Whether they showed up to protest Wall Street bankers, the war in Iraq or climate change, the nearly 300 people who chanted, marched and drummed in Washington, D.C.’s Freedom Plaza Thursday all had one common complaint: that the government wasn’t listening to the people.
While the event was originally planned four months ago as an anti-war protest to mark the 10th anniversary of America’s invasion of Afghanistan, it morphed into a broad, catch-all protest inspired in part by the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York.
“We are out here to try to take back our country peacefully,” said Ward Reilly, a Vietnam-era veteran and steering committee member for the anti-war group “Stop the Machine,” which originally organized the protest.
“You could probably talk to 100 people out here and they would be here for 100 different reasons,” Reilly said.”We are not going to leave.”
Reilly, who came to D.C. from Baton Rouge, La., for the demonstration, said Congress is “ignoring the will of the people, flagrantly.”
Protest organizer Ellen Davidson said she didn’t know how long people would “occupy” the plaza but as of 11:30 a.m. about five camping tents had been set up and a number of protestors had brought hiking backpacks full of camping gear.
Organizers said their city permits expire in four days.
Justin Kleiner, an ex-Marine from West Virginia, said he slept in the plaza Wednesday night and planned to stay for an “open-ended” amount of time. Kleiner noted that he had a job staring Oct. 24 back in West Virginia.
“People are coming together and it’s real exciting,” he said. “We are living in the most interesting time in the history of man.”
Carrie Stone said she felt so passionately about the protests that she walked 200 miles from Clarksburg, W.V., to Washington, D.C. in an attempt to raise awareness about the event. Stone said she walked 25 miles per day in “cold and rainy” weather for nine days to attend the “all-encompassing” protest.
“I had been really frustrated and felt like my government doesn’t represent me,” Stone said. “This is the only way to make change. This is a nascent movement and more people are going to know about it.”
Protestor Kathryn Wolf caravanned down to D.C. from Madison, Wis., along with 60 other Wisconsinites who had protested at the state capitol last March. Standing next to a sign that read “Wisconsin Resists,” Wolf said the protests in her state marked the beginning of the unrest that has expanded to New York and Washington, D.C.
“People are coming out, they’re scared. They don’t like the direction the country is going in,” Wolf said. “We see this as all connected.”
Wolf said the country has “reached a tipping point” where people have been “reduced to having to take to the streets” because traditional ways of trying to inspire change, such as sending letters and calling Congressional offices, have not worked.
“These are people standing up and saying things have got to change,” Wolf said. “We can’t have corporations running our country.”
Around 11 a.m. the plaza began to fill with people waving “Veterans for Peace” flags, carrying signs such as “Tax the Rich, Help the Poor,” playing guitars and pounding on drums. By noon about 300 protesters had filled the square which sits between the U.S. Capitol building and the White House.
Three counter-protesters milled about the crowd carrying signs that read “Support Our Troops, Kill Terrorists” and “Taxed Enough Already.”
“We have to inform them that ‘the man’ isn’t Wall Street, ‘the man’ is big government,” said Ron Meyer, program officer for the conservative Young America’s Foundation, who carried a “Unions Destroy Jobs” sign.
“The cause of the financial crisis wasn’t Wall Street, it was big government,” he said.
The three counter-protestors quickly drew a crowd of media and outraged rally participants, one of which, Dietrich Nicholson, got into a rather heated back-and-forth accusing the counter-protestors of being “ignorant.”
“They are here for one purpose,” Nicholson said after walking away from the three men, “to cause a mess and get a little publicity for their cause.”
Nicholson said he didn’t expect today’s protest to actually change anything in Washington, but that it still gave him “a little hope.”
“Politicians don’t really care. They are going to do what they want and Obama proved that,” Nicholson said. “But [protesting] makes them feel better that at least we gave it a shot. At least they are trying.”