At the edge of Freedom Plaza a young couple had brought their baby in a stroller and several sheets of cardboard decorated with crossed American and Israeli flags, and slogans: SUPPORT ISRAEL and U.S. AND ISRAEL, BROTHERS UNITED.
"You can't just do nothing," the husband said. Arab-Americans politely ignored them. The rest of the protesters steered away. The only tension on April 20 came from excessive support.
A dozen members of the New Black Panther Party marched (in the military sense) into Freedom Plaza. They were dressed in black fatigues, black motorcycle helmets, and combat boots. They scowled and did drill maneuvers, about-facing and attentioning. The New Black Panthers carried pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden. Their picket signs were professionally printed: THE STATE OF ISRAEL HAS NO RIGHT TO EXIST, THE AMERICAN/ISRAELI WHITE MAN IS THE DEVIL, JIHAD. They hollered, "Death to Israel," "Holy war, holy war, holy war," and "Kill every Zionist in Palestine."
For a moment the other demonstrators were silent. They fidgeted. They backed away. "Excuse me, I'm so sorry," said a courteous Arab-American teenager who stepped on my foot. Then a chant began in the crowd: "Killing is not the answer, Killing is not the answer." The chant grew louder. Demonstrators raised their fingers in peace signs and began to press in on the New Black Panther Party. Cacophonous drumming came from the Global Justice mobilizers. They shouted, "No more hate!" A woman about my age began screaming into a bullhorn: "Jews and Arabs unite!" The New Black Panther Party, with somewhat less military élan than before, marched away.
(As it happened, the old Black Panther Party was holding its thirty-fifth reunion that weekend, at the University of the District of Columbia. The former chairman of the party, Bobby Seale, attended. "I like the methodical way it was done," he was quoted as saying about the war in Afghanistan. "That's how you judge the operation when you're dealing with a bunch of terrorists such as they are.")
The crowd in Freedom Plaza grew and pressed against the front of the National Theatre. Emerging patrons were trapped beneath the marquee. A pair of older women stood patiently staring at the protesters. "I gather you're not part of the demonstration," I said.
"No," one woman said, "we came to see a matinee of Mamma Mia!"
"But all of America is part of this turmoil," the other woman said.
"How are you going to get out of here?" I asked.
"We'll just go back in," the first woman said, "and see another show."
The Colombia Mobilization joined the ANSWER rally on the Ellipse, and thousands more protesters pushed toward Freedom Plaza. They looked familiar. If I took off my bifocals, they could have been the same denimed and T-shirted, funny-coifed, oddly shod, beard-attempting kids with whom I'd protested at this very place a generation ago. It was a startling continuity in youthful fashion—as if I'd arrived at an anti-Vietnam War teach-in and found my friends wearing zoot suits. One thing, however, has changed in thirty-five years. Regular folks feel no desire to kick these young folks for the way they look. The kids are so thoroughly tattooed and body-pierced that whatever pain someone might want to inflict on them they've already inflicted on themselves.