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Antiwar Groups Hope to Pack 100,000 Around White House

By Petula Dvorak
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 2, 2005

From the Ellipse to Lafayette Square, including the streets and sidewalks in between, the public parks encircling the White House can hold about 100,000 people, according to the National Park Service.

Antiwar groups hope to bring that many people to fill the spaces with their rally Sept. 24, the first time in more than a decade that demonstrators will be allowed to surround the White House.

At a news conference yesterday, two major antiwar coalitions announced a demonstration and march that could be the largest since the Iraq war began, according to Bill Dobbs, a spokesman for United for Peace and Justice, one of the groups organizing three days of events.

The Park Service and the groups are negotiating the fine points of a permit, such as electrical cord routes and riser placement, but "in all likelihood," the permit will be issued to the groups' specifications, Park Service spokesman Bill Line said.

The rally has been in the works for months, but public sentiment about the war has soured, which has "marked a turning point for the antiwar movement," said Brian Becker, national coordinator of the ANSWER Coalition, which is partnering with Dobbs's group.

The response to the disaster in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina has fueled antiwar sentiment, because many believe the U.S. military presence in Iraq is "hampering efforts in New Orleans," said Mounzer Sleiman, an independent political and military analyst working with ANSWER.

And antiwar activist Cindy Sheehan's camp-out last month as she sought an audience with the president outside his Texas ranch spurred a level of support from military families that similar events have not had, said Leslie Cagan, an organizer with United for Peace and Justice.

U.S. veterans from generations of wars "are now speaking out loud and clear" against the war and are joining the peace movement, Cagan said.

The coalitions are organizing buses, vans and carpools from across the country and said groups are coming from Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Texas, New York, Wisconsin, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, Iowa, Indiana, Michigan, Florida and North Carolina.

The groups have obtained preliminary permits for the area around the White House that day, said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, co-founder and an attorney with the Partnership for Civil Justice, who has been negotiating for months to get approval for the rally.

Counter-demonstrators are having difficulty finding space because the antiwar groups' permits are so widespread, said Kristinn Taylor of FreeRepublic.com, a group that often rallies against antiwar demonstrations.

The umbrella groups staging the event say they represent thousands of people and hundreds of causes. They include the Buddhist Peace Fellowship, the DeKalb Interfaith Network for Peace and Justice, Grandmothers for Peace, Historians Against the War, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Kalamazoo Non-Violent Opponents of War, Texans for Peace, Korea Truth Commission and dozens more.

Often, such protests encompass a variety of issues, from U.S. policy in Haiti to the practices of the World Bank. Activists say it's important to show how U.S. policies around the world and at home are interlocked.

But at yesterday's news conference, which had nearly a dozen speakers, the activists edited one another, fighting to stay on their primary message.

"Bring the troops home now," Dobbs said.

He and others said that because the organizations are getting so much support from citizens who are not members of an activist group, they are trying to keep the message clear.

"The people themselves -- ordinary, average people -- will be the decisive factor," Becker said.

He and others said they are also fighting the perception that being antiwar means that they are anti-soldier. That is why the involvement of military families and veterans is so important.

"We're not against the troops," said Mehdi Bray, who is with ANSWER. "We don't oppose the troops; we love them. That's why we want to bring them home."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company