March 21, 2008

Protesters block DC streets, tell their stories, to mark 5th anniversary of Iraq war

Scripps Howard Foundation Wire Reporters Kantele Franko, Jonna Knappenberger, Nanette Light, Anel Ramazanova and Jennifer Rios wrote these stories about protests in Washington to mark the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq.

WASHINGTON - She swapped her spring break for non-violent protests.

Kathy Stavis, a student at Wesleyan University in Middletown Conn., united with fellow students of Our Spring Break to protest the war in Iraq.

Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq.


Christa Hendrickson, 21, (in red shirt) skipped her Wednesday classes at Drew University in Madison, N.J., to protest the Iraq war with Students for a Democratic Society. SHFWire photo by Kantele Franko.

“We are particularly encouraged by the young people here,” said Leslie Cagan, national coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, the antiwar coalition that organized the protest. “People ask: Where are the young people in this war? They are here in Washington today.”

For Stavis, the message is simple. “End the war in Iraq”

Stavis, 20, passed out a “free tax rebate” card to a white-haired man, who was staring at a circle of masked protesters clad in black attached to each other by black pipes at 17th and L streets NW, in the city’s business district. A pile of dummies representing dead soldiers rested in the middle of the circle.

The rebate offers a minimum refund of $3,800 per taxpayer, the amount the group says each taxpayer has paid for the war in Iraq and domestic subsidies to oil corporations.

Stavis’s explanation of the refund was interrupted as officials sawed apart pipes connecting the protesters in the middle of the street.

The group protested at the headquarters of the American Petroleum Institute, suggesting it become the Alternative Power Institute.

Demonstrations began at 8 a.m. and were to end with a meeting at the Reflecting Pool near the Capitol followed by a march to the Democratic National Committee headquarters, although organizers said thunderstorms predicted for late afternoon could change that.

People from 36 states traveled to Washington to advocate peaceful change, Cagan said. She said more than 600 demonstrations took place across the country Wednesday.

“Whoever came to Washington is the tip of the iceberg,” Cagan said. “They represent hundreds and thousands of people.”

***

At 17th and L streets NW, eight protesters draped in black and wearing tan masks formed a circle with their arms linked through piping, blocking morning traffic. Two women dressed in black as birds of mourning walked on short stilts, towering above the dozens of police officers and throngs of people who gathered on the sidewalk to chant or watch.

One of the birds, who identified herself as D.C. resident Lily Hughes, said she regularly works with military veterans to organize protests and helped to organize some of the morning protests.

“We wanted to do an action that would show we want an immediate withdrawal from Iraq,” she said, adding that she expected the circle in the street to “be there a while.”

A while turned out to be about an hour as police cut through the piping and separated the circle while supporters in the surrounding crowd chanted “Arrest Bush - and Cheney, too.”

A female protester from the circle, who refused to give her name but said she was from the District, said police had told the circle members that none would be arrested unless they committed a felony.

***

D.C. Police Capt. Jeffrey Herold, who has 20 years of experience of working with protestors, said it’s always the goal of the police not to get involved with protesters.

He said a non-protester was arrested for repeatedly crossing the police line.

Police eventually cleared out eight protesters, who first stood, then lay in the middle of the intersection.

Moving the protesters out of the street was delayed, Herold said, because a special unit was called in to cut the chains the protesters used to bind themselves together.

Officers used Cold Fire, fire extinguisher foam, to prevent sparks from burning protesters’ hands as they cut through the plastic and metal chaining them together.

Herold said the Federal Protective Service arrested 33 people by the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center on Pennsylvania Avenue.

***

Sarah Rose-Jensen, 26, of Arlington, Va., watching other demonstrators block a downtown intersection during the morning rush hour.

Protesters moved around downtown Washington, stopping in front of offices of organizations they said contributed to the war effort.

Rose-Jensen, a CodePink member, said companies that provide cell phone service to soldiers at high rates are another example of war profiteers.

