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My Favorite Antiwar Protest: A Time of Mounted Park Police and “Free Speech Zones”

I’ve attended most of the major antiwar protests in Washington since 9/11. At a 2005 protest, a cop tried to whack me on the head with a wooden pole. At a 2007 protest, I snapped a picture showing George W. Bush hanging next to the US Capitol. But my favorite protest was a potent little ruckus that I almost missed. 

On a sunny late summer day in 2013, I ambled to downtown Washington to hike with a bunch of folks who enjoyed bantering as much as I did. The route for the jaunt started on the National Mall, passing by the Smithsonian, heading toward the World War II Memorial and points beyond.

But my luck ran out early that day. The hike leader, a vivacious Italian American lady, announced that she had a special treat for us: a “licensed tourist guide” would provide us with fascinating insights along the way. The tour guide was a short, pudgy fellow puffed up as if he possessed the Secrets of the Temple.

The hike leader announced, “Let’s go,” and then turned the show over to her special guest. “Let me tell you about the Smithsonian Institution,” the licensed guide began, blustering as if he were addressing an audience that had just awarded him an honorary doctorate. He then bludgeoned us with every possible detail about the history, architecture, and restroom renovations of the Smithsonian Castle. He followed that up with a Wikipedia-on-amphetamines rendition on the National Museum of Natural History on the other side of the Mall. Before a Vaudeville hook could yank him off stage, he started rattling at high speed about the National Museum of American History, with the Washington Monument dragged onto his verbal launch pad. All the hike attendees lived in the DC area but he was prattling on as if we’d just arrived on a spaceship from Mars.

And that was when I was summoned by a cheap cigar. That dude’s twaddle was another reminder on the perils of any government licensing program and gave me more sympathy than ever before for Washington tourists.

I exited stage left and headed toward the White House. Admittedly, I didn’t have an invitation for a late morning tea in the Oval Office. But I heard there might be some mayhem nearby that day.

President Obama was saber rattling toward Syria after a chemical weapons attack had recently killed hundreds of civilians near Damascus. It was unclear who perpetrated the atrocity. Syrian rebels prevented United Nations inspectors from surveying the site to verify the details of the attack. That proved the Assad regime did it, according to the Obama administration. The CIA was financing terrorist groups in Syria to overthrow the Assad regime—part of Obama’s attempt to turn the Middle East into a paradise of democracy. Those terrorist groups had also used chemical weapons against civilians, but atrocities by US allies never show up on the radar screen inside the Beltway.

The antiwar movement had been comatose for five years, ever since Obama had ascended into the White House. All subsequent US bombings and drone assassinations became presumptively progressive and thus not worth denouncing. But the potential of a new war in Syria was a defibrillator shock for moribund activists.

With my Nikon camera flopping around my neck, I turned the corner from Fifteenth Street onto Pennsylvania Avenue, behind the White House. That stretch of the avenue had long been closed, with concrete barriers to prevent truck bombs and ice cream vendors from zipping down the way. In the distance, I saw a smattering of demonstrators. 

As I got closer, I saw a somber young guy with a crew cut, sunglasses, and an “Iraq Veterans Against the War” T-shirt waving a sign denouncing “Obama the Warmonger.” Some of his buddies were wearing Young Americans for Liberty T-shirts or Murray Rothbard T-shirts and described themselves as “paleo-conservatives.” Their right-wing, antiwar fervor was one of the few positive legacies of the Bush administration. They were proudly hoisting handmade signs that were legible at a distance of twelve feet or less. They meant well, but I hoped that none of them were ever put in charge of the highway department’s sign program.

Standing near those guys was a thirtyish woman with the hairiest underarms I ever saw. She was wearing a Veterans for Peace T-shirt—the same group that invited me to the Mall years before for “the best speech I never gave.” She told me she had recently “relocated for love,” moving to Washington from Long Island. But her affection was not carrying over to the DC area, which she already despised. At least she was a fast learner. She took pains to assure me that she was not one of those leftist pinko types just because she opposed war.

Speaking of leftist pinkos, Code Pink—a feminist antiwar group—was on the scene. Their activists brought a cardboard full-size replica of a grinning Obama below a sign proclaiming “I have all the evidence I need (just not the facts).” Many activists feared Obama was on the verge of repeating the Bush administration’s rush to war in Iraq based on ludicrous claims that could not pass a laugh test.

There were a few dozen Syrians on the scene, divided into two groups who passionately hated each other. Most of the Syrians but a gaggle of folks gung-ho on the US government toppling the Assad regime hotly opposed bombing their country. A couple shoving matches broke out between those demonstrators.

The protest was little more than the distant buzzing of a gnat, barely perceptible on the other side of the high metal fence surrounding the White House.

And then the US Cavalry arrived for the antiwar activists. Okay, it wasn’t the US Cavalry—it was a bunch of communists from Baltimore. Okay, maybe they weren’t communists, but they were the type of hard-core leftists that made many Democrats queasy. A busload of sixty protestors arrived and poured into the streets carrying superb signs and brilliant banners identifying them as supporters of ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). They quickly deployed a glorious bold-red NO WAR ON SYRIA! banner, and I photographed four of them hoisting it with the White House in the background. Those protestors marched in an oval, chanting, “Hands off Syria.” That group knew how to make itself heard raising hell.

