Chanting, singing and beating drums, tens of thousands of protesters converged on the U.S. capital on Saturday to demonstrate against the U.S.-led war on terror, Israeli military actions in the West Bank and globalization.
Washington Metropolitan Police Chief Charles Ramsey unofficially estimated there were between 35,000 and 50,000 demonstrators, the force's press office said, while organizers put the figure at above 50,000, perhaps as high as 70,000.
Unlike in previous years when globalization opponents clashed with police, protesters were peaceful as they gathered in front of the White House and elsewhere in the city amid a heavy police presence.
The diverse groups later joined ranks for a mass march down Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue to the U.S. Capitol, waving flags, posters and street puppets, and chanting. ``Down, down Israel,'' was one refrain.
``I think it is a tremendous success. So many different people from all over the place stood together in solidarity,'' said Roxanne Lawson, a national coordinator for United We March, one of the main organizers of the day's events.
Police said there had been no protest-related arrests as of early evening. ``There are just large numbers of people who want to have their voices heard and that's what America is all about, so it's good for all of us,'' Ramsey said.
``As long as it's like this, God bless them.''
In San Francisco, 15,000 or more demonstrators sprawled across the lawn in the plaza in front of city hall, chanting ''Free, free Palestine'', waving Palestinian flags and holding placards ranging from ``Peace Not War'' to wordless posters showing a swastika and a Jewish six-pointed star with an equal sign between them.
``Today is the biggest day of solidarity with the Palestinian people in U.S. history,'' one speaker shouted to a cheering crowd gathered under clear skies. San Francisco police said they had made no arrests despite minor vandalism.
Washington streets were nearly deserted except for media and police as international dignitaries arrived in the early morning at the International Monetary Fund-World Bank headquarters for the groups' spring meetings.
Police had blocked off streets and set up a large security perimeter around the groups' downtown headquarters to ensure they could maintain control should violence erupt.
Such international financial gatherings have become frequent protest targets. One protester was killed and more than 200 were hurt in clashes with police at a Group of Eight summit in Genoa, Italy, last July.the street from the IMF and World Bank buildings to denounce lending policies they believe harm the environment and hurt the world's poor, their ranks swelling as the morning wore on.
``The World Bank, the IMF and their policies are a vehicle of oppression and it's time that people stood up against it,'' said Sarah Sholis, an Ohio Wesleyan University student who helped to hold a banner that read, ``Drop Debt, Not Bombs.''
About a half-dozen blocks away, on the grassy Ellipse in front of the White House, thousands of protesters waved Palestinian flags and posters reading ``Free Palestine, no war on Iraq'' as they shouted, ``Stop the killing, stop the crime, Israel out of Palestine.''
``The Israelis are animals. They are scary. All these lives lost for nothing,'' said Jenin Ali, a Palestinian-American. She held a sign saying ``A suicide bomber is a poor man's F-16.''
Across the street a much smaller counter-rally by a group calling itself the Free Patriots waved American flags.
``I am an American. I'm here to support the war on terrorism as opposed to those people over there who hate America,'' said Dave Quaadman of New York, gesturing across the street.
Outside a hotel that will house a meeting of a pro-Israel U.S.-based lobby group beginning Sunday, a few thousand pro-Palestinian demonstrators gathered.
"I am very pleased to see so many Americans coming out to express their solidarity with the Palestinian people and to protest U.S. foreign policy supporting the illegal occupation (by Israel of the West Bank),'' said Hassan Abdel Rahman, the Palestine Liberation Organization's Washington representative.
The group later joined globalization critics near the IMF building, some of whom held a 35-foot (10-meter) tall balloon depicting Earth and bearing the slogans ``For sale?'' and ``Citi lives richly and the Earth pays.'' It was a reference to Citigroup, a top lender to developing countries.
Police expected marchers to be mostly peaceful, but said they came prepared for anything.
``We have to be concerned not only about large crowds but about someone using an event like this as an opportunity to commit some kind of terrorism or other criminal activity,'' Ramsey said. ``If we need to make an arrest as a last resort, we'll make an arrest.''
Copyright 2002 Reuters Ltd.
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