September 15, the day of International ANSWER’s antiwar protest/“die-in” in the capital, started out calmly enough. But it didn’t end that way.
It began with a pro-troops rally sponsored by the Gathering of Eagles. This was the group that organized thousands of people, mostly Vietnam Vets, to come to the ANSWER rally last March and heckle the bejeezus out of the surprised antiwar protestors marching to the Pentagon. This time, several hundred Eagles were gathered on the mall, waving American flags, singing patriotic songs, and cheering speeches that praised U.S. soldiers and ridiculed the protestors. It was not yet 10 a.m., and hardly any ANSWER activists were to be seen. A funny thing about these D.C. rallies and counter-rallies is that the pro-American side always turns out early, while the leftists can never seem to get anything organized before noon.
Eventually I wandered off to a pre-rally “women’s convergence” sponsored by the antiwar feminists of Code Pink. Around 50 people gathered in front of a little stage on Pennsylvania Avenue. The small crowd was comprised of pink-clad women of various ages along with a few shamefaced men. Having clearly been dragged there against their will by their activist wives, I noticed that the men generally avoided making eye contact with one another. An elderly woman on stage strummed an acoustic guitar and belted out something that sounded like a rightwing parody of a feminist folk song: “Women of birthing; Women of dying; Gather the women; Let the circle begin,” she cooed. I’ve heard some bad music at antiwar protests, but this was by far the worst. I quickly fled the scene.
I walked to Lafayette Park, next to the White House, where hundreds of people were milling around waiting for the main rally to begin. It was easy to identify this as an antiwar gathering by the giant upside down American flag waving just next to the White House fence. As more protestors appeared, I saw other upside down American flags, flags being worn like capes, and flags with peace signs, dollar signs, bombs, and corporate symbols drawn on them. About the only flags that weren’t defaced in some way were the Palestinian ones.
At the site, I spotted the usual mix of “Che lives” buttons and “Impeach Cheney First” posters. There was also a giant banner proclaiming 9/11 to be an inside job. Next to it, bearing a message that was even more unhinged, was a man with a T-shirt proclaiming “Kucinich in 2008.”
Speakers addressed the crowd with some boilerplate antiwar cant. Cindy Sheehan, who just a few months ago announced her “resignation” as a political activist, made her inevitable triumphant return, declaring yet again that her son Casey had been “murdered in Iraq by Bush and the neocons.” I thought it best to allow her to grieve in peace. So I left the stage area and wandered around the crowd a bit, eventually happening upon a group of around 30 anarchists. Dressed in their trademark black clothes and black sunglasses, with bandanas wrapped around their faces, they were huddled close together discussing their strategy for the march. I snapped a photo, provoking a number of them to insist that I refrain from taking their picture. Here was a group of 30 people in a public park, at a nationally-publicized political march, dressed up like kids trying to look like bank robbers on Halloween, telling me they don’t want their picture taken. Offended, I snapped a few more photos purely out of spite. Then I moved on.
The protestors, around 8,000 in all, soon lined up in marching formation. But there was some major organizational problem, and they remained in place for over an hour before setting out for the Capitol. Once the march began, it got about two blocks before organizers temporarily halted it, informing us through bullhorns that we had to allow large groups to catch up who were still back at Lafayette Park, unaware that the march had begun. I was mystified how so many people failed to notice thousands of banner-waving, drum playing, chanting protestors leave their vicinity.
The rest of the march was equally disorganized. The massive lead banner, stretching around 40 feet across the width of the protest, ripped in half, hindering the lead protestors’ efforts to hold a straight line. Then they had to endure a three-block stretch that was lined with around a thousand flag-waving, pro-American counter-protestors.
The marchers at first tried to ignore the interlopers, but their self-control always seemed to break down right around the guy who was singing into a bullhorn “All we are saaaying, is give soap a chance.” Some heated exchanges ensued, but the cops maintained order and the marchers eventually arrived at the Capitol.
They stopped at a wall, about waist-high, that separates the Capitol steps from a large field split by a walkway. Behind the wall stood a line of dozens of cops, some in riot gear. Sensing some action was about to break out, I rudely shoved my way to the wall. I was joined in the front row mostly by other, equally uncouth reporters, none us caring one iota about basic manners when a big story seemed about to break.
It was at this point that the “die-in” commenced. Hundreds of protestors lay down and, I suppose, pretended to be dead. I think the spectacle was somehow supposed to help end the Iraq War. After all, nothing conveys the dignity and solemnity of a noble cause like a “die-in” does.
ANSWER had billed the die-in stunt as a major act of civil disobedience. But, in fact, it was nothing of the sort. The cops were behind the wall, and they couldn’t care less if the protestors on the other side were standing up or lying down. The reporters looked bored and disillusioned. I lit a disappointment cigarette.
I think it was the desire to redeem themselves after the embarrassment of the die-in that caused the protestors to turn militant. They stood up, pushed toward the wall, and chanted aggressive slogans at the cops. “Who do you protect, who do you serve?” they demanded. At several points along the wall, the cops pulled over and arrested a few belligerent protestors. The crowd booed the police and cheered their detained comrades. The anarchists pushed their way to the front.
Then, one at a time, around a dozen antiwar veterans of the Iraq War jumped over the wall. The cops grabbed them as they went over, cuffed them with flexicuffs, and marched them away. Emboldened, other protestors hopped the wall. Soon, the cops had scores of protestors lined up, with their hands tied, waiting to be carted off to jail. A kind of collective frenzy overtook the crowd. Old women from Code Pink went over the wall. College kids jumped over. At times there were so many of them that they were left to mill around for a few minutes before an officer became available to cuff them. Altogether, I’d say around 150 protestors were arrested.
The police showed great restraint. When older protestors or women went over, the cops offered their hand and gently assisted them down off the wall. But after about an hour of this, the cops had had enough. They began pushing back would-be wall jumpers with their riot shields. Then, when two young men danced a little too long for the crowd on top of the wall, the police hit them with pepper spray. Blinded and choking, they went over the wall anyway. A protestor taunted the cops, yelling “Ha-ha, they won.” I suppose if you define “winning” as getting gassed and arrested, then yes, the two men won.
The anarchists really disappointed me. None of them jumped the wall. They portray themselves as the most militant wing of the antiwar movement, but they didn’t even have the guts displayed by the Code Pink grandmas. The anarchists claim to want a revolution, but apparently not a single one of them is willing to risk a misdemeanor arrest to achieve that glorious goal. Instead, they sufficed with yelling a lot of slogans about class war at the cops. This was ironic, seeing as the anarchists were almost certainly all college kids, while the cops were about the only working class people in the entire crowd.
And in the end, what had the protestors achieved? Not much, it seems to me. I asked a cop about the fate of those arrested. He told me they’d be processed and then released, probably spending no more than a few hours in a holding cell. The entire spectacle was really just a kind of performance art, acted out for the benefit of a gullible media that laps up these exhibitions and presents them to the nation as if they reflect some meaningful social current.
There have been several antiwar protests in Washington this year, each one smaller than its predecessor. Unable to attract large crowds, the movement is forced to resort to more provocative displays to grab the media’s attention. The next antiwar demonstration will take place in Washington just two weeks from now. Amidst even more hype and hysteria, look for around 500 people to show up and march naked to the Capitol.