Actress Jane Fonda broke her silence over Iraq to join tens of thousands of protesters in Washington in a massive anti-war demonstration that included some members of the military.
Fonda, an icon of the Vietnam protest movement, said yesterday’s event was her first anti-war demonstration in 34 years.
The protesters rallied in the country’s capital, seizing an opportunity to press their cause with a Democrat-controlled Congress hostile to the war and a country that has turned against the conflict.
“Silence is no longer an option,” Fonda said to cheers from the stage on the National Mall.
The actress, once derided as “Hanoi Jane” by conservatives for her stance on Vietnam, said she had kept a low profile over Iraq because it would have distracted attention from the anti-war movement.
The rally on the Mall unfolded peacefully, although about 300 protesters tried to rush the Capitol, running up the grassy lawn to the front of the building. Police on motorcycles tried to stop them, scuffling with some and barricading entrances.
Protesters chanted: “Our Congress” as their numbers grew and police faced off against them. Demonstrators later joined the masses marching from the Mall, around Capitol Hill and back.
About 50 demonstrators blocked a street near the Capitol for about 30 minutes, but they were dispersed without arrests.
United for Peace and Justice, a coalition group sponsoring the protest, had hoped 100,000 would come. Police, who no longer give official estimates, said privately the crowd was smaller than 100,000.
At the rally, 12-year-old Moriah Arnold from Massachusetts stood on her toes to reach the microphone and tell the crowd: “Now we know our leaders either lied to us or hid the truth. Because of our actions, the rest of the world sees us as a bully and a liar.”
Moriah had organised a petition at her school against the war that has killed more than 3,000 US service-members, including seven whose deaths were reported yesterday.
More Hollywood celebrities arrived at the demonstration than buttoned-down Washington typically sees in a month.
Actor Sean Penn said politicians would pay a price in the 2008 elections if they did not take firmer action than to pass a non-binding resolution against the war.
Actors Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins also spoke.
Fonda was a lightning rod in the Vietnam era for her outspoken opposition to that war and her advocacy from Hanoi at the height of that conflict.
Sensitive to the old wounds, she made a point of thanking the active-duty service-members, veterans and military family members who attended the rally.
She drew parallels to the Vietnam War, citing “blindness to realities on the ground, hubris … thoughtlessness in our approach to rebuilding a country we’ve destroyed”.
But she noted that this time, veterans, soldiers and their families were increasingly and vocally against the Iraq war.
House Judiciary Committee chairman, Congressman John Conyers, threatened to use congressional spending power to try to stop the war.
“George Bush has a habit of firing military leaders who tell him the Iraq war is failing,” he said, then telling the crowd: “He can’t fire you.” Referring to Congress, the Michigan Democrat added: “He can't fire us.”
But White House spokesman Trey Bohn hit back, saying that Conyers “needs to learn the difference between fact and fable, between a soundbite and a slur”. He said Conyers’ “assertion that the president fires generals with whom he disagrees is flat wrong”.
On the stage rested a coffin covered with a US flag and a pair of military boots, symbolising American war dead. On the Mall stood a large bin filled with tags bearing the names of Iraqis who had died.
A small contingent of servicemen and women attended the rally, wearing civilian clothes because military rules forbids them from protesting in uniform.
Air force staff sgt Tassi McKee, 26, an intelligence specialist at Fort Meade, Maryland, said she joined the USAF because of patriotism, travel and money for college. “After we went to Iraq, I began to see through the lies,” she said.
But about 40 people staged a counter-protest, including US Army corporal Joshua Sparling, 25, who lost his leg to a bomb in Iraq.
He said the anti-war protesters, especially veterans or those on active duty, “need to remember the sacrifice we have made and what our fallen comrades would say if they are alive”.
Meanwhile President Bush reaffirmed his commitment to his planned troop increase in a phone conversation with Iraqi prime minister Nouri Maliki.
“He understands that Americans want to see a conclusion to the war in Iraq and the new strategy is designed to do just that,” said Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council.