It was only 60 degrees in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, but everyone packed into Freedom Plaza was sweating. The sun glanced off the silver tips of flagpoles and bright white protest signs and so many glossy photographs showing bombed-out buildings turned to rubble and bloodied bodies of children killed in the Gaza Strip. There was a little more room in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue, where demonstrators carried a gigantic white banner, about an arm’s-length wide, filled with the names of every child under the age of five who has been killed by Israel’s bombs in the past month. It stretched for almost an entire block. When the sun was at its highest, I watched a boy lay out his white and black keffiyeh scarf in the shade underneath it, remove his shoes, and kneel down to pray.
The conglomerate of lobbying groups, NGOs, and political organizations who put on the National March on Washington: Free Palestine wanted the protest to be the largest of its kind in the United States. They appear to have succeeded, as tens of thousands converged on the nation’s capital to call for peace and express their anger over the 9,425 people Palestinian health authorities estimate Israel’s bombing campaign has killed — a number that was surely outdated minutes after it was released on Saturday. This anger was directed largely toward one man: Joe Biden.
Biden has been unequivocal in his support for Israel after Hamas killed over 1,400 Israelis in a surprise attack on Oct. 7, and as dozens of Israeli civilians still remain kidnapped by the militant group. The offensive Israel launched in response has been devastating, leveling swaths of densely populated Gaza — including a refugee camp last week. The Biden administration has refused to call for a cease-fire. Demonstrators demanded one on Saturday while raging against the president.
It started with the chants:
“Biden, Biden, you can’t hide! We charge you with genocide!”
“Hey hey! Ho ho! Genocide Joe has got to go!”
And even, at least once, the classic four-syllable refrain familiar to anyone who’s been near a Trump rally or right-wing protest in recent years: “Fuck Joe Bi-den!”
The chanters, in this case, were clearly not the right wing. They were, if not Biden’s base, at least voters that the Democratic Party all too often takes for granted. A young guy named Abed told me he and his crew — “Palestinian-American, Palestinian-American, Colombian-American, Indian-American,” he said, pointing them out — had driven 22 hours nonstop from West Palm Beach, Florida. “We heard ‘national protest,’ and we were there,” he said. “I mean, our president is here, right? We gotta get our message out.”
The message is not without power. The president’s support with young voters has taken a nosedive, and almost everyone I spoke to at the march was livid at his refusal to even mention the possibility of a cease-fire in a conflict that is claiming lives faster than any other in the world right now. On the corner of Pennsylvania and 15th Street, I struck up a conversation with a Palestinian woman who asked me not to use her name. “We go back over there a lot,” she said, by way of explanation. She voted for Biden in 2020, but said she wouldn’t be doing it again. I asked if there was anything the administration could do to regain her support, or if his decisions were already too far gone. “Killing 10,000 people,” she said flatly, “is too far gone.”
A couple of blocks later I asked the question again, this time to a group of young women from North Virginia who had wrapped their heads and faces in black and white keffiyehs. They were too young to have voted in 2020, but I asked if they would vote for Biden in 2024. Almost before the words had left my mouth, Malak, 19, threw her head back and yelled, “HELLLLLL NO.”
“I’d never vote for any of them,” Kawtar, also 19, told me. “All these people here [at the protest] and [politicians] still won’t lift the siege of Gaza.” Malak had fake blood daubed on her forehead, and a doll — a shape, really, the size of an infant, wrapped in a white sheet — in her arms. In the plaza other groups held up child-sized cardboard coffins, staged piles of the sheet-wrapped bodies as a stark visual reminder of reality in Gaza.
The Biden administration’s reluctance to push for a cease-fire in Gaza could bring serious electoral consequences in the 2024 election, as the protest on Saturday made clear that support for Palestinian human rights has blossomed from a niche left-wing cause to a central tenet of the greater progressive movement.
Within my first hour at Freedom Plaza, I had lost track of the number of different solidarity signs I saw. There was the large, national contingent of Jewish Voices for Peace, but also Nigerians for Palestine, Asians for a Liberated Palestine, and even someone with a sign that said “Queer and Trans Introverts for Palestine.” It is tempting of course to play that last one for a laugh, but in the context of such a diverse protest it was kind of beautiful. There were also Black abolitionists and feminist organizations and lefty white guys with facial hair. There were a handful of real Black bloc folks in balaclavas with bandanas tied on their arms to obscure identifying tattoos and ski goggles on so no one could see their eyes. Basically everyone had obtained a keffiyeh somewhere, white and Black and brown and Jewish and Muslim and Christian alike. At one point during the rally I watched a couple of Arab kids help a boomer woman dressed like a tourist climb up a traffic light on the side of Pennsylvania Avenue. She stayed there for several minutes, grinning, helping the kids wave a big Palestinian flag while one kept his arm around her back, holding her safe in their perch.
In the center of Freedom Plaza was a tiny stage that hosted a lineup of speakers including Palestinian writer and activist Mohammed Al-Kurd, human rights attorney Noura Erakat, and, bizarrely, the rapper Macklemore, who got one of the biggest reactions of the afternoon when he spoke about how celebrities are often told to keep silent on “complicated” issues like Palestine. “I know enough — this is a genocide,” he said. “We have been taught to just be complicit, to protect our careers, to protect our interests, and I’m not gonna do it anymore. I’m not afraid to speak the truth!”
I was standing under the teens on the traffic light near a group of zoomers as he spoke. “Macklemore?” one said incredulously. “He’s been on this for a while!” someone else replied.
As the speeches wound down, the protest moved out of the plaza heading in a tight counterclockwise loop of central D.C. The crowd took up entire city blocks at a time but stayed incredibly peaceful. Police presence was minimal, and I didn’t witness any significant tension between the crowd and the officers who were there, despite the legacy of fear and violence wrought by police forces in D.C. and many other American cities during the 2020 George Floyd protests. The police knew, perhaps, that the president and his administration, not law enforcement, was the primary target of this gathering’s rage.
The anger at Biden was widespread and profound, but I found more joy at the protest than I expected. “It made me really happy to see it’s not just Arabs anymore,” Malak, the 19-year-old from Virginia, told me, saying she’d been coming to Palestinian rallies since she was a child. This was the first time she’d seen a protest attract so many diverse groups. “It doesn’t matter if you’re Christian, Jewish, American, Palestinian,” a man named Omar told me later in the day. “As long as you have a conscience you have to stand with the Palestinian people.”
The march bent down K Street, then hooked south toward the White House, where protesters on Pennsylvania Avenue pressed against the fence and waved flags and signs directly at the building. A quartet of fired-up young women screamed into a handful of megaphones and disjointed portable PA systems, leading the crowd through chants in English and Arabic. On the edge of the crowd I noticed a married couple — Abdallah and Dana — who I had also watched pray underneath the banner with all the names of the dead. I asked them how it had felt, to worship in that way, in that place, among all the rest.
“I know that there were people from different religions watching me pray today. But there was no gap between them and I. We were one,” Dana said. “I don’t often feel safe praying in public, even in the city I was born in. I don’t know that I’ll feel safe tomorrow. I don’t know if I’ll feel safe next week. But today, I felt safe.”
More from Rolling Stone
Best of Rolling Stone