Send in the Clowns: Antiwar Protestors in the Streets of DC

Coming on the heels of the Winter Soldier retread that once again portrayed U.S. soldiers as bloodthirsty maniacs, antiwar protestors converged on Washington D.C. this week for another major antiwar protest. At least, that’s what the organizers promised to deliver.

The protests kicked off on Tuesday night with “Sound the Alarm” at Union Station. This demonstration was modeled after “Frozen Grand Central,” a piece of performance art carried out at Grand Central Station in January. The idea is that a large group of people suddenly freeze in place, in the middle of a busy train station, for five minutes.

If you’ve seen the YouTube clip of “Frozen Grand Central,” then you know that it was actually pretty cool. Bemused commuters walked through a maze of over 200 people frozen like statues. One bewildered man gingerly approached one of the participants and nervously poked her to see if she was a real person.

“Sound the Alarm,” in contrast, was a flop. When you flood a train station with several hundred participants, something like this works well. But when you can barely get a dozen people, which was the case with the war protestors, it’s not as impressive. In fact, with such a poor turnout, it’s doubtful that anyone would have even realized a demonstration was taking place if not for the swarming horde of reporters and photographers, who outnumbered the demonstrators by at least 2-1. Halfway through the performance, another insignificant handful of people joined the demonstration. However, it was difficult to tell whether the newcomers were late-arriving protestors or tourists who wanted to join one of those “happenings” that they read about in the big city.

The protestors didn’t seem too serious. Additionally, after seeing a few of them finish the performance and walk straight into The Body Shop, I had to question their commitment to overthrowing capitalism.

The following day was the major protest day. United for Peace and Justice, Code Pink, and assorted leftist groups decided on a new strategy. Attendance at the major antiwar marches on the mall has fallen dramatically over the past year, and marchers seemed in danger of being outnumbered by their own giant paper mache puppets. So this time, organizers decided to fan out across the city in small groups, which gives the impression of larger numbers.

A few members of Code Pink attract a swarm of photojournalists at the IRS building.

The first action was a blockade aiming to shut down the IRS building. The protestors had finally adopted a goal I could sympathize with, but my wishes for their success went unfulfilled. Around ten demonstrators jumped police barricades and sat down in front of the main entrance, while about fifteen sat down at the side entrance. A small crowd of supporters cheered them at both locations, but again, most of the action came from the legion of news photographers jostling with each to get the best shots. The police gave the protestors around a half hour, then picked them up and marched them off to a paddy wagon. The IRS remained in business, dashing my hopes to further delay paying my taxes this year.

Heading up toward the business offices on K street, I caught up with a group of around ten protesters. Some were dressed in suits, which immediately struck a discordant note, since antiwar protestors never wear suits. It turned out the group was dressed up as “war profiteers.” They carried around handfuls of fake dollars and chanted sardonic slogans such as “Five more years for Bush” and “More blood for oil.” Leftwing demonstrators often try to employ humor, but it hardly ever works. They believe that they live in an irredeemably racist country whose government slaughters masses of people for the benefit of Halliburton, and this philosophy just isn’t conducive to a lively sense of humor. But the “war profiteers,” I have to admit, were pretty funny.

Most protesters spent the rest of the afternoon wandering the streets in small groups, stopping in front of various corporate offices to chant slogans. Whenever separate groups would happen upon each other, the chance meeting would elicit ecstatic cheering, as if both groups had successfully circumnavigated the globe.

There was a brief rally in front of a military recruiting center, where protesters chanted “Hell no, we won’t go.” While it’s always nice to recycle the old hippy clichés, it wasn’t entirely appropriate here; since we now have a volunteer military, the protesters aren’t actually being forced — or even asked — to go anywhere. At another gathering, a couple began passionately kissing, stoking a chant of “Make love, not war.” The decrepit spirit of the 1960s lingered over everything.

The demonstrators’ main activity was blocking busy intersections. Curiously, in most instances, the police allowed the protestors to station themselves in the middle of the street and chant, sing, and dance until they got bored and moved on. At one intersection, a group of six demonstrators dressed up like ghosts sat down in an intersection and chained their arms together with some kind of hard tubing. Traffic was halted for close to an hour, until some cops arrived with drills and boltcutters and pried the demonstrators apart. Afterward, the officers walked the ghosts to the sidewalk and simply let them go.

Two officers discuss what to do with the ghosts.

The cops’ remarkable restraint, however, did not earn them much goodwill. The rare occasions when cops picked up a sit-down demonstrator from the middle of an intersection would provoke indignant cries of “Police brutality!” from other protestors. The cops would deposit the demonstrator on the sidewalk and then walk away, often to a cacophony of oinking noises from the outraged witnesses.

Similar events took place throughout the day. A group of antiwar military veterans marched to the American Indian Museum, the White House, and the National Archives. I gave that march a miss, since I’ve already been through those sites. I did, however, catch a glimpse of the “Knitting Grannies,” a group of old ladies who sat in lawn chairs and knitted “stump socks” ostensibly meant for disfigured soldiers. A number of supporters stopped at the site and chanted “Go Gran-NEES, Go Gran-NEES, Go Gran-NEES.” The grannies flashed them peace signs while I suppressed an incredible urge to heave.

A lot of police stand and watch protesters block traffic.

After a rainstorm chased most of the demonstrators off the street, I began contemplating the official reaction to the protest. The city had granted permits for many of the gathering sites, even though United for Peace and Justice explicitly vowed to undertake acts of “civil resistance” on its website. Furthermore, the cops’ reluctance to arrest street demonstrators meant that a lot of working people and commuters were inconvenienced by long delays on the roads. When the protesters chanted “Whose streets? Our streets!”, there was an element of truth to it.

But in the end, I understood the tolerant response. The crowd on the streets of Washington D.C. on Wednesday was not part of an antiwar movement. The dancing kids and ridiculously costumed protesters are what we have today instead of an antiwar movement. A true antiwar movement, like the one from the 1960s, causes real chaos, affects public opinion, and ultimately can influence policy and our political culture. That’s not the case with United for Peace and Justice. Its members are clowns who are looking for a good street party that’s made more exciting by a whiff of protest and danger.

Arresting, manhandling, or otherwise cracking down hard on them would just feed into their martyr complex and generate a lot of sympathetic media attention. When they’re left alone to act out their fantasies, they discredit themselves. If the price for keeping this circus sideshow from metastasizing into a real political movement is that some local drivers get delayed at intersections once in a while, then that’s not much of a price at all.