As tens of thousands flocked to the National Mall this weekend to protest a possible invasion of Iraq, protesters from Arlington often had to wait in line just to find transportation downtown.
Metro trains were packed so full, it seemed that getting there would be half the battle. “This isn’t active protesting, this is active subway-riding,” said Jim Lowenstern, who joined a group of Arlington activists in Ballston to attend the peace rally.
Weekend protests, sponsored primarily by International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), drew people from around the nation to march from the mall to the Navy Yard. Estimates of the turnout varied from 30,000 to 500,000.
The well-publicized event was orderly in comparison with some recent protests, including protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, where protesters destroyed property and police arrested dozens. “This is one of the best organized events I’ve ever been involved in,” said Steve Donkin, a DC resident and experienced protester.
It was a little too organized for some. As a group of Arlingtonians exited Union Station en route to the protest, police officers directed the crowd to the most direct route to the protest site.
“Alright, let’s go somewhere else,” joked Larry Yeats, an Arlington activist.
MEMORIES OF MARTIN Luther King, Jr. inspired many protesters. Signs asking “What would King say?” appeared all over the mall.
Joe Flynn, a DC native who now lives in Bethesda, proudly displayed the emblem of King’s 1963 march on Washington. “That was really the first big march I was on,” said Flynn, a member of the Gray Panthers, a senior-citizen activist group.
Flynn said Saturday’s protest drew “a more heterogeneous crowd” than the protests of the ‘60s.
Indeed, canes were almost as common as peace signs on some parts of the mall. The mixture of youth and maturity among protesters was encouraging to Thomas Smith, a black Vietnam vet and DC resident.
“I fought for the country, I killed people for the country,” he said. But seeing thousands of people on the mall supporting peace on Martin Luther King weekend gave him hope for the country.
“For me it shows that little by little…the American people are starting to become more progressive,” he said.
ORGANIZERS DREW CRITICISM from some counter-demonstrators, and even from some in the peace march. Kirit Mookerjee, an Arlington activist and member of the Green Party, said he didn’t agree with all of the positions of the various groups in attendance, but that it was important to show support for the peace movement.
One of the most controversial groups involved in the protest was the Workers World Party, a Marxist group with radical leftist views. WWP’s involvement didn’t bother some local protesters though. “If they tried to impose something, then there would be a problem,” said Yeats.
But organizers couldn’t keep out one group of hundreds, he said, or else they would end up trying to dictate the views of all involved. When tens of thousands of people want to protest, someone needs to do the organizing, he said.
“When we start deciding we don’t want to work with this group or that group because of their politics, then we’ve got a problem,” Yeats added.
LOCAL PROTESTORS JOINED thousands across the nation and worldwide in voicing opposition to striking Iraq. Just as myriad causes found voice at the protest, local protesters cited many reasons for attending.
Kat Tracy came “because I do not believe we have the right to dictate the politics of any other country,” she said.
Military buildup in the Middle East and the threat of war against Iraq is just a diversionary tactic by the Bush administration to draw attention away from domestic economic problems, said Tracy, an adjunct assistant English professor at George Mason and Georgetown universities.
For Arlingtonian Susan Axleroad, a self-described “anti-imperialist,” the march was a protest not just against Bush’s policy toward Iraq, but against what she called a history of using “military aggression as a way of expanding our empire.”
Lowenstern echoed her sentiments, saying that U.S. military involvement in the Middle East is more about “money, oil and corporate greed” than about building democracy and protecting American freedom.
FOR OTHERS, national security was the main issue. One Arlington protester said military involvement in Iraq would just put America at greater risk from a real threat, terrorism.
Susan Dridi, another Arlington resident who attended the protest, described her ideal foreign policy as one that would “wage peace.”
“I think there certainly has to be another solution other than just bombing anyone we disagree with,” she said.