A little boy on a stretcher plays a big game of make-believe death as he leads thousands of protesters who chant “free Palestine” down H Street.
I catch a glance of him before the march, and, as both our eyes lock, he seems shy and a little uncomfortable in his wood stretcher, sized to fit his bony body.
A photographer with a long dark lens begins to take a picture, and the little boy gets apprehensive and turns away. One of the four men holding up his stretcher whispers something in his ear. Suddenly the boy grows a stern look on his face, soft and fierce, unafraid of the lens.
The march begins in the noon D.C. heat, and, amid the chants of pro-Palestinian protesters and anti-IMF and World Bank protesters, the stretcher and the little boy are lost.
Women with burquas pushing baby strollers and young men with Palestinian flags painted on their faces march through the streets of the national’s capital, past lines of police officers who look bored as they swelter in the heat and humidity.
It’s an hour and a half before I find the little boy on the stretcher again. This time he is sitting on the sidewalk in front of the Justice Department. He seems a little worn out but playful nonetheless.
He eyes me with a mischievous curiosity at first as I bend down to ask him his name.
“Sammi, that’s with a ‘i,'” he says proudly.
His golden brown eyes widen as he sees me pullout a reporter’s notebook. “How old are you?” I ask.
“Eleven, almost 12. My birthday is in a week,” he blurts out.
He tells me he’s been on the stretcher that now lays next to him on the sidewalk for “three hours, or something like that.” A young man leaning on a Palestinian flag next to him cuts in. “It’s been an hour and a half since the march started.”
I ask why he’s come to the Palestinian rally. “We came here because we should have our rights,” he answers. “Like what?” I ask. He hesitates for a moment and then looks at another young man standing next to him.
The man, Sultan Sallaj, a young Palestinian from Buffalo, N.Y., who came with more than 50 people, including Sammi, takes over and adds,
“We’re here to stop what’s happening in Palestine. Homes have been lost; people have no access to water. All the things are things we take for granted in America are being denied to Palestinians.”
“This stretcher is a symbol for what happened in Jenin,” continues Sallaj, as the crowd that has been resting begins to chant again. Sullaj refers to a Israeli military operation in the Palestinian-controlled Jenin that ended in a still unknown number of deaths.
All the protesters that have been resting in the midday sun begin to stand up and resume their positions on the road, and Sallaj calls for Sammi to lie down in the stretcher once again.
But Sammi resists. He is tired of lying down and wants to carry the stretcher now. Sallaj warns him that the burden of carrying the stretcher will be too much, but Sammi insists. Another boy, slightly heavier than Sammi, climbs into his place atop the makeshift stretcher.
The young men helps hoist the stretcher onto Sammi’s little shoulder. He struggles for a minute but then disappears into the crowd of nearly 50,000 moving protesters, slowly headed for the White House to join another 15,000 pro-Palestinian demonstrators who have been stationed there since the morning.