Middle East Takes Center Stage At D.C. Rallies
Bicyclists Arrested Yesterday Are Released
Thousands of activists rallying for a host of causes mingled easily with tourists along the mall this afternoon as chants of "Free, Free Palestine," "Stop the Occupation Now" and "We are all Palestinians Today" filled the Ellipse and the black, red, white and green flag of Palestine waved through the streets of the District.
District police officials said the crowds were larger than they had anticipated, and put their numbers at about 75,000. Organizers of a Palestinian-rights rally at the Ellipse south of the White House said the gathering was the largest demonstration for Palestine in U.S. history.
Walking down the sidewalk of Pennsylvania Avenue NW near the Justice Department as thousands filled the street, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey praised the decorum of the demonstrations. "The organizers did an outstanding job," said Ramsey, baton in hand. "This is really what protests ought to be."
By about 4 p.m., no arrests were reported, and no major clashes broke out between police and protesters. The events were a stark contrast to April 2000 demonstrations in Washington, when protests against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund led to a virtual shutdown of the downtown area and sparked clashes between police and demonstrators that ended in mass arrests.
Protesters adopted many of the tactics of their counterparts from the 1960s, with hundreds of homemade signs denouncing Israeli leaders and variations of anti-Vietnam war chants including "One, Two, Three, Four-We Don't Want No Mideast War." Some placards and protesters compared Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to Adolf Hitler.
"Sharon and Hitler are the same. The only difference is their name," protesters chanted through megaphones.
Thousands of activists began arriving in the early hours of Saturday. They came from across the East Coast, disembarking from a caravan of buses this morning, groggy from the overnight bus ride but already chanting "Stop the U.S./Israeli War!"
"We would have brought more people, but it seemed every bus on East Coast was already reserved," said Steve Gillis, 43, a steelworker from Boston. "We saw hundreds of buses on the road. The rest stops were jammed all the way down."
A group of about a dozen students marched toward the IMF carrying a sign that read "Nerds against the War." They had driven through the night from MIT.
On the Washington Monument grounds, there were touches of the 1960s with tie-dyed T-shirts, granny skirts and peace symbols on hats, shirts and faces. Most signs were hand-made with messages such as "Stop Killing In My Name with My $" and "Has America Gone Bad?"
Also reminiscent of the earlier protests, several American flags were flown upside down - the traditional signal of distress - and worn as capes or shawls.
Among the veterans of earlier peace demonstrations was Sister Claire Surmik, 67, of Erie, Pa. Her well worn sign said "Benedictines for Peace."
"It looks like things have gone full circle back to the '60s," she said. "We seniors must tell the truth, we must give our wisdom. It's our obligation. We are old nuns and the younger ones will come behind us."
The day was not without its tense moments. About 1 p.m. at H and 16th streets NW, a small scuffle broke out on the streets between about members of the New Black Panther Party--wearing black, military-style uniforms--and a man intent on disrupting their march down H Street. There was some pushing and shoving amid chants of "Death to Israel" before members of the crowd broke up the altercation and the march continued.
Earlier in the day, tensions were high as several pro-Israeli protesters confronted Palestinian supports at Florida and Connecticut Avenues NW.
Outside the offices of Citibank at 18th and H Streets, a group of about 100 chanted "Drop Debt not Bombs." At the same time, another group danced and shouted slogans across the street from the World Bank headquarters while speeches were made by the Mobilization for Global Justice group in the center of the park declaring their demands for economic equality.
Meanwhile this morning, about three dozen protesters, who were arrested after a swirling bike ride through the District's rush hour traffic last night, were released from jail. Six protesters remained in jail, apparently unwilling to provide police with identification, said Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer.
The arrests came about 6:30 p.m. Friday during a raucous bike ride downtown during evening rush hour. The group's trek, which snaked from Capitol Hill through downtown, Georgetown and Dupont Circle, started off peacefully. But when protesters began zig-zagging through traffic, chanting "Whose Streets? Our Streets!" police moved in.
Other demonstrations are planned for Sunday and Monday near the Washington Monument grounds and outside of the Washington Hilton, the site of a pro-Israel lobby group's annual conference.
Washington Post staff writers Arthur Santana, Avram Goldstein, Sylvia Moreno, Tom Jackman, Linda Wheeler, Graeme Zielinksi, Manny Fernandez and Monte Reel contributed to this report.
At Least 20,000 March In San Francisco Protest
Decry Bush's Mideast Policy, Israeli Actions
Jim Herron Zamora, San Francisco Chronicle Staff Writer, April 21, 2002
In one of the largest Bay Area protests in recent years, at least 20, 000 people marched through San Francisco yesterday in opposition to U.S. policy in the Mideast, transforming 2 miles of city streets into a sea of red, green, black and white Palestinian flags.
