Last Saturday, four Restonians drove into Washington D.C., parked their car at the corner of 12th and M St. NW, and walked south to join thousands of other people, converging in front of the Capitol for what was to become one of the largest antiwar protests in recent history.
Three of the protesters, Velina Manolova, Noemie Carroll and Robin Chen Delos were friends from South Lakes High School. The fourth was Robin’s 10 year-old sister, Marcy, who never strayed far from her sister throughout the day.
The four turned left at Constitution Avenue and carried on until they reached the National Gallery of Art, where they were engulfed in the crowd of antiwar activists, waving signs, chanting slogans and stamping their feet to ward off the cold.
They joined in on the chants.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
JUST WHAT COULD compel three teenagers and a fifth-grader to give up an ordinary Saturday and tramp about outdoors in D.C. in temperatures that stayed well below freezing?
“I find [the war] morally wrong,” said Manolova as she, Carroll and Delos sat in a friend’s living room the night before the protest, talking about their reasons for marching.
Protesting “is our responsibility because we live in this country,” added Manolova, 18, who came to the United States from Bulgaria with her parents in 1995.
“To just sit by and let it happen, I don’t feel like I could do that,” agreed Delos, 19. “If we’re not going to do it then who else is going to do it?”
“As young people, it does affect us,” she continued. “If we go to war, at least $200 billion is being spent. Meanwhile, Bush is cutting taxes for the rich. He’s going to take that money out of education, out of health care.”
But will it make a difference in the long run to risk frostbite on the cold streets of D.C. to make a political point?
“I think it’s important to do as much as possible,” said Carroll, 18.
“When people realize that … we’re out here together and we’re not going to accept this war and it’s a big movement and it is going to get bigger, that will start to change it,” she added.
“If Bush thinks that it’s a small problem that’s going to go away…” Her voice trailed off. The others nodded in agreement.
A potential war with Iraq, they agreed, will not make the country safer. It will only serve to kill innocent Iraqis and fire up anti-American sentiment throughout the world.
“Who are we saving?” asked Delos. The Iraqi president, Saddam Hussein, is probably not going to suffer that much, she added.
“It’s a lot of other people.” Already, during the 1991 Gulf War, she said, “We bombed them back to a pre-industrial age. They were the most advanced Middle Eastern country. They’re really not that much of a threat to us at all.”
“Acts of violence are only going to make more violence,” said Carroll.
OUT ON THE MALL, the group met up with friends from Woodrow Wilson High School in the District, which sent a contingent of about 50 students and a 15-foot banner. The Restonians fell in behind the banner, walking down Pennsylvania Avenue SE on the way to the Navy Yard, where the march would end. Wilson students and students from Deal Middle School last week walked out of school to protest a potential war on Iraq at the Tenleytown Metro station.
“The kids are doing it themselves and we’re supporting them,” said Douglas Calvin, 37, who left a window-washing business to become an organizer.
“They’re our leaders,” he added.
Calvin also works with a group called the Youth Leadership Support Network, which combats hate crimes in the D.C. metropolitan area. A far-right group called the National Alliance has been recruiting teen-agers from around Reston and Herndon and inciting them to commit hate crimes, he said.
“They’ve jumped four- or five-fold since Sept. 11,” he said. The group is responsible for vandalizing a new mosque on Loudoun County, he added.
But Officer Courtney Young, a Fairfax County Police Department spokesperson, said the police was not aware of any such group in the county.
"We don't know anything about it up here," she said.
OF THE FOUR RESTONIANS, Manolova was the most ambivalent in her attitude towards the protesters. She had never been to a protest and still wasn’t sure the night before whether she would come or not. In the past, she said, she has been disenchanted with the more radical, dogmatic groups.
“I definitely support the cause of the protests,” she said. But, “there’s been brainwashing on both sides.”
“If you join some sort of leftist group, they will always be leftist, regardless of the issue,” she added. “I like to think about things more before I act.”
But on Saturday, as she followed the crowd around the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue, down 8th St. SE, she said she was “very comfortable.”
“So far, it’s an extremely peaceful demonstration with slogans, songs, signs,” she said. “I wasn’t expecting anything radical or violent but I kept the possibility in mind.”
Delos and Carroll both had more experience as activists.
“I’ve always questioned everything,” said Delos, now a freshman at Boston’s Emerson College. In high school she co-founded a group to fight against hate crimes and in Boston she worked on a campaign to get better health care for janitors.
While she was at South Lakes she also wrote an article for the school newspaper about the increase in hate-related incidents at the school in the months following Sept. 11, 2001.
“Two or three people got death threats in their lockers,” she said. “I heard about people getting pushed and shoved in the halls.”
Delos talked to the School Resource Officer but he did not know about all the incidents because students had not approached him. When her story was already laid out on the front page of the newspaper, the principal decided to pull it, said Delos, suggesting she write about the school’s efforts to help Muslim students instead.
Delos blamed the incidents on a lack of understanding at South Lakes.
“There wasn’t really a lot of dialogue,” she said. “Even though South Lakes is really diverse, it seems like people don’t really talk to people outside their race, their group.”
For Carroll, this was her second antiwar protest. She already went to the one in October, which drew about 100,000 people.
“I’m only starting,” she said.
She hesitated to say which of the two marches was more successful.
“I did expect more [people],” she said, estimating that the numbers are “about the same.”
THE MARCH SLOWED down to a crawl as it passed the Marine barracks on 8th St. About 50 counter-demonstrators behind a police line heckled the protesters, accusing them of being allies of Saddam Hussein. More hecklers appeared on the balcony of a building. But on the top floor of the building, several people were leaning out of windows, waving an Amnesty International banner and cheering. The march trickled under a highway overpass, their slogans bouncing off the walls.
Now that the protesters were no longer walking at a brisk pace, the cold started to seep in.
Manolova had brought a thermos of hot tea wrapped in a plastic bag but found it difficult to open the plastic bag with unresponsive fingers.
“Oh my God, it is so freezing,” said Delos, dancing around and rubbing her ears to warm up.
The pace picked up eventually and the march reached the Navy Yard at the end of 8th St. The protesters turned right and made their way back to Metro stations or the charter buses which had brought them from all over the country.
The group from Reston soon found itself walking through a mob of people looking for their buses, shouting out to friends or doing head counts. The march was coming to an end. But back on the Mall, the tail end of the rally had just left the Capitol grounds.
“This is awesome,” said Carroll.
“I think it was really great that so many people came from all over the country,” agreed Delos.
But was it worth it, despite the cold, to spend a Saturday marching around D.C.?
“Oh yeah, definitely,” said Delos. “I’m just whining about the cold. I would have come anyway.”