Several hundred protesters voiced their opposition to the president's State of the Union address last night in a boisterous evening of demonstrations that began with a concert at the Capitol and ended with an unpermitted march through downtown Washington.
Protesters gathered in the cold at the West Front of the Capitol near Third Street NW for an evening rally, waving signs reading "Drop Bush, Not Bombs" and denouncing a possible U.S. military strike against Iraq. As President Bush delivered his address to Congress, activists huddled near patio heaters and read captions from the speech on a giant projection screen as local electronica duo Thievery Corporation performed on a stage.
"On a night when they're telling us we're supposed to sit in front of our TVs and passively consume their message of war, we're going to come out, leave our homes and say loud and proud that we're not buying it," said Dave Zirin, 28, a member of the International Socialist Organization.
Later in the evening, brief scuffles between police and protesters broke out during a march along Pennsylvania Avenue NW, police said. There were no arrests.
The demonstrations -- dubbed "The Sorry State of the Union" -- were part outdoor concert, part left-of-center political rally and part presidential roast. Speeches from activists critical of Bush's domestic and foreign policies gave way to punk rock performances. One man made the rounds in the crowd wearing a Bush mask as protesters booed video montages of recent speeches by the president.
The event was organized as an alternative to the evening's political discourse, typically dominated by party leaders and pundits, organizers said. "The State of the Union is always focused on the president and the Democratic or Republican response," said Adam Eidinger, 29, an organizer with the D.C. Statehood Green Party. "This time, there's going to be a protest response."
Eidinger said last night's permitted rally was the first time in recent memory that a major protest of a State of the Union address was held near Capitol grounds. A National Park Service spokesman said there was no record of any permitted State of the Union protest in the past five years.
After Bush's speech, Natalie Johnson Lee, a Minneapolis City Council member, gave the official response from the national Green Party. Lee told the audience that Bush had declared the state of the union strong. "I beg to differ," she said. "The state of the union is lowly in the neighborhood of nations."
Opposition to a war with Iraq was one of many issues drawing protesters' ire. Organizers also sought to draw attention to domestic issues -- including the economy, affordable housing and health care -- that "Bush has bumped off the agenda because of the current focus on Iraq," Eidinger said.
The rally and march were coordinated by the Shirts Off Coalition, made up of five Washington area and national groups, including SUSTAIN (Stop U.S. Tax-Funded Aid to Israel Now), the D.C. Statehood Green Party and the Anti-Capitalist Convergence. The Shirts Off Coalition was behind an October demonstration in which several men and women exposed their chests in downtown Washington to show that Bush had taken "the shirts off our backs" to pay for war with Iraq.
In yesterday's teeth-chattering cold, no one proposed repeating the tactic. Organizers served hot chocolate and coffee to the shivering crowd, in addition to setting up the portable heaters, and said the turnout of 1,000 was a message all its own. "This shows just how dedicated people are," said Zoe Mitchell, 22, a coalition organizer.
U.S. Capitol Police Chief Terrance W. Gainer said before the protests that about 1,500 officers would be dispatched around the Capitol building, including officers from other jurisdictions. U.S. Park Police and D.C. police also had officers in the area. Both D.C. and U.S. Park police had surveillance cameras on during the events.
Most security concerns centered on the unpermitted march, which began nearby on Pennsylvania Avenue NW shortly after 10 p.m. Asked about the march, D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey said beforehand that "shenanigans" might take place. Some of the march organizers took part in September 2002 protests that led to sporadic vandalism, a controversial police cordon and mass arrests downtown.
The marchers, who numbered about 200, planned to snake around downtown making stops at the Department of Justice, a military recruitment center and other sites. At 10th and F streets NW, protesters tried to sprint ahead of a police motorcycle escort, and the march splintered in different directions.
Around 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, District police officials said motorcycle officers were hit with marbles and other objects thrown by protesters. A scuffle broke out between a half-dozen protesters and as many officers at the intersection. Tensions later eased as the remaining marchers returned to the rally site.
Staff writer Clarence Williams contributed to this report.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company