11 September 2001>News Stories>Thousands Fill Streets Of D.C. to Protest War

Thousands Fill Streets Of D.C. to Protest War

Manny Fernandez and Petula Dvorak . Washington Post . 30 September

A bystander in the plaid shirt lunges at a group of protesters about to burn the American flag. The protesters were successful in burning the flag minutes later. (Margaret Thomas - The Washington Post)

Anarchists in black bandannas, peace activists with banners and signs, and police in riot gear took over the streets of downtown Washington yesterday during the first major national anti-war protest since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

Young protesters, who beat drums and the bottoms of plastic tubs, shouted chants at stone-faced police in a tense standoff on one Pennsylvania Avenue block, while area activists and those who had come in caravans from California, New York, Ohio and Oregon called on thousands at Freedom Plaza to raise their voices for peace.

Such scenes had been anticipated for months by police, organizers and District residents, but the terrorist attacks softened what had been expected to be a clash between unprecedented law enforcement might and as many as 100,000 anti-globalization protesters. Yesterday's rallies, instead, developed into a largely peaceful display against military retaliation, marred by a few scuffles and three arrests during one of the day's two downtown marches. Eight more were arrested at the now-closed D.C. General Hospital in a related protest.

Police officials estimated the crowd in the two marches at about 7,000, while some organizers put the figure closer to 25,000, the same number that protested the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings in the District in April 2000. That time, there were hundreds of arrests, skirmishes between police and protesters, and some property damage.

War was on everyone's mind, it seemed yesterday.

"I don't think the solution to violence is more violence," said Rachel Ettling, a 19-year-old sophomore at New York's Columbia University who held a red banner at a park in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol dome that read: "Amerika! Get a clue!" Ettling said she and the throngs of protesters were putting the country's best ideals to use. "It's a very patriotic thing to be an activist," she said. "This is democracy in the streets."

The focus of the protests, initially planned against global financial policies of the World Bank and the IMF, had changed since Sept. 11. After the attacks, the world bodies canceled their meetings, and some protest groups altered their message. They pleaded that the country not engage in what they called a "rush to war" and to condemn violent acts of retaliation against those of Middle Eastern background. Another rally and march for peace, organized by local anti-war activists, are set for 11 a.m. today from Meridian Hill Park at 16th and Euclid streets NW.

Yesterday, at a three-hour rally at Freedom Plaza before a march to the Capitol to stress those concerns, Leslie Sauer, 55, a landscape architect from rural New Jersey, held a sign that read, "8 million Afghan refugees need food now, not war and terror." Many protesters criticized U.S. foreign policy, which they say has exacerbated tensions in the Middle East.

"We rain bombs on Iraq, then we're surprised we're hated," the Rev. Graylan Hagler, minister at the District's Plymouth Congregational Church, told thousands gathered there. More rallies were scheduled in other parts of the country.

In an earlier march, some protesters seemed intent on fighting aggression with aggression. Many wore black bandannas to hide their faces or gas masks to protect themselves if the air turned chemical, and some carried sticks and black-painted trash can lids as shields.

All the clashes between police and protesters -- including the arrests and scuffles in which police used pepper spray on several demonstrators -- broke out during the march, organized primarily by a D.C.-based anarchists and anti-capitalists group, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence. It had not sought a permit for the march, but police accommodated the group and escorted marchers from near Union Station to the Pennsylvania Avenue and 19th Street NW headquarters of the World Bank and the IMF.

Trouble started at 11th and H streets near the Washington Convention Center about 10:45 a.m., when a shoving match erupted between police and demonstrators after two police vehicles leading the march slowed down but protesters would not. Activists swarmed the vehicles, and D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and other high-ranking officials were among police there, batons in hand. Someone leaned from a police vehicle and pepper sprayed the surging demonstrators. Police used their batons to push the crowd from the cars. Several protesters were knocked to the pavement. One officer also fell; fellow officers quickly formed a ring around her, and she was led away in tears.

Lisa Fithian, a 40-year-old Los Angeles activist, was pepper sprayed, as was Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer. Ramsey lost his left shoe in a brief melee at 15th and H streets, where two arrests took place.

When demonstrators ended their march an hour later at Edward R. Murrow Park across from the World Bank and IMF, lines of police prevented them from leaving. The park soon became the scene of a sometimes-tense 90-minute standoff. Hundreds of police stood shoulder-to-shoulder surrounding the park.

Police officials said the tactic was used to cool off the crowd, but many who were detained said the action violated their rights. Protesters' nerves were on edge, and many sat down on the grass, while others started chants.

Attorneys for protest groups who were also detained began making plans to seek a hearing in federal court, while some protesters talked about why they were there.

"I wanted to send a signal to George Bush and Congress and the American people that everyone is not cowed into submission, not everyone is about unthinking vengeance," said Paul Sturtz, 37, of Columbia, Mo.

Others took things with a sense of humor. "We're actually thinking of ordering a pizza," said David Graeber, 40, a member of the New York Direct Action Network, who had cell phone in hand. At one point, a Baltimore man wearing a devil's mask and a clown nose, who said his name was Vermin Love Supreme, read sections of international law -- including Article 33 of the Geneva Convention -- through a bullhorn inches from a stern-faced line of police.

Police eventually negotiated with the group to march down H Street NW toward Freedom Plaza at 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW, where the second march was assembling at noon.

At that march, organized by a new anti-war, anti-racist coalition called International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War & End Racism), speakers addressed the crowd for three hours before thousands of protesters streamed down Pennsylvania Avenue NW.

Participants exchanged angry words with about 100 counter-demonstrators organized by a national conservative group, Free Republic, who had gathered at the National Archives. In the morning, former U.S. senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a Democrat from New York, had stopped by the counter-demonstration and urged participants to protest peacefully.

"Don't let there be a dust-up. Just let them know you're here," he said.

At the morning march, one counter-protester holding a sign reading, "Welcome Traitors," was spit on by demonstrators.

"I think it's a shame these people are out here," said the man, who gave his name only as Walter. "We need to stand together as a nation, but these people are mocking the 7,000 deaths. We should be mourning."

Not all bystanders were unsympathetic. Jeff Gorham, who was visiting from Richmond, said, "They're right to protest -- that's what makes this country great."

Police on horseback, bicycle, motorcycle and on foot and in vehicles were never far from the morning march, which proceeded to the beat of bongo drums as incense filled the air.

By 6 p.m., the two marches and the first day of protests were over, after a moment of silence and some impromptu dancing and drumming by one group at a fountain near the Capitol.

"It turned out well," Chief Ramsey said. "We could've done a lot more arrests there, but that's not our goal."

Earlier, as police escorted the morning marchers to Freedom Plaza, officers called to each other: "Keep your ranks; keep your ranks." Behind them, black-clad protesters with garbage lids said: "Hold it tight; link arms."

One protester, hearing the police, added, "Hey, they talk just like us."