Politics & Policy

Wake Me Up When September Ends

Protest time in the capital city.

Washington, D.C.It’s September in D.C., and that means that it’s time to protest. Originally, large anti-globalization protest actions were semi-annual events in town because they were held to coincide with the International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings in April and September. The dates have stuck, though nobody cares much for globalization issues anymore since the war in Iraq began. For the last few years, the September antiwar protests have been organized by International A.N.S.W.E.R., an offshoot of the Workers World Party — a group so staunchly Communist it supported the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

It was sometime around four o’clock, a long day made even longer by a slow tortuous walk from the White House to the Capitol. Protesters had been slammed up against the edge of the stone ramparts at the foot of the Capitol building for about twenty minutes now. Thousands of antiwar protesters were pushing forward against the stone wall and the temporary barriers thrown up by the police, fanning out almost the length of the building. They had finally arrived at the terminus — and things were supposed to get ugly. Capitol Police were out in force, and the pressure from behind was getting worse as the crowd screamed for . . . well, who knows, but they were angry.

But the threats of “widespread civil disobedience” promised by the march organizers are on everyone’s mind. A few people slip over the wall, only to be immediately dragged down by the Capitol Police and frogmarched up the steps in plastic cuffs. The cops look annoyed in a way that not even time-and-a-half makes up for. Then some shirtless kid full of bravado and possibly cheap vodka, hops up on the wall and raises him arms exhorting the crowd. He screams “Set it off!” and plunges to the sacred pavement on the other side of the wall and breaks into a full gallop, no doubt expecting thousands to follow, overtaking the Capitol, reclaiming their democracy by force if necessary. It doesn’t happen; he bears down the cops ten yards ahead who are standing behind a temporary metal barrier at the ready. The kid is agile; he weaves a bit to throw off the cops and it’s one final graceful stride before he plants his hands on the second barrier and swings legs up over the metal fence for an easy vault.

At which point three policemen collapse on him from different directions; they catch him horizontal in mid-air and slam him down to the pavement. The whole crowd winces and collectively draws breath in a way unheard outside a sports arena, and that was that. Promptly afterward, two protesters nearby were loudly joking about being too old to be arrested.

Sensing that the fury wasn’t there, march organizers begin to organize the “die-in.” Marchers are commanded to lie down on the Capitol lawn in a gesture symbolic of the “1.3 million dead Iraqis” that have died in the war to date. Running some rough figures, that’s almost 800 people a day since the war began. It’s hard to tell whether that’s a lie or merely a willingness to believe in hysterical nonsense.

For blocks along the parade route, the antiwar marchers find themselves confronted by large numbers of counterprotesters organized by a veterans group called Gathering of Eagles. A few of them followed the marchers all the way up to Capitol and are standing around chatting idly, observing the scene. One gets a phone call — there’s been a fight down near the reflecting pool and everybody’s off running down the hill.

By the time they arrive, there’s scrum of police and witnesses. The cops have zeroed in on the two men — Fred Peterson and Carlos Arredondo. It takes a while to unpack everyone’s stories, but here’s what’s apparently gone down: Arredondo has been participating in antiwar marches across the country, dragging a flag draped coffin on wheels. It has the name of his son Alexander on the back, with a photo of him in his dress blues. Alexander was a 20-year-old Lance Corporal Marine on his second tour when he died in An Najaf. When the Marine Corps casualty assistant officers arrived at Arredondo’s home to tell him his son had been killed, he did not take it well. He doused the Marine’s van with gasoline and tried to set himself on fire. Ever since then, Carlos Arredondo and his wife Melida (Alexander’s stepmother) have been an active part of the antiwar movement. Arredondo, a Costa Rican immigrant, gained U.S. citizenship two years after the incident, with help from Senator Kennedy, in part because of his notoriety.

 

Arredondo was bringing up the rear of the march; almost everybody was already on the Capitol lawn when he came by dragging his casket. Fred Peterson, an ex-Marine, was standing off to the side of the road. Peterson was upset, not just as a participant in the counterprotest offended by the marcher’s politics and their perceived lack of patriotism, but because he felt exploiting the death of a fallen Marine crossed a line. Fred walked out into the street and snatched the picture off of the casket.

Arredondo didn’t even know what happened until it was pointed out to him by others. By the time Arredondo figured it out, Peterson was walking away. In a rage, Arredondo took off and tackled Peterson from behind at a full run. Arredondo was pulled off Peterson very quickly by a number of Peterson’s fellow veterans and counterprotesters, but not before Peterson was bloodied in the ensuing scuffle.  

The police take statements. Nobody is arrested. Peterson has no idea who was pulling the coffin, only that someone was dishonoring the memory of a fellow marine. Leaders of the Gathering of Eagles speak to antiwar activists and Arredondo in an attempt to smooth things out. Though Arredondo and his wife have largely let themselves be exploited by questionable antiwar activists such as Cindy Sheehan, being a Gold Star father still counts for something in their eyes and they were familiar with Arredondo’s troubles. (Carlos Arredondo leaves the scene of the altercation accompanied by the Rev. Lennox Yearwood Jr., who is both exploitative and ethically challenged.)

While Arredondo is leaving, four young boys are walking by and hear what happened. They walk up to Peterson and made a point of shaking his hand. They’re all barely out of high school, “8th and I boys” as they’re known in D.C., after the address of the local Marine barracks. As soon as Peterson hears this he exclaims, “My brothers!” and is all smiles and backslaps. He gestures wildly toward the thousands of protesters on the lawn above him and tells them, “One drop of your blood is worth more than all of theirs, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.” They nod respectfully and say “Yes, sir.” It’s too bad they met like this — if Peterson could have met Arredondo under different circumstances, he would have told him how valuable his son’s sacrifice is. As it is, Fred has two children in the military, including a daughter at the Naval Academy.

 

At this point, the march is more or less over. Almost 200 people had been arrested out of an estimated 10,000 marchers — mostly in small isolated incidents. But it’s hard to think of that as a metric of success. Carlos Arredondo went home, still disturbed and grieving. Peterson went home still feeling dishonored. The next day the front page of the Washington Post was dedicated to a story about the effect of baby-boomer retirement on the transit and healthcare infrastructure in the local suburbs. The only trace of the protest was a small two by three inch photo, without a headline. The story is the same every September.

 – Mark Hemingway is an NRO staff reporter.

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