Thousands of demonstrators marked the sixth anniversary of the war in Iraq with an impassioned protest of the nation's military policies yesterday, demanding that President Obama bring U.S. troops home.
The demonstration was the first in Washington of the Obama presidency, replete with many of the same messages of protests during the Bush era. Placards read "War Is Not the Answer," "Troops Out Now" and "We Need Jobs and Schools, Not War."
As marchers made their way from the Mall toward the Pentagon and a hub of defense contractors in Crystal City, they chanted: "Hey, Obama, yes, we can. Troops out of Afghanistan." Activist Dave Cahill, 25, of New Jersey proclaimed from a megaphone, "Obama wants to continue the war."
Some protesters hoisted mock coffins draped with flags - about 100 in all - to represent casualties in Iraq, Afghanistan and other countries where U.S. actions have claimed lives in the war on terror.
"I came from Pittsburgh today because I think the war in Iraq was a disastrous mistake, and I really hope this administration doesn't make a similar mistake in Afghanistan," said Robin Alexander, 55, who works for a labor union.
"He's really on the wrong track with not getting out of Iraq more quickly and escalating in Afghanistan," said Pennsylvanian Al Hart, 58. "I think this is going to be his Vietnam if he doesn't change course."
Many activists said they had volunteered with or supported the Obama presidential campaign. Organizers estimated yesterday's crowd at 10,000, but Arlington County police said the crowd was between 2,500 and 3,000.
"I do support him, but I'm also critical, and I think the escalation in Afghanistan is a mistake," said Alice Sturm Sutter, 61, a nurse practitioner who campaigned for Obama and took a bus from the Washington Heights area of New York. After six years in Iraq, she said, "we need to pressure the government to work for peace and bring all the troops home."
A particular point of contention was Obama's speech late last month to Marines at Camp Lejeune, N.C., in which he announced a timetable that would leave about a third of the current U.S. force of 142,000 in Iraq until the end of 2011. And his wording left open the possibility of a longer military presence, protest leaders said.
"He's basically guaranteeing that it will go on for three more years," said Brian Becker, national coordinator of ANSWER, or Act Now to Stop War & Racism, which sponsored the day's events.
"Obama won, Bush is gone, but the occupation of Iraq continues," Becker said. "The movement is finding its feet again, recognizing that the solution was not through the electoral arena."
Protesters marched past the Pentagon, streaming into Crystal City and standing at the steps of defense contractors, including Boeing, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics and KBR, leaving the mock coffins near each location. The message for all, Becker said, was that "they're not just making airplanes, they're making coffins. They are a company that benefits directly from war and occupation."
Organizers said that later there was a tense standoff with police, near General Dynamics, but no one was arrested.
Cynthia Benjamin, 56, a registered nurse from Upstate New York and a Code Pink activist, said the march seemed smaller than others she had been part of in Washington. She wondered whether tough economic times kept some people away and whether "a lot of them are thinking, Barack in, problem solved."
Benjamin sees it differently. "It's not over until every last soldier is home from foreign soil."