A couple of dozen demonstrators attending a rally on the Mall once billed as the Million Muslim March were vastly outnumbered Wednesday by onlookers who heckled them and a counterprotest consisting of motorcycle riders honoring Sept. 11 victims.
Despite the sparse turnout for what became known as the Million American March Against Fear, organizers promised another rally next year — the same pledge leaders of the 2 Million Bikers to DC ride gave the thousands of motorcyclists who roared into the District from across the country.
“We’re here for Sept. 11, and we plan on every year for Sept. 11,” said Belinda Bee, national coordinator for the event.
While falling short of 2 million strong, the number of participants was impressive for the hastily arranged ride that was organized in part to protest the pro-Muslim rally that many said was inappropriate for such a solemn day in U.S. history. A swath of shining chrome and steel bikes stretched about a third of a mile from the starting point at the Harley-Davidson of Washington store just outside the District in Fort Washington.
Waiting for the call to put up his kickstand, 68-year-old Jim Hearley said he rode his bike about 650 miles from Ellijay, Ga., to show his support.
“I had to do it. It was the patriot thing to do,” the former Marine and Vietnam veteran said, adding that the Muslim rally was what originally drew him to the ride.
“Any other day it probably wouldn’t have been as big as it is, but it pissed off a lot of veterans and a lot of Americans.”
The American Muslim Political Action Committee scheduled the rally to draw attention to what it said is an unfair and ongoing fear of Muslims after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The noon rally took place between 13th and 14th streets in Northwest.
Speakers — among them author and Princeton University professor Cornel West — mostly struck mainstream themes, calling for social justice for Muslims while promoting peace and condemning violence.
Ruby Sous, from Kansas City, Mo., stressed that Muslims and American Muslims “stand with America against terrorism.”
“We want to stand here in solidarity with the American people against hate and violence,” she said.
Among the bikers, however, the rally was considered an insult to the nearly 3,000 people who died on Sept. 11, 2001, when terrorists hijacked three commercial jets and crashed them into the World Trade Center buildings in New York and the Pentagon in Arlington. Another hijacked plane headed for the District crashed near Shanksville, Pa.
“They picked the wrong day to do it,” said Kelly Volb, a 42-year-old Pennsylvania woman who attended the ride. “This is to remember everyone who perished on 9/11, out of respect to them.”
Counterdemonstrators at the Muslim rally shouted similar words during the speeches. Some held signs that read “One nation under God” or disparaging Islam’s Prophet Muhammad.
U.S. Park Police gathered in force for the event, with officers deployed around and among the groups to keep them separate.
In the background, staggered clusters of motorcycles could be heard riding in the vicinity, but road closures kept the bikers from the immediate area of the rally.
Isa Hodge, chief of operations for the political action committee behind the Muslim event, said he was pleased with the turnout but complained that one cluster of riders who drove by and revved their engines disrupted a moment of silence for Sept. 11 victims.
D.C. Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said “all events went smoothly” and area police departments worked together “to effectively manage these events.”
But the ride was complicated by the fact that federal and local authorities denied a permit that would have offered the riders a police escort through traffic — a sore spot with organizers who thought the denial was for political purposes.
The bikers began departing from the store at about 10:30 a.m. in staggered groups of 50 or so, stopping for traffic lights and taking an hour or so to get onto the road. The ride congested D.C. traffic into the afternoon.
While he waited for the ride to begin, Danny Johnson shook hands with fellow riders and recounted memories of being in New York City 12 years ago. The self-described bishop with the Heat of Fire City Church in Louisville, Ky., gave last rites to victims at the Brooks Brothers store on Liberty Street across from ground zero. He said he has spent every Sept. 11 since in Manhattan — until this year.
“I think America has spent 12 years at a funeral,” the 52-year-old said. “We’ve got to revive our country and do something different than we’re doing. It’s time it had a resurrection.”