WASHINGTON — A sun-soaked noon rally within blocks of the White House brought out hundreds of protesters Thursday to mark the 10th anniversary of the Afghanistan War.
On Freedom Square, sign-carrying demonstrators banged drums, sang and cheered a series of fiery speeches by anti-war activists, who decried the federal government's continued funding of the Afghan and Iraqi wars while calling for cuts to social programs for the elderly, poor and people with disabilities.
Planning for the rally began six months ago, but the event's timing dovetailed perfectly with nationwide protests in support of the ongoing Occupy Wall Street demonstration in New York. There were similar protests against income inequality and perceived corporate profiteering Thursday in Austin, Texas, Sacramento, Calif., Houston and other cities.
During a morning news conference, President Barack Obama said little about the Afghan War entering its 11th year, but he did give a shout-out to the growing wave of protests.
"I think people are frustrated and, you know, the protesters are giving voice to a more broad-based frustration about how our financial system works," he said.
That sentiment was shared by a protester who identified herself only as Andrea E., a single mother of two who is facing foreclosure on her home in the Philadelphia area.
She said a divorce and a loss of hours on her waitressing job made it impossible to keep up with her mortgage. Her bank lowered her monthly payments while it considered a loan modification. Ultimately, however, it refused to do so and demanded that she pay the past-due amount, about $4,000.
"I refuse to give them another dime until they modify my mortgage," she said, arguing that she was never late with a payment. After attending the Wall Street rally in New York, Andrea, 34, said she's hoping for a "peaceful revolution" in which corporations - such as her bank - grow hearts.
"I'm sure that's not going to happen anytime soon, but I hope it does," she said. "We need the middle class to be back where it should be and not dwindling away like it is."
Bo Considine, a 60-year-old business analyst from Maryland, took the day off to join the Washington protest. Considine said he was upset that the tax system treated corporate profits more favorably than it did income from labor. And in a reference to the tea party movement, Considine said he was tired of watching the squeaky wheels get all the grease.
"I can't put up with having my voice shouted down anymore and having those people who behave most aggressively and uncompromisingly set and maintain the agenda. I feel like this is the beginning of the silent majority finally saying enough is enough," Considine said.
Civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory spoke at the rally, saying the demonstrators reminded him of the young anti-war protesters in the late 1960s, who were emboldened by the civil rights protests.
"These young people didn't come here with a road map," Gregory said. "They've come here with a feeling in their heart, and nothing's going to stop them. These young folks here are not afraid."
Medea Benjamin of Code Pink, a female anti-war group, said about 75 organizations sponsored the Washington rally, which attracted participants from Texas, Arkansas, Minnesota, Wisconsin and even Alaska.
While not intending to capitalize on the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, Benjamin said Thursday's rally shared a common thread with the now-famous New York protest: "Corruption of Wall Street spills over to corruption on K Street," she said.
In a statement Thursday, Chai Ling, who was the commander in chief of the 1989 student democracy movement that organized China's Tiananmen Square uprising, said the youth and passion of America's protesters matched that of the young Chinese who ultimately gave their lives for liberty in China.
"The momentum of this protest is built around a longing for Wall Street and America's leadership to stop focusing on corporate greed and solely on the bottom line," she said. "It is a plea for America to be restored to a moral compass that will guide leaders to care for the poor and seek justice."