Washington, DC; Sept. 25, 2005 – Kicking off three days of actions aimed ultimately at pressuring the US government to pull troops out of Iraq, scores of protesters converged on Washington, DC yesterday for an all-day protest that included an array of speakers, a march past the White House and a concert that lasted well into the early morning hours. Estimates of the demonstrationâ€™s size ranged from 100,000 to 300,000 protesters.
Participants from across the country spent long hours riding overnight on buses and in caravans to take part in the largest anti-war event the nationâ€™s capitol has seen since the Vietnam War era. Groups began assembling on the Ellipse in front of the White House early yesterday.
In preparation for the event, police blanketed the Ellipse, Federal Triangle and the grounds of the Washington Monument with a confusing maze of orange-plastic and wooden fences, closing many roads to both automobile and pedestrian traffic.
Billed by organizers as a rally and march to end the war on Iraq, a variety of groups and causes were represented both by speakers on the stage and in the crowd. Orators and demonstrators alike highlighted the interconnectedness of their causes, and it was clear that different issues had spurred people to attend the protest, though the message was overwhelmingly anti-war.
â€œIraq has slipped onto the backburner and we felt compelled to do something.â€ --Laurie Sargent, musician, protester
Ruiz Santiago, 21, a Bronx, New York native studying politics at City College in New York tied his familyâ€™s experience in Colombia to the Iraq war.
"Colombia is being used, by companies and Bushâ€™s friends, for money, just like Iraq," he said. "The companies and the private military â€“ they all donâ€™t care about the poor people in Colombia, they just let them die. It is, I think, worse in Iraq because nobody is in charge."
Santiago said this was the first time he visited Washington, and the second time he had participated in a protest, the first being the counter-convention during the Republican Partyâ€™s gathering in New York City last September. The enormity of that crowd and the variety of events and people participating there had inspired Santiago to become active in political causes, he said.
The march, which was scheduled to begin at 12:30 p.m., did not step off until after 1 oâ€™clock, due to the mass of participants. Shortly before 2 p.m., with marchers having made little forward progress, an event organizer told the crowd filling the Ellipse and lining Constitution Avenue that logistical problems at the front, owing to the number of people in attendance, was keeping the march from rolling.
â€œItâ€™s great to come out and see the diversity of people, the diversity of ideas and the goodwill being represented here.â€ --Tim Thomas, union activist
Saturday's demonstrations were spearheaded by a pair of anti-war coalitions, International ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice, though local groups and unaffiliated activists from around the country pitched in to pull off the massive undertaking.
Some demonstrators carried signs and banners addressing economic causes, such as advocating for the victims of Hurricane Katrina and tenants rights. A large contingent marched under the banner of US Labor Against War. The idea that the Bush administrationâ€™s military ventures are draining much-needed resources on the domestic front was well-represented.
Joan from Baltimore, MD, who originally supported the Iraq war, was attending her first peace demonstration. "This hurricane put me over the edge," she said. "Why are we using the troops in Iraq when we have enough to do in our own country?" She continued: "I thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. I thought they were a threat, but we had bad information."
Angela Kelly, who works with Student Peace Action Network, a DC-based group that organizes around anti-war and human rights issues, said, "A lot of students who are plugging into counter-recruitment efforts realize that itâ€™s poor people that are being targeted by recruiters and forced into the military." She added, "Katrina has brought a lot of economic justice and racial issues to the forefrontâ€¦, and it adds fire to our movement."
Glen Sandberg, a long-time peace activist, organized a group to come from his home in Gulf Port, Mississippi, where much of the area was destroyed by Katrina. "The way Bush handled the Katrina disaster was another disaster," he said.
I hope people learned about things they didnâ€™t know about before and gain a better sense of awareness and that people go home and do outreach and organizing work.â€ --Tatiana Lam, high-school student, activist
Diane Spencer marched with the US Labor Against War contingent. "Seeing all these people today, this is great," she said. "Maybe weâ€™ll get somewhere out of this. Maybe all these diverse groups coming together means more than what we see in our own cities and towns," Spencer added, noting that, at the very least, the size of national convergence should encourage local groups to be more active.
