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 antiwar vigil in Washington. In Los Angeles, actors and politicians led a long procession of protesters through downtown. And in San Diego, war veterans were among the thousands who gathered at a peaceful rally at a park. Thousands also protested in London.
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 woman whose son, Army Spec. Casey Sheehan, was killed in Iraq, led a caravan from Crawford, Texas, where she had spent a month seeking a meeting with the president during his vacation, to Washington. 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 said more than 200,000 people turned out in Washington for the peaceful event, calling it the largest protest in the capital since the war began in March 2003. D.C. Police Chief Charles Ramsey said the group had probably reached its goal of 100,000.
The daylong march and rally was the first of three days of events that were 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% of Americans thought 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 30% of Americans favored a total troop withdrawal, though 26% favored maintaining the current level.
The demonstrators in Washington came from various states. Veterans of 1960s protests mixed with a younger set with nose rings, combat boots and gas masks. They beat tom-toms, carried signs demanding the president’s impeachment and blew up a 25-foot tall inflatable doll of Bush, complete with a military flight suit and a nose like Pinocchio’s. One popular T-shirt, in a nod toward Hurricane Katrina, read: “Make Levees, Not War.”
Thousands of would-be protesters were stranded in New York and other East Coast cities when 13 Amtrak commuter trains were either delayed or canceled because of an early-morning electrical outage.
A protest was also held in London, where 10,000 antiwar demonstrators 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.
The U.S. antiwar demonstrators were also joined by an amalgam of 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, including gay marriage and vegetarianism.
Maureen Glover of New Hampshire brought a 700-yard-long banner to the event that took her more than a year to make and required 80 people to carry. The banner consisted of a long string hung with pictures of all U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq. “One thousand and nine hundred deaths is enough already,” Glover said. “Stop this war.”
Supporters of the war also showed up, holding a news conference at a local hotel to argue for the need for soldiers to remain in Iraq. Mike Broomhead, whose brother was killed in Fallouja 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.
In Los Angeles, police estimated 15,000 people participated in a raucous 1 1/2 -mile march from Olympic Boulevard and Broadway to Los Angeles and Temple streets, where speakers such as actor Martin Sheen and state Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles) took to a stage and railed against the Bush administration. Organizers said that as many as 50,000 protesters were on hand.
“This war is ill-conceived, ill-advised and illegal,” Sheen said. “The only clear truth about this administration is its dishonesty.”
The event drew an eclectic crowd whose grievances against the government were as diverse as the rhythmic chants that erupted up and down the march.
There was a “Buddhists Waging Peace” banner, “Terminate the Terminator” stickers, a “Healthcare Not Warfare” sign and a woman dressed as Mother Earth demanding more federal protections for the environment.
James Lafferty, executive director of the National Lawyers Guild and one of the event’s chief organizers, said the Iraqi insurgency, support for Sheehan and the flawed federal response to Katrina were stoking opposition to the war and the administration.
“Most important, we’re way ahead of Vietnam,” Lafferty said. “Back then, it took 20,000 bodies for the opinion polls” to show waning support for the war.
In San Diego, about 2,000 protesters marched through downtown on their way to a loud but peaceful rally in Balboa Park. Among the signs were those reading: “Stop Mad Cowboy Disease,” “War Is Terrorism With a Bigger Budget,” and “Bush Is a Category 5 Disaster.”
A group called Veterans for Peace was a major sponsor of the rally, and protesters wearing military hats were seen throughout the crowd.
“I’m speaking out for all the guys I saw die in Vietnam,” said Jim Brown, a Marine who served in that war. “I’m outraged that it’s happening again -- guys dying for no reason.”
Police kept a small group of counter-protesters separate from the rally.
“These people say they support the troops and want them home, but if we bring them home like that, it’ll be Vietnam all over again: helicopters picking guys off roofs -- a total defeat,” said Michael Day, a Navy veteran now studying civil engineering at UC San Diego.
Murphy and Vaughn reported from Washington and Pierson from Los Angeles. Times staff writers T. Christian Miller, Tony Perry and John Daniszewski contributed to this report.