It was hard to get close to the counter demonstrators at Saturday's anti-war march in Raleigh. Police sealed off the eastern end of Hillsborough Street near the Capitol building, where at 1:45 p.m, about three dozen demonstrators were standing, across from thousands of anti-war protesters on the other side of Salisbury Street. Officers were scrutinizing anyone who approached the barricades. Two cops on horseback guarded the rear of the protest and four more lined the street in front of the group. Along the edges of this bubble, two TV cameras were trained on the protesters and a print reporter scribbled in a notebook. A couple of counter demonstrators snapped pictures of the reporters with a digital camera.
At one point, a lively shouting match erupted between the counter demonstrators and the anti-war marchers across the street. "Freedom's not free!" members of the smaller group shouted. "Freedom's $1.63!" came the reply (the price of regular gas). The anti, anti-warriors held up American flags and brandished signs: "Saddam Thanks you for Your Support!" "War Solved Hitler" and "Pacifists are the Parasites of Freedom!" One man wore a Veterans of Foreign Wars cap, another, a "Fry Mumia" T-shirt.
Then it grew quiet. There was some under-the-breath muttering about the anti-war folks: "In five years, they're going to be real embarrassed," one woman said. But except for the occasional car horn and responding cheer, the shouting was over with. The anti-war marchers headed down Salisbury Street, past U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole's office. The counter-demonstrators stayed put, as did the cops. I squeezed through one end of the temporary metal fence and approached one of the marchers to ask what brought him there.
"I'm here today to support our troops and support the president," said Jim McElroy, a 34-year-old state government worker from Cary who was carrying an American flag. "The media really blows up the anti-war protests. We like to think we're the patriotic rally." McElroy said he doesn't come out to many marches and isn't a member of any organized group. But when he heard about this protest on the Web, he decided to show up. "They keep saying 'No Blood for Oil,' " he said, fixing his green eyes on the marchers across the street. "But it's not about oil. We don't even get that much oil from Iraq. I feel like they're spitting in the faces of the troops."
The march organizer, Sue Eaton, said she's a member of FreeRepublic, a national "grassroots, independent political" network that recently opened a North Carolina chapter. "We have members from all over the state," said Eaton, who described herself as a Raleigh small business owner and stay-at-home mom. "And we have plenty of rallies going on all over the state." (A visit to the group's Web site at www.FreeRepublic.com showed the mission of the California-based organization is, "reversing the trend of unconstitutional government expansion" and "a complete restoration of our constitutional republic." It's newest project, "Operation Infinite FReep!" organizes protests to counter those led by "the America hating anti-war vermin.")
Just before the Raleigh counter protest wound down, a woman toting a blue flag with a white peace dove on it decided to walk the length of the metal fence. For the next five minutes, Martha Henderson, a nurse practitioner from Chapel Hill, debated the prospect of war in Iraq with the counter-demonstrators.
"You couldn't do this in Iraq!" one of the men yelled at her. "I know they're not free," Henderson said. "I'm not defending their government. But they don't want to die."
When she reached the far end of the fence, Henderson stopped to ask one of the reporters to take a picture of her and the counter demonstrators. As she handed the journalist her camera, Henderson confided, "In Washington, the police wouldn't let me talk to them like this." By 2:30 p.m., the protestors were taking down their flags and folding up their signs. "It was nice to meet you," said a young woman to the man with the bullhorn. Several demonstrators stopped to thank the police on horseback for their help before moving out from behind the fence. "The First Amendment's a wonderful thing," one of the officers replied.