Some thoughts on the Counter-Demonstrators
at the March on the Pentagon
Check this out: It's
from a report by The Washington Post on the national anti-war protest held March 17 in Washington, D.C.:
quickly apparent that the weather had not prevented counter-demonstrators, many in black leather motorcycle jackets, from
showing up in force and surrounding all sides of the [Vietnam Memorial] Wall. At one point before the march started, counter-demonstrators
formed a gantlet along an asphalt walkway on Constitution Avenue and heaped verbal abuse at protesters who walked through
on their way to the assembly area. One Vietnam veteran in a wheelchair yelled obscenities at demonstrators, including some
The target of that gantlet, of course, was our 250-strong VAWN/Virginia Contingent, which seems to have
received the brunt of the day's abuse. The more than 1,000 counter-protesters may have tried to pass themselves off as defenders
of veterans, but that didn't stop them from screaming insults at the three members of our contingent who were disabled veterans
in wheelchairs, forced to roll through that double line of frothing fanatics.
One of the yahoos tried to tip over the wheelchair of Elizabeth La Grua of Staunton. Rain Madeline from
Richmond was pushed. I was spat on (after being shoved by a cop). Others had signs ripped up and banners trashed – though
not our lead banner, thanks to the courage and determination of the two folks carrying it.
Speaking of cops: In
the past, D.C. police have usually tried to separate opposing groups of protesters. This time, they stood by while the right-wingers
positioned themselves on either side of the sidewalk, forcing us to walk single-file between them. Several of us feel there
was some plan to provoke a reaction from our side so the “vets” could attack, with the cops acquiescing. A plan
like that couldn't be in place without approval from much higher up than the city level.
So who were these jerks?
If you haven't found
it yet, check out www.gatheringofeagles.org. This Gathering of Eagles (GOE) outfit was the public umbrella group that put
out the national call for the counter-protest. Some of the groups that responded were Rolling Thunder, a motorcycle group;
townhall.com, a right-wing Web site; USA Cossacks (!); Move America Forward; and freerepublic.com, a far-right anti-communist
organization that mobilizes groups of counter-demonstrators to harass anti-war protests, including the one two years ago at
A little surfing on
the Net reveals that one of the main organizers of GOE was retired U.S. Navy Captain Larry W. Bailey, president of Vietnam
Vets for the Truth, which along with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth attacked 2004 Democratic Presidential candidate Senator
John Kerry's military record. (You may have noticed the big anti-Kerry banner on the march route, which looked strangely out
of place, given what Kerry passes off as opposition to the war.) Vets for the Truth also tried unsuccessfully to block Congressman
John Murtha's re-election bid. Bailey is also a member of the D.C. Chapter of Free Republic.
The other main
GOE figure is retired Col. Harry Riley, quoted in a recent interview on one right-wing Web site as saying, “We should
have been much tougher with Syria and Iran, maybe even bombing their military sites, industrial, nuclear sites.” (http://frontpagemagazine.com/Articles/ReadArticle.asp?ID=27162)
(There was one moment
in the gantlet ordeal that offered a little hope: After enduring the abuse for a block or so, it seemed time to try and break
out into the street. I asked our folks to move off the sidewalk, but a line of right-wingers blocked our way. It was a tense
stand-off, until one of the veterans' marshals told his people to step back. When I thanked him, he motioned for us to cross
the line and, unexpectedly, said, “Be safe.” I leaned over and said “My father is a survivor of the Bataan
Death March and four years of prison camp – do you think I'd disrespect a vet? We just don't want to see anyone else
get killed.” I asked him his name. He told me and I told him mine. “If something kicks off, let's look for each
other,” I suggested. He agreed, and again wished us to be safe. Not the majority sentiment, to be sure, but a ray of
The handle GOE used
to get people to D.C. was to say that protesters had written graffiti on the steps of the Capitol during the Jan. 27 protest,
and that they were going to stand guard at the Wall and other memorials to make sure that such a “desecration”
didn't happen again. On the other hand, GOE's mission statement defines “desecration” as holding an anti-war rally
in front of a memorial, which was the march organizers' original plan for March 17. The Web site danced around the question
of what GOE planned to do if such a rally took place, but the implication was clear – they would try to physically stop
This is a new development for this period
(although not for past eras or movements), both in terms of the numbers of counter-protesters (GOE is saying 30,000, a ridiculous
claim, but there must have been more than 1,000), their level of organization and communication and their intention to get
In my opinion, what we saw in D.C. was an
attempt to put together a genuinely fascist movement, one that could be used not only on March 17 but in the future to prevent
anti-war and other progressive mobilizations. Some of the comments posted on the GOE Web site are conservative but not crazy,
while others are open calls for shedding blood – ours.
So, on the one hand
we shouldn't think we are up against a broad wave of resentment by masses of vets. But, on the other hand, we shouldn't kid
ourselves into thinking this couldn't develop into something more serious than what we saw on March 17. In D.C., we had numbers,
if not much security. At a much smaller protest back home, 20 or 30 of these yahoos could be problem.
But what really impressed
me about Saturday was the fact that our people stayed so strong – the elderly, the young, the disabled, all of us. There
was much more defiance than fear. And when broke free of the gantlet and regrouped at 23rd and Constitution, there was a palpable
determination to continue as a contingent. It was a trial by fire, and we passed the test.
The same courage and
determination was shown during the stand-off with the Pentagon police, who for hours refused to release our buses, forcing
hundreds of demonstrators to stand in the windy cold. As the temperature dropped, this was approaching a life-threatening
situation for some of our people, but still we didn't become discouraged. We stuck together and found shelter for the most
vulnerable while pressuring the bus company to pressure the Pentagon police to release the buses. All in all, we came out
of the ordeal stronger and more united.
However, I'm hoping that this experience
will also help convince us all that we have to be better prepared for these protests. Our request for volunteers to help with
the contingent got a very light response. There were only three of us acting as security during the gantlet. The two folks
on the sound system kept the chants going and the two who held the VAWN banner kept a sense of cohesion during a very difficult
experience, but if we had actually been attacked, we would have been overrun and would have lost the contingent. That would
have represented a new development for a national march, with implications for the whole progressive movement.
If the chant “Whose streets? Our streets!”
gets changed to “Their streets!” we've got a real problem. It's time for the progressive movement to take up this
question in a serious way.
Editor, The Richmond Defender
Founding member, Virginia Anti-War Network
PO Box 23202
Richmond, VA 23223