Ten minutes after telling his fellow protesters to stay safe, Gil Kobrin lay huddled in the slush and mud as two anarchists repeatedly kicked him in the back.
How he got from point A to point B is simple enough. Kobrin, accompanied by a dozen members of the conservative group ProtestWarrior, crashed a rally of hundreds of anti-Bush demonstrators at Meridian Park in Washington, D.C. Holding aloft signs that read "Say no to war unless a Democrat is president" and "Not to brag, but Bush won, so shove it!" they had set off earlier on inauguration morning in search of their opposites.
The ProtestWarrior contingent didn't have to search for very long; the party came to them.
"You can go a [expletive] half-mile away and stand on the first street corner you see!" shouted a self-described anarchist, dressed all in black with a bandana covering his face. As they taunted and threatened and liberally profaned Kobrin and the rest of the group, a member of the D.C. Anti-War Network (DAWN) -- the official organizers of the rally -- tried to break it up.
"Your purpose is to instigate people. You're going to have to leave!" shouted the "marshal," DAWN's term for their ad hoc security force.
"We're staying here," Kobrin replied.
Then he went down under a hail of black boots. Once the marshals pulled the anarchists away, ProtestWarrior sued for peace and made for the exit. Their chant of "Four more years!" was answered by the anarchists' reply: "Wah wah wah!"
It wasn't much of a contest. ProtestWarrior's contingent numbered 13, the other side in the hundreds. If they won any hearts and minds, no one said so.
"I expected it, but I didn't expect to be kicked in the back," Kobrin said later. His boyish, twentysomething face wore a wry smile and he stood upright, but conceded that he was in some pain.
Kobrin is a dedicated member of ProtestWarrior, a two-year-old group formed to demonstrate against the demonstrators. A theology student from Far Rockaway, Queens, he was the organizer of the group's inauguration day action, code-named "Operation Hail to the Chief."
It was modeled on ProtestWarrior's primary M.O.: mingle with protesters, mix, await angry abuse and epithets and then label the peaceniks as aggressive hypocrites. Meanwhile, a ProtestWarrior videographer records the whole affair to post on the Web site later. Videos already on the site show off ProtestWarrior counter-protests in places such as San Francisco and in New York during the Republican National Convention last August.
The group was founded by Kfir Alfia and Alan Lipton when the self-described conservatives, both 30, were living in San Francisco and desperate for a political counterweight to their "overwhelmingly liberal community."
ProtestWarrior might be a bastion of conservative ideals, but its brand of humor is better suited to the hip left, and Alfia wouldn't be out of place in the Abercrombie & Fitch catalog. Born in Tel Aviv, his photo shows he has a face and body built either for a beefcake calendar or a recruitment poster for the Israeli army. Lipton's photo reflects a younger, cooler, better-fed Bill Gates with snazzier glasses.
The group's symbol, meanwhile, is a bare-chested, musclebound hero wielding a sword. It looks like it sprang, Athena-like, from the paperback cover of Ayn Rand's "Atlas Shrugged."
ProtestWarrior's members see themselves as a baker's dozen dedicated to balancing out DAWN, Turn Your Back on Bush, International ANSWER and the myriad other organizations that took to the streets to denounce the Bush administration, the war in Iraq and just about every other liberal bogeyman.
"They hate freedom and hate America," said ProtestWarrior's Dana Forehand, 24, a graphic designer with long brown hair who came down from Astoria, Queens, to mix with the other side of the ideological street.
"I like the idea of reminding these people that they're not the overwhelming majority," said David LaRue, 24, of Humboldt County, Calif. LaRue, unlike a majority of the other ProtestWarrior members, is on his first "infiltration" as they call it. He's worried because he heard that some of their opponents were planning to hurl water balloons at them, a chilling prospect on a sub-freezing morning.
After the scuffle, one young anarchist hurled a snowball, laced with dirt and pebbles and whatever else he could scoop of the ground, at the retreating ProtestWarrior members. The anarchist, who declined to offer his name, said he did not believe in violence, but insisted that "Throwing a snowball... is not going to hurt anybody."
Patrick McKale, 22, an anarchist from Baltimore, said he was pleased that ProtestWarrior members took a few licks. He said he saw no irony in beating people up at a peace rally. "Just because you're anti-imperialist doesn't mean you're against violence."
Kobrin and several of his comrades held their remaining signs aloft -- under the protection of several D.C. police officers -- as the anti-Bush demonstrators formed a parade to march down 16th Street to McPherson Square.
"Dude, you got your ass kicked," one of them taunted at the ProtestWarrior group. Several anarchists, their bile neutered by the police presence, resorted to creative hand signs. It brought to mind something Kobrin had said in an earlier interview: "Ideally it should be a nice, cordial, open dialogue."
Some in the anti-Bush crowd said they resented the fact that ProtestWarrior's "man bites dog" schtick eats up a disproportionate amount of press attention.
"They're taking the media away from us!" exclaimed one angry protester.
After the fight television crews popped up out of nowhere and reporters rushed to the ProtestWarrior members. But just as soon, they melted away, chasing after the legions of anti-war demonstrators banging on drums and soda cans and carrying cardboard boxes done up as coffins draped in American flags as they hoofed it down 16th St.
Kobrin and the ProtestWarrior crew hung out for a few more minutes before reconnoitering at their car and heading down to 4th and Pennsylvania to get another dose of the action. The drubbing from a few minutes before didn't seem to act as much of a deterrent.
"We're going to hang tight," he said.