"We're shut up like a bunch of animals in a corral," said Larry Schmitz, his eyes tearing from yesterday's pre-dawn cold. "We come here trying to do something for this country and they treat us like this."
The 23-year-old Kansan was looking at the seemingly endless ring of 179 city trucks and buses barricading the farmer tractorcade on the Mall. Like thousands of other protesters in the makeshift town of massive machines packed in among the city's museums, Schmitz was filled with frustration.
Through the ever-shifting moods of the crowd in Tractortown, this sense of being thwarted -- by the government, by the economy, by the police -- was constantly present. Although 135 of the giant vehicles were allowed out to parade around the White House in the afternoon, many farmers seemed to fear that they had somehow won the battle to stop traffice Monday while still failing to win the war they'd come to fight.
They were here, many said, out of sheer desperation. If the Agriculture Department doesn't give them the price supports they're asking for, several said, they would lose the land their family has worked for generations.
A handful of protesters repeatedly teetered on the brink of violence with the police, as Monday's angry clashes were still fresh on everyone's mind. Added to the farmer's general frustration with authorities was a sense that they had somehow been betrayed by the men in blue.
When police reacted to Monday's tractorspawned chaos and the belligerent intransigence of a few drivers with clubs and gas, the farmers were constantly shouting, "why are you hitting on your own people?"
Rumors yesterday that the Natioal Guard was ready to be deployed against the farmers and a groundless story that a tear-gassed farmer was in critical condition fueled the tensions in the morning. As the crowd confronted the police it was constantly shifting from reckless taunting games to real anger, then back again.
It was as if some of the farmers were daring the police to guess whether they were looking for a confrontation or just playing around, and if the police seemed in the farmers' eyes to overreact. The atmosphere got ugly.
A couple of farmers uprooted and smashed a parking meter as one of them shouted to police, "C'mon (S.O.B). Come and get me now." When one officer tried, a demonstrator ran up behind him and shoved him so hard his helmet came off. The officer walked away quietly.
A beat-up, old tractor was burned in the middle of Third Street surrounded by a ring of big new machines to keep authorities from extinguishing the flames -- something they made no effort to do.
A pair of tractors rolled into the reflecting pool at the foot of Capitol Hill, churning through the ice and driving away a few noontime skaters. Several others rolled jerkily up the steps of the Grant Memorial to perch beside the general's statue without police interference.
"Whoo-wee," shouted Iowa farmer Bob Marckman as he watched the spectacle. "All these tractors are supposed to be under arrest. You ever seen a tractor under arrest?"
All morning drivers gunned their huge machines up and down Third Street, rushing toward the police-filled blockading buses at each end, turning away only at the last moment. Two tractors overturned in the process, without injuring anyone.
At noon a group of about 20 laughing farmers roared their tractors up to a bus parked along Independence Avenue between Third and Fourth streets. They revved their engines and polic cars poured to the scene in force, sirens screaming.
Shouting rebel yells, the farmers spun their tractors around and charged away. Other farmers who were not on tractors saw a white unmarked police cruiser in their midst and started running toward it. "Let's turn it over," they shouted. "Yeah, let's get it."
The tractor drivers saw it too and went after it like horses cutting a steer out of a herd. By the time the cruiser reached Third Street, it was surrounded.
Inspector Bryant A. Hopkins and Sgt. David Shannon of the D.C. police civil disturbance until stepped out of the trapped car -- smiling.
"Now you know how it feels to be trapped," shouted one farmer. "You don't get out of here until you move the buses," yelled another. Farmers were throwing their arms around the policemen, slapping them heavily on the back.
One farmer picked the gold shields off Hopkins' shoulder. Others broke off antennas from the police car, took the license plate and the gas cap, and flattened all four tires. When some started to plaster bumper stickers on the car's hood, Hopkins asked them with a laugh not to wreck his paint job. The stickers went on the trunk, when Hopkins wasn't looking.Hopkins never called for assistance, and later said he specifically told the police near the area to stay away. "You think these people are gonna hurt me?" he told a reporter in the crowd. "I don't."
One farmer taunted him, asking what he'd tell his bosses about being captured. "I'll tell them you're a bunch of good ole boys, that's all," Hopkins answered to the crowd's cheers.
When told he'd be ransomed, Hopkins said he didn't think his superiors would want him back. "I haven't got a thing to negotiate with... I think I'm the first CDU man who was ever captured," he laughed.
He was told he could go and leave his car. "Ain't no way," replied the crew-cut, Washington-born inspector.
The farmers loved it, especially after he heartily agreed with one who told him he was safer in their midst than in the streets of Washington.
"Come on boys, let's let the inspector out, he's only doing his duty," an older farmer started shouting.The policemen and their car were set free.
When a young officer guarding the immobilized car a few minutes later tried to get tough with some playful farmers, they turned angry, but then left, with one of them tauntingly telling the policeman, "You're just a city slicker. You don't understand country boys."
Hershell Essary, a 6-foot-5 farmer from New Mexico who had mace sprayed in his face on Monday, returned to Capitol Hill yesterday afternoon and said he was ashamed of what the farmers had done the day before.
"I don't go for that violent crap," said Essary, 32, who watched in fear Monday as his fellow farmers fought with D.C. police. "I didn't come up here to get killed. I came to talk to politicians."