Even in death, Mitch Snyder created a scene.
The advocate for the homeless who irritated people into action during his life drew a crowd of 3,000 people -- the homeless, everyday folks, politicians and actors -- to his funeral yesterday in front of the District shelter he fought to create.
Then Snyder -- a pine box for his coffin -- was carried down Pennsylvania Avenue in a horse-drawn hearse, the main attraction in a procession led by a riderless white horse that symbolized a fallen soldier. The hearse was followed by hundreds of supporters singing "Down By the River Side" and "We Shall Overcome."
The procession ended at the District Building, where activists for the homeless rallied against the D.C. Council's decision to weaken the overnight shelter law that Snyder had struggled to implement. In the end, Snyder's supporters staged a sit-in at the District Building and 37 of them were arrested for unlawful entry.
Sixty demonstrators had blocked the entrances to the building and demanded a meeting with the D.C. Council. Carol Fennelly, Snyder's longtime companion and right-hand in past protests, paced the hall in her stocking feet and smiled.
"Mitch wanted his funeral to have some political significance," she said. "Mitch would have wanted this."
Snyder, an advocate for the homeless since the 1970s who staged dramatic protests that won him national recognition, was found dead at the Community for Creative Non-Violence shelter at Second and D streets NW last week after he hanged himself. He left a suicide note lamenting a failed romance with Fennelly.
Snyder's use of hunger strikes as one of his chief methods of protest had left him near death several times, so he had planned bits of his funeral during the last 10 years, Fennelly said.
Yesterday, many of the speakers at Snyder's two-hour funeral were there at his request.
As the Imani Temple choir began the ceremony by singing "We're climbing up the rough side of the mountain," hundreds in the audience waved white carnations in the air, swayed in their seats and sobbed.
But the somber moments soon turned into thunderous applause, cheers and sometimes laughter as one speaker after another urged the crowd to celebrate Snyder's life rather than mourn his death.
When Jesse L. Jackson, who presided over the funeral, asked members of the audience to hug one other and applaud over and over for Snyder's struggle and his determination, homeless people embraced college students wearing designer shirts and dark-suited Judiciary Square office workers.
And when Bishop George Augustus Stallings Jr. began a prayer, they all locked hands.
One by one, those whom Snyder had wanted to speak at his funeral said their farewell. Martin Sheen, the actor who portrayed Snyder in a television movie about his life, said Snyder was following the simple command of Isaiah to "feed the hungry, clothe the naked and shelter the homeless."
Sheen was followed by the Rev. Phillip Berrigan, the antiwar activist; singer-actress Cher; and Karen Saunders, a homeless woman who said that no one could deny the impact that Snyder had on the homeless and the nation.
Fennelly introduced D.C. Mayor Marion Barry as someone who had many differences with Snyder but was always there for Snyder when the chips were down. Barry noted that tombstones list the date of a man's birth and death with a dash in between. How that dash is filled in is how a man should be judged, he said.
"We can decide what we're going to do with that dash," said Barry. "As we celebrate his home-going, let us rededicate ourselves to the proposition that we are all God's children and that none of us should suffer without food and clothing."
Much of comedian-activist Dick Gregory's comments were tinged with political observations.
In a reference to the Hubble Space Telescope, Gregory said, "We got a damn space thing up there that we spent $1.5 billion for -- a telescope that couldn't see poor folks and racism and hunger. But Mitch could."
Gregory also said that he could sense that Snyder was on the edge and called him a soldier who had been worn down on the front line and had no place to go.
At one point, Gregory called Fennelly to his side and said, in a reference to the suicide note that Snyder left: "I don't know what was in that damn note. Don't let him blame that on you . . . . We men get out here and we get caught up in this struggle . . . and we get so weak sometimes we look for people to blame it on, and sometimes we blame it on our friend."
During those comments, the crowd applauded and gave Fennelly a standing ovation.
The procession from the shelter to the District Building started about 2 p.m. It stretched out for two blocks. As the two massive horses pulling the hearse trudged along Pennsylvania Avenue NW, three drummers from Shaw Junior High School, clad in the school band's green and gold uniforms, kept time for the procession.
Traffic in the eastbound lane continued to move but was stopped on side streets to let the procession pass. From the sidewalks, some looked bewildered at the crowd. Others explained to companions by simply whispering "Mitch Snyder."
As the carriage reached Ninth Street, an apparently homeless man who had been lying on a shaded bench in front of the J. Edgar Hoover FBI Building stood and stared at the procession. When it had passed, he packed a few belongings in a small box, folded a dingy blanket and followed.
When the procession arrived at the District Building, Snyder's body was taken away for cremation. Newspaper publisher Calvin Rolark led the crowd in a chant of "Don't be mean, we want 17," a reference to the D.C. Council's recent vote to roll back the initiative, which guaranteed shelter for anyone in the District
And there was a steady, determined movement toward the east entrance of the District Building.
Jackson, who had been leading the services and the march, cautioned the crowd to "be peaceful" as the throng made its way toward helmeted police officers blocking the doorway.
Eventually, Fennelly went inside the District Building to pick up a ceremonial resolution honoring Snyder for his work. But by the time she had convinced City Administrator Carol B. Thompson to allow 100 members of the group to attend a council session, the meeting had ended.
The group inside, many of them members of CCNV, blocked the doorways to the building.
As the number of police officers on the ground floor swelled, demonstrators ran up and down the steps and blocked a basement exit. As about 10 demonstrators ran past him on the first floor at 4:45 p.m., Council Secretary Russell Smith picked up a phone and said, "Tell the sergeant they have lost control of the District Building."
As District Building workers tried to leave, they argued and got into shoving matches with demonstrators who chanted "sit down." At one point, 10 police officers grabbed four demonstrators who blocked a back exit and threw them into the hallway.
Demonstrator Lin Romano, surveying the scene inside the District Building, said, "A lot of people have been longing for the time to be able to seize some power. This is where Mitch would have been."
Staff writers Molly Sinclair, Carlos Sanchez and Daniel H. Pink contributed to this report.