The demonstration was billed as a march against "the real axis of evil: war,
racism, poverty," but one cause overwhelmed all others: support for the Palestinian cause.
The four-hour protest, which began at noon in the Mission District and ended at City Hall, caused widespread gridlock and prompted the Highway Patrol to close the Fell Street Central Freeway off-ramp for 45 minutes.
"It's one of the biggest protests in the past five years," San Francisco police Cmdr. Greg Suhr said. "It's not often that you see one where a crowd has formed in Civic Center but there are still people in Dolores Park who haven't started marching."
Busloads of marchers came from as far away as Los Angeles, Fresno and Yuba City in Sutter County. Organizers said demonstrators might have numbered 50, 000, but police estimated closer to 20,000. A similar march in Washington, D.C. , yesterday drew 35,000 to 50,000.
The San Francisco march included many Americans of Palestinian descent and immigrants from other Arab countries who became politically active after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Kais Menoufy said he arrived from Egypt 18 years ago, while Riad Morrar said he came from 27 years ago. Both are now citizens and own technology companies in the Sacramento area.
"There is nothing else I can do but tell President Bush: 'You are wrong. Stop killing my people,' " said Morrar, as he marched with his wife and four children.
"I spent 20 years avoiding the news, avoiding conflict. It is too depressing," Menoufy said. "I love America. But I'm embarrassed and angry that my country is supporting genocide."
A handful of counter-demonstrators carrying Israeli flags confronted the first arrivals at Civic Center Plaza. Marchers nearly surrounded the group until police intervened and took the pro-Israel group inside City Hall before dispersing them.
"It was for their own safety," police Capt. Alex Fagan said. "There are thousands of people here on the other side, and I couldn't guarantee their safety. So they made their point and then I asked them to leave."
MANY GENERATIONS IN MARCH
Perhaps the oldest marcher was Dave Smith, an 89-year-old member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, an American group opposing nationalists in the Spanish Civil War from 1936-39.
"I am proud to fight fascism and oppression, whether it's in Spain, Nazi Germany or Israel," said Smith.
The youngest demonstrator might have been Hanif Amanullah, a 4-month-old from Oakland who slept in his father's arms.
"I'm marching for this little guy," said Shahed Amanullah. "I want him to grow up in a world without this kind of violence."
Osha Neumann, a longtime peace activist from Berkeley and veteran of protests since the 1960s, said that for decades the Palestinian cause divided many Bay Area Jewish liberals and leftists who did not want to oppose Israel.
"Twenty years ago I was with a group of Jews protesting at the Israeli Embassy, and it was lonely," said Neumann. "I am happy that Jews especially and the other progressives are no longer blind to oppression by the Israelis."
Many participants had T-shirts, buttons or signs saying, "Another Jew against the oppression of the Palestinian people."
That theme also hit home for Julie Lehman, whose boyfriend is a Moroccan immigrant.
"I feel that as someone Jewish, I need to speak out against the Israeli government when I see what they are doing is so wrong," said Lehman, of San Francisco. "I'm proud to be around so many other Jews today who agree with me. We have to be honest."
Many other causes were represented. Protesters denounced the World Bank, globalization and corporations that included the Gap, Enron and Microsoft. Signs advocated saving the Earth, saving the Arctic caribou and saving the redwoods -- as well as ending the U.S. embargo of Cuba. Placards called for U. S. troops to leave Colombia, Puerto Rico and the Philippines. Marchers urged Americans to "stop killing" people from Afghans to Canadians to African Americans.
COLORFUL STREET THEATER
Street theater was everywhere, with mammoth puppets of Uncle Sam, Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. There were other creative demonstrators, too, including a Rottweiler festooned with the colors of the Palestinian flag and a pit bull with a sandwich board saying "Sharon: Stop Mauling Palestinians. "
Police generally kept a low profile and reported no arrests. At one point, a police captain confiscated lighter fluid from several demonstrators about to burn an Israeli flag.
"It's not a free speech issue -- it's a safety thing. I don't want you lighting this on fire with a crowd around here," said Fagan.
Minutes after Fagan stepped away, protesters still managed to burn an Israeli flag.
Most backers of Israel stayed away yesterday and did not stage a counter protest, although the conflict was not far from their minds.
Protests have their place, said Cantor David Bentley, religious-school director of Congregation B'nai Tikvah in Walnut Creek, who attended one in San Francisco last week. Overall, though, marching in the streets tends to polarize people rather than unite them, he said.
"We should be reaching out with humanitarian efforts toward people on both sides of the conflict," said Bentley, whose students have been sending postcards to keep up the morale of Israelis.
"We're Jews," he said. "Israel is our homeland. . . . Every sovereign nation has a right to defend itself. That's all Israel is doing."
Chronicle staff writers Tyche Hendricks and Jason B. Johnson contributed to this report. E-mail Jim Herron Zamora email@example.com