Chanting "Bush says Code Red; we say Code Pink" and "Peace, not war!" thousands of women marched through downtown Washington yesterday to the Ellipse to protest the looming prospect of war with Iraq.
About 25 protesters were arrested without incident late in the afternoon for refusing to leave the pedestrian mall in front of the White House after U.S. Park Police closed the area to demonstrators.
The march was timed to coincide with International Women's Day and began with a morning rally at Meridian Hill Park, also known as Malcolm X Park, in Northwest Washington. Similar rallies were held yesterday in 50 cities, from Anchorage to Honolulu. Washington's event was sponsored by CodePink Women for Peace, an organization whose name was inspired by the government's color-coded terror alert system and that has held daily vigils against the war in front of the White House since Nov. 18. The rally featured speakers ranging from authors Alice Walker and Maxine Hong Kingston to singer Michelle Shocked and nuclear disarmament activist Helen Caldicott.
"The best substitute for war is intelligence, and we have it . . . and we have good hearts," said Walker, wearing a pink stole, a pink top and pink elastic bands in her dreadlocks. "We have to believe we have good hearts, that we don't have to murder to change minds."
If code pink was the mantra of the day, the color also lent a festive theme to the accessories worn by much of the crowd, from pink boas to Day-Glo pink wigs and pink silky slips to pink duct tape and stuffed pink bunnies. There were the Raging Grannies from Rochester, N.Y.; Women in Black-D.C.; the Goo Goo Dolls Fans for Peace; Women and Children for Peace; Grandmothers for Peace; Black Voices for Peace; D.C. Asians for Peace and Justice; and the Takoma Park Kids for Peace.
"I'm half-Palestinian, and I don't want another war in the Middle East," said 10-year-old Gabriella Smith, a fifth-grader at Piney Branch Elementary School who organized Takoma Park Kids for Peace. She and some of her classmates have been holding a 90-minute vigil every Friday afternoon since Feb. 14 in front of the Takoma Park municipal building and will continue, she said, "until the war's done."
The rally and march came on the heels of President Bush's news conference Thursday night in which he said he would seek the U.N. Security Council's approval next week of a proposal by the United States, Britain and Spain to go to war against Iraq if President Saddam Hussein does not disarm by March 17. But Bush indicated that regardless of the outcome of the U.N. vote, he was prepared to take military action against Hussein, who is suspected of possessing banned weapons of mass destruction.
CodePink spokeswoman Medea Benjamin, who is on leave as the director of Global Exchange in San Francisco to run CodePink, called the event a "celebration of life."
"Let's celebrate the beautiful world community we have, and let's find ways of dealing with each other that don't include killing each other," she said.
Benjamin said that she and 14 other American women visited Iraq for 10 days in February on a "people-to-people" mission. They spoke to Iraqi women who, she said, did not understand why the Bush administration was threatening to invade their country or was seemingly obsessed with Hussein.
"They said they were being terrorized by George Bush and they said, 'We are not a threat to you. Saddam Hussein is our problem,' " Benjamin said. "We were there to show the women of Iraq that we know when bombs fall, they don't fall on dictators. They fall on innocent women and children. And we told them we don't want to see any of their children killed because we feel about their children like we do our own."
The Rev. Graylan Hagler, pastor of Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ in Northwest Washington and the sole male speaker at the rally, said he believed his perspective was an important part of the event.
"Black people and people of color are always locked out of the debate in this country and particularly in the international arena," said Hagler, who also spoke later in the day to several religious groups that held an interfaith peace walk that began at the Washington National Cathedral and ended at the Islamic Center on Massachusetts Avenue NW.
"We have always been involved in the military, as a hope for jobs and for benefits to go to school, and then we are used as cannon fodder in a war that has no beneficial effect on our standing in this society," he said.
March organizers had been denied a permit to march directly in front of the White House. Instead, police told organizers earlier in the day that a few groups of 25 protesters each would be allowed to march in front of the White House on the Pennsylvania Avenue pedestrian mall. But when Benjamin, the CodePink spokeswoman, and several of the rally speakers, arrived at the 17th Street entrance to the area, they were rebuffed by police.
"Go get 'em, girls!" someone yelled from the crowd as the small grouped talked about what to do. The women sat down on the sidewalk and chanted, "We're putting our bodies on the line to stop this war while there's still time;" then stood up and, after a few minutes, were allowed into the pedestrian mall by D.C. and Park police.
They entered a little after 3 p.m., but Park Police later closed Lafayette Square and the surrounding area to stop additional protesters from entering the area in front of the White House. About two dozen protesters -- including Benjamin, Walker and Kingston -- who stayed on the pedestrian mall, were asked by police to leave. They did not.
Shortly before 5 p.m., Park Police officers began arresting members of the group. One by one, the women were put in plastic handcuffs, while others continued to chant and sing, "Peace, Shalom, Shalom" and waved a banner that read, "Code Pink: Women for Peace," according to Rick Hind, a legislative director for Greenpeace who was a few feet from the women, behind a barricade.
Sgt. Scott Fear, a Park Police spokesman, said the women were charged with "being in a closed, restricted area" and would be released within a few hours. Most of those arrested were still being processed about 9:30 p.m., Park Police said.
Meanwhile, protesters who had been waiting all afternoon to walk in front of the White House expressed their disgust and frustration.
"Why would you deliberately impede the exercise of constitutional rights by a group of grandmothers wearing pink?" asked Nancy Skougor, 61, a D.C. resident and former political science professor. "What are they afraid of?"
Staff writer Clarence Williams contributed to this report.