The Park Police and Secret Service had mostly ignored the protestors as long as they were a scattered rabble. But the Baltimore team changed the game and officialdom began its intimidation efforts. An overfed Park Police officer waddled into the middle of the street and began ostentatiously videotaping all the protestors. From his vapid visage, I guessed he was named either Wilbur or Clarence. Would the images he captured fatten up secret federal dossiers on the activists? Every few years, another scandal erupts over law enforcement agencies illegally surveilling peaceful demonstrators. Political appointees promise it will never happen again and then the abuse resumes after the spotlight shifts away. 

Word circulated among the protestors that Obama would be making a major statement on Syria at 1:15 p.m.—less than an hour later. Pundits expected that Obama would announce that he had launched a cruise missile attack on Syria. The leader of the ANSWER protestors implored her cadre: “CNN says the antiwar rally is being heard inside the White House—keep chanting, and louder!”

As I loitered in the street, taking photos and chewing on a cheap cigar, I spoke with conservative military veterans who were far better informed on foreign policy than most Washingtonians. I also palavered with a couple ANSWER zealots about a legendary Baltimore German brewery that had recently gone belly-up. 

And then the other US Cavalry arrived—a squadron of mounted Park Police wearing bright blue helmets who practically charged into the peaceful crowd. Some of the Park Police had attached black strips to their badges to hide their identification numbers. I thought that was brazenly illegal but maybe not because they were The Law. Covering badge numbers would make it far more difficult for demonstrators to identify specific officers who abused them.

As the horses began to scatter demonstrators, a large truck backed up to the scene and a newly arrived pack of Park Police began unloading segments of metal fences which they carried forward. Police initially connected the metal fences around the outskirts of the demonstrators on the street and on the sidewalk next to the White House fence. Then, a few minutes later, cops began moving the fence lines towards each other. Politico reported later that day: “About 100 peace activists were fenced into a protest zone on the sidewalk in front of the White House…. Police officers blocked other protestors—and a reporter—from entering the protest zone, saying the one opening was an exit only.”

The Obama administration was reviving an odious Bush administration legacy—free speech zones. After the 9/11 attacks, preventing lèse majesté—any affront to the dignity of the supreme ruler—trumped the First Amendment. When Bush traveled around the nation to speak, the Secret Service would browbeat police into setting up “free speech zones” where dissidents could be quarantined far from the media and public view. I wrote one of the first exposés of this censorship charade in late 2003. Anyone who quietly held up a the “No War for Oil” sign outside the “free speech zone” could be jailed. The feds lost several court battles but the abusive practice continued because few protest groups could afford to fight the world’s largest law firm, the US Justice Department. 

I was standing in the middle of the area being cordoned off, watching free speech being eradicated yard by yard in real time. As the fence line came closer to me, I felt like I was watching G-men hammer nails into the coffin of the First Amendment. Judges had deferred so many times that police could do as they please, confident that no federal official would be jailed regardless of how many constitutional rights they trampled.

As the “free speech zone” narrowed, police began menacing anyone who refused to leave the street. After I was repeatedly threatened with arrest, I foot dragged toward Lafayette Park, moving just fast enough to avoid getting handcuffed. A dozen years into the federal supremacy era after the 9/11 attacks, anyone who did not instantly obey arbitrary commands was now guilty of “disturbing the peace.”

At 1:15 p.m., Obama stepped up to the microphone in the Rose Garden in what the New York Times called a “hurriedly organized appearance … as American destroyers armed with Tomahawk missiles waited in the Mediterranean Sea.” As antiwar chants could be heard in the background, Obama stunned the media by announcing that, though he had decided to attack Syria, he would seek congressional authorization before launching the missiles. Obama declared, “I’m confident in the case our government has made without waiting for U.N. inspectors.”

That protest and Obama’s declaration spurred me to write an article that the USA Today headlined “We Can’t Trust White House Syria Claims.” The editors added a subheadline that made me burst out laughing: “The administration needs to learn from the past and tell the whole truth.” Ya, I was sitting on the edge of my chair waiting for the whole truth from the feds. My piece, published the week after the protest, concluded, “America cannot afford another ‘trust me’ war based on secret evidence…. Citizens are left clueless about perils until it is too late for the nation to pull back.”

Happily, American public sentiment strongly opposed plunging into another Middle East quagmire and Congress never greenlighted Obama’s attack on the Assad regime. Obama promised sixteen times that he would never put US “boots on the ground” in the Syrian civil war. He quietly abandoned that pledge and, starting in 2014, launched more than five thousand airstrikes that dropped more than fifteen thousand bombs on terrorist groups in Syria. But the US government might have intervened far more aggressively without the courage and caterwauling of White House protestors along with many other Americans who pushed back against the warmongers.