I could tell right away this wasn’t going to be your average Washington D.C. anti-war protest.
For months, the anti-war coalition International A.N.S.W.E.R. had been publicizing its plans to hold a major anti-war rally in the nation’s capital on Saturday, March 17. However, reaching the protest staging site next to the Lincoln Memorial at 11:00 — an hour before the protestors were slated to begin marching to the Pentagon — I found the field nearly empty. Across the street stood several thousand counter-demonstrators, mostly comprised of Vietnam War veterans associated with various biker clubs. Wearing leather jackets emblazoned with organization names like “Rolling Thunder,” “Legacy Vets,” and “Combat Veterans of America Motorcycle Club,” the vets had turned out to stand guard at the Vietnam Wall and other monuments after some sites were desecrated at an anti-war rally in January. The vets were a grizzled, tough-looking lot, and their presence seemed to surprise the handful of Chinese tourists snapping photos in the area.
Across the street, the war protestors were arriving late with their usual collection of Che Guevara banners, placards decrying American imperialism, and bizarre signs denouncing the 9/11 attacks as a government-orchestrated conspiracy. Some tables were set up offering books and pamphlets advocating socialism while a few enterprising capitalists worked the crowd, briskly selling T-shirts commemorating the march. As they arrived, the protestors were entertained by a DJ who, we were informed over the loudspeakers, was from Puerto Rico – “the first country invaded by the U.S.” He played the Edwin Starr protest classic “War (What is it good for?)” several dozen times, it seemed, then launched into James Brown’s “I’m Black and I’m Proud,” as the mostly white crowd sang along.
Eventually, around 15,000 protestors arrived — appearing to me about the same number as attended the January anti-war rally..This must have been a severe disappointment to A.N.S.W.E.R., which had drawn upwards of 100,000 people to previous protests. The poor turnout at this year’s rallies can largely be attributed to a schism between A.N.S.W.E.R. and the other main anti-war coalition, United for Peace and Justice. The two groups used to sponsor these rallies together, but have recently ceased cooperating.
Their dispute stems from two factors. First, there was some squabbling over the amount of time given to each group’s speakers at past rallies — a surprising bit of selfishness from people who drive cars with bumper stickers proclaiming that everything they need to know they learned in kindergarten. Second, there was a disagreement over the Israel-Palestine issue. Apparently, A.N.S.W.E.R.’s position is that the Jews should be driven into the sea, while UPJ, being slightly more moderate, seeks to convince the Jews through peaceful dialogue to throw themselves in.
Before setting off for the Pentagon, the war protestors were addressed by a few speakers. The veterans watched quietly from just across the street until Cindy Sheehan was introduced. Even before she denounced President Bush as “the greatest terrorist in the world,” the mention of Sheehan’s name elicited from the vets a rigorous round of booing the likes of which is rarely heard outside the confines of a Philadelphia Eagles home game.
Finally, the march began. It was a motley collection of organizations and interest groups. The parade was led by a collection of anti-war military veterans, followed by the radical feminists of Code Pink. Then came a group of “drummers” who were really just banging sticks on the bottom of some empty pails, succeeded by the mandatory contingent of masked anarchists. Further back were lots of hippie-throwbacks, a good number of college students, some refugee from an anarchist rodeo twirling a lasso around himself, and a variety of people waving Lebanese and Palestinian flags. There were a few American flags as well, although nearly all of these were defaced with peace signs, political slogans, or sardonic renditions of corporate symbols.
The counter-demonstrators lined the first few hundred yards of the parade route, sometimes on both sides. Waving American flags, the vets gave the marchers a generally good heckling; “Go impress your professors!” was my favorite epithet. Despite their fetish for the right to “dissent,” the war protestors are unaccustomed to opposition, aside perhaps from a lone College Republican or two that might show up with an American flag at a campus protest. But these counter-demonstrators were different. They were combat veterans who still bristle at the memory of being jeered by these kinds of radicals when they returned from Vietnam. The marchers seemed not only nervous, but even ashamed — to prove their patriotism to the vets, they began chanting “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” This was probably the first time that chant has ever been heard at an anti-war rally.
