Tens of thousands of Americans poured into Washington on Saturday to embrace the nation's children and reaffirm their belief that in a nation with "the biggest wallet in the industrialized world" no child should be left behind.
The Stand for Children rally was billed as a national day of community renewal and commitment to the nation's young. Conservative groups criticized the event as little more than a party for liberals who want to increase government spending.U.S. Park Police estimated the crowd at 200,000.
"We stand today at the Lincoln Memorial as American families and as an American community to commit ourselves to putting our children first," said rally organizer Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children's Defense Fund. "We commit ourselves to building a just America that leaves no child behind and we commit ourselves to ensuring all our children have a healthy and a safe passage to adulthood."
She said the rally was not about making government bigger. "We do not stand here advocating big government," she told the crowd. "We stand here advocating just government."
People of all ages lined both sides the Reflecting Pool in front of the memorial and stretched toward the Washington Monument. Carrying state flags and clapping their hands, thousands of children and adults began the rally by marching shoulder to shoulder across the Memorial Bridge, which spans the Potomac River.
They carried signs that said "Politicians Were Children Once Too" and "Kids Rule" and "Education Is Not a Privilege, It's a Right."
A number of Utahns attended the rally, including Ann Fillmore Florence, a mother of six who called the demonstration a chance to, "make a statement to our national leaders that budget cuts that look small on paper can cut children to the bone."
She was joined in what she called a show of solidarity by at least a half-dozen Utahns - concerned representatives of children's interest groups - and her son, who she said benefited from government programs like financial aid for college students. She said the rally also represented an outpouring of self-sacrifice in the interest of children.
"They are parents, teachers, child-care givers, school counselors, grandparents, foster parents," Florence said. "I have not met anyone yet who has gotten rich by giving these services."
Celebrities, including "Stand and Deliver" star Edward James Olmos, "NYPD Blue's" Kim Delaney, actress Rosie O'Donnell and fashion model Iman, also joined the rally.
Participants said the rally was not so much about outlining a political agenda as it was about creating a movement that would spark more public debate about who should have first dibs on tax dollars.
"If we're not taking the time to say that this is a priority, then the leaders aren't going to recognize the needs," said Jennifer Sullivan, a 24-year-old social worker in Long Island, N.Y. "The laws are being made by people who have no idea what's going on. I don't think people really believe that there are kids who are hungry."
"This is a day about unity and community, and not about controversy," said Edelman. "This is a day about rekindling our children's hope and renewing our faith in each other and in our great nation's future. It is not about partisan politics."
Edelman said she organized the rally, co-sponsored by about 3,700 organizations, after spending another year watching children suffer from neglect, abuse and the breakdown of moral, family and community values.
However, conservatives, who were not invited, criticized the event as a confluence of liberal groups hanging on to big government policies at a time when Americans want less government.
"While the Stand for Children event is correct in calling attention to the disastrous condition of America's children, it is important to recognize that the children are suffering . . . because the U.S. welfare system has failed," said Robert Rector, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation.
"Higher welfare payments do not help children; they increase dependence and illegitimacy."