Retired Col. Harry Riley planned to take over Washington on Friday.
So the Florida native invited conservatives from all over the country to join him in a protest in the nation's capital—and stay there until President Obama; Vice President Joe Biden; Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell; House Speaker John Boehner and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi; and Attorney General Eric Holder all voluntarily stepped down from office. Riley estimated that between 10 million and 30 million patriots would join him in the effort and stay until the bums, as it were, threw themselves out. Needless to say, the media was skeptical.
But on Friday morning thousands of lawn chairs stood in the tacky, taupe mud facing a massive stage with professional sound equipment, surrounded by fresh white tents and a few scattered medical outposts as the temperature began to rise and the clouds that dumped rain on Washington the night before began to part. Everything looked set for a major rally, one that would get attention—but that was for the George Washington University commencement, slated for Sunday morning.
Riley and a couple hundred self-styled patriots stood yards away, on the hilltop above the base of the newly reopened Washington Monument waving both American and "Don't Tread On Me" flags. Their signs encouraged Congress to impeach Obama and raged in carefully drawn capital letters about "LIES" surrounding the attacks on the U.S. Consulate at "BENGHAZI."
Two hundred people or so, largely white and near the age of retirement, milled around among a few scattered college-age kids, many of whom donned Guy Fawkes masks. A group in military fatigues—the most popular choice of dress at the gathering—held up a large cross for attendees to sign, while the rest of the group seemed happy to walk around and chat. They hailed from all over the country, with representatives from Hawaii and Alaska, no less. Many said they'd met "the colonel," but reports of his whereabouts and attire were conflicted.
And that was it, for a while. The rally left a bit to be desired organizationally with the official website directing participants to a vague location of "the mall" on Friday, May 16, with no listed time. Other media outlets reported that the gathering would take place outside the White House and the crowd speculated that some of their flock may be down there on Pennsylvania Avenue. A group of about 30, mostly men and mostly veterans, stood about a mile away near the Air and Space Museum, checking Twitter for clues about their comrades' whereabouts, but confident that the rally would find them. Another couple hundred gathered at the Arlington National Cemetery before ultimately making the long march up to the Monument.
As the marchers arrived, a cheer went up in the crowd, their numbers having reached to the upper triple digits. Shortly after, a woman who introduced herself to National Journal only as "Momma Bear" from San Diego, Calif.—but whom others called "Terri"—stood up on a low wall with others holding large yellow signs and pulled out a megaphone.
Momma Bear told the crowd she had recently come from Cliven Bundy's ranch, where she and supporters from all over the country gathered to help fight off the Bureau of Land Management and return the Bundys' cattle. And, she told them all, the Bundys fed each of them two meals a day.
She later told National Journal that she had long monitored the situation in Nevada, but that a report from the site InfoWars, which was founded by conspiracy theorist and 9/11 truther Alex Jones, and an accompanying YouTube video showing BLM officers sicking a dog on a pregnant woman had finally inspired her to drive up to the ranch to help out. She stopped at the Bundys' place on her way to Washington and plans to take her two daughters there when she returns.
The Bundy episode resonated strongly with the crowd, but the biggest driving force for the attendees, based on the content of their speeches and signs, was the Benghazi attack. Several of the protesters said their anger with the country's leadership began years ago, but the violent attack in Libya in 2012 and the administration's response to it was what lead them to get active.
For Riley, who said he'd been outraged for "decades," it was the government shutdown that moved him toward action. "The government decided that they were going to close all the memorials here, the WWII veterans couldn't get to the memorial and a couple months later I was penning another rant and I said why am I doing this? And [I] put this mission on and put it on the website and it grabbed legs basically from grassroots America," he said.
Despite taking control of things at Washington Monument, Momma Bear said she is in no way affiliated with Riley, but offered that someone needed to take the lead in organizing the group. She took the lead quite literally half an hour later, informing Riley that the group was marching down to the Air and Space Museum and they needed him to lead the charge. When a police car drove up later in the day, Momma Bear organized a group of young men to protect Riley, shouting: "Surround Colonel Riley! Surround Colonel Riley!" It turned out that the car was just passing by.
And so with a call-and-response of "impeach" and "Obama!" the group, now numbered near a thousand, wended its way down the hill and along the Mall, to a shady area outside the Air and Space Museum.
There, other megaphones appeared seemingly out of thin air and a rotating cast of veterans and tea-party supporters spoke to the crowd, many invoking God and criticizing government overreach and overspending. But despite early media reports, the protest was peaceful and those gathered were respectful. The speakers repeatedly reminded the crowd of the power of peaceful protest and, aside from a single sign in the crowd comparing Obama to Adolf Hitler, the rhetoric was civil.
"We were at the Bundy Ranch and we did the pushback and we got a peaceful resolution. I think we can do it peacefully and we need all hands on deck," Momma Bear said.
As for Friday's turnout, the number gathered on the Mall hadn't topped 1,000 by mid-afternoon, nowhere near as many as Riley thinks they'll need to be taken seriously. "We recognize that politicians respond to numbers. If we don't get 10 million or 20 million or something like has happened in other places, then they're going to ignore us like they have in the past," Riley said.
But he, Momma Bear, and others said they were not discouraged. Given the rain and work schedules, they fully expect their group to multiply through the weekend. And they're committed to sticking around.
"As long as it takes," Momma Bear said. "Let me see, today is—Friday. In two days is my son's birthday, in 11 days is my other daughter's birthday and—no, 10 days is my other daughter's birthday. And in 18 days is my other daughter's birthday and her graduation [is] a day after [that], from high school."
Asked if she's really willing to miss those events for the rally, Momma Bear nodded vehemently. "Yeah.… What am I going to give them if I can't give them a country that works for us?" she asked.