I fell in with the anarchists, since that’s where the action usually is. There were around 100 of them, although the number of face piercings exceeded that by a factor of 10, even with most of their nose rings and tongue rings hidden by masks and bandanas. Their banners proclaimed slogans like “Destroy all government” and “No war but class war.” The vets yelled out to them “Come over here!” and “Show your faces!” Declining either invitation, the anarchists responded by chanting “Whose streets? Our streets!”
But the chant lacked conviction, seeing as the only thing protecting the anarchists from a smackdown by the vets was the line of police officers separating the two sides. I spotted a group of four anarchists carrying an upside down American flag and wondered how far they’d get with it. It turned out to be about 50 yards. Then, a vet managed to infiltrate the parade and snatched the flag from them, causing all four members of the revolutionary vanguard to run scurrying away.
After parading through this gauntlet of counter-protestors, the rest of the march was pretty subdued. I walked back toward a portable loudspeaker surrounded by Palestinian flags. A speaker was leading a chant of “Stop bombing Lebanon!”, which I found strange, since no one is bombing Lebanon. The chanting stopped when the microphone was passed to a Middle Eastern woman whose accent was so thick that no one could understand what they were supposed to be protesting. Finally, they agreed on singing another refrain of “War,” which seemed to be their automatic fallback position for almost any unexpected situation.
We arrived at the Pentagon parking lot, where a DJ was again playing “War.” I couldn’t take the song anymore, so I wandered off in search of the anarchists. I found them at the end of a bridge leading to the Pentagon itself. They were facing a line of police officers in full riot gear, replete with gas masks. “Whose streets? Our streets!” rang out again, but it was pretty clear whose streets these were, since the anarchists weren’t allowed to keep marching forward on them.
The police announced through a bullhorn that they’d use teargas if the protestors didn’t return to the parking lot. In response, a female-looking anarchist in dreadlocks yelled out to me and some other reporters nearby, asking if we’d help get the word out that the police, without cause, had gassed peaceful protestors. “No!” I instinctively yelled back, eliciting some shocked stares from the anarchists. Another anarchist approached us and asked if we’d stand between them and the police to prevent the cops from “attacking” them. He pointed to one elderly female reporter: “You ma’am, if you get in the middle, there’s no way the police will knock you over.” The request caught me off guard — I was unaware that old women are used as human shields anywhere outside of the Middle East.
The group sat down in front of the police to decide what to do. Some people passed out food, at which point most of the anarchists removed their masks and bandanas to eat, then put them back on when they had finished. My respect for this bunch was rapidly declining.
They took a series of votes, decided to leave the bridge to the police, and backed off about 20 yards. Then, in one final act of “resistance” before vacating the bridge, one of them burned an American flag, to the cheers of all the rest. This incident went unreported in all of the mainstream media, despite the presence on the bridge of numerous journalists and photographers.
Walking home, I reflected on what the anti-war movement has degenerated into — a squabbling collection of aging socialists, pro-Palestinian militants, and cowardly anarchists. The Vietnam vets — who were there just to protect our monuments and show support for the troops — had a surprising effect on the protestors. “Fight back! Fight back!” was one of the protestors’ slogans. But it was all talk. When confronted by people who actually fought and bled for their country, the protestors grew sheepish and embarrassed — I would even say humiliated.
I couldn’t help but notice that the anarchists – the supposed hardcore fringe of the movement – waited until they were safely out of range of the veterans to burn a flag. Afraid of the vets, afraid of the cops, they don’t seem to be good for much other than occasionally smashing storefront windows when there’s no one else around.
“Whose streets? Our streets!”, they chanted. Not on Saturday they weren’t.