Two hundred people or so, largely white and near the age of retirement, milled around among a few scattered college-age kids, many of whom donned Guy Fawkes masks. A group in military fatigues — the most popular choice of dress at the gathering — held up a large cross for attendees to sign, while the rest of the group seemed happy to walk around and chat. They hailed from all over the country, with representatives from Hawaii and Alaska, no less. Many said they'd met "the colonel," but reports of his whereabouts and attire were conflicted.
And that was it, for a while. The rally left a bit to be desired organizationally with the official website directing participants to a vague location of "the mall" on Friday, May 16, with no listed time. Other media outlets reported that the gathering would take place outside the White House and the crowd speculated that some of their flock may be down there on Pennsylvania Avenue. A group of about 30, mostly men and mostly veterans, stood about a mile away near the Air and Space Museum, checking Twitter for clues about their comrades' whereabouts, but confident that the rally would find them. Another couple hundred gathered at the Arlington National Cemetery before ultimately making the long march up to the Monument.
As the marchers arrived, a cheer went up in the crowd, their numbers having reached to the upper triple digits. Shortly after, a woman who introduced herself to National Journal only as "Momma Bear" from San Diego, Calif. — but whom others called "Terri" — stood up on a low wall with others holding large yellow signs and pulled out a megaphone.
Momma Bear told the crowd she had recently come from Cliven Bundy's ranch, where she and supporters from all over the country gathered to help fight off the Bureau of Land Management and return the Bundys' cattle. And, she told them all, the Bundys fed each of them two meals a day.
She later told National Journal that she had long monitored the situation in Nevada, but that a report from the site InfoWars, which was founded by conspiracy theorist and 9/11 truther Alex Jones, and an accompanying YouTube video showing BLM officers sicking a dog on a pregnant woman had finally inspired her to drive up to the ranch to help out. She stopped at the Bundys' place on her way to Washington and plans to take her two daughters there when she returns.
The Bundy episode resonated strongly with the crowd, but the biggest driving force for the attendees, based on the content of their speeches and signs, was the Benghazi attack. Several of the protesters said their anger with the country's leadership began years ago, but the violent attack in Libya in 2012 and the administration's response to it was what lead them to get active.
For Riley, who said he'd been outraged for "decades," it was the government shutdown that moved him toward action. "The government decided that they were going to close all the memorials here, the WWII veterans couldn't get to the memorial and a couple months later I was penning another rant and I said why am I doing this? And [I] put this mission on and put it on the website and it grabbed legs basically from grassroots America," he said.