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Hundreds of protesters storm WWII Memorial, Lafayette Square

- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 13, 2013

Hundreds of veterans and their supporters rallied at the World War II Memorial and outside the White House on Sunday, provoking what at times became angry exchanges between police and demonstrators protesting the federal government shutdown.

No mass arrests were reported, though flaring tempers led to pushing and shoving when officers in riot gear confronted the crowd outside the White House, some of whom symbolically carried metal barriers they had uprooted from the closed memorials on the Mall.

The rally, called the Million Vet March, kicked off at about 9 a.m. at the east entrance of the World War II Memorial before continuing on to the Lincoln Memorial and splitting off for Lafayette Square. The war memorial has become an unlikely rallying point for people frustrated at the government, thanks in large part to the daily visits of groups of aging war veterans who bypass the barriers erected by the National Park Service.

Besides furloughing hundreds of thousands of government employees, the federal government shutdown entering its third week forced the closure of national parks, including memorials along the Mall.

Sen. Mike Lee, Utah Republican, Sen. Ted Cruz, Texas Republican, and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin were among those who attended the demonstration.

Mrs. Palin handed out small American flags to bystanders and told the crowd to remember that "veterans allowed us to be here today."

The rally was one of several protests scheduled for the Columbus Day holiday weekend, which began with several dozen truck drivers from across the country driving around the Beltway in what they called the "Truckers Ride for the Constitution." The event fell far short of the thousands of participants organizers had promised, although organizers have hinted they might attempt to block Beltway traffic during the Monday morning commute.

By midday, about 200 people gathered in Lafayette Park across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House although it wasn't clear how many of them were tourists and how many were protesters. Some among the crowd held American flags and others held yellow "Don't Tread on Me" flags and signs that said "Impeach Obama" and "Respect our vets."

Protesters earlier booed a contingent of U.S. Park Police officers as they arrived amid the growing crowd, and 10 mounted officers maneuvered their horses to form a blockade across Pennsylvania Avenue — enduring heckling for a few tense moments.

But no arrests were made at the White House, Lt. Pamela Smith said.

"It was just a restoring of order," she said of the interactions.

As the fervor of the protests at the monuments died down, police stood against the White House gate, encircled by a barrier of bicycle racks that kept the crowds about 10 feet back.

Dusting off his hands after carrying one of the racks away from the Lincoln Memorial, Gregory Dean Whalen said he traveled from Las Vegas to the District to demand more help for veterans.

"There can be a rally for illegal immigrants, but the government can't take care of veterans," said Mr. Whalen, who served in the Navy. "There should have been a lot more people here."

Lt. Smith said police would have to return the bike racks carried by protesters back to the monuments and memorials.

Surveying the swelling crowd of demonstrators, Michael Burke, 56, said the three-pronged focus of Sunday's rally was "veterans, impeachment and the truckers."

"Never before has the Park Service tried to physically block access," the Baltimore resident said, adding that he attended Sunday's rally on behalf of Gun Rights Across America. "We're here in part to reach out to Congress and show them this political pandering is toying with the public. This is just a political ploy to cause pain and annoyance."

Some demonstrators chanted and sang patriotic songs. As he shook hands with passers-by and accepted well-wishes, Howard County, Md., resident and World War II veteran Mike Lauriente, 91, said when he first heard about the park closure, "I thought it was a disgrace. This is so important and it's disgraceful they closed a park like this," he said. "Congressmen have a gym open, but a memorial like this is closed."

D.C. police blocked vehicular traffic along 17th Street Southwest between Constitution and Independence avenues as some of the trucks from the weekend rally attempted to make their way to the Mall.

Bob Root, of Shady Grove, Fla., said he drove in early last week, stopping at truck rest areas along the way to spread the message of the weekend's events to drivers.

"We got very positive support," Mr. Root said. "We want the Constitution restored. That's our big thing. We're tired of the overreaching government getting involved in every facet of life."

Mr. Root stood next to a pickup truck with an attached trailer that held a double-sided white canvas for people to write messages. Some were well-wishes for veterans, while others criticized the federal government.

Helping to hand out fliers with Mr. Root was fellow Floridian Steve Hunter.

"There's no doubt it's growing," said Mr. Hunter of Sparr, Fla., about the rally and its purpose. "But that just helps put pressure on the administration."

Tom Tozzini, 69, a Howard County resident who served in the Navy said he had hoped for more people to attend the rally but was pleased with the message it sent.

"It's not the size I wanted it I be, but I think we made enough noise to be noticed."

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