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The Daily Tar Heel

Calls for Peace Fill U.S. Capital

About 1,700 from N.C. made the trip.

Click here to see more photos from the Washington protest

WASHINGTON -- The air thundered with calls for peace Saturday as throngs of protesters surged onto the National Mall and spilled into the streets in what was the largest anti-war rally in the capital since the Vietnam War.

Despite the below- freezing temperatures, the substantial crowd -- estimated at more than 200,000 -- crunched toward a lone stage erected in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol building.

The demonstrators were drawn by national civil rights figures who charged them to fight social inequity and the injustice of the impending war against Iraq.

"Are we talking about weapons of mass destruction or a political game of mass destruction?" the Rev. Al Sharpton, a renowned civil rights leader and 2004 presidential contender, yelled over the roar of the crowd.

"Doctor Martin Luther King started his fight against segregation, but he didn't stop there. He fought for world peace. ... We haven't dropped the banner."

Although the banner Saturday took on many diverse forms -- informed opposition, international peace, environmentalism and civil rights -- they all were united under an anti-Bush, anti-war theme.

"Let's fight a war on poverty, not a war against the poor," civil rights leader Jesse Jackson roared. "We choose brains over brawn. ... We've got fire in our bellies for peace. We're going forward by hope, not backward with fear."

Protesters flowed into the streets by the thousands as Jackson pounded his speech to its end. Signs proclaiming, "No Blood for Oil," and, "Protest is Patriotism," peppered the crowd; above them, an enormous North Carolina state flag whipped in the freezing wind.

Wajeh Muhammed, the Greensboro resident bearing the flag, said he made the trip to Washington to demonstrate that there is not a national consensus for war.

"I'm a Muslim and an American, and I want to be here for my people," he said. "I'm an American citizen too, and I'm against the war. I want peace, and that's why I'm here today."

About 2,500 North Carolinians, including seven busloads from Chapel Hill, got up in the pre-dawn hours Saturday to join Muhammed in Washington.

Among the Chapel Hill protesters were about 100 UNC students, University professors Catherine Lutz and Sarah Shields and Democratic Sen. Ellie Kinnaird, Orange County's representative in the N.C. Senate.

"I think people are aware that priorities are being skewed," Kinnaird said. "I don't think that Americans buy the fact that there is a case for war."

Raleigh resident Will Scheerer also ventured to the capital because of his conviction that the White House has not met the burden of proof for declaring war against Iraq. "I came because of a conviction that it's wrong. It's all wrong."

Scheerer said that he protested the Vietnam War but that he did not protest during the Gulf War because he felt Iraq's invasion of Kuwait was a legitimate cause for U.S. intervention.

Asheville resident and UNC alumnus Bill Wolcott joined Triangle protesters in what they hailed as a North Carolina coalition, though they were in fact dispersed throughout the crowd.

Wolcott sported a UNC baseball cap and conservative dress, contrasting the painted, sign-toting protesters surrounding him, but he raised his voice in the same battle cries.

"I felt like I needed to come and say that (our leaders) haven't made a case for war in Iraq," he said. "It's a terrible turn in American policy that we have become terribly arrogant."

But counter-protester Tom Wagner, a member of the D.C. chapter of the national organization Free Republic, said he would support any action against Saddam Hussein and his Iraqi regime.

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"We yell back and forth, but we are just here to share our ideas like the protesters are," he said, waving a U.S. flag near a line of onlooking Washington police officers.

Washington Police Chief Charles Ramsey, who stood watch near the 50-strong group of pro-war demonstrators, said that despite a couple of minor incidents, the demonstration had been peaceful.

"This is a very, very large parade," he said. "But they've worked very well with us. As long as it's peaceful, we certainly don't mind their being here."

Ramsey said that he had anticipated cooperation and that no outside forces were commissioned for the event. "We are using all of our own people and some Capitol police."

Though he wouldn't hazard a crowd estimate, Ramsey said the demonstration was one of the largest he had witnessed in some time -- at least twice the size of the October anti-war rally that drew about 100,000 participants.

Organizers pushed crowd estimates from about 200,000 to 500,000 but reiterated that no matter the size, the demonstration shattered the misconception of popular support for war in Iraq. "The myth of consensus was broken," said Chapel Hill organizer Nancy Brown.

"I think it was successful," Kinnaird said of the turnout. "It was huge. It took five years in Vietnam before we saw these kinds of numbers."

The State & National Editor can be reached at stntdesk@unc.edu.

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