WASHINGTON – A tobacco farmer who said declining subsidies were forcing him out of business held police at bay Tuesday from his tractor in a pond near Washington's monuments. Streets were closed for blocks, and traffic was snarled for miles.
"I'm going to get my message out or die trying," Dwight Watson, 50, of Whitakers, N.C., said in an interview posted on the Washington Post Web site. "I've got the rest of my life to stay right here. I'm not going anywhere."
Rush-hour gridlock jammed a city already suffering from prewar jitters. Police, armed with automatic weapons, said Watson had claimed to have explosives, and they cordoned off a large area near the Washington Monument, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.
Beth Taylor, who lives next to Watson back in North Carolina, said she had spoken to him on his cell phone Tuesday and didn't think he had explosives.
"He's just your average, run-of-the-mill neighbor except when it comes to the tobacco issue. Then he's what you might call a radical," she said. "He did the same thing about four years ago. He drove his tractor to Washington, but it didn't turn into what it did now. He just drove around Washington and then came home."
For a second day, traffic in and around Washington was paralyzed as police closed an eight-block area around the large pond in Constitution Gardens, a federal park bordering the monuments. The standoff was continuing late Tuesday night, 36 hours after it began.
The incident began around noon Monday, when Watson drove his Jeep into the pond pulling a trailer carrying the green John Deere and a motorcycle. He mounted the tractor and drove it off the trailer and into the shallow water.
Watson wore a military medic's helmet and a T-shirt bearing a variety of badges or patches. He occasionally lifted his U.S. flag, upside down in the traditional signal of distress. A green flag on the other side of the tractor's cab depicted yellow tobacco leaves.
Police SWAT team members positioned themselves on an armored personnel carrier on Constitution Avenue. Several had rifles with sniper scopes aimed in the direction of Watson and his tractor.
Watson, whose family has run a farm for several generations, said cuts in government subsidies to tobacco farmers have made it difficult for American growers to compete internationally. Last weekend, he decided he could no longer afford to farm
"I'm broke. I'm busted," he told the Post.
The incident rattled some Washington area residents and tourists, already uneasy after the government raised the national alert warning to "orange" Monday night because of the prospect of war and possibility of retaliatory terror attacks.
"I just feel uneasy walking around the streets," said Jonah Greer, 21, of Oklahoma City. "You don't know what's going to happen. Some crazy person might do something stupid and hurt a lot of people."
Police Chief Charles Ramsey said the security measures that caused gridlock around the tractor scene would not hamper any evacuation that might be required for an attack or other emergency in Washington.
"Right now this is the only game in town, and you can afford to wait. If there were multiple events going on, we'd move him," Ramsey said.