Tens of thousands of children and their advocates descended on the nation’s capital Saturday in a thunderous demand for Americans to do more for poor and neglected kids.
With the presidential election looming, the nonpartisan rally at the Lincoln Memorial was intended to focus Democratic and Republican party attention on retaining and developing programs for children.
U.S. Park Police estimated the crowd at 200,000, filling much of the Mall around the Reflecting Pool.
Carrying state flags and clapping, thousands of children and adults began the rally by marching across the Memorial Bridge.
They carried signs that said “Politicians Were Children Once Too” and “Kids Rule” and “Education Is Not a Privilege, it’s a right.”
“We have the biggest wallet in the industrialized world,” said Children’s Defense Fund president Marian Wright Edelman. “But we have a far smaller will to share it with our children.”
Conservative groups, including some that dotted the rally with signs reading “Mom and Dad Can Raise Kids Best,” dismissed the event as a festival for free-spending liberals.
The Heritage Foundation accused the Children’s Defense Fund and endorsing organizations of having a vested interest in keeping government funds flowing.
“Higher welfare payments do not help children; they increase dependence and illegitimacy,” said Robert Rector, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
One overriding message, however, seemed to link everyone present: America is not doing right by her children, they said. America can and must do better.
“We do not stand here advocating big government,” Edelman told the crowd. “We stand here advocating just government.”
She said the event was not intended as a political event but to encourage public debate over who has priority when it comes to divvying up tax dollars.
“Is America so afflicted that we are unable to strike a better balance between the few at the top and the needs of the many in the middle and the bottom,” Edelman asked.
The kids were undeterred by the political dispute.
“People need to realize children are our future, and if we don’t pay attention to them we won’t have a future,” said Jessica Micinski, 12, of Beulah, Mich., a Girl Scout who marched across the bridge.
Edelman picked up the theme in her keynote speech: “Some of our children are tracked for Princeton and Yale and some of our children are tracked for prison and jail - for about the same cost.”
Edelman said she organized the rally after watching kids suffer from neglect, abuse and the breakdown of family values.
Laurence Owens, 12, who attends Public School 146 in New York’s Harlem, awoke before 6 a.m. to catch a bus to the rally from the upper West Side.
“I’d like to see more rules. I’d like to see this be a safer place for kids,” he said. “I’d like a curfew and definitely to get the guns off the street.”
Michael Pollard, 14, of Manhattan, said budget cuts had hurt the basketball league he joined at the Lincoln Square Community Center. Now he has to contribute $1.50 per game for a referee and also has to lobby strangers for donations to buy equipment.
“If we don’t stand up, there will be more kids in the street than in school,” he said.
Saturday’s crowd matched that of the Martin Luther King march, which Edelman helped organize in 1963, also at the Lincoln Memorial.
Those who answered her call to come to Washington on Saturday were nothing if not sincere.
Peggy Christenson, a preschool teacher from Toledo, said she is distressed by “the enormity of the problems and the limited and ineffective resources put to solving them.” She said she gets discouraged watching day after day as the children in her charge arrive at her inner-city school sleepy, sometimes hungry and sometimes with behavioral problems that may be an outgrowth of exposure to drugs in the womb.
Politics were supposed to be kept out of the discussion, but party preference often cropped up in private conversation.
The rally was “for the wee ones” and was “bipartisan from top to bottom,” said Elaine Campbell, mayor of Solvang, Calif., as she ate a hot dog.
“And if the conservative Republicans don’t get it, that’s their problem,” intoned her friend Hedy Damery, coordinator of the Kids Network of Santa Barbara County.
After most of the crowd had drifted away from the monument grounds, a group of 200 New Yorkers arrived on four buses. Despite missing the events, they said, they were glad they came.
Carolyn Eisenberg said she hoped the rally she missed would send a message to Clinton and to Republicans. “The government has a responsibility to provide things for children, things like a quality education, school lunches and quality medical care,” she said.
Her 11-year-old daughter Elizabeth piped up. “Pretty soon we’re going to run this world,” said the fifth-grader.