WASHINGTON, D.C. — Five volunteers greeted buses from New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania as the group from Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) prepared for its peace rally at Freedom Plaza, two blocks southeast of the White House. Nearby, technicians mounted large bullhorn speakers onto scaffolding supports, while another group of volunteers assembled scores of signs reading, “War is not the answer,” “Defend Civil Liberties,” and “Remember the 9/11 victims. War will not bring our loved ones back.” In three hours, when the protest began, 7,000-10,000 people were expected.
“The idea for the day,” explained Joe Friendly, one of organizers of the ANSWER rally, “is to let the world know that there’s not that big a support for Bush’s militaristic policy.” This was a big day for the pro-peace movement. Three events — two marches and a rally — were planned for the day, September 29, eight days before the bombing campaign began, and the protesters knew that the polls indicated the country was in the mood for war.
Joe Friendly is in his fifties, was wearing a loose baseball cap, has a gray ponytail, and speaks with a serene voice. We talked by the side of the rally’s main stage, near several white cargo trucks with video equipment and satellites on telescopic poles.
“At this point,” said Joe, “I don’t think we can even trust the networks. On the radio this morning, we heard a poll that claimed 86% support for a war. We’re hoping to get the American public to begin to comprehend the magnitude of destruction that the U.S. has caused in countries around the world, and it may make us less willing to go to war.”
I asked Joe what sort of destruction he was talking about.
“I’m going to show some video later,” he said, motioning toward one of the trucks. “The American public has not seen the destruction we caused in Yugoslavia. That country underwent seventy-eight days of bombing. I was in Yugoslavia afterward, and you could see the cluster bomb markings on the streets; they have a characteristic radial pattern. They were all over the place. We dropped cluster bombs on hospitals, high schools, grammar schools.”
Joe told me that he planned to show footage of Iraqi cities and civilians during the Gulf War taped by cameraman Jon Alpert.
“NBC said they found his footage very impressive,” Joe said.
I asked Joe if he believed there was much greater destruction than was widely reported in the Gulf War.
“Right. NBC, who initially didn’t want Alpert to go, looked at the footage and decided to lead with it the following day. The next morning, at 2 a.m., a producer from NBC called Jon and said they weren’t going to run with it. The same thing happened the next day at CBS.”
All the peace protesters here roused counter-protesters. In front of the Navy Memorial, two blocks down the street from Freedom Plaza, twenty counter-protesters protested the peace protesters, supporting the Bush administration’s preparations for war. They carried signs that read, “Rally against terrorism, not your country,” “Welcome bin Laden fan club,” and “God Bless Prez Bush.”
“It takes a lot to rouse conservatives,” said a counter-protester named Mike. “But these protesters have done it.” Mike had on an N.R.A. baseball cap and, like several fellow counter-protesters, wore mirrored sunglasses. Mike was no-nonsense.
Protesting other protesters is something Mike has done before. “A friend and I crashed the Voter March on May 19 in front of the East Capitol steps,” said Mike as he nodded his head toward the Capitol, four blocks down Pennsylvania Avenue. “They protested the Bush administration, the election in November, and the Supreme Court’s decision. There were two of us against 1,200 of them.” Mike described walking through that crowd. “I was getting shoved around a lot. I had people say a lot of things that I can’t even say into your tape recorder here.”
“Why’d you go down there if it was two against 1,200?”
Mike said it was out of principle, he disagreed with the protesters’ contention that Bush had stolen the election.
“Do you expect any encounters with the protesters today?”
“I guarantee you that we’ll be vocal,” said Mike. “But we won’t be violent.”
A siren blared from down Pennsylvania Avenue, and I had to raise my voice to ask Mike if he could tell me what he thought the war would be like, when and if it started.
“I’m sure we’re taking action already,” Mike said. “There’ll be a lot of behind-the-scenes direct action against terrorists. Some we’ll never hear about. It’s like Bush outlined in his address to Congress and the nation: this is not going to be like people’s conception of a conventional war.”
I spoke with a very intent counter-protester going by the name Sauropod. Sauropod stands about 5’ 6", has dark brown hair and a slight belly.
“I think we need to respond to the September eleventh attacks,” he told me. “I disagree with the protesters. I think we should go in Afghanistan, do the hit on the terrorists, and get the heck out.”
