Thousands of bikers from around the country roared into Washington on Wednesday to support victims of 9/11 and in solidarity against a controversial Muslim rally on the National Mall.
Though organizers of the "2 Million Bikers to D.C." ride were denied permits for a police escort through traffic, motorcycle riders sought to pay tribute to those who died and served in the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
"We’re here for 9/11," national ride coordinator Belinda Bee told The Washington Times
. "We are going to have a peaceful ride. But there are people who are sick and tired of their rights and liberties being taken away."
The National Park Service, the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department, and U.S. Capitol Police last month refused permits to organizers who wanted bikers to ride through red lights and intersections in the city.
If the Park Service had granted the bikers' permit, "it would cause a severe service disruption of traffic," spokeswoman Carol Johnson told The Blaze
newspaper in D.C. "We couldn't provide adequate park police services and park police escorts — and it would require a lot of road closures, so it was denied."
D.C. police spokeswoman Gwendolyn Crump told WTOP
radio: "Solely to facilitate the speed and timeliness of the participants in itself does not fall within the definition of a First Amendment assembly. The activity was viewed as expressive."
Crump added that ride organizers were encouraged to move their event to a weekend.
Meanwhile, Ted Gest of the D.C. attorney general's office told U.S. News, "It is not a crime to parade" through the city without a permit. The office prosecutes violations of D.C. law.
Gest cautioned, however, "I don't think we can speculate on what penalties the motorcycle riders might be subjected to for traffic or other offenses because we don't know what they're going to do."
In a post Friday on Facebook, the organizers apologized to D.C. residents for what would likely be gridlock as the bikers headed into Washington for the event.
"What could have been a one- or two-hour ride through will now likely be an all-day event," the organizers said on Facebook. The exact route was not posted because of "security purposes," according to U.S. News & World Report.
Earlier this year, however, the Park Service granted a permit to a Muslim group that held a rally on the Mall on Wednesday to call attention to social justice issues. The bikers' event sought to counter that event, which was sponsored by the American Muslim Political Action Committee.
The noon rally, called the "Million American March Against Fear," featured such speakers as author and Princeton University professor Cornel West. It sought to draw attention to what the group said was unfair fear of Muslims after 9/11.
A few dozen people attended the event, which was heckled by Christian counterdemonstrators — some holding signs that read "One nation under God" or that disparaged the Muslim prophet Muhammad.
Ruby Sous of Kansas City stressed that Muslims and American-Muslims "stand with America against terrorism."
"We want to stand here in solidarity with the American people against hate and violence," she told The Washington Times.
Dan O’Brien, 54, a biker from Mansfield, Ohio, told the Times he had been "looking for a ride like this" to honor the 9/11 victims, and said he was encouraged to join the event because of the Muslim rally.
"This is very disgraceful," he said. "They picked a day precious to the United States and its citizens."
By 5 p.m., only a handful of motorcycles were still rolling around the National Mall, but the scene was overwhelming earlier in the day.
While the numbers fell short of the "2 million" implied by the event's name, there were easily thousands of bikers participating, NBCWashington.com
The ride began at Harley-Davidson of Washington in suburban Fort Washington, Md., at 11 a.m. They left in staggered groups of 50.
The sheer number of bikes was too great to stop. Other drivers were forced to wait and watch.
Many didn't mind, NBCWashington reports. Instead, they snapped photos and waved.
"I could stay here for half an hour, I don't care. This is America," Santana Sensenna, one of those stuck in traffic, told the television station.
The bikes rolled in a steady stream for 50 minutes before heading to the Washington Beltway, where one motorcycle caused a long traffic back-up when it went down in the Bethesda area.
And at the Mall, another motorcyclist ran his bike into the back of a pedicab. Three people were reportedly sent to the hospital.
"I think the heat got to me and I kind of blacked out a little bit," the rider, Bill Eisenheart, told NBCWashington. "You know, I didn't see him."
But the overarching theme was remembering what happened at the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon in northern Virginia, and in a field in Somerset County, Pa.
"9/11 happened then, but it's still happening," one rider, Ken Mortello, told NBCWashington.
A Desert Storm veteran and full-time firefighter, Mortello said he came from New Jersey. He said he remembered what 9/11 was like for a friend in New York City who rushed into the World Trade Center to help.
"He had a woman with third-degree burns," Mortello said. "As he came through a tunnel, one tower collapsed. The tunnel that he was in collapsed — missed him by about two feet.
Buried everybody else that was with him."
Some friends still have not gotten over that day, Mortello told NBCWashington, and that's why he rode Wednesday.
Nicholas Montefusco, a rider from Huntersville, Pa., told WTOP that Americans should never forget the significance of 9/11.
"It's very important and it's from all ethnic backgrounds, all religions," he said. "It's just, we're all Americans — and we need to support our country the best we can."
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