Thousands of demonstrators will fill the streets of Washington tomorrow -- this time to protest nuclear power -- part of what some view as a national resurgence of the mass street politics that gripped this city a decade ago.
The new wave of demonstrators are being driven in increasing numbers to Washington -- the protest capital of America -- by the ills and omens of the 1980s: nuclear accidents, high unemployment, inflation, hostages in Iran and Colombia, international confrontation and the specter of a military draft. a
People always have brought their grievances to the seat of government. Hundreds of demonstrations, usually drawing no more than a few thousand each in recent times, take place in Washington every year.
Now momentum is building -- in part out of frustration with what many see as a sluggish or impotent Congress and White House -- to bring tens of thousands of people into the streets again, a playback to the Vietnam era 10 years ago:
Between 65,000 and 75,000 came last May to protest the Three Mile Island nuclear accident.
Last month, 22,000 to 30,000 came here to protest proposed registration for the draft
Up to 100,000 are projected for tonorrow's antinuclear rally.
Up to 150,000 are expected for a "Washington for Jesus" religious rally next week.
As many as 25,000 may come next month to protest increasing unemployment.
"There's no question it's happening," says Jerry Gordon, longtime labor leader, anti-Vietnam warrior and one of the organizers of tomorrow's nuclear protest.
"Yeah, it's happening," echoes Deputy Chief Robert Klotz, commander of the D.C. Police Department's special operations division and himself a veteran observer of demonstrations here. "I think the economic situation has a lot to do with it."
"Summer's coming, and you're gonna have a lot of college kids out loose," Klotz added, with an avuncular glint in his eye.
Operation PUSH (People United to Save Humanity), the Chicago-based organization headed by the Rev. Jesse Jackson, plans to bring 25,000 marchers here May 17 to protest rising unemployment, especially among America's youth.
"We must go back to [mass street demonstrations]," because of the unresponsiveness of Congress and the Carter administration to worsening social and economic conditions, Jackson said.
Historically, when the customary means of political and legislative change are closed off, "we have to go outside the process," he said.
"Our purpose is to make blacks and the poor visible again, to touch the conscience of America," he said. Since the height of the civil rights movement more than a decade ago, he said, the poor largely have been ignored. "You know, out of sight, out of mind."
Jackson, Gordon and the other alumni of the civil rights-Vietnam war era see the '80s as a period of renewed tumult and clangor -- in some ways a re-run of the troubled 1960s and early '70s when the streets of Washington rang constantly with the shouts of protesters.
Hundreds of thousands of marchers from ragged hippies to stern-faced trade unionists tramped the capital's avenues. Most marched peacefully, but police periodically skirmished with bands of rock-throwing radicals and hit-and-run anarchists. Eye-sting-ing tear gas floated in the air, and downtown buildings were trashed.
The war wound down, and the streets fell quiet. Today's harsh new realities are reawakening some of the old dormant protest spirit with a new focus.
Organizers at the Coalition for a Non-Nuclear World have government permits for up 100,000 demonstrators tomorrow on the Washington Monument grounds. Police doubt they will get that number.
Staffers and volunteers for the colition worked feverishly yesterday in cluttered, rented office space on Capitol Hill on last-minute preparations.
The workers, mostly young, white middle class "anti-nukes," scurred to and fro, typing stencils, haggling on the phone, arranging for rally sound systems, raising funds, stuffing envelopes and finding lodging for the thousands of demonstrators pouring in by bus from East Coast cities.
Coalition organizers estimate the four days of activities -- a prayer vigil in front of the White House tonight, tomorrow's mass rally, Capitol Hill lobbying on Sunday and an attempt at "civil disobedience" doorway blocking at the Pentagon on Monday -- will cost $75,000 to $100,000.
Costs include phone, postage, sound system rentals, stage construction, walkie-talkies for parade marshals, portable toilets (200 at $40 each) and salaries for six full-time staffers. The funds have come from private contributions, benefit concerts, a small amount in foundation grants and sales of antinuke T-shirts ($6), Frisbies ($2) and buttons ($1 and 50c).
Hoping to develop a broad base for support and a big turnout tomorrow, coalition organizers have scheduled a wide range of speakers and a five-point set of goals including not only an end to nuclear power and weapons, but a demand for full employment and the honoring of American Indian treaties by the U.S. government.
The latter two goals are intimately linked to the nuclear industry, the coalition says. The reduction or abolition of capital-intensive nuclear power plants, for example, will pave the way for development of more labor-intensive alternative energy sources and create more jobs, says Jerry Gordon. The U.S. government must honor Indian treaties, he says, so that the Indians can retain control over vital uranium deposits on their land, which the government wants for nuclear power production.
Another group, ostensibly religious in nature, plans two days of massive outdoor prayer services and ralies here next week, with police bracing for up to 150,000 fundamentalist worshipers. But citics, including several maintstream church leaders, contend it is a thinly disguised vehicle for right wing political causes.
Sponsors of the "Washington for Jesus" rallies at RFK Stadium and on the Mall on Monday and Tuesday have distributed a fact sheet citing "moral problems of our time" such as abortion and "removal of voluntary prayer from the public schools" -- all basic right wing political language, the critics say.