When you think of protests in Washington, D.C., what comes to mind? Demonstrators in front of the White House? A rally on Capitol Hill? A march down Constitution Avenue? Well, on March 17, 2003 a North Carolina tobacco farmer took a very different tact.
Around noon that day, 50-year old Dwight Watson drove his Jeep into D.C., towing his John Deere tractor on a flat bed trailer. Heading up Constitution Avenue, he suddenly jumped the curb and drove straight into the pond at Constitution Gardens between the Vietnam Memorial and the Washington Monument. Watson began playing patriotic music and then climbed onto the tractor, which he adorned with an upside-down American flag – a traditional sign of distress – and a yellow flag with a tobacco leaf on it.
In was a odd scene and authorities were perplexed. But, in the post 9/11 world they weren’t about to take any chances. Officers from the Park Police, D.C. Police and the FBI closed off the streets around the pond and made contact with Watson.
The farmer claimed to have bombs made of ammonium nitrate, an ingredient used in fertilizer and explosives like the one that Timothy McVeigh used to attack the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995.
Watson told police had come to D.C. to protest the U.S. government’s policies toward tobacco farmers. Anti-smoking campaigns had painted tobacco growers in a bad light, he said, and the government regulations were squeezing farmers unfairly. Communicating with friends by cell phone from the seat of his tractor, Watson encouraged other farmers to join him in his protest and said he was willing to die for the cause.
Police snipers kept Watson – who was dubbed “Tractor Man” by press outlets all over the country – in their cross hairs lest he attempt to detonate any explosives. Employees in the nearby Federal Reserve were told to move away from exterior windows. During the afternoon rush hour, the standoff caused gridlock, frustrating motorists and putting the city on high alert. As the Los Angeles Times put it, “After 18 months of military overflights, identification checks, sniper attacks and color-coded terror alerts, all it took was a man in a tractor to push this jittery city over the edge.”
Through the night and all through the next day, Watson sat atop his tractor as officers attempted to negotiate with him. Traffic flow was paralyzed. Some called for police to take drastic measures to end the siege but police were patient. U.S. Park Police Sgt. Scott Fear told the press, “We're making progress. Protection of human life is our No. 1 priority,” not smooth traffic flow.
Their patience was rewarded… finally. After 47 hours, Tractor Man surrendered peacefully. The packs he claimed were bombs turned out to be cans of bug spray.
In June 2004, U.S. District Judge Thomas P. Jackson sentenced Dwight Watson to six years in prison despite pleas from his family and friends for leniency. Watson himself was remorseful, telling the court, “My actions were totally uncalled for, totally unacceptable and totally wrong…. It was not my intention to hurt anyone, but it looks like I was trying to hurt people. It was foolish.”
While sympathetic to Watson's plight, the judge wanted to set a strong precedent.
“Mr. Watson, I have concluded you are a nice guy and you had a legitimate grievance... which [you] chose to express in a horrendous fashion.... The sentence I will hand down to you today is intended to deter the next nice guy who thinks he has a legitimate complaint.”
Jackson continued, “You may not have intended to engage in terrorism, but nevertheless, you did terrify people.... Whatever your intentions, this city regarded you as a one-man weapon of mass destruction.”
The sentence was later reduced. And so closed the book on one of the more bizarre political protests in Washington history.
- ^ “Farmer in D.C. Standoff Tells Friends He’s Willing to Die,” Knight Ridder Tribune Business News, 19 Mar 2003.
- ^ Nakamura, David and Allan Lengel, "Tractor Driver In Standoff With Police on Mall; N.C. Man Claims to Have Explosives," Washington Post, 18 Mar 2003.
- ^ Kemper, Vicki, "Angry Farmer and His Tractor Bring Washington to Its Knees," Los Angeles Times, 18 Mar 2003.
- ^ Leonnig, Carol, “Man Gets Six-Year Term for D.C. Tractor Standoff,” Washington Post, 24 Jun 2004.