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The Capitol's Weekend of Protests

by Jo Freeman

Joan Baez, an icon of Sixties folk music and anti-war protests, was the lead act at the Code Pink assembly before the big rally and march against the Occupation of Iraq on Sunday, September. 24.  About five hundred people gathered at Freedom Plaza at 14th St. and Pennsylvania Ave in Washington, DC to hear Baez sing and watch several Code Pink street theater groups perform.

Code Pink is easily the most creative and visually compelling contingent of the anti-Iraq War movement.  Explaining that since the government admitted after Katrina that it can't defend its own population, Code Pink founder Medea Benjamin introduced the Self Defense Brigade.  Dressed in pink camouflage, several women demonstrated a caricature of karate kicks and punches while blowing "help" whistles.  They had held a bigger performance the previous Thursday before a smaller audience in front of the World Bank and the White House.

Code Pink was one of several groups to hold their own rallies prior to the main events. Others included US Labor Against the WAR, which met inside the headquarters of the AFL-CIO to hear Amjad Al-Jawhary, the North American representative of the Federation of Workers Councils and Unions in Iraq, and Mobilization for Global Justice (MGJ) which rallied at Dupont Circle.  MGJ had originally planned a massive demonstration this weekend during the annual meetings of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund but it was overshadowed by the much larger anti-war protests. Instead, the 2,500 people who came to the MGJ rally passed by the World Bank on their way to the Ellipse.

Reflecting the large number of people who believe the invasion was unjustified, the Woman's National Democratic Club hosted a pre-march breakfast and the Anabaptist Peace Center brought Faith-based Activists together for a "Prayer Prior to Protest."

The main event was organized by United for Peace and Justice and A.N.S.W.E.R., the two groups which have organized most of protests against the invasion and ongoing occupation in the last three years. Until September 24, their activities have been separate, since the two groups barely speak to each other. UfPJ had originally chosen September 10 for a major march in New York City, and A.N.S.W.E.R. had announced it would rally two weeks later in Washington — much to the consternation of MGJ which thought the weekend was theirs.  A.N.S.W.E.R. had its own hissy fit when UfPJ switched cities and dates to September 24 in DC.  It took quite a bit of negotiation for them to agree on one march and one rally.

Because A.N.S.W.E.R. already had permits for Lafayette Square in front of the White House, and UfPJ quickly got permits for the Ellipse and the Monument grounds, the march route finally agreed on went up 15th St from Constitution to the White House, around Lafayette Square and back down 14th St.  From there marchers went toward the Capitol on Pennsylvania Ave before turning back to Constitution at 9th St.  Police put waist high fences on 17th St and 15th St from Constitution Ave to Pennsylvania Ave to keep protestors from encircling the White House itself.  Secret Service and Park Police stood behind the fences armed with billy clubs, but not in large numbers.  Several watched from the roof of the White House.  Elsewhere DC police blocked streets to keep marchers from taking short-cuts.

March organizers combined several events into a long weekend of anti-war activity.  White tents and tables dotted the Monument grounds for two days in a "Peace and Justice Festival" where different groups gave away information and sold artifacts to raise money for their many causes.  Near the National History Museum "Camp Casey" was replicated.  Originally set up in Bush's home town of Crawford, TX by Cindy Sheehan, mother of Army Spc. Casey Sheehan, who was killed in Iraq, it became a focal point of anti-war protest for many weeks.

Nearby, lines of white crosses represented the 2,000 soldiers who have died in Iraq.  These were also represented by a display of military boots with the names of their former owners attached, part of a touring exhibit put together by the American Friends Service Committee. Elsewhere civilian shoes represented the Iraqis that have been killed. The day ended with a massive concert on the Washington Monument grounds.  Called Operation Ceasefire it brought acts from folk to hip-hop to speak out against the war.