I asked him if he’s concerned about additional innocent lives lost if the U.S. invades Afghanistan.
“I know an attack helicopter pilot,” Sauropod said. “He was involved in Somalia. He described stories of how Somali men would be shooting from behind women, underneath their arms, while a kid toted the ammo. Over in Afghanistan, when the Afghans were fighting the Russians, the men were vicious enough, but if you happened to be alive and wounded and left alive after a battle, after the men went off to fight somewhere else, the women would come out and they’d slit your stomach, then let you die by dehydration. Then they would mutilate the bodies.”
“But that’s a war mindset,” I suggested. “It makes people ruthless.”
Sauropod said, “The question is, ‘Is there such a thing as innocents?’”
I told him that I’m sure everyone in Afghanistan doesn’t slit open other people’s stomachs.
Sauropod looked at me. “If you are being shot at,” he said, “if you are in a firefight, and there are ten men and ten women in the street with some kids, five of the men have guns and are shooting at you from behind the women, and the other five don’t, how are you to know who’s shooting at you and who’s not? How can you make that decision in a split second? There is no way. There is no way.”
A police helicopter flew a few hundred feet overhead. I told Sauropod that polls say the American population overwhelmingly support a war.
“Well, the general public does not know what we’re facing in Afghanistan,” he said. “And that’s why I’m against the war.”
I was surprised. “Why are you here protesting the peace protesters if you’re against the war?”
“A military response is required, but not a war. I’m in favor of going after some select targets with special forces, but we don’t have any business putting another regime in power in Afghanistan.”
Had he lost anyone in the September 11 attacks?
“I had a friend who worked in the Pentagon who was killed in the attack. I worked with him for six months, and the announcement just came out for his services and all that.” Sauropod paused, then added, “This is personal now; I freely confess that.”
After I spoke with Sauropod, three peace protesters, two men and a woman, dressed in black, walked down Pennsylvania Avenue toward a nearby peace rally. The counter-protesters waved their signs at them. One of the pro-peace men flicked off the counter-protesters.
A counter-protester in a cap over his shoulder-length hair assumed the protesters were from Black Bloc, the militant World Trade/I.M.F. protest group. He shouted, “Black Bloc, go home!”
In response, the woman protester yelled, “What gives you the right to invade other countries?”
The counter-protester shouted after them, “Because we’re the baddest sons-of-bitches on the block!”
The Anti-Capitalist Convergence March was a mixture of self-proclaimed anarchists and peace activists. The anarchists were in their twenties and dressed predominately in black. Many wore bandanas tied around their faces. Originally, they planned to protest the World Bank and International Monetary Fund meetings that were to be held that weekend. When the meetings were canceled, the protesters expanded their message to include peace. Among the anarchists were older members of the D.C. community, peace marchers in their forties and fifties.
At the front of the march, protesters carried a banner that read, “Anti-Capitalists Against War, Racism, Terror, and Poverty.” A man played a xylophone on a wheeled contraption decorated with bones. Marchers carried a coffin that listed numbers of dead caused by recent atrocities, including the September 11 attacks. All the numbers were in the thousands. Drummers drummed drums, bongos, and empty water cooler jugs. A woman danced while shaking a fistful of lit incense sticks in time to the drums and the xylophone. Protesters, about 1,500 in all, carried papier mbchi doves and skeletons. Marchers whooped, and chanted, “United! We’ll never be defeated!” They carried signs: “Stop military violence,” and “Want peace? Work for justice.”
Police officers in riot gear marched along the sides of the parade. Each officer wore black boots, a shielded helmet, padded body protection, and a utility belt with a gun, night stick, communicator, and a gas mask slung in a pouch.
After a block of marching, an older protester in a pink shirt left the march by passing through the row of police, and joined me on the sidewalk. As we walked beside the march, she told me her name was Debra.
I asked her why she was marching.
“I think Americans don’t really know what to do in response to the terrorist attacks. There are those who want to go to war, but I think most aren’t sure.”
What did she think we should do?
“I think our administration should seriously talk with world leaders. Everyone says that things changed on September 11. No, they didn’t. The world hasn’t changed. This attack didn’t come out of nowhere. America and Americans have always considered themselves isolated from the rest of the world. We’re going to have to integrate and engage in conversations with Pakistan, Afghanistan, and other Middle Eastern countries.”
