They sang along with Kate Smith's "God Bless America." There were almost as many American flags as people. And, yes, the 200 or so area firefighters who rallied across from the White House yesterday to support U.S. intervention in the Persian Gulf left with sirens blaring, lights flashing and helmets on.
The rally was on the site where, only Saturday, at least 75,000 demonstrators marched curb to curb, chanting, "No blood for oil."
"We just got tired of all the negative stuff," said D.C. firefighter Hank Romero, one of the rally's organizers, looking out at the scattering of colleagues from throughout the Washington area who, moments before, had been circling Lafayette Square shouting "U.S.A., U.S.A." Behind him, a large American flag hung from the top rungs of a ladder.
"I would have loved to fill up the park," Romero said. "But it's not bad for a workday."
All across the country these past two weeks, small groups of supporters have taken to the streets to counter what they believe is the wrong impression made by the show of strength by anti-war demonstrators.
Although millions of Americans have told pollsters they support the U.S. intervention, often only dozens turn out for demonstrations of that support. Tens of thousands have gathered for rallies across the country protesting the war.
"I hope the word gets back to the troops in Saudi Arabia," said Capt. Billy Kelly, a D.C. firefighter for 23 years, who added that he also hopes the message makes its way to Iraq that the majority of Americans are behind President Bush. "Saddam Hussein believes that the American people don't have the resolve . . . . We will stand up."
Throughout the rally and the sporadic marching around the park, firefighters issued a message similar to one printed on a sign: "Protectors of Our Home Support Protectors of Our Nation."
"We're out there to save lives, and as far as I'm concerned, the military is out there to save lives," said Roger Briney, a Fairfax County firefighter who drove 50 miles from Winchester with his two children.
Trackers of the protest movement differ in explaining why most pro-Bush rallies have been so small. Some chalk it up to ambivalence about war in general.
Leo Ribuffo, a professor at George Washington University who has studied American protest movements and is against the U.S. intervention, saw it differently: "I think that it shows the support is soft."
But Patrick Glynn, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, said, "When you are in favor of a policy and that's the policy being implemented, you usually don't feel the need to go out on the street to demonstrate."
Trackers of protest movements said that, in general, it is easier to draw people to protest a policy than to support one, particularly when the policy could mean deaths.
"I feel the support runs about as deep as expected for a policy that is inherently very risky and very costly," Glynn said. Those protesting the war, he said, "feel a special urgent need to counteract what they see as an unfavorable policy."
Part of the difference in numbers may have to do with the organizers themselves. The rally yesterday, like many counter-demonstrations to show support, was conceived and organized only in the past two weeks, and by people with virtually no experience with demonstrations. In contrast, the march Saturday had been planned for months and was staffed by professionals who had years of experience organizing large demonstrations, including many during the Vietnam War.
"Sorry this is not a little bit more organized," Romero said to the firefighters yesterday as they waited for speakers to arrive. "But hey, it's us," he said to laughter.
Glenn Selzer, chief of the Bladensburg Fire Department and one of the organizers of the rally, said firefighters came from as far away as St. Leonard, Md., and Stafford, Va. "We got some phone calls from guys in Philly and New Jersey, but it was just too quick for them to come," he said.
Selzer said the firefighters who did attend were off-duty. He said the organizers had planned to get area municipalities to sponsor the rally, but decided not to because of the political implications. "Everybody was afraid of it," he said, referring to the politics of having governments back such a gathering. "They said, 'We can't stick our necks out here; we might get in trouble.' So we just decided to do it ourselves."
In one exception to the trend of small pro-Bush rallies, 30,000 people packed a stadium in the naval base city of San Diego yesterday in a well-orchestrated demonstration of support. An aerial photograph of the gathering will be made into a poster and sent to forces in the gulf.
In a city used to seeing families waving goodbye as ships sail off to the gulf, 3,600 of the demonstrators wearing red, white or blue T-shirts formed a giant U.S. flag in the middle of Jack Murphy Stadium.
Nearly all protest movement analysts interviewed stressed it is too early to tell how the pro- and anti-war movements will shake out. There have been few American casualties, and so far, demonstrations on both sides have been generally peaceful and war protesters have not raised the ire of the public by rallying around the enemy, as some protesters did during the Vietnam War. Bush also has counseled tolerance of the demonstrators.
"Things have been fairly polite on both sides," said Ribuffo, "but if casualties mount and the anti-war movement gets larger and more volatile, I think the pro-war demonstrations will get larger and more volatile."
Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.