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An Antiwar Blockade Amid the Apathy Armada

By Dana Milbank
Thursday, March 20, 2008

To commemorate the fifth anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the War Resisters League, Code Pink and other antiwar groups vowed to "shut down the IRS" with a "blockade" outside the agency's headquarters yesterday.

Sorry, taxpayers: Looks as if you'll still have to get those returns in by April 15.

At 8 a.m. -- the appointed hour for the blockade -- all of 10 demonstrators were in position at the corner of 12th and Constitution. Outnumbered by cops and cameras, the antiwar activists, wearing pink pajamas and pink bathrobes, urged Americans to focus on the war.

"Wake up, America!" cried Medea Benjamin, a Code Pink leader wearing a pink nightie, a pink tiara, pink tights and pink LA Gear sneakers. And if America instead chose to hit the snooze button, Benjamin was prepared for that, too. "We have a lovely mobile pink bed on wheels," she disclosed.

A man with a pink umbrella held a copy of The Washington Post with a headline superimposed across the front page: "WAR," it said, "IS OLD NEWS."

It sure seems that way.

A study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism found that events in Iraq got 4 percent of the news media's attention last week -- compared with 23 percent for Eliot Spitzer's prostitute scandal. With violence down in Iraq and economic worries up at home, the Pew Research Center, meanwhile, reported last week that public interest in Iraq lagged far behind interest in the presidential campaign and in oil prices.

For the antiwar crowd, this is a problem. Two-thirds of Americans still think the war was a mistake, and most still want the troops out of Iraq -- but they just aren't fired up about it. In 2005, more than 100,000 people -- perhaps as many as 300,000 -- came here to protest the war. This time, they barely mustered 100.

The decline of the antiwar fervor gave the Bush administration the confidence to stage another of its premature victory celebrations yesterday. Vice President Cheney, with trademark ingenuity, likened President Bush's performance to Abraham Lincoln's winning the Civil War. "He never would have succeeded if he hadn't had a clear objective, a vision for where he wanted to go, and he was willing to withstand the slings and arrows of the political wars in order to get there," Cheney told "Good Morning America."

Mission Accomplished? Bush seemed to think so as he made his own remarks on the fifth anniversary yesterday from the Pentagon. "Successes we're seeing in Iraq are undeniable, yet some in Washington still call for retreat," the president said with a swagger that belied his 32 percent standing in the polls. "War critics can no longer credibly argue that we're losing in Iraq, so they now argue the war costs too much."

That was, indeed, the stated purpose of the demonstration yesterday outside the Internal Revenue Service. "Help expose the real cost of the war by shutting down the IRS first thing in the morning and make a clear statement to stop FUNDING war!" announced the sponsors, which, in addition to Code Pink, included the Socialist Party USA, the Raging Grannies and the Ya-Ya Network. In fact, there were so many sponsors (21), and so few participants in the IRS demonstration (133), that each group contributed an average of six participants.

"Where are they?" an anxious Code Pink member asked another just after 8 a.m. The nine women and one man in pink were having difficulty sustaining their chant: "Money for jobs and education, not for war and occupation!"

After 10 awkward minutes, reinforcements arrived in the form of a 12-piece marching ensemble, wearing green uniforms and calling itself the Rude Mechanical Band. A message taped on the bell of the band's tuba announced: "This Machine Kills Fascists."

The musicians were followed by a band of 100 chanting demonstrators, some carrying banners painted on bedsheets. The ensemble marched to the IRS's main entrance and, under the stone carving of the words "Taxes are what we pay for a civilized society," attempted their blockade.

The result, however, was more carnival than civil unrest. The protesters cheered as volunteers -- one or two at a time, as if plunging into a cold swimming pool -- hopped the metal barrier to be cuffed and arrested. "Sarah! We got your picture!" a woman called to her friend in plastic flex cuffs. Sarah let out a cheer. Somebody tossed a cardboard rocket decorated with IRS 1040 forms.

When it came time for police to haul off the trespassers in a van marked "Homeland Security," the band struck up "Bella Ciao," a hymn of the Italian partisans from World War II. Amused IRS employees -- free to come and go through the building's other entrances -- watched from inside.

The demonstrators retreated and rebuilt their blockade outside the IRS entrance on 12th Street. The Rude Mechanical Band played Beyonce's "Crazy in Love" and the protesters changed the lyrics to "Uh-oh, this war has got to go." A gray-haired woman in flex cuffs attempted to bump and grind with the officer who had just arrested her. The cops, prepared for riot control, couldn't help but laugh.

"Let's go, there's another one around the corner!" somebody called out. Indeed, Code Pink's marching orders called for the pajama-clad demonstrators to raise a ruckus at Starbucks, Cosi, Caribou Coffee, Au Bon Pain, Saxbys Coffee, Lockheed Martin, the American Petroleum Institute and The Washington Post.

It was a grueling itinerary; fortunately, they were accompanied by a pink canopy bed on wheels.

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