“We are trying to highlight that the war isn’t just about the government. It is the media, the war profiteers, the military, security state and taxpayer dollars,” said Rose-Jensen, clad head-to-toe in pink, including a bright pink wig, and a message in pink glitter writing, “tired of the war,” stamped on her back.

Rose-Jensen said more than 70 percent of Americans oppose the war.

“I feel like so many people don’t want this, so we have to wonder why we are there,” said Deborah Bock, 24, another member of CodePink from Dillon, Colo. “When I think of all the mothers, daughters and sisters of the people who’ve died, it makes me sick to my stomach.”

***

A bystander said she didn’t see a purpose to the protest.

“They’re not going to change anything,” said Arlene Johnson, 50, of Washington, who was on her way to a meeting.

Johnson, director of training at a non-profit, phoned her sister in Connecticut to relay the scene of the masked protesters being dragged off the street. Johnson, an African American, said she noted that there weren’t many people of color protesting.

***

Police reported few arrests. Protesters said about 30 people were arrested in front of the IRS building where they blocked two entrances to show their opposition to tax dollars being used to support the war. Cagan said protesters advocate using tax dollar to rebuild communities.

“People are using their bodies to make the statement that this war has gone on too long. Five years really is too long,” Cagan said.

***

Two student protesters carpooled to Washington - Emily Parrott, 20, from Harvard University in Boston, and Karthik Sugumaram, 20, from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

Parrott said she didn’t know Sugumaram or any of the other three U. Mass. students when they got in the car Tuesday night. By 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, they found their way to McPherson Square, in the city’s business district near the White House, and were getting their faces painted with pink peace signs at the CodePink booth. The other three students from the carpool had been arrested near the IRS building.

“It’s OK, because we have the car keys,” Sugumaram said. They planned bail their new friends out.

***

Ellen Taylor, 54, of Bryan, Texas, spent her morning at the CodePink table in McPherson Square wearing a pink towel on her head. The theme for this protest, she said, is “Wake up America,” playing on the slogans “America is tired of war,” and “We’re dreaming of peace.”

Taylor’s son, Emmett Gillen, 21, is studying criminal justice at George Washington University in Washington. Taylor said that, until he went to a recruiting office, Gillen was interested in enlisting in the Army or Marines.

At the office, though, “he caught on pretty fast that there was no guarantee he wouldn’t be shipped to Iraq” when he overheard the recruiter saying, “I’ve got one on the line who wants to get shipped out to Iraq to kill ragheads.”

***

When the war began, John Bruhns, then 25, was there. A former Marine Corps reservist, he joined the Army after the Sept. 11 attacks and was promoted to infantry sergeant while he was in Iraq. Wednesday, he was organizing protests to mark the fifth anniversary of the war.

Bruhns, who said he was against the war from the start, felt compelled to go on active duty. Originally from Philadelphia, Bruhns was studying criminal justice at De Sales University in Center Valley, Pa., and wanted to go to law school.

“When 9-11 happened, I totally gave up going to law school,” he said. Bruhns now works as the legislative action coordinator for United for Peace and Justice, which organized the march.

Bruhns predicts the military will not be able to sustain a protracted war and expects the country will need to draft soldiers.

“Not immediately, but sooner or later, all people are going to have to chip in,” he said.

***

Former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel appeared at the protest at McPherson Square, about an hour before the Students for a Democratic Society crowds bumped up against police at 15th and K streets NW. Gravel, a Democratic presidential candidate, gave a short speech and spoke with reporters and protesters.

“The protest is proof that representative government is not working. When people have to protest it means the laws are not effective,” he said.

Gravel said he doesn’t think there will be a draft, but if the war doesn’t end soon there will be mass disillusionment.

“It destroys a generation of protesters. They become cynics, because they rise up, nothing happens and then they just walk out,” he said, noting that there were fewer protesters than on past anniversary dates.

***

Aaron Rubin, 50, from New York, brought the IranMobile to Washington. His yellow car pulls a trailer carrying a fake missile and cutout of President Bush riding on top. Rubin said that when it’s turned on smoke comes out of the missile and it moves up and down.

