By Eli Saslow
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, October 7, 2009
The protesters convened for a final planning meeting, already triumphant, convinced that nine months of preparation was about to pay off. Antiwar organizers who had come to Washington from 27 states exchanged hugs inside a Columbia Heights convention hall and modeled their protest costumes: orange jumpsuits, "death masks," shackles and T-shirts depicting bloody Afghan children. Then Pete Perry, the event organizer, stood up to deliver a welcome speech.
"This is a great moment for our movement," he said. "We are continuing an incredible tradition."
"Like Gandhi," said the next speaker.
"Like Martin Luther King," said another.
A Sunday meeting and a Monday protest -- that was the agenda planned in advance of Wednesday's eighth anniversary of the start of the Afghan war. There had been other protests in Washington over the course of the conflict, dozens of them, but this time organizers believed they could revive the beleaguered antiwar movement, once such a force in U.S. policy. The next 48 hours would put their optimism on trial.
With public opinion polls showing a majority of Americans opposing the war, organizers wanted at least 1,000 people to march through downtown, risk arrest by creating a ruckus at the White House and draw President Obama across the manicured North Lawn to meet with them.
"The goal of this action is to hand-deliver a letter to Obama," Perry reminded the group. "We want a meeting to demand an end to this senseless violence."
It would also set the stage for 42 rallies and protests scheduled to take place Wednesday around the country. After decades of decline in the antiwar movement -- from throngs of half a million to fringe rallies to almost nothing at all -- the job of organizers in Washington was to generate momentum for a historic week.
Their work started Sunday afternoon, when about 50 organizers met to discuss final plans for a rally with a scope to match their ambition. They included veterans and pacifists, hippies and anarchists, feminists and Catholic workers. In total, there were more than a dozen "affinity groups," and each had choreographed its own demonstration for Monday's event. Some protesters would be shackled inside a cage, in solidarity with prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. Some would reenact the deaths of U.S. soldiers near the White House fence. Some would read the names of civilians killed in Afghanistan. Some would carry cardboard coffins.
"We have to be organized, or nobody will hear anything," Perry said.
As the meeting progressed, there were signs of discord. Some groups wanted to chant while they marched to the White House; others argued that a solemn, single-file procession would convey a "better sense of suffering," one protester said. Some wanted to take bathroom breaks during the protest; others argued that participants could wait until they were in jail, after their arrests. Some planned to misidentify themselves to police; others said they would simply refuse to answer questions.
"Lying is dumb," one protester shouted.
"Just because my resistance is different than yours doesn't mean I'm dumb," another yelled back, standing now, clenching his fist. "We are all traveling down our own paths to peace."
* * *
Every faction agreed on at least one goal for Monday's rally, knowing all too well that the survival of the movement depended on it: This was the time to attract new protesters, with the war in Afghanistan continuing to dominate the news and Obama debating his next move. After Sunday's meeting, Perry, the organizer, held a training session for first-time demonstrators in the sanctuary of a church. He arrived prepared for a crowd, with a co-teacher and a thick stack of handouts.
Instead, four people came. Three were experienced activists. Only one was a newcomer. Joan Wages, a mother of two, had driven five hours from Floyd, Va., to attend her first rally. She had voted for Obama but become disillusioned. Now she hoped to set an example for her children by "making my actions consistent with my beliefs," she said.
"I've done a few really little protest things, but that's it," Wages told the instructors. "I really don't know what to expect."
The instructors gave a brief lesson on the history of nonviolent resistance and then read motivational quotes from Buddhist monks. At the end of the class, they asked Wages to hold a make-believe vigil at the White House while the instructors mimicked angry right-wing activists and tried to bait her. Wages closed her eyes, set her hands in prayer and started singing.
"We should run you over with a big war tank!" the instructors yelled.
"We should shoot you with our guns!" they shouted.
Wages continued to sing, undaunted, until the instructors broke from character to applaud.
"You're ready," Perry said.
"Just remember that nonviolence is a way of life," said Susan Crane, the co-instructor.
"And that police officers are our brothers and sisters, too," Perry said.
Wages thanked them and left the training seminar, but she struggled to fall asleep later that night. The session had been helpful in a "philosophical kind of way," she said later, but she still had logistical concerns about Monday's protest. Like: "Who will pick me up from jail?" And: "After we all pretend to die in front of the White House, can I get up and move or does everyone have to stay totally still?"
