- The Washington Times - Friday, March 21, 2003

Enter "Tractorman" and his one-man "tractor-cade."Clearly out of fear and frustration, Dwight W. Watson, 50, a destitute tobacco farmer and Army veteran of Whitakers, N.C., drove a tractor into a pool on the Mall and held police and commuters hostage for 48 hours this week by claiming to possess explosives.
He said he was protesting not only government and industry regulations that drove him to $1 million in debt, but also soldiers' exposure to chemical weapons during the Persian Gulf war and the U.S. war against Iraq. Mr. Watson told The Washington Post, "I'm going to get my message out or die trying."
Not the FBI, Secret Service, U.S. Park Service, Metropolitan Police Department, snipers, an armored car nor a SWAT team managed to move Tractorman until he thought they might actually "take him out."
"Take him out," came the rallying cry from maddened commuters.
Mind you, Tractorman had a permit to protest between March 16 and 22, the eve of "March Madness." Fortunately he was peacefully arrested for his unpeaceful protest.
Now that the standoff is over, a bigger issue remains about how a single man could put a security-conscious capital city out of commission.
"I just think it's funny that we have 300,000 troops halfway across the world and we can't even get this guy out of our pond," homemaker Kate Koffman, 28, told The Washington Times.
Law-enforcement officials even said Mr. Watson "was not a threat to anybody he just wanted to get his message out."
A whole lot of folks want to get their message out about a whole lot of government policies that they support or oppose.
For Tractorman is a metaphor for Everyman like Denzel Washington's sympathetic character in the movie "John Q" who has a legitimate beef with a system that he has invested his life into but lets him down when he needs the return most.
Thousands, even millions, of Americans from every sector of life are fearful and frustrated over a range of issues from health care, poor education and homelessness to rising taxes, deteriorating public services and stock market losses that have wiped out hard-earned pensions while corporate raiders walk off wealthy.
But did anyone bother to check out Mr. Chambers before granting his request to protest? Does anyone bother to check out the protesters once they arrive? Do protest organizers even have to check in with authorities before their acts of civil disobedience begin?
The Shirt's Off Anti-War Coalition notified the press, the police and anybody else who would listen that "if we can't stop war, we'll stop traffic" in the District the morning after U.S. bombs fell on Baghdad.
Yesterday, they kept their word to "give a voice and an outlet to the rage that will only grow." Just ask the besieged commuters on the Key Bridge.
"Citizens of Washington have a particular responsibility to hold the Bush administration accountable for its actions," said Crystal Sylvia, a D.C. social worker for public schools.
She would prefer that "our tax dollars" to be spent on "D.C. schools [that] are falling apart and homelessness and unemployment have been at alarming and needless rates" one woman's opinion about the war.
But an undisputed collective opinion from area residents, commuters and business owners sounds another alarm: If local and federal law enforcement officials aren't able to handle the congestion created by one man or a small band of protesters, how in the world are they going to handle a wholesale evacuation necessitated by a terrorist attack?
If Tractorman's tactics and the anti-war protesters tie-ups are examples, you would be better off leaving your vehicle wherever it is and hiking home.
D.C. Council member Carol Schwartz, who is also vice chairman of an emergency preparedness council for the capital area, said the 48-hour standoff "portended very poorly for Washington."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III, Virginia Republican, said through a spokesman that he "remains concerned that a single person could so drastically alter traffic flow in the nation's capital for almost two days."
Perhaps the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments ought to devise a new color-code category for commuters:
Code Red crazed citizens have taken over a major thoroughfare, stay home.
Code Yellow protesters crossing city avenues, proceed with caution.
Code Green it's August and everybody's left town, drive deliriously.
Not surprisingly after her agency's questionable performance, U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa Chamber said, "I would rather be standing here answering questions about why we tied up traffic for two days than answering questions about a questionable shooting."
Sorry, that doesn't quite cut it. The police actions in this incident are anything but reassuring.
Chief Chambers said they would have reacted "immediately" if Mr. Watson " endangered persons." Excuse me. Traffic jams are not merely a matter of inconveniencing commuters.
These officials talk as if they believe commuters don't have pressing matters that could lead to life-endangering situations. What of patients or motorists who have emergency medical conditions that may be unable get necessary medical attention quickly?
What of children or elders left alone at home or waiting to be picked up from vulnerable locations?
Tranquilizing Tractorman sooner, as police said they considered when they had several opportunities, did not seem inhumane or unreasonable. Instead, Mr. Watson was allowed to eat, shave, talk freely on the phone and go to sleep, not once but apparently several times before his surrender.
Mr. Watson climbed out of his tractor only after he was convinced by police that his voice and his protest had been heard.
Does anyone hear the tired voice of commuters protesting the authorities' handling of such incidents that force us to creep and crawl in traffic while remaining fearful and frustrated about our so-called homeland security?

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