Spencer and her cohort Tim Thomas had traveled to Washington on one of two buses from Chicago chartered by three area unions, Service Employees International Union Locals 4 and 20 and United Auto Workers Local 550. Neither protester had previously been very involved in activism outside of union efforts, they said.
"Itâ€™s great to come out and see the diversity of people, the diversity of ideas and the goodwill being represented here," Thomas told The NewStandard. "After seeing and being a part of this, weâ€™re definitely going to go back and do more anti-war and anti-Bush organizing locally. I think that with labor working with all these other groups to end this war and call the President to account, things can get done."
Kermit Leibensperger, who works two jobs as an electrician and teacher and has been an activist since 1967, is already looking toward the next protest, one he believes will allow people to participate wherever they live, instead of limiting action only to those who can travel for large protests in faraway cities. He is helping organize a nationwide "Rosa Parks Anniversary Strike" against poverty, racism and war on December 1.
"If everyone came who wanted to come to this protest, there would be millions here today," Leibensperger said.
"Iraq has slipped onto the backburner and we felt compelled to do something," said Laurie Sargent, a musician from New Hampshire who was part of "Testy Goyls," a group of mothers, teachers and friends who had banded together for peace vigils and Democratic fundraisers in their home town to protest the Iraq war.
"We had goose bumps all the way down on our trip to DC," said Gail Erdos Belmon, also a member of the group.
The Matriots, from Western Massachusetts, were dressed up in colorful wigs, clothing and jewelry. Group member Sarah Acker explained: "Weâ€™re mothers and feminists and we didnâ€™t raise our children to be killed in a war. We want to bring the mother-woman balance to the male-dominated world."
The slogan of group, painted on a large sign they carried, declared, "We want for the world what mothers want for their kids."
Tatiana Lam is a high-school student and anti-war organizer who does counter recruitment work in schools. "I hope people learned about things they didnâ€™t know about before," she said, "and gain a better sense of awareness and that people go home and do outreach and organizing work."
Along the March route, two members of the National War Tax Resisters Coordinating Committee stood in front of the Internal Revenue Service calling on people to stop supporting the US war machine.
"Watch your pockets, folks, youâ€™re passing the IRS," Daniel Woodham, of Greensboro, North Carolina, called as marchers neared the end of the route. He and a colleague, Rob Randall, both of Brunswick, Georgia, handed out flyers directing people to a website with detailed information on war-tax resistance.
A handful of counter-protesters showed up along the route, but they were barely noticeable among the throngs of anti-war activists. Jeremiah Baldwin, of the Open Air Gospel Ministry in Jacksonville, Florida said, "We support the war and the troops and freedom in Iraq, freedom for women to voteâ€¦ weâ€™re Christians and we stand up for Jesus, too."
Mobilization for Global Justice, an organization of activists demanding an end to the World Bank and IMFâ€™s economic policies, organized a feeder march from Dupont Circle under the banner, "Another World is Under Construction." The feeder march, scheduled to leave Dupont circle at 12:30, met up with the main anti-war demonstration later in the afternoon.
Participants made the connection between the Iraq war and the policies of the World Bank and the IMF, which are actively involved in transforming modern Iraq. Virginia Setsheti of the Anti-Privatization Forum in South Africa told InterPress Service, "It is not just about war. It is about how many people die around the world because of unfair policies and actions â€“ a large part of which are economic. "
Law enforcement officials declined to provide official crowd estimates but DC Police Chief Charles Ramsey noted that organizers had probably met their goal of attracting 100,000 people to the event. Organizers put the number at about 300,000. The spread-out nature of the demonstration made a crowd estimate difficult.
Today, organizers planned interfaith services, town hall-style meetings, workshops and vigils. With politicians scheduled to be working in the nationâ€™s capitol Monday, groups are planning non-violent direct action and lobbying.