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Storming the memorials

Angry veterans descend on Washington Sunday to tear down shutdown barricades and take part in the Million Veterans March

World War II 10th Mountain Division veteran Charles W. Smith (center) from Plattsburgh, N.Y., salutes during the singing of the National Anthem Sunday at the WWII Memorial. Associated Press/Photo by Alex Brandon

Storming the memorials

WASHINGTON—They came. They saw the police tape and the signs reading, “Due to the Federal Government shutdown, this National Park Service area is closed.” And they tore down the barricades.

Thousands of veterans and their supporters took to the National Mall in Washington on Sunday to reopen the memorials shuttered by the partial government shutdown.

The Million Veterans March, organized by mostly Tea Party groups, began at the World War II Memorial, which has become the epicenter of the Obama administration’s decision to barricade open-air memorials during the closure of the federal government. Images of veterans from across the country defying the barricades and visiting the memorial site throughout the 13 days of the shutdown inspired Sunday’s protest. Angry veterans took a stand at Sunday’s rally, shouting, “Obama doesn’t own this. We do.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, and Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, joined the demonstration along with numerous House Republicans.

“This is the people’s memorial,” said Cruz. “Why is the federal government spending money to keep veterans out of the memorial? Our veterans should be above political games.”

As police looked on, the protestors, undeterred by a light rain, tossed aside the barricades set up at the World War II Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial while chanting “USA! USA! USA!” With the barricades deposited on the wet grass, thousands could swarm the statues and fountains just like on a normal pre-shutdown day. The veterans included many elderly ones in wheelchairs or cradling canes. Men in their 80s and 90s wore old combat helmets. One older veteran wore a T-shirt with the words: “Home of the free because of the brave.” Young veterans also came, including at least one man wearing two prosthetic legs.

People chanted “Mr. Obama tear down this wall,” sang “God Bless America,” and waved “Don’t Tread on Me” flags.

“Veterans have proven they are not timid,” Palin told the gathering, “and we will not be timid calling out any that use the military as pawns.”

The crowd soon made its way nearly a half mile to the White House, carrying the metal barricades that had been used to block off the World War II and Lincoln memorials. They stacked the barriers in piles in front of the White House fence.

While some shouted, “Shut down the White House,” others latched themselves to the White House fence until their hands were pried off by law enforcement officers. Throughout the rally, D.C. police, U.S. Park Police, and Secret Service agents stood watch. Some officers wore riot helmets and padded gloves and carried batons or stacks of plastic handcuffs. The officers eventually took the stacked barricades and set them up as a partition between themselves and the protestors.

“The decision to lock veterans out of a memorial built in remembrance of their service to this great country is a dishonor to the sacrifice of all veterans who have served, as well as the troops who are serving today,” said Rep. Ralph Hall, R-Texas, a Navy pilot during World War II who joined the protestors at the World War II Memorial. “It is equally unfair to the military families and friends who lost loved ones and would like to pay tribute to their fallen heroes, but are unable to do so.”

With protestors hovering outside, lawmakers inside the Capitol struggled to break the stalemate over the partial shutdown and increasing the federal government’s borrowing limit. The government begins its third week of a partial shutdown with talks between President Barack Obama and House Republicans having broken down. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., are up next in trying to seek a way around the impasse. The debate now has shifted to spending levels.

After Democrats scoffed at Republican efforts to go after Obamacare, arguing that it is the law of the land, some Democrats now are pushing for spending increases. This lift on spending caps sought by Democrats would endanger some of the series of cuts, known as the sequester, that Congress agreed to in a 2011 budget law. The move angered and frustrated Republicans who had been told the reduced spending levels were settled law and off the table.

“I think the Democrats are on the verge of being one tick too cute as they see the House possibly in disarray, they are now overreaching,” said Sen. Bob Corker, R-Tenn., speaking on Fox News Sunday.

By early afternoon on Sunday, the Lincoln Memorial had been closed and barricaded again by the U.S. Park Police.

Edward Lee Pitts

Lee is the executive director of the World Journalism Institute and former Washington, D.C. bureau chief for WORLD Magazine. He is a graduate of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and teaches journalism at Dordt University in Sioux Center, Iowa.

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