Antiwar protesters target Congress
When thousands of Iraq war protesters gather in Washington Saturday, their chants and amplified speeches are likely to be heard inside the secure grounds of the White House where the commander in chief has made his case for sending more troops into combat.
But the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue – the Capitol and the Democratic-led Congress – is where they most aim their message.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is the main political target. War protesters want something tougher than nonbinding resolutions opposing the "surge" in additional US forces. Some want hearings on the controversial basis for the war itself, perhaps leading to the impeachment of President Bush.
It's not just the nation's capital, where busloads of people from at least 30 states are headed to make their voices heard.
Around the country, lawmakers' district offices are feeling the heat as well through Quakers' peaceful "vigils" and the occasional act of civil disobedience. In one recent case, the Episcopal bishop of northern California was arrested for blocking the door of the federal office building in San Francisco. And marches and rallies are planned in other cities, including Orlando, Fla., Seattle, San Diego, and Newark, N.J.
Major organizations are working to ensure that events do not include fringe groups and speakers, such as anarchists or socialists. Until recently, "people on the far left got control of the agenda and it became marginalized, even though the sentiment in the country increasingly became antiwar," says one organizer, who wished to remain anonymous. These days, such events feature labor union members, environmentalists, and especially active duty military people, says this source.
Organizers of the Washington event are anticipating between 300,000 and 500,000 people. Among Americans, 70 percent opposed a troop surge, according to a recent AP-Ipsos poll.
Movement organizers are careful not to indicate anything other than strong support for the troops.
"A big difference between the antiwar movement now and the one in Vietnam is that there has not been – even among the most radical of them – attacks on the troops themselves," says political scientist John Allen Williams of Loyola University Chicago. "That is absolutely crucial."
That's one reason Tim Kahlor of Temecula, Calif., will join protesters in Washington.
He turned against the war when he had to send his soldier son in Iraq proper body armor and night-vision equipment. "I got ticked off, and it snowballed," says Mr. Kahlor. "I started out as an upset parent trying to protect my son's unit and ended up spending hours every day writing letters and e-mails," he says, adding, "I'm just as ticked at the Democrats as the Republicans."
Nearly four years into the war, new antiwar recruits planning to travel to the rally in Washington include people like Judy Hess, who hasn't protested anything since she was in college during the Kent State shootings in 1970 when four Vietnam War protesters were killed by US National Guard troops.
"I was politically aware, politically interested, and always voted...." says Ms. Hess of Chula Vista, Calif. "But it was this war and how we got into it that really got me active."
Across the country, retiree Beverley Wiskow of Inverness, Fla., whose son-in-law has been serving in Iraq since July, will drive with three others to Washington for the protest rally and march.
"Congress clearly is not doing anything," she says. "The only hope for ending this is for the American people to say if you won't listen to us at the ballot box, perhaps you'll listen to us in the streets. I think our democracy is at stake."
Charlie Williams will leave his coffee shop in Daytona Beach, Fla., to drive north. "I think it's the moral thing to do, the right thing to do," he says. "I don't want my country getting involved in all this stuff."
These days, Phil Restino of Daytona Beach, Fla., has been spending most of his waking hours fielding calls from people in Florida and Georgia who are looking for rides to Washington or wanting to donate money.
"The phone has been ringing off the hook," says Mr. Restino, an Army veteran active with Veterans for Peace. "I haven't shaved in two days."
Eileen Fleming of Clermont, Fla., already has appointments with representatives of her two US Senators Mel Martinez (R) and Bill Nelson (D) in Washington. "We just have to hold [members of Congress] to the fire to do what we elected them to do, which is rise up and question this president, not just rubber-stamp everything."
Antiwar activities began earlier this week. A coalition of student, labor, church, and veterans' groups visited the offices of 17 US senators the morning after Mr. Bush's State of the Union address to Congress. Veterans for Peace formed up for a political assault in Washington beginning Thursday and scheduled to include a "grass-roots congressional education day" when lawmakers return to work Monday.
"The 109th Congress shirked their responsibility," says Michael McPearson, executive director of the veterans' group based in St. Louis. "The 110th Congress must stand up to the president. This is why they were elected."
Meanwhile, state legislators in half a dozen states are expected to introduce resolutions opposing what critics say is an "escalation" of US forces in Iraq.
But nonbinding resolutions don't satisfy many war opponents. Some activists want Speaker Pelosi to launch an investigation under congressional powers of impeachment.
"We're pressuring her to see if she'll let the Judiciary Committee do their work," says Norah Foster, co-chair of a San Francisco-area antiwar group that's also launched a "Pelosi Watch" to keep the spotlight on the new House speaker. "We feel that it's too important to wait; it's too serious."
"What's happening is, the left is trying to stiffen the resolve of the mainline Demo-crats," says Dr. Williams, who's also a retired naval reserve captain. The question for the political left on the eve of major demonstrations, he says, is "Do you want to be effective, or do you want to be cathartic?"
• Amy Green in Orlando, Fla., and Randy Dotinga in San Diego contributed to this report.