April 20 was a day of contrasts in the streets of Washington. Gigantic Maryland Terrapins mascots urging people to "Mobilize" commingled with Palestinian flags, massive street theater puppets, and the occasional Korean drumming circle. Though the causes ran the gamut from ending union-busting to lifting sanctions on Iraq, the demand for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories and the creation of a Palestinian state dominated the ethnically diverse crowd of more than 75,000 that converged on Pennsylvania Avenue to march toward the Capitol. Even some police motorcycles carried stickers reading "End the Israeli Occupation Now." Small children had stealthily placed them there while unsuspecting officers revved their engines.
The message of the protesters was no more or less inflammatory than that of pro-Israel demonstrators last week. Indeed, the polarization of the conflict has led members of both camps to move to their respective extremes. "[Yasir] Arafat is a terrorist" signs last week were met with the rebuttal "[Ariel] Sharon is a war criminal" on the weekend; graphic pictures of the Israeli victims of Palestinian suicide attacks were answered by photos of Palestinian children maimed by Israeli shells.
Some pro-Israel extremists at last week's rally declared "Kahane was right," referring to the right-wing rabbi who advocated forcibly expelling Arabs from the occupied territories and who is celebrated in Brooklyn graffiti and West Bank settler circles despite his classification as a "terrorist" by the Israeli government. Likewise, similarly hateful extremist groups chanted "Death to Israel" on the weekend. But interestingly, these inflammatory calls came not from the throngs of flag-waving Palestinians but rather a group of 10 to 20 "New Black Panthers," who joined the crowd of pro-Palestinian and anti-globalization marchers.
These Panthers, with branches in several cities, bear little ideological resemblance to the original Black Panther Party and have in fact been denounced by the original Panthers and their heirs. The new Panthers marched with posters of Osama bin Laden and signs such as "The American Israeli white man is the devil." Entering the crowd, they provoked several arguments and one near-fight. Palestinian demonstrators largely ignored them and distanced themselves from the New Panthers' message, though one flag-waving youth joined their ranks.
As the Panthers moved forward, the press descended upon them, snapping photos and digesting sound bites about "Jihad" and "destroying Israel." But their glory wouldn't last long. No sooner had they become the center of attention than an open-bed truck carrying 20 college students and blaring Beastie Boys music approached from behind. Suddenly hoarse calls for "Death to Israel" were drowned out by the shrill and annoying voice of a college student. "While you're shopping, bombs are dropping," she wailed from the truck. Incredulous, the Panthers looked up at their competition, a waifish college student barely five-feet tall. Frustrated, the Panthers ran forward along the sidewalk, visibly troubled that they had been drowned out.
As the four separate rallies converged at 14th and Pennsylvania, the panthers disappeared into a sea of Palestinian flags, kaffiyeh-clad Palestinian youths ran past perplexed theatergoers, and the true flavor of the protest emerged. The rain did not hinder the procession of tens of thousands towards the mall. Half-naked headdress- and loincloth-wearing dancers got down to Arabic techno music while veiled women looked on curiously. A small group calling for peace on the Korean peninsula drew crowds of shirtless hippies with their drumming performance and an impromptu rock concert on the steps of the Justice Department took the time to denounce Attorney General John Ashcroft between acts.
By the time the march came to a halt on the mall, many stragglers had already headed home or stopped to rest on the steps of the Canadian Embassy. Filling the grass from the Reflecting Pool to the Washington Monument, the remaining crowd listened to rally organizers and the renowned Egyptian feminist writer Nawal el-Sadawwi.
A Palestinian flag hung from the stage decorated with a large anti-war banner. Variations on the theme "End the Israeli occupation of Washington/Congress/Capitol Hill" could be seen, a marked contrast to six days earlier when a pro-Israel rally drew similar crowds but also a sizable bipartisan congressional contingent. Yet at a rally defending Palestinian rights, only the ever-present Bush critic Democratic Representative Cynthia McKinney of Georgia chose to speak, a silent testament, perhaps, to the extraordinary influence of the pro-Israel lobby that so many here were speaking out against.
Partisans of the Palestinian cause demonstrated that many people share their anger at the Sharon government and its American surrogates. But the weekend's demonstration also proved that simply matching the numbers of the pro-Israel lobby in the streets will never be enough to win the PR war for Arab-Americans. The distortion caused by the New Black Panthers didn't help matters. Until the message of the 75,000 gathered on the Mall reaches the halls of Congress, uncritical support of Israel, even when it makes the Bush administration look spineless, is likely to remain a fixture in the American political landscape.