By Allan Lengel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 30, 2005
Every Friday night, Gael Murphy and Kristinn Taylor meet in Northwest Washington, separated by a bustling four-lane road -- and a whole lot more.
Since spring, the two have stood firmly on opposite sides of Georgia Avenue NW in front of Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Murphy leading a coalition of war protesters, Taylor marshaling supporters of the Iraq war.
Both sides say they are there to support the troops. Beyond that, there's little common ground.
"They start yelling, 'Murderer!' 'Traitor!' They call me by name," said Murphy, a co-founder of the women's antiwar group Code Pink. "It's aimed at disrupting our vigil."
To Taylor, a spokesman for the local chapter of FreeRepublic.com, a politically conservative Web site, disruption is an honorable goal.
"It's galling for us to see them across the street," he said. "They've endorsed the terrorists."
The Friday night gatherings near the District's northern tip, about six miles north of the White House, have become one of the most visible reminders in Washington of a war that has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 U.S. troops. That they are being staged outside a military hospital that treats the war's wounded makes the standoffs all the more pointed -- and controversial.
The war supporters, many of them known as "Freepers" because of their devotion to FreeRepublic.com, insist it is unpatriotic and demoralizing to protest the war in clear view of wounded soldiers. They started congregating along Georgia Avenue on Fridays after learning that the protesters were out there delivering a "despicable" message.
"We believe this is an obscene blood dance to exploit the war wounded for their twisted propaganda purposes," said Bill Floyd, 51, of Alexandria, a Freeper and Friday night regular. "It's indecent. Leave the wounded alone."
The antiwar forces say they chose Walter Reed as a backdrop when they started gathering in March to remind the public of the wounded troops and to point out inadequacies in their medical benefits.
"The administration sent these soldiers to war. Now that they're back and injured, they don't want to see them or hear about them," said Bruce Wolf, 58, of Takoma Park. "I don't want anyone to forget these guys are here."
Some Friday nights, up to three dozen people gather on each side of the street, although the groups can dwindle to about a dozen some weeks. Most are from the Washington area, but protesters -- and those who protest the protesters -- have come from as far away as California and Texas.
Motorists whiz by, many of them heading home from work for the weekend. Some honk or give a thumbs-up, although it's often hard to tell which side the gesture is meant for.
In signs and songs that often hearken back to the Vietnam War, the peace activists urge, "Bring the troops home!" and join in on "We Shall Overcome."
On the other side of the street, the entreaty is to "stay the course" and "let our troops finish their mission." Also famous from long ago are some of their taunts: "commie" and "pinko."
Murphy, 51, a full-time activist and former Peace Corps volunteer and public health adviser in Africa and the Caribbean, said she has tried to find common ground and create a dialogue.
Early on, she crossed the street more than once and suggested to her Friday night acquaintances that both sides had deeply held beliefs and were willing to stand up for them. It didn't work.
The war supporters, she said, responded: "We're alike? No way. Code Pink is evil. You're nothing like us."
Taylor, 43, also a full-time activist, scoffed at the notion of any solidarity.
"She has pulled that common-ground shtick on us before, and we reject it," he said.
Taylor calls Murphy and Code Pink -- "Code Pinko" to the Freepers -- traitors, saying members of the group were guests of Saddam Hussein when they went to Baghdad on a peace mission before the war. Murphy rejects that claim, saying she and others paid their own way on the fact-finding mission, which also sought to let Iraqis know that not all Americans supported war.
Murphy and Taylor both say wounded soldiers at Walter Reed have thanked them for what they're doing.
But one recent Friday night, Staff Sgt. Jeff Schaefer, 40, of New Smyrna Beach, Fla., was less than pleased to see the war protesters.
Schaefer, wounded by shrapnel from a mortar attack in Iraq, walked tentatively with the help of a cane outside the hospital gates. A large gash scarred his forehead.
"They're not doing any good," he said. "George Bush isn't driving down the street. Neither is Cheney. [The protesters] are just pissing off the soldiers."
The same night, John Bruhns, a former infantry soldier who fought in Iraq from 2003 to 2004, bristled at taunts leveled by war supporters.
"I'm very anti-Iraq war," he said. "I'm a proud American. I'm a patriot."
"The mob scene on the other side is trying to say we're anti-troops," Bruhns, 28, said last week. The war protesters "support the troops; they just don't support the war. That isn't impossible, but it's something the opposition refuses to recognize."
More often than not, Murphy said, soldiers at Walter Reed, their relatives and hospital personnel have said, "'Thanks for being here.' That's why we come back here. That's why we can take the risk of offending. They want the war to end, and they want the wounded to be taken care of."
Most of the standoffs are peaceful, although occasional shoves have been exchanged when supporters of the war have crossed the street and gotten in protesters' faces while taking photos of them, Murphy said.
Some of the pictures end up on FreeRepublic.com, complete with mocking captions and commentary and venomous remarks from bloggers on the site.
In September, a motorist stopped in front of the war supporters and threw an apple into the crowd before speeding off. No one was injured, but police were summoned.
Recently, about a dozen veterans on motorcycles started revving their engines in front of the war protesters, trying to chase them off. The activists stood their ground.
Taylor offers no apology for the war supporters' take-no-prisoners approach.
"We treat them with a contempt that they've earned," he said.
Despite the contentiousness, some demonstrators are obviously enjoying themselves. "FReepers continue to frustrate the Pinkos' evil scheme," a FreeRepublic fan wrote in an August blog post describing the group's 18th "fabulous fun" standoff against the war protesters. And the fan noted: "We ate pizza on site."
How long will the Friday night fights go on?
"As long as it takes," Murphy said.
"Until Code Pink stops protesting outside the hospital," Taylor said.