Rubin, who works for the anti-war group TrueMajority, said the IranMobile refers to the movie “Dr. Strangelove.”

“We had several contractors do it - metal contractors, artists, a lot of people,” Rubin said. “You can’t just put it together in your backyard, because it has to drive the highway at 70 miles an hour over the next 20,000 miles, go up and down, and stay on the trailer.”

He said the IranMobile will be making a cross-country trip soon.

***

A retired professor of political science at American University in Washington was decked out in pink beads and a pink dress. Sarah Begus, 65, of Baltimore, said she’s noticed more young people at protests. She attributed some of this to presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill.

“I miss America,” Begus said. “My America respects human rights. I don’t even recognize my government.”

She said sometimes she has a lot of fun with CodePink. Other times, though, it’s hard to keep going.

“Five years of anti-war work - it’s kind of depressing,” she said.

***

As an afternoon rain beat down on a throng of war protesters screaming in front of the White House, Paul Haggard stood alone, far off to the side, quietly reflecting on why he had come to D.C.

His hands rested on an orange sign that proclaimed the reason in bold white type: “Iraq: Get out. Iran: Stay out. Bush/Cheney: Drive out.”

Haggard, 65, a licensed practical nurse and former forester from Redding, Pa., said he bobbed in and out of protests Wednesday and was moved nearly to tears by a march representing those who have died in Iraq.

“It reminds me, you know - the dying, the waste,” he said.

His oldest son, 39, is a gunner with the Army Reserve in Baghdad, he said, adding that each knows where the other stands on the war issue and that he just wants his son to return safely.

Haggard said he was willing to serve in Vietnam four decades ago but was rejected because he had psoriasis. He’s certain the diagnosis saved him from death in the line of duty, and his views on wars overseas have reversed in the past two decades.

“I had to be here for this,” he said.

Haggard said he was impressed by the level of activism he saw, especially by younger, more daring people, adding: “I don’t have the guts to get arrested.”

***

Christa Hendrickson, 21, skipped classes with five others from Drew University in Madison, N.J., to protest with Students for a Democratic Society.

They planned to spend the day marching, carrying a “Funk the War” banner among others and protesting a war that has existed for a quarter of their lives.

Hendrickson said one of her main concerns is the financial cost of the war in Iraq. She wishes the government would divert military spending toward righting social inequalities in health care and education.

“I think you need a mass movement of people to make change and make things visible,” she said.

***

Volunteers from War Profiteers were waving paper money in as they walked down the street, thanking people for paying taxes to fund the war.

Sofya Belinska, 19, said she was there on behalf of veterans and taxpayers. She said she is tired of apathetic attitudes toward the war and of the government’s position.

“History is repeating itself, and no one gives a damn,” she said. “I don’t agree with that kind of ignorance.”

The group also held a “freeze” at Tuesday at Union Station, the capital’s train station, which also houses a shopping mall. The group stood for five silent minutes to commemorate the five years of war.

***

A woman who would identify herself only as Dena B., 71, from New York, is an activist with World Can’t Wait, which wants to drive out the Bush regime.

“We are against all of Bush’s policies ... we think that they are guilty of war crimes and should be impeached,” she said.

She said more than a million Iraqis have been killed and it is not reported but it has been reported that the U.S. military death toll is likely to reach 4,000 soon..

“War is not the way to solve conflicts, it is the worst way,” she said.

She was accepting donations for World Can’t Wait anti torture buttons, pens and signs.

***

Adam Eidinger, 34, from Washington DC, had a slightly different approach to the protest - he wore a polar bear costume.

“Why I am dressed like this? Because the polar bear are losing their habitats because of war and global warming.”

Eidinger said that the war in Iraq generates more carbon emissions and more global warming gases. Eidinger said the war is being fought over oil. “This is an immoral war that we want to stop,” he said.

He said the price oil is so high because the unsustainable war causes instability and causes people to lose their jobs.

Eidinger said he had more polar bear costumes for anyone who wants to join future protests.

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