War Protest Generates Strong Turnout

By Ryan G. Murphy, Emma Vaughn and David Pierson

Los Angeles Times

September 24, 2005

Capping a summer of rising discontent with the war in Iraq, tens of thousands of protesters marched through cities across the nation Saturday to demand the immediate withdrawal of U.S. forces.

Crowds shrugged off chilly rains and breakdowns in public transportation to greet Cindy Sheehan and her traveling anti-war vigil in Washington, D.C. In Los Angeles, actors and politicians led a snaking procession of protesters through downtown. And in San Diego, war veterans were among the thousands who gathered at a peaceful rally at a park.

Many of the marchers said the events represented a growing momentum of discontent with the war and the Bush administration -- leading to the rise of Sheehan's movement.

The Vacaville, Calif., woman whose son, Army Spec. Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq, led a caravan from Crawford, Texas, where she spent a month seeking a meeting with the president during his vacation, to Washington, D.C . Her speech Saturday marked a dramatic high point in her campaign.

"We have to do our jobs as Americans. If nobody else will hold them accountable, we will," Sheehan shouted, her arms upraised. "We'll be the checks and balances on this out-of-control, criminal government."

Organizers claimed more than 200,000 people turned out for the peaceful event, calling it the largest protest in Washington, D.C. since the war began in March 2003. The number could not be verified independently. D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey said the group probably had reached its goal of 100,000.

The daylong march and rally was the first of three days of events here that is expected to culminate Monday with protesters flooding Congressional offices to demand an immediate and complete troop withdrawal, a position that few representatives on either side of the aisle have embraced.

The protest comes as polls show growing unhappiness with the war. A CNN/USA Today poll last week indicated that 59 percent of Americans think the war was a "mistake" -- the highest figure recorded since the question was first asked in March 2003.

There remains, however, widespread disagreement about the best solution. The same poll showed that just 30 percent of Americans favor a total troop withdrawal, while 26 percent favor maintaining the current level.

The demonstrators came from Alaska and South Carolina, New York and Maine. Graying protest veterans from the 1960s clad in tie dye mixed with a younger, edgier set with nose rings, black combat boots and gas masks. They beat tom-toms, carried signs demanding Bush's impeachment and blew up a 25-foot inflatable doll of President Bush, complete with a military flight suit and a nose like Pinocchio. One popular T-shirt, in a nod toward Hurricane Katrina, read: "Make Levees, Not War."

Thousands of additional protesters were stranded in New York and other East Coast cities when 13 Amtrak commuter trains either were delayed or canceled because of an early morning electrical outage.

The peace demonstrators also were joined by an amalgam of leftist activists, including a contingent of anti-globalization protesters in town for a World Bank meeting. Sitting under tents and at card tables circling the Washington Monument, they promoted a grab-bag of issues, from gay marriage to vegetarianism.

Supporters of the war also showed up, holding a news conference at a local hotel to emphasize the need for soldiers to remain in Iraq. Mike Broomhead, whose brother was killed in Fallujah in May 2003, said that he continued to support the war despite his family's loss.

"They are doing fantastic work, not only so that a free and democratic Middle East can provide freedom for us, but also to give that part of the world a taste of the freedom that we've grown up with," he said.

Sheehan's presence ignited some bitter commentary. One man, G.R. Quinn, waved and held a sign that said "Cindy Sheehan is a Nazi Witch" as protesters walked past and jeered.

A protest also was held in London, where 10,000 anti-war protesters marched Saturday past the Houses of Parliament and government headquarters in Whitehall, then rallied in Hyde Park to listen to speakers lambasting Prime Minister Tony Blair and demanding a pullout of British troops from Iraq.

Murphy and Vaughn reported from Washington, D.C. and Pierson from Los Angeles. Times staff writers T. Christian Miller, Tony Perry and John Daniszewski contributed to this report.