WASHINGTON -- Urban America came to Washington yesterday to demand more money.
Baltimore was there. And Boston. And Newark. And Atlanta. And especially New York. Civic leaders, activists, trade unionists and citizens from across the country marched with banners through the nation's capital to press an appeal for emergency federal aid to halt the decline of the United States' inner cities.
President Bush was out of town, and only a handful of Congress members were in attendance. But for a few heady hours, at least, tens of thousands of city dwellers were able to voice their anger.
"This isn't about politicians -- it's about people," shouted Baltimore Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke as the marchers gathered in a park near the Capitol.
Estimates of the crowd size variedly widely. Organizers said that 200,000 marched, while the U.S. Park Police said they counted only 35,000. Metropolitan Police in Washington estimated the crowd size at 150,000.
Nonetheless, members of the U.S. Conference of Mayors seemed genuinely pleased by the turnout for the rally, which they had spent more than six months arranging.
Boston Mayor Raymond L. Flynn, president of the mayors' conference, said it showed a conviction among voters that their cities needed large-scale federal aid to prevent more violent eruptions such as the riots that flared in Los Angeles after the controversial acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of black motorist Rodney King.
The march was endorsed by 153 mayors nationally, nearly half of whom signed on after the Los Angeles riots.
Speaker after speaker at yesterday's rally demanded that Congress revoke the "fire wall" erected in the 1990 budget agreement that prevents funds from defense cuts being used for domestic programs.
While the Pentagon had received money for major weapons programs throughout the 1980s, they said, federal aid for urban programs was cut by almost two-thirds to less than $15 billion.
Mr. Schmoke was a member of a mayoral delegation that visited Congress last week to renew a long-standing demand for a federal urban aid package totaling almost $35 billion.
"We had to beg [the Congress members for the money] . . . while at the same time they are prepared to spend $44 billion to build 20 B-2 bombers," he said, provoking derisive hisses from the crowd.
Democratic presidential contender Jerry Brown made an appearance, joining leaders at the head of the march, although he was not permitted to speak from the podium.
Bill Clinton, the leading Democratic challenger for the presidency, did not attend. Mr. Schmoke, who has endorsed Mr. Clinton's candidacy, announced that the Arkansas governor was addressing high school students in his home state.
The mayor read a brief statement by Mr. Clinton in support of the rally.
The rally was a melange of high school band music, '60s-style civil rights activism, trade unionism, national politics and socialist advocacy.
Like a sailor marooned in a sea of activism stood Alexander Rybalkin, a Ukraine-born Baltimore resident, holding aloft a small "Save Baltimore" sign.
"I'm here to add just one more body to the weight of the people," he said.
Once homeless, Mr. Rybalkin said he now rents a small apartment on Saratoga Street and ekes out a livelihood with federal disability assistance.
New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo said that the United States was wealthy enough to afford the billions of dollars necessary to upgrade its cities.
The administration could find the money, he said, just as it had found money to fund the savings and loan bailout, the Persian Gulf war and space research.
"If Washington can not make America better, now, then America will make Washington better," he declared.
While Mr. Bush came in for the most criticism from the speakers, both parties in Congress were roundly accused of neglecting the cities.
"Sometimes to get a mule's attention you've got to hit [it] over the head with a 2-by-4. This march is that 2-by-4," said organizer Osborn Elliott, a former deputy mayor of New York and former editor of Newsweek.
The "mule," he said, was a two-headed one: the Republican-controlled White House and the Democratic-controlled Congress.
"From here we must keep up the pressure for the year, or two, or three, or five, or however long it takes to change this country's priorities," he said.