David Voigtsberger, a Washington audio-visual technician, went to the Mall yesterday to see if accounts of protesting farmers "tearing up the place" were correct.
They were, Voigtsberger concluded, after walking around the police-enclosed encampment of about 500 tractors of the American Agriculture Movement.
"What I heard was right," Voigtsberger said as he watched a farmer ram his tractor against the charred remains of another tractor that the farmers burned several days ago as a part of their protest for higher farm prices.
But to voigtsberger and other visitors to the Mall yesterday, there was an irony to the farmers' demands. Looking at the array of mobile homes and campers spread among the tractors, Voigtsberger shook his head. "I see too much money down here...," he said. "After the farmers leave, I just wonder, who is going to foot the bill to put the Mall back the way it was? I kinda get the idea it might be me."
As the farmers' protest entered its sixth day in Washington, the city's weekday commuters were replaced by weekend tourists, like the Henry family of Charles City, Md. The Henrys came to gawk at the farmers, marvel at the array of tractors and shake their heads in desgust at the chewed-up Mall area, which National Park Service officials say may cost $2 million to repair.
Some farmers, meanwhile, like David Hipp of Georgia worked on their public image yesterday by offering children tractor rides on the Mall. Others, like peanut farmer David Abercrombie of "Wallace Country," Alabama, departed taking his Deere tractor home to "feed my cows."
The official police tractor count dropped only slightly from Friday's level -- down 25 machines to a total of 545 tractors on the Mall, according to U.S. Park Police Lt. Robert Hines.
"I get the general feeling some of them are taking off, but there are still a lot of them down there," Hines said.
About 1,200 farmers, police said, marched in ranks in the blistering midmorning cold from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial to pay tribute to four members of their movement who died in an air accident last year. After that, however, biting temperatures apparently encouraged most formers to abandon the Mall to tourists, like the Tritchlers of Columbus, Ohio.
"Its a shame," said James R. Tritchler, a lawyer who said he came to the Mall with his wife, Betty, to see what the fuss about. "I don't see any reason why they had to bring their tractors in and tear everything up, tie up an entire town and destroy property. And this won't be in shape for a couple of years."
Other Mall visitors like Common Cause lawyer Donald Simon were neutral about the farmers, "I haven't formulated an opinion on the merits yet,"
The Cathon family of Rockbille let their 4-year-old son, Joseph, take his first tractor ride yesterday and they were sympathetic to the farmers.
After hearing Georgia farmer David Hipp tell how his $1 million debt could force him out of business next yeat, Navy enlistee Douglas Cathon nodded.
"I would rather pay to repair the Mall for the farmers than for a lot of idiots marching around with sighs protesting for things on the other side of the world." Cathon said.
Notwithstanding yesterday's calm, some police officers at the encampment were grumbling that the overtime pay they are earning is meager compensation for braving the freezing temperatures in 12-hour shifts.
"This is going to pay for my basement and two-car garage," said one D.C. officer who is putting in for 39 overtime hours this week. "But everybody is tired."
At the National Gallery several security guards noted that the dropping temperatures had measurably increased the museum's popularity with both farmers and police.
"Go into the cafeteria and you will see 15 or 20 police officers in there at one time, keeping warm. And the farmers, they are not all yokels. Some of them are art lovers," one museum guard, J. W. Duncan, said.