Tens of thousands of antiwar demonstrators marched in Washington yesterday to call for an end to the U.S. occupation of Iraq, turning out in smaller numbers than for prewar protests but making plain their opposition during a noisy yet peaceful procession.
From a stage on the Mall and along a route that ringed the Washington Monument, the White House and the Justice Department, protesters lodged an array of grievances against the Bush administration's domestic and foreign policies, including the financial and human costs of the occupation and the effect of the Patriot Act on civil liberties. Organizers of the two coalitions that sponsored the demonstration, International ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice, said the morning rally at the Washington Monument and a march through downtown that grew throughout the afternoon signaled a revival of the antiwar movement, which had not staged a major street demonstration in Washington since the fall of Baghdad in April.
A large number of veterans and families with loved ones still in Iraq were among the crowd that rallied on the grounds of the Washington Monument.
(Photos Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
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"The movement has gotten a very big gust of wind in its sails at the very moment that the Bush administration is slipping in the polls," said Brian Becker, an organizer with ANSWER, which stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism.
Yesterday's march coincided with protests in more than two dozen cities across the United States and around the world, including San Francisco, Anchorage and Paris. D.C. police and U.S. Park Police were out in force in vehicles, on motorcycles and bicycles and on horseback in the District. D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and a Park Police spokesman said no arrests had been made as of late afternoon.
The demonstrators represented a diverse mix of dissent, from suburban high school students to gray-haired retirees, from fathers pushing their children in strollers to Muslim American college students shouting through bullhorns. There were people from D.C. Poets Against the War, the Louisville Peace Action Community, Northern Virginians for Peace and Central Ohioans for Peace, among many others. Banners in Spanish, Korean, Urdu, Hebrew, Arabic and Tagalog decried the war. Smaller marches began at various locations in the city and led to the main rally, including those organized by Muslim American and by African American activists.
Demonstrators criticized the administration's prewar assertions about Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and ties to al Qaeda and condemned the domestic war on terrorism as an attack on civil liberties, particularly the Patriot Act, the anti-terrorism legislation the president signed into law two years ago today. They also denounced the administration's request for $87 billion for reconstruction and military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan while money for schools and social services at home dwindles.
"Don't give him 87 cents!" declared Democratic presidential candidate Al Sharpton. "Give our troops a ride home!" Sharpton was one of the day's many speakers. Their main target was out of town: President Bush left for Camp David on Friday.
The crowd did not appear to match International ANSWER's Jan. 18 demonstration, the largest antiwar rally in Washington since the Vietnam War. That protest, was put at 100,000 by police and 500,000 by organizers. Nonetheless, Becker and other organizers said yesterday's turnout exceeded their expectations, and they estimated the attendance at 100,000, with crowds on the march route spilling over what they described as 23 Washington blocks. Ramsey estimated that the event drew 40,000 to 50,000 people.
Organizers said a large number of veterans and military families with loved ones in Iraq participated. Around her neck, Nanci Mansfield of Burnsville, N.C., wore a heart-shaped sign with a picture of her son in military uniform and the words: "Love my soldier. Hate this war." Some of the biggest applause at the rally, which filled a corner of the monument grounds at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, came when Fernando Suarez del Solar of Escondido, Calif., whose Marine son was killed March 27 in Iraq, addressed the crowd. "We need to make Mr. Bush understand: He's not the owner of the lives of our children," he said.
Bill Perry, 56, a construction worker from Levittown, Pa., who served in Vietnam, stood at the edge of the monument grounds in the morning, holding a homemade sign demanding that the United States get out of Iraq and the United Nations get in. "About six blocks up the street, there's a beautiful memorial for 58,000 of our brothers and sisters who died in Vietnam," said Perry, wearing a yellow sweat shirt emblazoned with an "Airborne" eagle insignia. "Already, we've lost about 350 of our own brothers and sisters in this war. One can't help but wonder how big the memorial for this war is going to have to be."
The demonstration, organizers said, signified a new phase in the life of the antiwar movement. It illustrated new cooperation among often-divergent factions, as for the first time, two of the biggest coalitions put their organizational muscle behind one event, sharing expenses and logistical duties. But it also seemed to reveal the movement's erratic momentum, peaking in number and visibility at the start of the year with prewar demonstrations in Washington, New York and around the world, going without large-scale street protests since April and now turning out thousands to rally.
Organizers have said that mobilizing large numbers during a protracted occupation as opposed to a dramatic, imminent threat of war has been a challenge and that street demonstrations are just one way the movement manifests itself. "No one demonstration changes U.S. policy," said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator of United for Peace and Justice. "But it's part of a process, and a demonstration like today's helps to get people recommitted."
In one of yesterday's smaller pre-march gatherings, about 75 self-described "anti-capitalist" demonstrators marched around the new Washington Convention Center under heavy police escort, linking claims that the Bush administration is exploiting the people of Iraq to accusations that domestic leaders are neglecting the needs of the poor. Demonstrators circled the convention center, where Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) was sponsoring an expo for new home buyers and developers in the city.
Not all groups out yesterday were against government policies. Rallies coordinated by the D.C. chapter of Free Republic, a national conservative group, served as a vocal counterpoint to the day, as did two small groups of counter-demonstrators who waved signs along Constitution Avenue denouncing the protesters. Tempers were heated, but there were no major incidents.
At a park a block west of the White House, about 50 people voiced support for the administration at a Free Republic rally and held signs saying, "We gave peace a chance, we got 9/11." The group drew jeers and cries of "Shame, shame" as antiwar marchers passed. One of the counter-protesters, Doug Landry of Baton Rouge, La., a 19-year-old junior at George Washington University, held a sign saying, "Go home you commies."
About 4 p.m., as the march ended and the crowd began to disperse, Mardi Crawford of Albany, N.Y., said that the day had been a success. "I think it's wonderful people are out in the streets saying the same thing a lot of people are saying inside their homes," she said. Crawford protested here in January and March. She said she would keep returning to Washington to protest, as long as she felt a need.
Staff writers Spencer S. Hsu, Sylvia Moreno and Monte Reel contributed to this report.