* * *
The protesters met Monday morning in McPherson Square, a slab of grass in downtown Washington named after a war hero. They had hoped to fill the park, but instead 176 protesters gathered in one corner. The crowd was all familiar faces from the antiwar movement, except for a homeless man sleeping on a bench, a bicyclist eating a scone and a Street Sense newspaper salesman who saw a business opportunity in the gathering.
Eve Tetaz, 78, stood near a small sound stage and zipped up her orange jumpsuit. She had a trial pending from another protest, but she still planned to risk arrest Monday -- something she had done so often that preparing for jail was part of her routine. Phone numbers of fellow protesters were inked on her forearm so she could call from jail. A neighbor in Adams Morgan had agreed to watch her two cats. Her glaucoma medicine was packed underneath her jumpsuit. She wore a heavy sweatshirt that itched in the heat but would make for a fantastic pillow in a cell.
"Jail is a little uncomfortable," Tetaz said, "but so is the dentist."
On the stage in front of her, a rotation of speakers tried to excite the crowd. Two women strummed guitars and sang a folk song. Then a man recited a poem. Then a woman spoke about the persecution of blacks in Southeast Washington. Then another poet, and another singer, and a woman banging a tambourine, and a keynote speaker, and another folk song, this time performed in Hebrew.
"We should be going soon," Tetaz said.
Finally, an organizer stepped to the microphone and told the protesters to form a single-file line for the march to the White House. They were instructed to walk slowly, heads down, in absolute silence.
"A solemn march," the speaker said.
As the group departed, a few protesters smiled and chatted with nearby police officers.
"Please everybody, a solemn march," the speaker reiterated, louder this time. "Solemn. Solemn."
* * *
The protesters arrived at the White House and quickly realized they were entering into a ruckus, not just creating one. A construction crew was at work on Pennsylvania Avenue, removing excess water with two loud industrial vacuums. Smaller protest groups -- one demanding to see Obama's birth certificate, another enraged about health care -- shouted chants of their own. A maintenance worker used a chain saw to trim a tree on the White House grounds. Inside the building, press secretary Robert Gibbs was telling reporters that leaving Afghanistan was "not something that had ever been entertained."
The antiwar group launched into its demonstration, undeterred. One protester pretended to waterboard a war prisoner, screaming, "Tell me your secrets or else" as he poured distilled bottled water onto a friend's face. A woman wore shackles and a black bag over her head, the toenails on her bare feet painted a deep autumn red. Cindy Sheehan, a tireless protester, read from her International People's Declaration of Peace, and then, sensing an inattentive crowd, said, "I am going to skip a couple paragraphs and just go to the end."
The marchers marched, the singers sang, the chanters chanted. Tourists turned their cameras away from the White House to take pictures of the protest.
But there was a problem.
"Why aren't the police doing anything?" one demonstrator asked, referring to the 15 uniformed officers who stood casually in the distance.
The protesters wanted to engage them, so 15 activists wearing orange jumpsuits chained themselves to the White House fence. "Off the fence!" a police officer yelled, but the chains were locked. Five officers rode over on horseback.
Five more put on black gloves and came with wire cutters. Now the Secret Service was clearing the sidewalk, and the Park Police was issuing a warning for the protesters to disperse, then a second, then a third.
"We will have to arrest anyone who does not clear this area immediately," an officer announced over a megaphone.
Sixty-two protesters stood their ground, and the police walked over slowly with plastic handcuffs. Sheehan was arrested at 1:11 p.m., and she smiled as police frisked her. Tetaz, the 78-year-old, was arrested at 1:14, ready for another trip to jail. Wages, the newcomer, pretended to be a dying soldier and remained motionless as she waited for arrest, only to be forcibly removed instead.
Police loaded the protesters onto a Metro bus and drove them away from Pennsylvania Avenue.
Those who had avoided arrest tallied the rally's impact: 62 arrests, 23 others forcibly removed.
"A success," Perry said.
As the protesters walked away from the White House, they made plans to leave for other rallies across the country Wednesday. One was headed to an action in New York, another to Austin and another to San Francisco. Two planned to attend an event in Chicago, where the organizer, John Beacham, expected a big crowd and possibly more arrests. "We think this could be a turning-point kind of moment," he said.