By William Wan and Raymond McCaffrey
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 28, 2007
While leaders from the Middle East struggled to hammer out their differences at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis yesterday, another fight over territory and tensions took shape outside the institution.
Demonstrators from more than a dozen groups flocked to the academy throughout the day, and with each new group that arrived came another skirmish for airtime and precious demonstrating space in front of the gates.
With swarms of Christian, Palestinian and Jewish activists expected, one group's strategy was to be the first on the scene.
Shalom International, a pro-Israel group opposed to the peace conference, started its rally at 10 a.m. The group's promptness seemed to pay off at first as members snapped up ideal spots in front of the gates and scored interviews with the gaggle of media representatives camped out front. But 15 minutes later, news crews were already pulling away to follow a second group headed toward the gate.
"Who are you guys? What are you here for?" asked one early demonstrator, eyeing the second group's posters suspiciously.
A bearded, bespectacled rabbi from the second group appeared confused, then turned toward the gate and yelled: "We're here to say, 'No peace for terrorists!' "
Having established their mutual anger, the two groups mingled and shared signs.
Not so welcome, however, was the third group, Code Pink, which arrived minutes later.
The D.C. activists came bearing pink poster boards and equally loud T-shirts and feather boas. And the crowning piece of their prop collection: a bigger-than-life papier-mâché replica of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's head.
News cameras quickly swung away from the pro-Israelis toward the woman in prison stripes wearing the gigantic Condi-head.
Code Pink had come, the Condi-headed woman announced, to demonstrate for peace and a two-state solution.
The other groups quickly swarmed around the Condi-head, enraged both at her message and her sudden popularity. They worked their signs into camera shots and tried to drown her out with slogans.
From there the scene descended into anarchy as shouting matches broke out and more groups arrived and joined the fray. Some -- such as a group of striking teachers from Israel -- weren't even there for the peace talks but simply hoped that the media presence would draw attention to their cause.
As the protesters shouted back and forth about Israel and Palestine, a lone voice yelled out, "What about Havana?" -- which, for a split second, threw everyone for a loop.
The shouter later explained his cause.
"I'm here to get Rice to let us send pianos to Havana," said Ben Treuhaft, 60, a New York piano tuner and volunteer for a nonprofit music group. "But you know, this whole peace talk thing is interesting, too."
The demonstrators at the academy gates weren't the only show in town.
Federal, state and city authorities were out in force across Annapolis, with patrol cars dotting the roads in and out of town. No major incidents occurred.
"This is kind of anticlimactic, to some extent," said Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer (D), who spent the past several days fielding media requests from around the world.
Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold (R) spent part of his morning waving to cars in front of the county office building, near a sign he had ordered that read: "Smooth Sailing to Peace."
And at the governor's mansion a few blocks away, Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for about an hour over lunch. The two talked mostly about American politics, O'Malley said afterward, but they also discussed the recent special legislative session and the possible legalization of slot machines in Maryland.
"He said, never underestimate the power of dialogue," O'Malley said.
By early afternoon, much of the hubbub had ended. And there appeared to be some progress, at least outside the Naval Academy gates: Most of the demonstrators had coalesced into three main camps.
Still occupying their prime spot in front of the gate, the anti-peace-talk folks broke out a guitar and sang a rousing chorus of Jewish prayers. A few feet away, the pro-peace-talk activists made small talk and took turns meeting the Condi-headed woman.
And at the very outer edge of the scene were the latest arrivals -- moderate Israeli and Palestinian peace supporters, who had shown up to advocate finding ways to end the Mideast conflict.
They brought neither props nor preplanned chants and were struggling to capture the attention of reporters whose notebooks were already full of colorful quotes.
To the moderates, their dilemma was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict writ large. "It's always the fringe elements that get the most attention," grumbled Laurel Rapp, 24, of New Jersey.
"But they don't represent the majority. I think most people just want the fighting to end."
Nearby, another demonstrator, Jim Preston, agreed: "I just hope they're having a more productive discussion inside than we are out here."