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New War, Same Protests

The specter of Vietnam loomed over an Iraq War protest held at the Pentagon.

Though the faces may have changed, the tactics, the sentiment and, most of all, the righteous anger all remained the same.

The battles of the 1960s were played out all over again on Saturday as tens of thousands of anti-war protesters marched to the Pentagon while several hundred others staged a counter protest only yards away.

The demonstration, which was held almost 40 years to the day after an anti-Vietnam War protest at the Pentagon, was held to call for an end to the Iraq War and demand the impeachment of President Bush.

Despite the bitter cold and overcast skies, protesters passionately shouted slogans and held an array of banners as they walked from the National Mall across the Memorial Bridge to the Pentagon’s north parking lot.

While the demonstration drew people from all across the country to the nation’s capital, Northern Virginians made up a sizable portion of the crowd.

Becky Albritton of Vienna said that she was marching because of her concern for the country’s future. "I am here for the children," she said. "I am tired of seeing their pictures in the paper. There has to be a better way."

Mohammed and Margaux, high school students from Sterling who refused to divulge their last names, said they were there simply to take in the experience. "[This kind of event] happens once in a lifetime," Margaux said.

Liz Owens grew up in Springfield but now lives in Baltimore. She attended the event to join in the national conversation about the war. "It’s a democracy," she said. "We need this kind of dialogue."

Arina Vanbreda of Alexandria attended the march with her sister Adriana. "You must put your feet on the street to show where you stand," she said. Her sister agreed, saying that "This madness needs to be stopped."

THE RALLY BEGAN at around noon at the corner of 23rd Street and Constitution Avenue NW in Washington. By 12:30, thousands of people were already crowding the muddy area north of the Lincoln Memorial as fiery speeches were made through a P.A. system.

Only yards away at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a group of several hundred counter-protesters gathered.

They were in attendance because of a rumor circulated on the Internet in the weeks prior to the march that the protesters were planning to deface the memorial. The organizers of the protest, a social action group called the Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER) Coalition, said that they never intended to do anything of the sort.

But the counter-protesters, some of them Vietnam War veterans, showed up anyway to guard the memorial and hold their own demonstration. While a few shouting matches occurred, the two groups kept mostly to themselves.

Things grew more heated as the protesters began marching across the Potomac River.

The counter-protesters lined the Memorial Bridge and began hurling insults and waving American flags at the anti-war demonstrators as they walked by, many with young children.

"Al Qaeda Appeasers On Parade," read one counter-demonstrator’s sign. "I’m sorry you have to wear that on your head," yelled another counter-demonstrator to several women wearing the Islamic headscarf as they crossed the river.

Tensions came to a head at the base of the bridge right in front of the entrance to Arlington National Cemetery. Several war supporters unfurled a banner that read, "Go To Hell Traitors You Dishonor Our Dead On Hallowed Ground."

After a verbal confrontation ensued, police defused the situation by riding in on horseback and separating the two groups.

THE COUNTER-PROTESTERS DISSIPATED as the march went further south down Route 27.

Most of the marchers filed into the Pentagon’s north parking lot where an enormous stage with loudspeakers on either side had been set up. From the stage, former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, Washington Wizards power forward Etan Thomas and Cindy Sheehan, whose son, Casey, was killed in Iraq, addressed the crowd along with many other speakers.

While this was occurring, a small group of college-age protesters broke from the designated route and tried to gain entrance to the Pentagon by crossing a bridge over Jefferson Davis Highway.

But once the splinter group reached the base of the bridge, they were met by a group of Virginia state troopers and Pentagon police in full riot gear.

Abel Ashes, 33, of Louisville was on the bridge when the confrontation took place. He said that the protestors were drumming on cans and yelling at the police but then he heard a pop and saw smoke wafting in the air. "It looked like tear gas," he said. "People [started] getting their kids away [from the bridge]."

But Department of Defense spokesperson Cheryl Irwin said that tear gas was never used. According to her account, one of the protesters threw a firecracker at the line of police.

The firecracker thrower was never identified but five others were arrested by Pentagon Police for failure to obey a lawful order and were released after receiving citations.

At around 2:15 the police began to slowly move forward, pushing the group of people, which now included a sizable number of journalists, back across the bridge.

Alexandria resident Brent Hawkins, 19, was at the front of the group trying to negotiate with the stoic and unresponsive officers.

"This is pretty ridiculous," he said. "I’m here to use my first amendment right to peacefully assemble. I am fairly worried about my safety."

Wes, a 19-year-old from Woodbridge who refused to divulge his last name, said "When I’m around [the riot police], I’m scared. I’ve seen bad stuff happen."

Michael York, Hawkins’ 20-year-old friend who is from Alexandria, didn’t believe the riot police were necessary. "We don’t have sticks or shields [unlike the police]," he said as he stood in the face of the slowly approaching officers and flashed a peace sign.

THE DISSIPATED CROWD was eventually pushed across the bridge a little after 3 p.m., and no more arrests were made.

The ANSWER Coalition organized their march to commemorate the 1967 protest, which they said was a major turning point of public sentiment against the Vietnam War.

Dan Kocher, a Wisconsin resident whose son lives in Arlington, was at the 1967 Pentagon march and called the 2007 version "totally different. … Our goal [back then] was to get into the Pentagon," he said. "I got pretty close."

But he added that the current protest was much more peaceful than the previous one. "You had generals with helicopters [confronting us]. Violence was in the air [forty years ago]."

This year local and federal authorities sanctioned the event and the organizers were content with staging their demonstration several hundred yards away from the Pentagon in the parking lot.

The organizers of the protest said that they saw the anti-war movement of the 1960s as a success and that they sought to replicate it in their attempts to end the Iraq War.

"Forty years ago the people of the United States marched in the tens of thousands from Washington, D.C. to the steps of the Pentagon," Brian Becker, coordinator of the ANSWER Coalition, wrote in a statement. "It was an unprecedented action. It was a signal that the people of the United States had shifted."