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Twin Marches Cap D.C. Protests

April 22, 2002
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Twin Marches Cap D.C. Protests

Clashes Break Out Over Middle East Conflict, Colombian Civil War

by Steve Twomey, Washington Post

Four days of multi-cause street actions in Washington culminated yesterday in twin demonstrations rooted in conflicts overseas, the first a morning march centered on the Colombian civil war and the second an evening gathering of pro-Palestinian marchers that closed Connecticut Avenue and led to angry exchanges with supporters of Israel.

Kept apart by barricades and scores of police, sympathizers from both sides of the Middle East impasse traded accusations last night outside the Washington Hilton, where the American Israel Public Affairs Committee is holding a three-day conference that includes speeches by three former Israeli prime ministers.

Several hours earlier, 37 people were arrested as part of the Colombian march, in which a vocal corps of demonstrators snaked from the Washington Monument to the U.S. Capitol to protest U.S. aid to the South American nation, which they allege exacerbates its civil war.

The morning and evening protests capped a string of news conferences, workshops, processions and park gatherings that began Friday and featured an unusual amalgam of groups, all gathering on the same long weekend in a quest for solidarity and maximum media coverage.

During the four days, demonstrators excoriated the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and multinational corporations, and raised banners highlighting numerous other alleged political and environmental problems around the world. The largest rally, a Saturday gathering estimated by police at 75,000 people, was dominated by pro-Palestinian marchers.

Although there were more than 100 arrests over the four days, no violence broke out as local and federal police responded with an overwhelming presence of officers on foot, on horses and on motorcycles and bicycles, even drawing upon departments from the suburbs.

Anticipating the pro-Palestinian gathering, police closed Connecticut Avenue from Florida Avenue to California Street, forcing afternoon commuters to find other ways home, but said they would reopen Connecticut in time for this morning's rush hour.

"Overall, the protests are going, I think, smoothly," said Executive Assistant Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer. "We just have to make sure tempers don't flare."

Several times outside the Hilton, though, passions did rise, and there were moments when the crowd of several hundred pro-Palestinian marchers surged toward police lines in anger, only to recede.

At one point, several people arriving for a dinner at the Israeli conference waded into the pro-Palestinian group to admonish marchers for what they said was teaching hate. That touched off a scuffle in which one pro-Israel man said he was spit upon, and another said the pocket of his suit was ripped. Police separated the sides and chastised those from the Israel conference for provoking the crowd, one of them said.

At the rear of the Hilton, Avi Zemelman, 48, an Israeli Web-site operator who lives in Silver Spring, stood among 75 pro-Palestinian marchers and waved a small Israeli flag. That sparked a debate with a protester wearing an Arab kaffiyeh and a poster that read "Shame on Israel."

"Go live in Saudi Arabia, go live with Arafat," Zemelman said, referring to the chairman of the Palestinian Authority.

"He's a killer," the protester replied, "just like Ariel Sharon," referring to the Israeli prime minister.

"That man is a patriot," Zemelman said.

Earlier, a pro-Israel protester held up a placard that read, "Invest in peace" and "divest from terrorism." The protester wasstanding no more than five feet from a pro-Palestinian marcher brandishing a sign that said, "Stop using God as an excuse for genocide."

"Sharon is a coldblooded murderer, and the United States and its vast wealth is providing finances for the mass slaughter of Palestinian people. Doesn't the United States or Israel have a speck of conscience?" said Eric Brim, 29, a Muslim American from Illinois.

Referring to Israeli operations at the Jenin refugee camp, he added: "Israel is again in the business of conducting wholesale massacres, and its big bully buddy the United States is right there lending a helping hand. These unspeakable acts must stop, and that's why we are here."

Standing two yards away, Danny Krifcher, 40, a Jewish American business executive from Potomac, said that he was "trying to send a message of support for President Bush's war on terrorism and the moral clarity he brings."

"What the United States felt and saw on Sept. 11, Israel has felt and is feeling on a daily basis," Krifcher said.

During one of the evening's most tense moments, a line of protesters carrying a fence made of chicken wire and PVC pipe advanced toward police lines at Bancroft Place and Connecticut Avenue NW about 8:30 p.m. Soon, they were face-to-face with D.C. police in riot gear, as observers holding up video cameras strained to capture the confrontation and the crowd chanted, "The whole world is watching."

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey and Gainer walked between police and protesters, talking quietly with the demonstrators and with a "legal observer" on the front lines. Soon, police in riot helmets were replaced by those clad in windbreakers, and the confrontation dissolved.

"You have to go in, and just kind of [say] 'Whoa.' Just talk to them," Ramsey said afterward. As both police and protesters stepped back, the crowd cheered.

The Colombian march, which stepped off at 7:15 a.m., held the potential for commuting chaos downtown, because organizers had not obtained a march permit and had suggested there would be acts of civil disobedience.

That led police officials to express concern that the final day of protests would be the worst. But a show of force by District and U.S. Park Police officers -- and the brisk pace of the walkers -- kept traffic disruptions minimal and temporary.

Another factor, Ramsey said, was that many downtown workers apparently heeded pleas to take Metro instead of drive, and indeed train ridership was about 19,000 passengers greater than it is on a typical Monday, according to the agency.

Shoving broke out sporadically in the early morning mist as police officers tried to block and rechannel the march at various points. Organizers complained bitterly after police surrounded the demonstrators in a park near the Capitol and temporarily kept them from leaving for another park where they had planned to assemble.

The 37 people were arrested in two separate incidents after they sat down in streets near the Capitol, held hands and sang. One group said it came from the Oberlin (Ohio) College Rainbow Revolutionaries and the other from various Catholic organizations.

All but one were released after being charged with obstructing traffic. They will appear in D.C. Superior Court at a future date, said Lt. Dan Nichols of the Capitol Police. The only one not released refused to give her name, police said.

"It was not confrontational," Nichols said. "These were acts of civil disobedience. We're prepared to deal with it."

In all, Ramsey said, there were about 2,000 people in the march, whose organizers had envisioned it as a kind of public service announcement about Colombia aimed at the federal government. In addition to U.S. military aid, protesters focused on a school in Georgia at which the U.S. military has trained Central and South American officers; and on operations in Colombia intended to destroy drug crops but that organizers said destroy food supplies.

"Today is another day to fight for peace and justice!" shouted protest organizer Gordon Clark, of Silver Spring. "Are you ready to fight for the poor, and the dispossessed and the other victims of U.S. military aid to Colombia?"

Organizer Carol Richardson, 58, an Iowan from a group called Witness for Peace, said she was sorry "if people are inconvenienced" by the march, but "we do want people to pause a minute and understand that their tax dollars are being used in a way that they would not support."

Marchers expected to wend their way from the Washington Monument to Upper Senate Park, near the Capitol. But at a smaller park at C and Delaware streets NE, they found themselves surrounded by District and U.S. Park police and unable to leave. Richardson told the crowd to remember their pledges of nonviolence, and that people in Colombia suffer worse repression every day because of U.S.-financed violence.

"The police are falsely imprisoning children, adults, peaceful activists," said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a lawyer for the District-based Partnership for Civil Justice. "This is illegal and false imprisonment."

About 8:50 a.m., the police lines relented, and the crowd was allowed to reach Upper Senate Park.

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