WASHINGTON – Convinced this is their moment, tens of thousands marched Saturday in an anti-war demonstration linking military families, ordinary people and an icon of the Vietnam protest movement in a spirited call to get out of Iraq.
Celebrities, a half-dozen lawmakers and protesters from distant states rallied in the capital under a sunny sky, seizing an opportunity to press their cause with a Congress restive on the war and a country that has turned against the conflict.
Marching with them was Jane Fonda, in what she said was her first anti-war demonstration in 34 years.
“Silence is no longer an option,” Fonda said to cheers from the stage on the National Mall. The actress once derided as “Hanoi Jane” by conservatives for her stance on Vietnam said she had held back from activism so as not to be a distraction for the Iraq anti-war movement, but needed to speak out now.
The rally on the Mall unfolded peacefully, although about 300 protesters tried to rush the Capitol, running up the grassy lawn to the front of the building. Police on motorcycles tried to stop them, scuffling with some and barricading entrances.
Protesters chanted “Our Congress” as their numbers grew and police faced off against them. Demonstrators later joined the masses marching from the Mall, around Capitol Hill and back.
About 50 demonstrators blocked a street near the Capitol for about 30 minutes, but they were dispersed without arrests.
United for Peace and Justice, a coalition group sponsoring the protest, had hoped 100,000 would come. They claimed even more afterward, but police, who no longer give official estimates, said privately the crowd was smaller than 100,000. Protest organizers said the crowd included people who came on 300 buses from 40 states.
In California, smaller rallies were held in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Sacramento.
More Hollywood celebrities showed up at the Washington demonstration than the buttoned-down city typically sees in a month.
Actor Sean Penn said lawmakers will pay a price in the 2008 elections if they do not take firmer action than to pass a nonbinding resolution against the war, the course Congress is now taking.
“If they don’t stand up and make a resolution as binding as the death toll, we’re not going to be behind those politicians,” he said. Actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins also spoke.
Fonda was a lightning rod in the Vietnam era for her outspoken opposition to that war and her advocacy from Hanoi at the height of that conflict. Sensitive to the old wounds, she made it a point to thank the active-duty service-members, veterans and Gold Star mothers who attended the rally.
She drew parallels to the Vietnam War, citing “blindness to realities on the ground, hubris … thoughtlessness in our approach to rebuilding a country we’ve destroyed.” But she noted that this time veterans, soldiers and their families increasingly and vocally are against the Iraq war.
The House Judiciary Committee chairman, Rep. John Conyers, threatened to use congressional spending power to try to stop the war. “George Bush has a habit of firing military leaders who tell him the Iraq war is failing,” he said, looking out at the masses. “He can’t fire you.” Referring to Congress, the Michigan Democrat added: “He can’t fire us.
“The founders of our country gave our Congress the power of the purse because they envisioned a scenario exactly like we find ourselves in today. Not only is it in our power, it is our obligation to stop Bush.”
White House spokesman Trey Bohn responded that Conyers “needs to learn the difference between fact and fable, between a soundbite and a slur.”
He said Conyers’ “assertion that the president fires generals with whom he disagrees is flat wrong.”
On Monday, hundreds are expected to remain in Washington to blitz Capitol Hill, lobbying their representatives in Congress during a week in which the Senate is scheduled to take up a resolution rejecting President Bush’s decision to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq.
Iraq war veterans are also scheduled to begin a two-day, seven-state tour Monday, targeting senators who voted against the resolution passed last week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.