Organizations represented: CODEPINK, Veterans for Peace, Plymouth UCC, Military Families, Newspaper Guild, Gray Panthers, and OPEIU Local 2
We also had an Iraqi War veteran and David, our Navy male nurse
Police lights pinpointed the front gate of Walter Reed Medical Center as I came driving down Georgia Avenue. My first thought was that there was already trouble and it wasn't even 7pm yet. As I drew up to the intersection in front of the main gate, I saw that matters were much worse. The Free Republics (Freepers) had been reinforced by a large number of people I would soon discover were Republicans from Arlington, VA and members of the Rolling Thunder motorcycle gang. It was a mob scene. They had taken over all four corners and the DC Police were standing helplessly by. Allison negotiated with the police. They allowed that while we did not have a current permit, they would give us back our corner. I pointed out that we should have both corners on our side of the street. DC Police, "We are only going to keep you people apart." We would have to hold them to that for the next two hours. The Freepers, "Young" Republicans, and the Rolling Thunder thugs were very aggressive. It did not take long for them to start coming over to our corner. It was very important that we keep them away both to preserve the vigil and to keep them from starting trouble to give the police an excuse to close us down. Another tactic, by the way, was to send their members over to the vigil and stick cameras in people's faces while blocking our banners. It took a lot of insistence on our part but finally the DC Police got out of their cars and did their job as they had promised. After a while, it seemed the Police began to understand the dynamics of the situation and came to our assistance without having to be asked. The Rolling Thunder thugs were especially aggressive and very nearly ended up in a fight with the DC Police. In the end though, we preserved our corner, and gradually over the next two hours our numbers increased, right up until it was time to close down at 9pm.
Our vigilers were stalwart and enthusiastic. We were incredibly disciplined despite the raucous provocations shouted at us and the physical intimidation. The Vigil was a mixture of young (and I count those of us at the far side of 50 among the young) and old, men and women. Special thanks to the members of Plymouth Congregational Church who responded to the call of Reverend Hagler to join the vigil (they were there to protest the closing of Walter Reed too but unfortunately due to circumstances that issue got buried). At times vigilers sang. We still received support from those driving down Georgia Ave although it seemed like the traffic was less and that was possibly due to the presence of the counter-vigilers whom I will refer to as the "brown shirts". There were no white buses (Walter Reed buses bringing in the wounded) during the vigil (thank goodness) but when the family bus arrived, the brown shirts filled the street blocking the bus and screaming "USA! USA!" Through the large windows of the bus it was possible to see that the family members inside were not happy. The police did nothing to protect the bus but it finally made it into Walter Reed.
Tonight we started using a sign in sheet, and that worked very well, with more than twice our usual number showing up.
The participation of the Plymouth UCC members gave us a special lift.
A father and daughter came because, they said, they heard about the vigil for the first time when Fox News bashed us. They decided right then to come out to join us.
The Iraqi war veteran was especially incensed at the brown shirts, noting that they had probably not served but were quite happy to send more young men and women to fight.
The members of Military Families and Veterans for Peace swelled our ranks--their presence answered the lies shouted out by the brown shirts. A pair of Gray Panthers arrived and were quite ready to take their place in the line.They were not a bit intimidated by the shouting and fist shaking across the avenue. Allison passed out water, dealt with the Police, and maintained our discipline (everyone was cooperative). We are really being tested out there. But we all stay focused on who we are there for. Kevin (VFP) and Nina (independent) anchored both ends of the line. At 9pm the vigil ended in good order with a sense of solidarity and dignity. I even thanked the DC Police for doing their job. I think by the end they were relating with us and finally saw that their job was to protect our right to be there. Sad to say, but there may not have been a vigil, at least not there at our regular spot without the good work of a handful of DC Police. They got out of their cars and firmly kept the brown shirts in their place. (Not easy--there may have been four or five police officers and close to a hundred brown shirts. The best the officers could do was protect us and keep the gateway open.)
The Administration must be desperate to call out Republican Party members and the Rolling Thunder thugs (I won't call them bikers--that would be offensive to all other bikers) to try and break up our vigil. It demonstrates, I believe, that our policy of ignoring them and staying on message is working--and it is driving them nuts.
While our numbers were twice what they usually are, we were out-numbered three to one. With their numbers, noise, and obnoxious behavior, the tactics of the Administration's brown shirts are succeeding in distracting from the purpose of our vigil. They are intimidating people in the neighborhood, both residential and business traffic on Georgia Avenue, and the patients and workers inside Walter Reed. We stood our ground but our purpose is being negated.
What can we do?
Anne has to get us that permit ASAP. No question about that.
We could call for more people. If the polls are right, we should outnumber the brown shirts three to one, but that would mean three hundred people at the vigil. While it would be nice to have all those people there--it would be hard to maintain our purpose, and the situation would probably escalate. That's what the brown shirts want. They want the police to shut us down.
A better alternative would be if the soldiers inside Walter Reed would come outside to stand with us to help save the vigil. During the past five months of the vigil, we've talked with them. We know some agree with us and are happy to have us there. Others don't agree necessarily but feel strongly about our right to be there. That's what they thought they were fighting for.
The support of the patients and hopefully some of the workers inside Walter Reed would have to deflate the brown shirts. Even they can't scream their obscenities at wounded vets. I'm working on an appeal letter and hopefully we can figure out a way to reach our sisters and brothers inside. What do you think?
OPEIU Local 2
Walter Reed Vigil