Tens of thousands attend progressive 'One Nation Working Together' rally in Washington

By Krissah Thompson and Spencer Hsu
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 2, 2010; 9:08 PM

A wide array of progressive groups drew tens of thousands of activists to the Lincoln Memorial on Saturday for a rally aimed at firing up their members and showcasing the diversity of their movement.

It was the left wing's first large gathering designed to counter the conservative tea party phenomenon, and many speakers warned that a Republican-controlled Congress would block or roll back progressive changes. Organizers said they also wanted to show that their supporters represent the majority of the nation.

"This march was inclusive," said NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, one of the lead organizers. "We have seen cabdrivers come down from New York, truck drivers from Oklahoma. This is about moving the country with the spirit of unity and hope, and getting the country beyond the divisiveness."

The gathering occurred about one month after conservatives met on the same spot to unite around television personality Glenn Beck's vision of a nation returned to more traditional and religious values.

Ed Schultz, the liberal host of MSNBC's "The Ed Show," served as one of the show's master of ceremonies and harshly criticized the tea party and conservatives. "They talk about the Constitution, but they don't want to live by it," he said to loud applause. "They talk about the forefathers, but they practice discrimination. They want to change this country."

Then, he led the crowd in a chant. "Are you America?" he yelled.

"Yes!" came the loud response.

Saturday's gathering featured many speakers; at times it appeared that organizers wanted to give everyone an opportunity to have their say. The rally lacked central charismatic speakers like Beck and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, or the two men who will headline an Oct. 30 event on the Mall - Comedy Central television personalities Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. Also unlike the Beck event, the progressive groups were explicit about their desire to reenergize their political base. Beck said his goal was to honor soldiers.

The more than four hours of speeches, poetry and music were buttressed with testimonials from out-of-work Americans, immigrants, veterans and Native Americans. They focused on jobs, education and human rights issues in particular.

Edrie Irvine, a laid-off legal secretary from Silver Spring, shared her story with a gathering of unemployed workers that fed into the larger rally. "The recession was caused by the banks, greed and deregulation," she said. "It didn't have anything to do with me, but I lost my job."

James Keane, who carried a sign that read "Jesus Christ is a Liberal," said he drove from New York City because he felt "it's about time the Democrats marched."

"We've stood by and watched the tea party people go crazy every couple of months," said Keane, who is unemployed. "It's time for Democrats to stand up and fight for what they believe in. Obama has been a great leader, but so many in the Democratic leadership have been playing the fence."

More than 400 groups endorsed the "One Nation Working Together" rally, which organizers said drew a crowd of 175,000 people - about what they expected. Beck has estimated that 500,000 people came to his gathering. There are no official counts of crowds on the Mall, and the National Park Service no longer provides such estimates.

The crowd Saturday, which stretched down the steps of the Lincoln Memorial then petered out down the sides of the reflecting pool, heard repeatedly that voters must band together to keep the country from going back to conservative policies. Speakers also called for a more robust jobs program funded by the federal government and the passage of big legislative programs, such as overhauling immigration laws and providing more money for education.

Still, attendees echoed some of the same frustrations that tea party protesters have been bringing to the Mall during the past 18 months - though their goals are different.

Kimberly Hall took a bus from the Detroit area with 45 members of the NAACP and her sorority, Delta Sigma Theta. "I don't like the direction the country is going in," she said. "The auto industry built this country and we are giving it away. We need to take care of home before we start to support other nations."

Luz Villafana, a retired city worker and union member, flew from San Diego because she worries that her children had a better chance for a good education than her grandchildren do.

"We have to demand that the Congress represents us, not the corporations," said Villafana, who wore a purple Service Employees International Union t-shirt.

The leaders of the march celebrated its diversity - in terms of race and the motivations of the attendees. It began with an ecumenical faith program, and groups supporting a variety of causes gathered in their own niches before joining together. The range of participants - who included youth groups to members of the New York City Democratic Socialists of America and the Church of the Evangelical United Church of Christ - showed the tensions in the coalition.

The socially conservative National Baptist Convention stood beside members of the Human Rights Campaign, and members of the mine workers union rallied with environmental activists.

Holding the coalition together is the next challenge.

"The truth is there is a lot of focus on the march itself, but a march without a plan of action . . . is simply a one-day event," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. "What this is about is using this march as a launching pad for policy change."

thompsonk@washpost.com hsus@washpost.com

Staff writer Lori Aratani contributed to this report.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company