digital graphics for promoting the Gulf War.

The US military assault on Iraq, known as Operation Desert Storm, began as the national known as Martin Luther King Jr. day was being celebrated. Once the war started, the Pentagon, along with most major news outlets began framing the issue to the public as Support for the Troops. Many cities across the country, including Grand Rapids, decorated their downtown districts with yellow ribbons tied on trees or lamp posts. Such displays was meant to silence any anti-war sentiment and equate being agains the US war as being against the US troops.

There were protests every Monday in Grand Rapids, mostly in front of the Federal building, but sometimes those in the demonstrations would march. The picture above is a student-led march that began at the Federal building, but continued throughout the downtown area. These demonstrations lasted until late February of 1991, when the US ended their military attack against Iraq.

During those 6 weeks of protesting, there were other actions that were organized in Grand Rapids:

▪ In late January the Institute for Global Education organized a Teach-In on the Gulf War, which provided sessions on a history of US foreign policy in that region and workshops on civil disobedience.

▪ At a GVSU hosted MLK Day (downtown GR campus) there was a workshop done on US militarism and racism, with an emphasis on what is referred to as an economic draft. An economic draft, means that a disproportionate amount of black and latino/latinx youth were joining the US military because of the lack of work and education opportunities.

▪ There were also workshops being done in Grand Rapids with college and high schools students about how to become a conscientious objector or war resister if a draft was re-instated and to provide people with more information on being a CO or war resister.

However, since the US military portion of the war ended so quickly, it made it difficult to build a mass movement in Grand Rapids to oppose the war. Just weeks after the US military ended the invasion/war on Iraq in February of 1991, it became known that the PR film of Hill & Knowlton had done a great deal to sway public opinion and the US Congress to get their support for war. The Center for Media & Democracy initially published a report on how the PR firm had fabricated information, particularly the story about Iraqi soldiers taking Kuwaiti children out of their incubators and killing them. This PR effort used a Kuwaiti girl, who testified at a Congressional hearing, but was only discovered later that she was the daughter of the Kuwaiti Ambassador to the US. Watch this documentary on the PR industry and at 24:50 you will hear how Hill & Knowlton developed their campaign to demonize Iraq.

Another thing that came out of the war was the brutal air assaults by the US military, particularly on Iraqi troops that were in retreat. In late February of 1991, US fighter pilots dropped bombs on the Iraqi military, which was retreating on highway 80 towards Basara. One of the images that came out of the US military assault was the picture below, of an Iraqi soldier who had been burned alive in the vehicle he was in during the US bombing campaign.

Another incident that received attention later, was the revelation that the US military was putting snow plows on the front of Abrams M1 tanks and burying Iraqi soldiers alive in the desert. The independent media had reported on this earlier, but here is a link from a New York Times article later that year. It was this crime that got the attention of several anti-war activists in Grand Rapids.

In late June of 1991, the Grand Rapids Press announced that George H.W. Bush would be coming to town to celebrate the 4th of July. It was also reported that the same kind of tanks that were used to bury Iraqi soldiers alive in the desert just months earlier, would also be in a parade that Grand Rapids would be having for President Bush.

Three Grand Rapids anti-war activists decided that they would protest not only Bush’s visit, but the tanks that were used to violate international law, which would be in the parade. You can see from a GR Press photo below, that the three activists tried to lay down in front of the tanks, but were quickly stopped by Secret Service and local cops.

The three activists decided to challenge their arrest by using International Law as a defense. The group went to trial in November 1991 and defended themselves. The day before the trial the court change the judge, who would no longer allow them to use International Law as a defense, despite the fact that they had submitted a 40-page brief.

Judge Christensen would not allow them to use an International Law argument, so the three activists just tried to get the jury to hear their side of the story. The three activists were charged with blocking a roadway. However, the jury did not find the three activists guilty, since the cops dragged them out of the way so fast that the parade never missed a beat.

The Grand Rapids City Attorney was so upset, since he was beaten by three young activists who defended themselves. Unfortunately, there was no other resistance to the Gulf War or its aftermath, like the ongoing US bombing of Iraq in the No Fly Zones that took place during the entire 8 years of the Clinton Administration, right through the first two years of the George W. Bush administration, until another war/invasion of Iraq took place in March of 2003.

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