A Palestinian truck driver stood on a street in downtown Tampa Wednesday, waving at passing cars. On his head was a mask meant to resemble Vice President Dick Cheney. Fake blood covered his hands.
Children stood in the street with him. The fake blood was on their clothes.
The man identified himself as Rifaat Ahmed, a 42-year-old Tampa resident. Occasionally he put his red hands around the children's necks, pantomiming a strangling.
This was one of the vivid scenes at Wednesday's war protests around the Tampa Bay area. The socialists turned out, and the rabble-rousers on their megaphones, and the woman in a dress cut to look like a tattered Constitution.
But perhaps most notable about the protests' demographics was the preponderance of ordinary people: a retired engineer, an architectural intern, two tourists on a detour from Orlando. Many of them said they had never publicly protested anything before.
"There should be more people out here," said Carol Eager, 66, a retired teacher from Michigan. "There should be thousands saying, 'Stop it, stop it, stop it.' "
Five years ago, as Tomahawk missiles hissed across the desert from destroyers on the Red Sea, the United States entered Iraq on a mission to crush a dictator and seize his weapons of mass destruction.
Now the dictator is dead, and so are his sons. But no weapons have been found, and the war continues.
Nearly 4,000 American soldiers have been killed, nearly 30,000 wounded. The death rate in Iraq has tripled since the invasion, according to a Johns Hopkins University study. More than 4-million Iraqis have lost their homes. And the war's monthly budget has eclipsed that of the U.S. Department of Education.
A Gallup poll last month found that 59 percent of Americans believe going to war was a mistake. On Wednesday, the fifth anniversary of the war's beginning, a few of them gathered to demand its end.
There were perhaps 50 in Brooksville, along with nearly 25 war supporters. One man walked around with a water bottle in a metal pail, offering free waterboarding.
Jail Bush, war criminal, the protesters chanted.
God Bless America, the supporters sang.
Both sides waved American flags.
Nearly 75 gathered in St. Petersburg, at rush hour on Fourth Street and Central Avenue: a hospital lab assistant, a school psychologist, a retired art teacher, the grandmother of a young man who'd just finished his third tour in Iraq.
The grandmother was Bette Thomas, a Largo resident. This was her first protest. She said it wouldn't be her last.
"I thought at the time we'd go in, get Saddam and leave," she said. "Now it just goes on and on."
The largest protest happened in Tampa, along Florida Avenue outside the U.S. District Court building. Nearly 200 people showed up, including the Palestinian truck driver in the Cheney mask.
Wind came hard from the south.
Across the street was a man in denim shorts and no-name running shoes, strumming an acoustic guitar. His name was Mark Frankenberg, and he was 44 years old. He said he had been an American soldier for 11 years and fought in the first Gulf War. He said he couldn't believe where the country was going.
"They call this the land of the free," he said. "What are they doing spying on my e-mail?"
He played and sang, Bob Dylan as much as anything else. Masters of War and The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll and, of course, this one:
How many times must the cannonballs fly
Before they're forever banned?
The answer, my friend, is blowin' in the wind,
The answer is blowin' in the wind.
Above him the palm trees shivered.
Thomas Lake can be reached
at [email protected]
or (813) 226-3416.