WASHINGTON — When her bus arrived in Washington, D.C., at 8 a.m. Saturday, Anne Abrams headed straight for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. She paced off the steps from one end to the other. She knelt down and read the cards placed at the base of the wall, tracing her fingers over the names engraved in granite.
Behind her, bus after bus was unloading groups of protesters. Many carried their signs over to the Memorial, joining Abrams in reading over the names of the people killed in the Vietnam War, and biding their time before the start of Saturday’s anti-war protest. Abrams took her sign and walked the few hundred feet to the site of the protest, where even three hours early, people were already waiting.
“This is like deja vu for me,” said Abrams, a Hartford native. “I was here doing the same thing for the Vietnam War. But this time I’m trying to stop it before it starts.”
Abrams joined the over 100,000 people who donned George W. Bush masks and white armbands in Washington, D.C., Saturday to protest the administration’s moves to war against Iraq. The crowd — which included a group of 220 from the Yale Coalition for Peace — is estimated to have been the biggest protest in the nation’s capital since the Vietnam War protests.
Preparing for peace
On Friday night at midnight, Yale students, local residents, families, high school students, and even several residents of the tent city on the New Haven Green piled onto four buses and one van outside of Phelps Gate. The group would make the more than seven-hour trek down to the capital to join the protesters at the rally the next morning.
The Yale Coalition for Peace’s campaign began before the Oct. 26 protest. Over the past several weeks, the group sponsored a petition campaign, a teach-in, and a rally on Cross Campus to raise awareness and encourage students to attend the protest. Kathryn Franklin ’05, one of the organizers of Wednesday’s rally, said it was immensely successful.
“Getting people to sign their name is one thing, but asking them to pay money and ride a bus for six hours to protest is another,” she said.
But the rally was unexpectedly effective. The coalition initially reserved only two charter buses, and as the Yale group grew, they eventually filled four buses.
Students were optimistic about the potential outcome of the rally, especially given the large Yale turnout.
“It will send a message to the rest of the country that it’s OK to stand up and be against this and that there are patriots who are willing to do that,” said Chesa Boudin ’03, one of the trip’s coordinators. “And we are patriots. Waving the flag and beating the drums of war is not patriotism.”
But beyond sending the message to the rest of the country, coalition members hoped the protest would send the message to Yale students and energize them to speak out. Many said they were disappointed with the low levels of activism on campus.
“Yale’s culture is conducive to a certain type of apathy,” Boudin said. “People plan their semesters ahead of time. When something like the war in Iraq comes up, the thinking is ‘Who has time to spent six to eight hours a week fighting it? I’ve already got five classes, I’ve already got my community service.'”
Beating the drums
The protesters came from all over the United States. They perched in trees, lay on blankets, stood on stilts. They held signs representing every possible interest group, and then some — Jews for Peace, Koreans for Peace, Veterans for Peace, even Soccer Moms for Peace and Skateboarders for Peace.
The number of people at Saturday’s protest far surpassed those at pro-peace rallies earlier this year. Many protesters said the anti-war movement was energized by the resolution passed last week in Congress giving Bush permission to take military action against Iraq.
“I’m amazed at how many people are here,” said Cathy de la Aguilera ’04. “And I’m overjoyed at the variety of different people from different places all coming together to say, ‘No, we don’t support this war.'”
As similar rallies were held in locations all over the world Saturday — including London, Greece, South Africa, Italy and San Francisco — the rallying cry was the same.
“No blood for oil,” the crowd chanted.
Protesters in Washington, D.C., listened as speakers, including former Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, and actress Susan Sarandon, demanded that the government put money toward jobs, education, and health care instead of war.
The speeches were punctuated by frequent requests for donations. Buckets were passed around the crowd, as organizers tried to recover the $100,000 they said the rally cost.
By 2 p.m. the crowd — still growing — had expanded from the National Mall and street corners and had spilled into the streets. Constitution Avenue, a major thoroughfare, was shut down as people stood shoulder to shoulder in the streets, preparing to demonstrate. This is what many had come for: the march to the White House to demand President George W. Bush rethink the war.
“I wanted to do something but I couldn’t really go out there and be an army of one, yelling ‘Stop the war! Stop the war!'” Franklin said.
So the group did something as an army of over 100,000. Bodies pressed forward to drum beats and cheers erupted from competing megaphones. People hung out of windows of the Hotel Washington making peace signs and cheering for the protesters below. The crowd marched down Constitution Avenue, and in a large loop around the White House, stopping in front of the presidential home.
“I would like George Bush to walk out on the lawn and say, ‘I’m sorry. I was wrong,'” Franklin joked.
But President Bush and First Lady Laura Bush were traveling Saturday and not in the White House, and the only response was the questioning stares of surprised White House tour groups.
“There are more people than I expected,” said a Washington, D.C. police officer standing near the front of the White House. “But it appears to be real peaceful. Just people exercising their First Amendment rights.”
Police were less sure on the other side of the White House, where the police had enclosed a smaller, quieter group of pro-war activists in a ring of police tape and U.S. Park Police agents.
The group had gathered earlier in the day at the base of the Washington Monument for a counterprotest. About half of those in the small crowd were Iraqi exiles, pleading for U.S. intervention to remove Hussein. When the march came around, reaching the counterprotest at 17th Street and Constitution, the police formed a circle around the group to keep the anti-war protesters away.
“It could turn nasty quite easily,” said a member of the U.S. Park Police.
As an anti-war truck parked outside the pro-war group, a shouting match between the two groups began.
“A lot of people on the other side are naive,” said Shayk Hashom, speaking to the small pro-war crowd. “They don’t understand. We are the Iraqis. We are not pro-war. We are pro-peace. But Saddam has nothing to do with peace.”
The next step
As tired protesters sat in and by the streets, waiting for the buses to attempt to slice through the traffic and deliver them safely home at the end of the long day, many said they felt content with the success of the demonstration.
“It showed the country there really is a lot of dissent,” Will Tanzman ’04 said. “Bush says this country is united and this clearly shows the country doesn’t all support the idea of unprovoked war.”
But more than just the sheer number of protesters, Tanzman said the diversity of protesters, especially Yale protesters, was an encouraging sign.
“A lot of people came who aren’t necessarily activists,” Tanzman said. “It wasn’t the same old crowd.”
Franklin said the coalition is going to work to maintain the momentum of the protest. Upcoming plans are centered around educating students about the war, and the coalition is planning another teach-in and a bipartisan debate on the issue.
“There is another opinion and people who think the war is a good idea,” Franklin said. “People who are undecided deserve to hear both sides so they can make their own decisions.”