Police cruisers trailed after the marchers, keeping pace with them. Sirens sounded from cruisers on nearby streets. Unlike other protest marches and rallies planned this weekend, the Anti-Capitalist Convergence hadn’t obtained a permit to march the streets, causing delays as the police held the march at intersections while other officers stopped traffic to allow them to pass.
At a stop in the parade, I talked to a young protester in a loose-fitting blue shirt who told me his name was Justin.
Justin said he was marching because, “I just believe in peace.” He said this slowly, enunciating every syllable. I tried to come up with something to say, but I didn’t know what to say about Justin’s sweet worldview. He said, “I think we should just be peaceful.”
I told Justin I thought that sounded great, and although I said it genuinely, and I meant it, because who, after all, wouldn’t prefer peace to war, my response seemed inaccurate, as if I was just saying it to be polite. Everything wasn’t going to just be peaceful. I knew that. Maybe Justin did, too.
After a few blocks, I worked my way to the front of the march, where Charles Ramsey, chief of the Metropolitan Police Department of the District of Columbia, led the march. Ramsey, unlike his officers, wasn’t in riot gear.
A protester who marched next to him asked, “Can you confirm, Chief Ramsey, that when you were our age you were in anti-capitalist groups?”
Ramsey chuckled. “I didn’t know there was such a thing when I was your age.”
“Chief Ramsey,” asked a man with a legal observer badge, “will you lead the protesters to the World Bank and I.M.F. buildings?”
Chief Ramsey said, “If that’s where they want to go, we’ll escort them there.”
On the west side of Chinatown, on H Street, a curly-haired protester on a unicycle dropped a gas mask from his backpack. A policewoman stooped to pick up the mask and then marched off with it. “Hey!” the unicyclist said. He tried to follow her, but there were too many people to turn around quickly on his unicycle. He looked angry, then said, “Whatever,” and rode off in the direction opposite of the march.
A moment later, the protesters started running. The officers on foot kept pace with the marchers, and slow-moving police vehicles at the front of the march were overrun. For the next fifteen seconds, the protest march looked like a 5k run, except with anti-capitalism banners, anarchists, and riot police.
Then the pace slowed. The police cars that the protesters had overrun moved slowly through the heart of the march, their sirens on. The march stopped and protesters moved aside, except for one guy with lamb chop sideburns, who stood his ground in front of a police car. The car nudged his leg, and he barely kept his balance. Looking for support from fellow marchers, he held his arms up imploringly, as if to say, “What’re the police going to do to me?” Another protester ran to the car, pounding his fists on the hood. Someone shouted, “Everybody should just get in front of the cars.”
Someone nearby banged a rhythm on a plastic water-cooler jug. A man chanted, “United! We’ll never be defeated!” But everything was too frenzied for a chant, and no one else picked it up. Another man yelled “Peace!”
A police SUV drove up beside the cruiser. An officer leaned out of the passenger side window with a seltzer bottle-sized container of pepper spray. He sprayed the protester with the lamb chop sideburns and sprayed two other protesters who ran toward the SUV.
People swarmed the cars. A protester in black swung a sign over his head, as if he was chopping wood. I couldn’t tell whom or what he hit.
A woman shouted for a medic. Police motorcycles roared through the march. They stopped near the police car. Officers throttled their motorcycle engines. A protester recited the Nuremberg Principles through a bullhorn. A police officer was knocked down. Other officers formed a circle around her. After a few more seconds of chaos, the situation calmed. The fallen officer was led away, EMTs tended to protesters, and the parade proceeded.
The march passed a building that was under construction. Three workers in hard hats watched the parade from behind a window on the second floor. An American flag hung in the window next to them. Ten to fifteen protesters waved up at the workers or flashed peace signs. The workers looked surprised, pointed to the flag, and flashed ‘V’ signs back at the protesters. The protesters cheered. The workers didn’t know whom they were supporting, exactly, but they supported America.
The police stopped the march at the corner of 19th and H Streets, in front of the World Bank building, near Edward R. Murrow Park. The World Bank building seemed like a logical stopping point.
I was idling off to the side, going through my notebooks and preparing to talk to some more counter-protesters, maybe making a return trip to Freedom Plaza, when an older man with long, pony-tailed silver hair and a lit pipe approached me. “The police won’t let us leave,” he said.
I said it looked as if they were just stopping the marchers.
