They came in jeans, dresses and clerical collars, carrying Frisbees, backpacks, protest signs and small children.
Some were experienced protesters -- leftovers from Vietnam era demonstrations. Others were novices -- passersby or the couple next door, Mennonites and Quakers. It was a peace demonstration, 1980 style.
About 500 of the activists gathered Sunday for a "Peace Fair" in front of the Sheraton Washington Hotel to protest an Air Force Association arms exhibition being held there this week. The group also held candlelight vigils at night during the event.
"Traditionally, people see peace gatherings as being young, hippy and with an air of abnormality," said Mernie King, who heads the peace ministry of Sojourners, the local peace group that organized this week's protests. "But for the last two years, we've been getting people who are average citizens, people you wouldn't normally see at political protests. Unlike peace activists of a decade ago, these people are here because of a religious commitment."
Jim Gamble, a 26-year-old seminarian and intern with the Mount Vernon Baptist Association, said he had avoided "visible protests" before this week "But now I have to say no to militarism," he said. "It's a view that needs to be heard. There is some personal integrity involved."
As 100 candle-bearing protesters lined the sidewalk in front of the hotel Tuesday evening, Maribeth Shank, 29, explained to her two young children why they were holding the lighted candles. "Jesus is the light of the world and candles are a symbol of that."
"I would like for them to learn peace instead of war," said the first-time protester.
Longtime peace activity Andy von Salis, a 27-year-old law student, said, "I was out at Air Force bases [participating in protests] during the Vietnam period and I feel it's as important to be here now. It may be even more important now because fewer people are protesting nuclear warfare and the arms race, so each person makes that much more of a difference."
Those who attended Sunday's peace fair locked hands and joined in a ring dance as the name of each country in the world was called out. Then they watched a skit by members of Sojourners and listened as D.C. City Council member Hilda Mason (Statehood-At large) and several inner-city clergy gave speeches.
Organizers of this year's protest tried to maintain a low profile but get their message across. Last year, 21 protesters kneeling in prayer in the hotel driveway were convicted of disorderly conduct. Organizers also hoped to distinguish themselves from other local activist groups that have protested such events in the past by chaining themselves to displays and throwing blood on exhibits.
Sojourners last month pledged that it would urge national groups to boycott the Sheraton Washington if its management allowed the Air Force Assocation to hold its annual convention and exhibit there again. According to King, the group plans to proceed with those plans. t