Veterans, Grieving Families Give Somber Mood to Iraq War Protest


Organizers with the dueling anti-war groups United for Peace and Justice and International ANSWER estimated the crowd size for Saturday’s march on Washington, D.C., at 300,000—making it the largest demonstration since start of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. Capitol police gave a loose estimate of 150,000—still a heap larger than the 4,000 or so who turned out for the Pentagon’s pro-war “Freedom Walk” on 9-11.

It was another lap around the Capitol for the antiwar crowd, but the mood was very different this time. In contrast to the strident rhetoric and near giddy denunciations of President Bush that have marked previous demonstrations (particularly those organized by ANSWER), Saturday’s protest was sobered by the presence of hundreds of military family members and alienated Iraq war vets, whose voices have given the antiwar movement a new center of gravity.

Cindy Sheehan of Bring Them Home Now was the star, of course, her name repeatedly invoked on stage. Reverend Jesse Jackson thanked her for “being a witness, in the great tradition of Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Harriet Tubman.”

“Your light challenges the darkness,” Jackson told her. “Your light is being seen and your heat is being felt around the world. Thank you, Cindy Sheehan.”

Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey of California praised Sheehan for “waking up America.”

And Steve Earle, who sang at the concert that followed the march, acknowledged her role as pivotal. “This is what we’ve all been waiting for, this moment,” said Earle, who traveled to Crawford, Texas, last month to help out at the Camp Casey encampment when Sheehan had to leave to tend to her sick mom. The camp was named for the 24-year-old son she lost in Iraq. “Cindy simply has the credentials that a lot of us who have opposed the war did not have, and I think what we’re seeing here is the beginning of a mainstream opposition to the war,” he said before launching into the ballad “Rich Man’s War.”

Everywhere Sheehan went, the protesters cheered her. “This is amazing—you’re part of history,” the California peace mom told the tens of thousands massed before her at the Ellipse.

“We need a people’s movement to end this war,” said Sheehan, as she urged her followers to turn up the heat on Congress. “We’re going to ask them, how many more of other people’s children are you willing to sacrifice for the lies? Shame on you for giving [Bush] the authority to invade Iraq.”

She then led the crowd in chants of “Not one more!”

The protest was diverse, from radicals bearing posters of Malcolm X to scores of students holding “College, Not Combat!” signs and veterans of previous anti-war demos sporting “Impeach Bush!” signs and placards that read “Thank you Cindy!” and “Cindy for president.” There were also lots of middle class folks and people who’d never bothered to make a D.C. protest before, like Robert Munroe, who took a bus up from Florida because, he said: “I’m sick of it, I’m fed up.” He carried a sign that asked simply: “Why?”

When asked whether he was concerned that pulling out would allow terrorists to claim a “historic victory” over the U.S., as President Bush has warned, Munroe responded: “I don’t have an answer, but I do know that us being there is not the answer. We’re making enemies faster than we can kill ‘em. We’re in quicksand right now,” said the 52-year-old Vietnam vet, whose son and daughter served in Desert Storm.

“You are far ahead of the Congress and the policy makers on this war,” Congresswoman Woolsey told the masses who gathered after the march on the grounds of the Washington Monument. “You are firmly in the political mainstream, while George Bush grows more marginalized by the day.”

Recent polls show a record 67 percent of Americans now disapprove of Bush’s handling of the situation in Iraq, and 52 percent think we should get out “as soon as possible.”

That’s in contrast to an ABC News/Washington Post poll taken two months ago, when 58 percent of those asked said they supported keeping troops in Iraq “until civil order is restored, even if that means continued U.S. military casualties.”

Organizers were exuberant about the turnout, which they said exceeded expectations and marked a “reenergizing” of the antiwar movement. The crowd might have been even bigger but for an electrical outage on the Amtrak line that wiped out train service all morning along the Eastern seaboard, stranding hundreds of protesters on their way here.

The march itself got off to a late start, as speakers like Ralph Nader and Ramsey Clark droned on about the litany of Bush’s impeachable offenses at the opening rally organized by ANSWER.

Among the throngs was a contingent of about 50 members of Iraq Veterans Against the War, many dressed in camo jackets.
“We’re not against the soldiers, we’re against the war!” they chanted.

At the front of the group was 25-year-old Tomas Young, who took a bullet in the same battle in Sadr City where Sheehan’s son Casey was killed. Young is now paralyzed from the chest down.

Young says he never wanted to go to Iraq; he enlisted two days after 9-11 because he wanted to hunt down terrorists in Afghanistan. Last month, he joined the pilgrimage to Crawford to ask Bush why he sent him to fight the wrong war. “Bush said he wouldn’t meet with Cindy because he’d already met with her in 2004,” Young says. “I figured my life has been severely impacted. So I wanted to hear his excuse about not meeting with me.”

The Iraq vets were followed by about three dozen members of Gold Star Families for Peace, who marched bearing laminated photographs of their fallen loved ones. In contrast to the buoyant, celebratory feeling in the rest of the crowd, the mood here was determined and grave. “It’s hard to get into the joyousness of it all,” shrugged Steve DeFord of Oregon, watching a rather militant group of Bread and Puppet activists bang drums and stage a mock die-in with lumpy cardboard shapes that were meant to represent dead Iraqi civilians.

“I’m proud of each and everyone of these people who came out here today,” said DeFord, whose son Douglas was killed by a roadside bomb a year ago Sunday. “It’s beyond my expectation, but it’s too late for me,” he said with tears in his eyes.

DeFord and the other grieving parents were among some 250 military family members who marched on Saturday. Many said they had no patience for President Bush’s claim that to pull out now would mean their loved ones died in vain. “Twenty thousand more people could die and it wouldn’t give my son’s life any more meaning,” said Diane Santoriello of Pittsburgh, whose son, First Lt. Neil Santoriello, was killed by when a bomb exploded under his tank while patrolling in Iraq. “I think the situation is out of control and we’re making things worse.”

Several blocks away, Robin Godrey and his group West Virginia Patriots for Peace marched with a series of large banners bearing the names and dates for all 1,906 servicemen who have died since the war began. “Our local paper runs the body count on the front page every day,” said Godfrey, a lawyer whose own son did a year’s tour with the Army in Iraq. Over the past year, Godfrey says his group has grown to 1,000 members. “We’ve got Republicans and Democrats. They just can’t label us as one thing.”

The march spilled onto the Washington Monument grounds for the “Operation Ceasefire Concert” and rally hosted by United for Peace and Justice. The scene was a bit of a flashback to the 1960s, with Joan Baez singing “Blowin’ in the Wind” and Wayne Kramer of the MC5 strutting with his guitar, followed by the hard-rocking soul of the Bellrays. Emcee Jello Biafra cracked jokes holding a cardboard sign: “Make Pizza Not War.”

Protesters lounged on the grass or milled around the various tents and booths set up on the grounds by peace and counter-recruitment activists—part of an effort by organizers to make sure that that the protest amounts to more than just a one-day blow-out.

“People know that this war is not going to end on Monday,” says United for Peace and Justice leader Leslie Cagan. “They know they need to go back to their communities and keep the pressure on their Congress members and the media and their schools.”

The peace fair will be going on all day on Sunday, as will trainings for Monday’s non-violent civil disobedience outside the White House. There will also be a big grassroots lobbying push on Capitol Hill on Monday, with more than 700 activists already signed up to pay visits to their House and Senate representatives.

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 20, 2005

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