News: Clamoring for Peace

Hundreds from Cincinnati join national protest against the war

Stephanie Dunlap

"I find the Kentucky crew frosty and cliquish, so I came with the Cincinnati group," said David Gierlach (above) of Frankfort

Washington, D.C. — Like any good left-leaning protest, the messages were all over the place, nothing started on time and young neo-punks in black and bandanas came looking for trouble if not revolution.

But the few hoping for anarchy were ultimately disappointed and returned to playing croquet in the park across the street from the White House.

The core message of nonviolence held fast when 100,000 people converged here, Sept. 24-26 to protest the war in Iraq in three days of events organized by United for Peace and Justice and Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER).

The first and largest day of protest began with a rally that ran overlong and delayed the weekend's coup-de-grace, when anti-war activists marched peaceably past the White House. The day ended with a concert in the shadow of the Washington Monument.

Blowing kisses at hawks
The next evening about 400 people came to an interfaith service on the ellipse, which again started late. But unlike the march, it seemed to lose hardly any of its audience and energy despite the delay.

On Sept. 26, a group of activists put their grassroots lobbying training to use by petitioning their representatives in Congress to end the war. Others staged a sit-in outside the White House that ended with the peaceful arrest of about 370 people while hundreds more looked on.

Other than those peaceful arrests, as well as 41 others earlier that morning at the Pentagon and a handful reported during the Sept. 24 march, the legions of police, Secret Service agents and others decked out with big clubs and padding spent most of the weekend standing around looking bored and at times bewildered.

There were a couple clashes of will during the march. At one point two men with a bullhorn promised protesters eternal damnation. About 50 passing anti-war activists picked up the chant, "What would Jesus do? Protest the war!" until it rose to drown out the bullhorn. Nearby, a man in a priest's collar snapped his gum and watched without expression.

Protesters also traded barbs with a few dozen counter-protesters stationed behind metal barricades at 10th and Pennsylvania avenues. Nothing came of it, though some police fastened their riot helmets. One anti-war activist blew kisses at the shouting counter-protesters.

In a city dominated by historical landmarks, the protesters repeatedly claimed to be inheritors of the patriotic tradition of civil disobedience that started with the Boston Tea Party, ran through the abolition of slavery, women's suffrage and civil rights and manifested itself in protests of the Vietnam War.

Michael Burnham, a Cincinnati theater director, professor and longtime activist, was among the many who drew parallels between the Vietnam War and the current war in Iraq. He's not happy to feel his opposition to both was justified.

"Sometimes when you say to your friends, 'I told you so,' it feels really good," Burnham said. "This feels like crap."

But he's encouraged that, in the current war, the protesting has started much earlier. He's also heartened by the variety of people taking part in the protests.

"This is better," he said. "This is folks. There's all kinds of people here."

Burnham was one of 150 who came to Washington from Cincinnati in three buses organized by the Intercommunity Justice and Peace Center. Alana Johnson of Loveland boarded one of those buses at 11 p.m. Friday and arrived in Washington nearly 12 hours later. She said that sleep was all but impossible but the bus ride was pretty subdued. The passengers talked a lot about Hurricane Katrina and how the U.S. government isn't taking care of its own citizens, a theme that cropped up again and again over the next few days.

In spite of a crick in her neck, Johnson was ready for the day to come.

"We're just so intense and wrapped up in what we're about to do," she said. "It's almost like a mission."

'They can pretend'
What they expected their mission to accomplish varied from person to person. Cincinnati filmmaker and activist Barbara Wolf thought the throngs of people might finally draw some attention from the Bush administration and lawmakers.

"I just don't think they can truly ignore it," Wolf said. "They can pretend to ignore it."

Mary Francis of Norman, Okla., waxed less hopeful two days later just before setting out on a second, smaller march to the White House led by an interfaith mix of religious leaders.

"I do this not because I expect to get results," Francis said. "But I have to be able to tell my grandchildren I tried to stop the war."

Some came demanding immediate and unqualified withdrawal of the troops from Iraq. Others want Bush to at least begin drafting exit plans. Still others just hoped to spark any conversation at all with the administration.

Patric Leedon of Scioto County is a 24-year Navy veteran who served in Vietnam and the Cold War. More recently he spent time in a Crawford, Texas, ditch with Cindy Sheehan, the grieving mother who set up camp outside Bush's ranch to demand an audience with the president and instead won virtual beatification from the left and the enmity of the right.

"It's not just the war in Iraq," Leedon said. "It's an administration that often lies to us, deceives us."

While many protesters advocated absolute nonviolence, others, such as Leedon, didn't.

"I believe in defending the country," he said. "(But) I don't think we have the right to invade another country."

Rod Brown, who came from Santa Barbara, Calif. with Veterans for Peace, put it slightly differently.

"I'm not a pacifist totally," he said. "I certainly think (war is) not a good first choice."

As in earlier U.S. wars, hawks have said that pulling out this far into the conflict would dishonor those who already died, Brown said. In a halting address after the Sept. 24 march, Sheehan addressed that argument.

"Why do I want one more person killed just because my son is dead?" she said. "That's the worst reason for a war."

Sheehan became the honorary figurehead of the three days of events. In fact, she was the first person police arrested during the Sept. 26 sit-in outside the White House as the crowd chanted, "The whole world is watching!"

But the Cincinnati IJPC delegation couldn't stay for that; they'd wearily re-boarded their buses after the concert Sept. 24, the same day they'd stepped out to march for peace.

For more coverage of the National Mobilization to End the War, visit

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