Tens of thousands of people marched in peaceful protest of any military strike against Iraq yesterday afternoon, in an antiwar demonstration that organizers and police suggested was likely Washington's largest since the Vietnam era.
Organizers with International ANSWER, a coalition of antiwar groups that coordinated the demonstration, had hoped for a turnout rivaling that of its pro-Palestine rally in April that officials estimated at about 75,000. Organizers said they easily eclipsed that figure yesterday, assessing attendance at well more than 100,000. D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey also said he figured yesterday's rally turnout exceeded that in April, but he didn't provide a specific number.
"We think this was just extremely, extremely successful," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a D.C. organizer with International ANSWER, Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. "It absolutely shows that when George Bush says America speaks with one voice, and it's his voice, he's wrong."
After a rally that lasted more than three hours at Constitution Gardens, near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the march began at 21st Street and Constitution Avenue. Using 17th, H, 15th and E streets NW, they circled the White House and returned to their starting point. Shoulder-to-shoulder crowds filled the streets for several blocks. When marchers at the front of the procession returned to Constitution Avenue on their way back, they had to wait to allow demonstrators at the tail of the march to pass.
Other demonstrations in cities including Rome, Berlin, Copenhagen, Denmark, Tokyo and Mexico City were held to coincide with the Washington march, and in San Francisco at a sister march, thousands marched through downtown.
Protesters arrived by the busload, by car and by Metro early yesterday morning, some carrying signs and later joining in chants that echoed a common theme: A war against Iraq would be unjustified, they said, and there is no consensus for it.
"Nebraskans for Peace" and "Hoosiers for Non-Violence" chanted alongside silver-coiffed retirees from Chicago and a Muslim student association from Michigan. Parents could be seen enjoying a sunny, picnic-perfect afternoon by pushing a stroller with one hand and carrying a "No War for Oil" sign with the other, and police on horseback monitored nearby.
The tone of the rally was far different from D.C.'s last major protest -- the September demonstrations against the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. During those events, anti-globalization protesters had intended to paralyze the city with disruptive throngs, but their numbers were much smaller than expected, and they were dominated by a massive police presence. More than 600 people were arrested during the IMF and World Bank protests; yesterday, police reported three arrests.
Several groups, including the Anti-Capitalist Convergence that organized one of September's protests, mounted an independent march that fed into yesterday's rally and said everyone had agreed upon a non-confrontational goal from the outset.
"I don't think police want problems, and I don't think we want problems either," said Pat Elder, 47, a Bethesda antiwar activist who participated in the unpermitted feeder march.
The morning began under hazy skies on the wet grass at Constitution Gardens, as thick mud sucked at the heels of the arriving demonstrators and the nearby Washington Monument appeared truncated by fog. But by noon the skies cleared and most of the lawn was shoulder-to-shoulder with people listening to Jesse Jackson, actress Susan Sarandon, singer Patti Smith and former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, among other speakers.
Several speakers referred to Vietnam era protests, and organizers were eager to compare the current movement with the one that peaked with a rally of between 250,000 and 500,000 people in Washington in 1969. The last large-scale peace protest in Washington was in 1991, when about 75,000 demonstrated during the height of the Persian Gulf War.
Unlike those protests, yesterday's rally was different in that it preceded war, and many interpreted that as an indication of a potentially powerful movement.
"During the Vietnam War, no demonstration of comparable size took place until 1967, three years after the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution [that gave President Lyndon B. Johnson congressional authority to expand the war in Vietnam]," said Brian Becker, co-director of the International Action Center, one of the groups that make up International ANSWER.
But if the passions of the Vietnam era led to protests that often trembled on the edge between control and chaos, yesterday's event suggested that this movement is burning at a lower flame.
"Here I'm not being spit on, people aren't throwing tomatoes at me and Joan Baez isn't singing," said protest veteran Dot Magargal, 77, from Media, Pa. "People just want to come out and say that not everyone wants to go to war. This is a lot of people, a lot of voters, and it has to count for something."
For those looking for symbols often associated with left-wing demonstrations -- Grateful Dead T-shirts, dreadlocks, anti-corporate slogans, Socialist newsletters -- plenty could be found. But it wasn't necessary to comb through the fringe to find people who didn't fit the mold. Many said they were first-time protesters who had never attended a rally. Some said they were against all war, no matter the circumstances, and others said they were simply against the possibility of an Iraq invasion.
"I've never in my life done anything like this before," said Marie Johnson, 31, of Columbia. "What I wanted to do was say that even though Bush puts forth that everyone supports going to war against Iraq, some of us don't. I just thought it was important for me to do something to show how I felt."
Peggy McGrath, 59, said she hoped that Bush would look out of the windows of the White House to see that thousands disagreed with him. She said she remained optimistic that he might change his mind, especially if enough people voiced opposition.
"I think there's actually been a shift already in Bush's rhetoric in the last two weeks," said McGrath, who was on one in a caravan of eight buses from Chicago. "The hope is that maybe he'll see this, and maybe it can be stopped before it's started."
Bush, however, wasn't at the White House. He and first lady Laura Bush flew yesterday from their Texas ranch to Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, where the president was attending the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Among other things, Bush was seeking to rally fellow leaders behind his Iraq stance.
The president had some support at the rally from a group of about 100 counter-protesters who gathered at 17th Street and Constitution Avenue. Along with activists from the national group Free Republic, a group of Iraqi exiles chanted slogans against Saddam Hussein. In one of the few points of tension during the day, police stepped into a scuffle between peace activists and counterprotesters and led away two of the former.
One who joined the counter-protesters, Imam Husham Al-Husainy, explained that he came to Washington from the Detroit area with about 40 Iraqis to present the view of people who had suffered under Hussein.
"Most of these people across the street, they don't know the reality in Iraq," Al-Husainy said.
Although the main protest message was focused on opposing war in Iraq, a few other causes slipped into the mix. Many of the same people who marched for Palestinian rights in April joined yesterday's march, waving Palestinian flags. But like others who had become activists for other causes, they said opposing the war was what brought them out yesterday.
"I don't come here to carry signs for fun," said Ribhi Ramadan, 36, who brought his family of seven from Paterson, N.J., to the protest. "I support not just Palestine, but everywhere that's threatened by war."
Luigi Procopio, 45, a social worker from the district, wore a pink triangle with "$ FOR AIDS NOT WAR" written on it. He said even though he normally focuses his activism on issues in the gay community, he and at least a dozen friends came to protest the war in Iraq.
"It's time, man. . . .it feels imminent," he said. "Congress has just rolled over."
Some protesters said they had been worried about attendance before they arrived at the rally. Larina Brown, 22, a student from the University of Minnesota-Morris, said she had feared that she and the 30 friends she traveled with would be greeted by scant crowds.
"It's a relief, really," Brown said. "I really wanted this to be a big statement, to show it's not just radical, anti-American people who go to these things."
Most of those who arrived in the morning on buses climbed back aboard shortly after the rally ended. By 5:45 p.m., the streets were almost deserted, and protesters had put downtheir signs and were sitting on park benches snacking.
Mark Zheng, 33, of Amherst, Mass., stopped to take a photo of two friends in front of a fountain in Lafayette Square. Zheng, from China, had been at the Tiananmen Square protests. He said he was impressed by the orderliness of the march.
"I think maybe people have different thoughts on things, but one thing is clear," he said. "Peace."
Staff writers David A. Fahrenthold, Ylan Q. Mui and Mary Beth Sheridan and special correspondent Liz Garone in San Francisco and wire services contributed to this report.