“No,” he said. “I mean anyone. You, me, anyone.”
Lines of police officers had surrounded the entire square.
“No one can leave,” the man said. He was agitated. “It’s illegal,” he said. “I can’t believe they’re doing this. They did the same thing last year during the I.M.F./World Bank protests. They just rounded up big groups and took them to jail.”
Police buses and large vans arrived on the scene. Additional police officers exited the buses and marched single-file to join the blockade around the park. But after joining the other officers, nothing happened.
Nothing happened for a long time.
I went over to talk to a policeman at the end of a blockade line, to see about leaving the area.
“Can I get out?” I asked.
The policeman, a stocky, strong-looking man, pretended not to hear me.
“Is there any way out?”
He looked to my side as he mumbled, “I don’t know about that.”
“Who could tell me?”
He nodded toward one of the other lines of police that looked exactly like the one he was part of. Just for a second, he looked in my eyes. “Maybe someone at one of the other areas,” he said.
“Are you going to arrest us all?” I asked.
“I don’t know about that.”
As I walked away, a policeman inside the line asked the officer I’d just spoken with, “Do you want to switch spots?”
Most of the protesters were gathered on the eastern side of the park. Some waved their banners, some banged drums or empty water jugs, and some played soccer. A woman twirled a baton. People chatted. Some wrote messages in chalk — “Work for peace” and “Police state” — on the sidewalk and street.
Non-protesters sat on benches on the western side of the square. Some were homeless people who had the bad luck of being in the park when the barricade formed.
In the middle of the park, I met a protester named Stacy sitting on a curb beneath a wide tree.
I asked her what she thought the police were doing.
“I think they’re just trying to keep us here all day, so we don’t run amok in the city.”
Did the blockade make her nervous?
“I guess police in riot gear penning us in generally make me nervous, but I think they’ll just keep us here until they’re bored silly, and we’re bored silly.”
I walked over to the western side of the park, where a couple of tourists from Queens sat on benches, away from the protesters. As one spoke on his cell phone, I asked the other what they were doing in D.C.
“We came to see the Pentagon.”
I hadn’t seen it yet, and asked him what he saw.
“It’s terrible. It looks completely different in person than on TV.”
I asked him if he’d been near the World Trade Center.
He had. “It’s terrible” was all he said.
We spoke about what most people talk about now when they talk about the attacks. We talked about the destruction, the loss of lives. It was terrible, we agreed. We spoke of how we didn’t know how to respond, exactly, though we wanted some kind of response.
After a ninety-minute blockade, the police on the western side of the park closed in. Lines of policemen marched in short, deliberate steps, thrusting their night sticks forward. They chanted, “Back! Back!”
In no time, they divided the square in half, then squeezed the protest march back down H Street, and directed them, under heavy supervision, toward Freedom Plaza. There were more scuffles and a couple of arrests by the time the Anti-Capitalist Conversion march joined the ANSWER event.
At a parking area two blocks north of the Capitol, protesters tired from the first march changed socks and ate snacks from backpacks or coolers stored in their cars.
Two protesters in jeans and tank-tops spoke with four U.S. Park Police officers in full-body riot gear. A protester asked why her gas mask was confiscated in the parade. “It’s not illegal to have one,” she said.
A very friendly, young officer said, “I assume yours was taken because if a riot broke out, and the police had to use tear gas and everyone had masks on, it would take things to another level. If you guys were still standing because of your gas masks after the police shot tear gas, they’d have had to fire rubber bullets to get everyone under control.” The officer motioned toward the other officers to indicate their like-mindedness. “No one wants to do that.”
The protesters didn’t say anything.
“I may disagree with you and your opinion,” said the officer. “I’m not even sure what your opinions are — but I’d do everything I can to defend you.”
The protester said, “I’d do the same for you.”
The reconciliation seemed to satisfy everyone, and they said their goodbyes. The protesters went to their car for food, and the police officers stood and patrolled.
On Pennsylvania Avenue, police cruisers patrolled, and rows of police rode Harleys, in preparation for the second protest march of the day. A police helicopter hovered above. There were sirens and helicopter noise. Police in riot gear moved into formation in single-file lines, to stand along the sides of the avenue. In fifteen minutes, the ANSWER rally was scheduled to mobilize for its march from Freedom Plaza down Pennsylvania Avenue, past the counter-protesters, to the Capitol.