Prayer vigil turns into protest Impeachment: On the Capitol steps, a rally organized by Jesse Jackson becomes a unified howl of outrage.

December 18, 1998|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- "Shame On Them! ... Shame On Them! ... Shame On Them!"

The chanting could be heard a block away, the words bouncing off the concrete buildings and echoing into the crisp, late fall sky.

Maybe there were 3,000 people standing shoulder-to-shoulder below the west steps of the Capitol. They were black and white, young and old, a rainbow coalition brought here by the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson's call to protest. There were trade unionists, teachers, feminists.

They were supposed to be here for a prayer vigil. They ended up in a protest rally, with dozens of politicians and warhorses of the left parading up to the microphones to preach to the choir. A three-minute limit gave the speakers just enough time for a few hellos, a few words of outrage and a pithy ending the crowd could pick up and continue for a few moments.

"Enough is Enough! ... Enough is Enough! ... Enough is Enough!"

They were here before 10 a.m., crowding together when the morning still had the raw, glove-cold chill of late fall. Some came by bus or car, others came in on subway trains. They sang the National Anthem. Here and there, placards bobbed above the crowd: "House for Sale," "Impeach Fat Interns and Crazy Lawyers," "A [sex act] Is Not A Crime."

"The issue that we came for today is that we refuse to be disenfranchised by some right-wingers who couldn't win at the polls and are now trying to win in the caucus rooms," shouted the Rev. Al Sharpton, the activist New York minister, who knew the proposed punishment did not fit the crime. "I know that you don't use a sledgehammer to kill a cock-a-roach!"

The crowd laughed and cheered.

At the back, where bodies pressed against a stone wall, a man held an American flag. Someone else wore a sweat-suit that took its design from the flag. Another waved a red-and-white striped flag with "Don't Tread On Me" written across its face.

The one American flag belonged to Roy Mead. He had packed it in his car, but he ran back for it when he saw no other flags in the crowd.

Mead is a Korean War veteran. He served two years aboard the USS Yosemite, a destroyer tender that patrolled the East Coast.

Mead, 65, doesn't call himself an extremist. He's a first-time grandfather, who breaks into a big smile when he mentions his month-old granddaughter, Allison Elizabeth Sheridan. Mead says he's here for Allison today. Her parents are going to need Social Security in their old age.

Of course, the impeachment debate also brought him here. He says he can't believe President Clinton's indiscretions have become the focus of Congress.

"I just never thought this would come about," says Mead, who now works as a librarian in Olney. "Maybe this will make a difference. I hope so."

Mead says he has already sent e-mails to each member of the the House Judiciary Committee. He has sent letters and made phone calls. But that was not enough. He had to be here, to be seen, to participate. His son-in-law in Philadelphia couldn't make the trip. Mead says he is here to take his son-in-law's place. There were plenty of senior citizens at the library who wanted to come, but could not. So, Mead says, he is here for them, too.

"I have to do more than just speak up. I have to do something," he says. "It's our right. The right of participation."

Mead has attended several Washington rallies, starting in the late 1960s.

"Civil rights. For people's rights," he says, shrugging his shoulders, silver-gray hair held in place by an Orioles cap. You have to come out if you can, he says.

And for Mead, there is the added attraction of being near the Capitol. Back in the 1950s, when he was a history teacher in Montgomery County, he would come down on snow days to see if Congress was in session. He probably made an odd sight, a former Navy radioman sitting in the gallery while high school students milled about.

"I just fell in love with the place," he says. "How could you not?"

Yesterday, the Capitol was missing one of its three flags. That was OK. Mead had one, and he held it all day long. Even when the crowd had thinned to half its size, Mead stood below his beloved Capitol, his gloved hands holding the flag as it fluttered in the breeze. No way was he going to leave.

Not until the end, when the last speeches had been given, prayers had been offered, and the crowd joined hands to sing "We Shall Overcome," did Mead furl his flag.

"Well, we did it," he said, smiling, before turning serious again. "I think we're going to have to come back."

Pub Date: 12/18/98

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