Thousands protest ‘genocide’ at DC rally for Palestine

The streets of Washington DC were flooded with Palestinian flags and calls for an end to the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip on Saturday as thousands rallied against Israel’s ongoing military campaign.

Demonstrators centred their efforts on Freedom Plaza and began their march late into the afternoon following addresses by a number of speakers. Estimates of the crowd were difficult due to the sheer size but easily numbered in the tens of thousands, if not higher. Activists, pro-Palestinian signs, and flags could be spotted far across the city as the march was unfolding.

A speaker list for the event was not immediately available, but representatives from various Muslim-American political groups and pro-Palestine groups centred in the US were heard giving remarks over the speakers.

Crowds that gathered around Freedom Plaza trended younger, though not exclusively. A number of parents could be seen leading children of all ages through the demonstration, some holding signs of their own.

Multiple speakers echoed a common refrain among the pro-Palestine cause’s supporters — “from the river to the sea”. Activists have sought to reclaim that phrase in recent weeks as supporters of Israel including some in the Democratic Party have described it as inherently antisemitic.

One higher-profile speaker at the event was rapper Macklemore, who mocked calls by figures who support Israel for their opponents to “do their research”. A wide contingent of left-leaning groups were spotted in the crowd, having organised small, individual groups of demonstrators to attend. Some notables included anti-war group CodePink, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Neturei Karta.

“I don’t know everything, but I know enough to know that this is a genocide,” Macklemore told a crowd to cheers of support.

Other messages shared by demonstrators varied significantly. Many derided Israel’s military actions in the Gaza Strip as a genocide, and accused the US of being complicit through deeds and words. President Joe Biden was a topic of frequent criticism both from speakers at the rally and from individual demonstrators in the crowd; one Wisconsin-based organiser gloated onstage about having met Mr Biden with chants of “Genocide Joe” during his recent appearance in Wisconsin.

A man holds a sign at Saturday’s March for Palestine in Washington DC (John Bowden)
A man holds a sign at Saturday’s March for Palestine in Washington DC (John Bowden)

Aerial shots of the crowd showed a tremendous mass of people that began marching late into the afternoon. Many wore Palestinian flags as capes or bore them on flagpoles; others had colour-coordinated picket signs. Muslim-Americans also bore signs and shirts denouncing Islamophobia, a sensitive subject and a highly relevant one given the murder of a 6-year-old Palestinian-American boy in Chicago in what authorities are alleging was a hate crime likely spurred by the Israel-Gaza conflict.

A small handful of protesters in the crowd were directly opposed to Israel with a far less compromising tone, including one picket sign that read “Israel does not exist.”

The majority, however, were clearly enraged by the shocking and heartbreaking scenes of utter carnage out of Gaza in the past few weeks; Israel has defended the climbing death toll as an unavoidable cost of war, while others question whether Israel’s military is taking steps to avoid civilian deaths. Numerous strikes near and around hospitals have caused those accusations of careless or event-targeted attacks to grow.

In the crowd, which again appeared to trend in almost every way towards the president’s main voting coalition, there was a noticeable disgust and anger centred around not just the actions of Israel, but the words of the Biden administration and the president in its ally’s defence.

A person holds up a sign denouncing Joe Biden at Saturday’s March for Palestine in Washington (AFP via Getty Images)
A person holds up a sign denouncing Joe Biden at Saturday’s March for Palestine in Washington (AFP via Getty Images)

Progressives and some more centre-leaning Democrats have, according to staffers on Capitol Hill, been deluging the offices of Democratic lawmakers with calls and emails throughout the past few weeks demanding that the US ask Israel and Hamas to reach a ceasefire. Such an idea is currently opposed by the Biden administration, which has religiously avoided just about any action that could be seen as unsupportive of Israel’s military.

But that may change, if Saturday’s rally and the hundreds of thousands who added their voices to the cause this weekend are any indication at all of the pressure campaign that Democrats currently face. And there’s reason to believe they are: The popular anonymous Capitol Hill account Dear_White_Staffers, which tends to trend left in its own messaging, featured numerous accounts from anonymous Hill staffers describing the mounting calls for a ceasefire as the rally approached. CNN reported the same unease among staffers in the White House, who told the network that the calls for a ceasefire may become too loud to dismiss in the weeks or days ahead. Sit-ins took place in numerous congressional offices, including those of Rep Betty McCollum and Sen Alex Padilla.

On Saturday, many of those with signs or other protest materials used bloody imagery to describe what US tax dollars were paying for as Mr Biden and his deputies affirm and reaffirm their support for what they say is Israel’s right to “self-defence”.

A woman carries an object meant to depict the bloody corpse of a child at DC’s March for Palestine on Saturday (John Bowden)
A woman carries an object meant to depict the bloody corpse of a child at DC’s March for Palestine on Saturday (John Bowden)

Among activists on social media, there was a palpable excitement. Many proclaimed that a trend was turning in their favour, that the pro-Palestine movement was seeing a moment like never before in the US and in the west. The ANSWER Coalition, one of the Saturday march’s organising groups, declared it the “largest” pro-Palestinian event in US history.

Biden administration officials have struggled with their responses to what has clearly been a backlash from the left that they did not predict.

As a growing number of senators and members of Congress call for a “humanitarian pause” or, in the case of a handful of progressives, go as far as to support a full ceasefire, the White House has reportedly been privately urging Israel to accept the former. There’s little evidence yet that they have had any success. Reporters, meanwhile, have pressed the administration on whether the US is taking any steps to determine whether war crimes are being committed in Gaza — a determination, they have pointed out, the US was comfortable making in Ukraine.

Perhaps most revealingly: Mr Biden suffered his first defection in the US Senate this past week on the issue, and not from any of the usual suspects. Instead it was Dick Durbin, chairman of the Judiciary Committee, who told CNN “I think it is” time for a ceasefire when asked about the issue on Thursday.

“At least in the context of both sides agreeing. For example, the release of those kidnapped should be part of this — immediate release. That should be the beginning of it,” said the centrist Democrat from Illinois. “An effort should be made to engage in conversation between the Israelis and Palestinians.”