WASHINGTON -- More than 500 people gathered in Freedom Plaza on Thursday, participating in the "Stop the Machine" protest, a separate but parallel action to the ongoing Occupy DC protests in McPherson Square and the Occupy Wall Street protests in New York.
The protesters, whose numbers are growing, have been waving signs and chanting about war, student loans, undue corporate political influence, unequal economic conditions and bank bailouts. They've also been chanting about LGBT rights, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, jobs and the environment. Even Ron Paul supporters turned up.
Carrie Stone and her partner Elisia Ross came from West Virginia -- by foot. Stone walked 200 miles from their home in Wallace to be a part of "Stop the Machine," while Ross drove ahead in a support vehicle.
"[Elisia] said to me, 'I'm so proud of you -- now, never do it again,'" Stone said of her partner's reaction to her hefty journey.
Stone said she was literally "sick" from what she described as "the government going in the wrong direction."
"I was just so fed up. I had to do something. I was literally having stomach pains and headaches," she said.
The couple have come to support many of the issues shared by the movement, including LGBT rights, corporate taxation and environmental protection.
"We have no health insurance, we are small business owners, we are cancer survivors, we are lesbians, we are environmentalists who live in a house we built from trash so we are not just one-issue people," Stone said. "We are participating with a movement now that's going to change everything."
Around noon, the rally officially kicked off with the Raging Grannies of Madison, Wis., singing a few original tunes. Halfway through their set, one granny alerted the crowd that any and all cars on K Street NW were being towed, including the Veterans for Peace van.
The protest has been calm so far -- even when protesters said they wanted to get arrested, they did not get aggressive, and the police seemed not to get involved except to let people know that illegally parked cars would be towed. A first-aid booth reported a "smooth" morning, with most patients looking for suntan lotion or refreshments.
Pat Alviso, a member of Military Families Speak Out who traveled from Long Beach, Calif., to protest at "Stop The Machine," spoke with The Huffington Post about her son: "He has done four tours in Iraq, already he is about to go on his fifth and he is terrified," she said. Her son, she added, was surprised when he arrived in Iraq. "He went over there with candy and soccer balls expecting to win over the hearts of people and instead he was knocking down doors and kicking families out of their homes."
Alviso said she is certain that her son is not the only soldier who is disheartened by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Half of them don't even want to be there. These young men and women are just keeping their heads down and doing their jobs," she said, holding up a large poster of her son in uniform. "I just can't rest until something changes."
The protests focused on an anti-war message, but veterans welcomed links made to the Occupy movement. “This is anti-war, but you can’t separate anti-war from anti-corporatism,” said Will Hopkins, a former Army infantryman who served one deployment in Iraq. "We go to war because it’s profitable.”
Hopkins, who heads the anti-war group New Hampshire Peace Action, expressed deep concern over corporate influence in politics: "It's not just a matter of that person, that congressman [who] won't do the right thing because they were funded. If they were a person who would do the right thing, they wouldn't have been funded in the first place."
Ben Kessler, who served as a Marine in Afghanistan in 2004, also agreed with the economic message: "I think it's really great that they're synchronizing that with economic stuff. End the war and, you know, we have more money at home."
Kessler traveled with friends from Denton, Texas, for the rally. Friday marks the 10th anniversary of the Afghanistan war, which Kessler called "a defining anti-war moment. I felt like I had to be here," he said.
Most veterans attended the protest with groups like Veterans for Peace, popular with those from the Vietnam era, or Iraq Veterans Against the War. But Michael Patterson flew to Washington from Anchorage, Alaska, after learning about "Stop the Machine" on the social news site Reddit.
"This is the America that I think has just been silent for too long. I think everyone's just finally sick of it," Patterson said. The former Army interrogator planned to continue traveling along the East Coast to view Occupy Wall Street and other protests.
Nancy Brennen and her husband, Art, a retired New Hampshire Superior Court judge, are in charge of the event's legal booth, where the pair relays information about what can and cannot be done lawfully during the protest.
"I'm going to the Chamber and I'm not going to leave," Nancy Brennen said, suggesting she wouldn't oppose being arrested if need be.
Many protesters left Freedom Plaza around 3 p.m. and marched on the U.S. Chamber of Commerce headquarters demanding jobs. There were no reports of arrests.
At 5 p.m., Occupy DC protesters marched to the Washington Ideas Forum that was being held at the Newseum. According to one protester, Lacy MacAuley, 32, Occupy DC held its own "People's Ideas Forum," where they had people write their ideas on a sheet of paper, including arresting former Vice President Dick Cheney (who was inside at the time), getting interest-free student loans and "stopping corporate corruption." There were no arrests.
Reported by Michael Grass, Arin Greenwood, Tyler Kingkade, Hayley Miller, Jane Smith and Max Rosenthal.
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