By Steve Vogel and Michael Alison Chandler
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, March 18, 2007
Thousands of demonstrators protesting the fourth anniversary of the war in Iraq marched on the Pentagon yesterday, jeered along the way by large numbers of angry counter-protesters.
Organizers billed the antiwar rally as marking the 40th anniversary of the 1967 march on the Pentagon. At times, verbal clashes during the cold and blustery day demonstrated that the bitter divisions of four decades ago sparked by Vietnam are very much alive in the debate over Iraq.
The march, part of a weekend of protests that included smaller demonstrations in other U.S. cities and abroad, comes as the Bush administration sends more troops to Iraq in an attempt to regain control of Baghdad and Congress considers measures to bring U.S. troops home.
Paul Miller, 72, a Korean War-era Marine Corps veteran who flew from California for the march with his brother, was making his first appearance at an antiwar rally. "I was like everybody else. I trusted the people who ran the country, and I'm tired of being lied to," Miller said, standing on a hill overlooking the Pentagon, a beret with a Marine Corps pin on his head. "I feel so bad for the young Marines who are getting their legs blown off and losing their lives."
Organizers said yesterday's march on the Pentagon reflected the public's sense of betrayal over the escalation of the war. As some speakers called for the impeachment of President Bush and Vice President Cheney, others denounced Congress in equally bitter terms for not cutting off funding for the war. Yet attendance at yesterday's march was noticeably smaller than one held in Washington in January, police said.
Much of the passion yesterday was supplied by thousands of counter-demonstrators, many of them veterans who mobilized from across the country to gather around the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Some said they came in response to appeals on the Internet to protect the Wall against what they feared would be acts of vandalism; no such acts were reported.
Others said they were tired of war protesters claiming to speak for the country. "I'm here because I think we need to commit to our troops in the field," said Guy Rocca, 63, a veteran who drove nine hours from Detroit.
Some counter-protesters yelled obscenities and mocked the marchers as traitors. War protesters responded with angry words of their own, and police intervened at times to prevent shouting matches from escalating.
The counter-demonstrators ringed the Lincoln Memorial and continued along portions of Arlington Memorial Bridge. "You've got no pride and no honor," yelled Kenneth Murphy, a Vietnam veteran from North Carolina.
When marchers reached the Virginia side of the bridge, they were greeted by more protesters at the traffic circle in front of Arlington National Cemetery, along with a banner that read in part: "You dishonor our dead on Hallowed ground." The war protesters might have found the warmest reception of the day at the Pentagon, where police had the building blocked off, but no counter-demonstrators were waiting.
"It's strange to say, but welcome to the Pentagon," said protest leader Mara Veheyden-Hilliard, speaking on a stage in the north parking lot as the first streams of marchers began arriving.
A group of protesters who tried to reach the Pentagon by charging toward the south parking lot ended up in a tense standoff with police. Five arrests were made in the incident. But beyond shoving matches, no violence was reported.
After a night of rain, sleet and snow, the day began with bright sunshine but low temperatures. Marchers assembled at first in relatively sparse numbers on a muddy playing field at 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue NW.
Organizers, who had predicted tens of thousands of marchers would demonstrate, gave estimates ranging from 15,000 to 30,000. Police no longer provide official estimates of crowd size but informally put it at 10,000 to 20,000, with a smaller but sizable contingent of counter-protesters.
War protest leaders said a large winter storm that hit the Northeast hurt turnout. More than 60 bus loads of protesters who had been scheduled to come from the region canceled their trips Friday night, according to Brian Becker, national coordinator for the Answer Coalition, the event's main sponsor.
It was quickly apparent that the weather had not prevented counter-demonstrators, many in black leather motorcycle jackets, from showing up in force and surrounding all sides of the Wall.
At one point before the march started, counter-demonstrators formed a gantlet along an asphalt walkway on Constitution Avenue and heaped verbal abuse at protesters who walked through on their way to the assembly area. One Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair yelled obscenities at demonstrators, including some with children.
Some demonstrators supporting the war effort engaged in good-natured banter with war protesters. But others blocked paths and prevented marchers from getting near the Wall, particularly anyone carrying a sign. District resident Eric Anderson, 47, had his sign ripped from his hands and thrown in the mud.
Bob Anders, 60, an Iowa banker who said he served with the 25th Infantry Division in Vietnam and rode a bus from Iowa to protest the war, had his heart set on seeing the memorial but turned around after seeing the situation. "I've never seen the memorial, and I wanted to see it in a spirit of protest," he said.
After speeches from antiwar activists including Cindy Sheehan, the first marchers took off across the bridge shortly before 1 p.m. The marchers began arriving at the Pentagon about 1:45, some gathering in front of the stage in the north parking lot and others perched on a hill by a Route 27 overpass.
About 2:10, a group of several hundred young people continued past the rally point and marched down Route 27 toward the south parking lot until they confronted a police barricade. Some youths who carried traffic barrels cut in half and painted red and black as shields and wore scarves over their faces pressed forward as Pentagon police, backed by Virginia state troopers in riot gear, stood two layers deep, trying to push them back. When that failed, the police donned gas masks. One of the protesters threw a firecracker, and many people ran off.
About 70 to 80 people sat down and were threatened with arrest. Protesters chanted, "The whole world is watching." Then protesters took a vote and opted to back off.
Yet, many demonstrators showed respect toward police and the military.
Among those marching on a day of cold, whipping wind was Maureen Dooley of Melfa, Va., who first marched on the Pentagon when she was 18; now she is 58. "I came, as I did today, to be quietly counted among the people opposed to this war," she said.
Dooley said she wished she could "apologize for my generation" for the way the antiwar movement treated Vietnam veterans on their return home. "This time, we're with our young men and women," she said.
The Pentagon's windswept north parking lot was cold, and many protesters did not linger long. By 3:30 p.m., only a few hundred marchers remained huddled around the stage. Most had left, with many of the out-of-towners seeking refuge on the floor of the nearby Arlington Cemetery Metro station.
One group that had come by overnight bus from Iowa City huddled on the floor near the station elevators. They had survived the 22-hour bus ride as well as the insults of the counter-protesters, only to be defeated by the bitter cold.
"We just couldn't take it anymore," said Christine Gaunt, 50, a hog farmer from Grinnell, Iowa. Now, with a voice fatigued from chanting litanies against the president and feet tired from marching on the military industrial complex, Gaunt just counted the hours to the group's scheduled bus pickup at 7 p.m.
If she was lucky, she said in a tired voice, she would get home this afternoon, just in time to haul her pigs to the Sunday market.
Staff writers Nelson Hernandez, William Wan and Theola Labbé and the Associated Press contributed this report.