Now that the National Park Service no longer provides official estimates of the number of people at rallies and marches, (which were reliably about half of the actual numbers), guesses are all over the place.  March organizers told the NPS that they expected 100,000 when getting their permits, but announced to the crowd that 250,000 people had come. Newspaper reports settled on "vast numbers."  This march was very hard to guesstimate because marchers were packed like sardines in the 15th St corridor from Constitution to the White House, and dispersed widely elsewhere. The circuitous route with its many turns made it impossible to see the entire march route from any single place.  Some people arrived late while those who had to catch busses left early.  Less than ten thousand people were at the pre-march rally at the Ellipse and the post march concert near the Washington Monument at any given moment in the afternoon.  Roughly 100,000 participants, more or less, is as close to the truth as one can get. The fact that only three were arrested reflects the planning that went into this march.

The anti-protest protesters were also out, but not in great numbers.  Nine pro-lifers stood at the curb of Freedom Plaza holding signs as Code Pink deployed to the Ellipse.  Further down Pennsylvania Ave about a hundred "pro-war" demonstrators from various groups honored veterans at the Navy Memorial.  One speaker told the crowd that "you cannot support the troops if you don't support their mission."  At their main rally on Sunday near the Air and Space Museum a few hundred pro-war protestors heard a dozen speakers attack Cindy Sheehan.  Something about the fact that she was a military mom who thought her son died a needless death got under their skin.  One sign called her a traitor.

MGJ had advertised Sunday as the day for civil disobedience to keep delegates to the World Bank annual meetings from getting inside the complex. It asked affinity groups from all over the country to "adopt an intersection" and close it down.  Late Saturday night MJG decided to concentrate its efforts on the Mayflower Hotel to keep delegates from boarding their busses.  Before dawn protestors dressed in clown suits blocked four intersections near the hotel, forcing delegates to walk through a gauntlet of chants and yells to reach their busses.  There was one arrest, and two protestors were hit by police cars.

Monday was supposed to be lobby day, for both anti-war and pro-war people.  It was also the only day of mass arrests.  The War Resisters League led a demonstration at the Pentagon early in the morning, where 41 were arrested.  Most were out of jail in time to go to a noon protest in front of the White House. Carefully choreographed with the police as "permitted civil disobedience," two thousand people spread out from the White House fence through Lafayette Park displaying banners and imitation Quonset huts.  While a dozen youthful members of the "black bloc" (anarchists) played croquet on the lawns of Lafayette Park, several people attached signs to the White House fence (which is illegal) and papers with the names of those killed in the Iraq invasion.  Five people in orange jump suits and black hoods imitating Iraqi prisoners kneeled in the street.  Groups such as Code Pink and those opposing Israel's occupation of Palestine rotated through the prime photo-op spot in front of the White House.

As previously planned, a group of clergy walked from the Ellipse to the White House entrance to attempt to deliver the names of American and Iraqi dead.  When they left to go to the front of the White House they were so surrounded by press and photographers that the police had to plow a path for them to the spot where they were to sit down and be arrested.  After an hour the police announced that anyone who didn't want to be arrested should get off of the sidewalk.  The crowd was subsequently moved to the middle of the street and fences erected to create an arrest zone.  Paddy wagons and city busses were brought in which blocked sight of most of the demonstrators.  For the next five hours, six arrest teams handcuffed and loaded about 370 willing arrestees into vehicles and took them to be booked and released.  Most people walked; a few refused and had to be carried.

Despite the fact that most everyone was hot and tired, relations remained cordial.  Police ferried notes and supplies between family and friends among the watchers and those waiting their turn to be arrested.  They also removed anti-war stickers that those outside the fence plastered to the sides of police vehicles and helped those who needed it up the high steps into the paddy wagons.  In fact, the police were so relaxed that one young man scaled the White House fence before the Park Police on the sidewalk could reach him.  As he landed on the other side, several Secret Service agents pounced on him like cats on a mouse, hog tied him and dragged him off.  It was the only unanticipated event of the afternoon.


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