As hundreds of protesters led by Women’s March organizers gathered in front of the Justice Department on Saturday morning, a small group of counterprotesters gathered on the Pennsylvania Avenue median to make their voices heard.
Men sported National Rifle Association hats and signs declaring “free speech is under attack” and “no jihad against our freedoms.” They said the protesters — who had completed a 17-mile march started Friday at the NRA’s Northern Virginia headquarters to denounce a controversial recruitment video — didn’t respect free speech if it challenged their views.
Then, for a few minutes at least, the median became common ground. Paul Jutte, who attended the Women’s March with his girlfriend, crossed Pennsylvania Avenue to join the counterprotesters.
The 28-year-old nurse from Cincinnati held a sign with an arrow pointing to the men that said “Bully.”
But Jutte put down his sign once he started talking with Bob Cammaroto, a 64-year-old NRA member and former federal agent from southern Maryland.
Jutte and Cammaroto, who wore an NRA hat and a red polo, talked about everything from family to jobs to hotels in the area.
They had to raise their voices to hear each other. Nearby, a man who would not give his full name yelled at protesters giving speeches — as police urged him to stay on the median. A supporter of the Women’s March furiously shook a tambourine in what she said was her attempt to stop the counterprotesters from being heard.
Meanwhile, Jutte told Cammaroto that he was enjoying his first trip to Washington.
They kept talking.
Cammaroto told Jutte about his son, who was born 24 weeks early — “He’s a miracle,” Cammaroto said — and is now in the Air Force.
They also talked about the issues that had driven the protest.
The death of Philando Castile, a black man shot by a police officer after he told the officer he was carrying a licensed firearm, was “a terrible, terrible tragedy,” Cammaroto said.
Protesters demanded to know why the NRA hadn’t done more to defend Castile, a lawful gun owner. Cammaroto said he didn’t know the answer and didn’t have enough information to guess.
“There are rational, reasonable people on both sides,” Cammaroto said.
He said he has been a gun owner his whole life, but he respected the rights of people such as Jutte to protest the NRA. That’s why he chose a sign that said: “The second amendment protects the first.”
Brenna O’Brien was one of the approximately 500 protesters who gathered to exercise that First Amendment right, driven by frustration with the NRA, which she described as “an extremist lobbying group that is putting our children in danger.”
O’Brien, the leader of the Chicago chapter of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, came from the Windy City with her sister for the protest.
She started to cry when she spoke about her two children, ages 3 and 5.
“They’re why I’m here today,” she said. “I don’t want them to have bulletproof windows in their schools — I want a future for them that’s free of gun violence.”
Activists from local and national organizations said they had three demands for the NRA: Take down a recruitment video that activists view as “irresponsible and dangerous,” issue an apology for the video, and make a statement defending the Second Amendment rights of Castile.
The video included a line that said demonstrators “bully and terrorize the law-abiding until the only option left is for the police to do their jobs and stop the madness,” which activists said incited violence.
Reflecting on why people on different sides of the political question often fail to engage each other when discussing their vision of the future, Cammaroto said: “Critical thinking is hard.”
“It’s the second national deficit,” Jutte interjected.
“That’s a good one,” Cammaroto said, nodding. “Can I use that?”
Laughing, Jutte told his new friend that he couldn’t take credit for the line.
“Sorry, Bob. I saw that one on a bumper sticker,” he said.