By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
It was a scene repeated countless times during the Bush years:
A few hundred people massed on Pennsylvania Avenue outside the White House, wearing orange jumpsuits and hoods, holding photos of wounded children or carrying coffins. They chanted antiwar slogans, acted out waterboarding and pretended to die on the sidewalk. Those who refused orders to leave the area -- including ubiquitous activist Cindy Sheehan -- were arrested.
But the remarkable thing about this familiar antiwar demonstration is that it occurred Monday, and the target was not George W. Bush but the White House's current occupant. Protesters' signs carried Obama-specific barbs: "Change? What Change?" "The Audacity of War Crimes." "Yes We Can: U.S. Out of Afghanistan."
Several of the demonstrators had T-shirts showing a missile labeled "Obomba" and the question "Is it really OK if Obama does it?"
Besides those wording changes, the only other difference was the spiffy new natural-gas-powered Metrobus that arrived to take those arrested for processing. It said "Special" on the front and, on the side, had a McDonald's ad with the slogan "Commander-in-Beef."
If the commander in beef had been watching from a window, he would have had reason for concern. Not the demonstrators themselves: They were Green Party types with some self-proclaimed socialists thrown in, and they had never been enthusiastic Obama supporters to start with. What the president should worry about is whether these activists are indicators of bigger things to come if he sides with his generals and decides to bulk up the U.S. force in Afghanistan.
In that case he could find many more people sounding like Liz McAlister, who addressed the crowd from a stage in McPherson Square before the two-block march to the White House. She spoke of a nation "where leader follows leader from bad to worse -- as though by a malign law of nature, one ruler, evil or stupid or violent, breeds another, more evil or stupid or violent."
The policies that earned Obama such a salute were printed on the back of the "Obomba" T-shirts, sold by the group World Can't Wait: "Indefinite Detention." "CIA Rendition." "Escalation of War in Afghanistan." "Increase in Government Spying." "Unmanned Drones Bombing Pakistan."
And those shirts didn't mention Obama's latest bomb dropped on civil libertarians: reversing his support for a law to protect anonymous sources who expose wrongdoing.
"I'm disappointed, approaching betrayal," said an organizer of the march, Jeremy Varon of Witness Against Torture. Once an avid Obama supporter, he now charges that the president is "giving a level of legitimacy to the Bush policies."
Observing the scene with some satisfaction was counter-demonstrator Phil Wilk of the conservative group Free Republic, who found himself in the odd position of defending Obama against his left-wing critics. "We're a little queasy about this," he admitted. Just to make clear that he was no Obama fan, he had a sign asserting that "Liberal Protest of Obama Doesn't Make Him a Hawk -- Just a Flip-Flopper."
The demonstrators were an odd assortment of left-wing interests. One speaker proclaimed herself a member of the African People's Socialist Party; a group distributed literature suggesting that 9/11 was a U.S. government conspiracy. But they were unified for the moment by Obama's policies on war and terrorism. Obama voter Marge van Cleef of Philadelphia, handing out "Torture Team" trading cards featuring various Bush officials, considered whether an Obama card should be added to the collection. "I guess we will," she said.
They marched to the White House and, once there, listened to the bullhorn-amplified voice of Medea Benjamin, whose Code Pink group often heckled Bush officials. She spoke of an Afghan farmer who lost his family to an American bomb. "Do you think that man is going to think that Obama is a peace president?"
"No!" the crowd shouted.
"Do you think that man will think that Obama is sincere?"
"This is a Democratic Congress and a Democratic president. Does it look very different from the Bush regime?"
Nearby, the leader of the orange-jumpsuit brigade shouted that Obama had "invested in torture." Steps away, the mock waterboarding was underway. "The Obama administration knows they did this and refuses to prosecute!" shouts the waterboarder.
After a while, Park Police had had enough. Mounted officers pushed back demonstrators, who responded with shouts of "Fascist," "Nazi" and "Sieg heil." Officers cut the chains that some had used to attach themselves to the White House fence. About 60 people stayed behind to be arrested. "Obama!" somebody called out. "Where are you?"
The officers began to lead the demonstrators, in plastic handcuffs, to the bus. One removed Cindy Sheehan's scarf and jewelry and gave her a good frisking.
"Stop the war! Stop the torture! Shame!" the demonstrators chanted, just as they had in recent years. Then someone added a new line: "Shame on you, Obama!"