Protests are an American right.
Sometimes they get out of hand, or are violent, illegally formed or disruptively executed.
But the right to protest peaceably is not something that easily can be dismissed by authorities or curbed to the point of ineffectiveness.
This is a major issue right now with the looming inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump less than six weeks away. You, your friends and your family may be planning to attend the peaceful transfer of power. Or, you may be spitting mad that Trump won and you won’t be caught within sight of the U.S. Capitol. It’s your choice, even your constitutional right to go or stay away.
That’s the main issue for 20 protest groups.
As of Monday, none of the groups had received a National Park Service permit to stage a gathering of any sort. And it was not clear when or if they ever would get an assigned space.
It turns out the Park Service a year ago routinely reserved all the public land at and even near the inaugural site for the official Presidential Inaugural Committee, a private group whose members are selected by the winning candidate. (Hillary Clinton would have had the same opportunity.)
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Until Trump’s committee decides what sites it will use for its inaugural events, none of the land is available to be assigned to protesters. And, surprisingly, there is no deadline. If the official committee doesn’t release any of the reserved spots, the protesters are all out of luck. That’s the official Park Service policy that it says has been in place since 2008. Protest groups, naturally, are outraged.
“That really goes to the heart of the problem,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard in an interview with NBC4. “The [U.S.] Constitution simply cannot tolerate what the Park Service is doing here. It violates the First Amendment. People have the right speak out. This is the nation’s capital.”
Verheyden-Hilliard is executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice. That group sued the D.C. government several years ago over its handling and arrests of anti-war protesters. It won more than $10 million in the case, and the District radically changed how it responds to protests.
The Partnership is in federal court right now seeking an injunction to force the Park Service to assign reasonable space for what may be tens of thousands of demonstrators against Trump. The Park Service declined to comment on the suit, but told NBC4 it is following its 2008 policy that governed the subsequent Barack Obama inaugurals in 2009 and 2013. But Trump is generating far more requests for protests than Obama did.
The Trump inaugural committee — a private organization, not government — has told the media it is deciding as quickly as possible which lands it will use for the inaugural week. But it doesn’t have to release federal lands to anyone.
“Once those applications are submitted on [the committee’s] behalf,” said Park Service spokesperson Michael Litterst, “they essentially have permits for those areas unless they choose to relinquish areas they may not use. And there is not a deadline for them to make that decision.”
So bottom line, all the protest groups are left hanging. They can’t advise participants when to come to D.C., where to go or what to bring. That — at its base — is illegal, according to the Partnership. It says the Park Service is supposed to be neutral, not an agent for one side or the other.
“Groups are planning to come to Washington, D.C., to engage in free speech activities; and they are being told by the government that there is no ground under their feet on which they can stand,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.
Another protest organizer said the federal government is creating potentially a more dangerous situation. He said the inaugural will attract thousands of protesters regardless of permits. If there is no legal management of them, he said, who knows what they might do to be heard and seen?
■ More than protests to watch. The D.C. police department is considered one of the best in handling public protests, organized and permitted or not. But now police and federal officials have to be aware of another problem — the growing hints and evidence of violence sparked by social media.
A good example is the recent situation at Comet Ping Pong. A man traveled to the District and fired a rifle. He said he had been inspired by a story on social media — patently false — that the pizza joint harbored child sex slaves.
“That’s scary,” interim D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham said of the Dec. 4 incident on the WAMU Politics Hour last Friday. “We’re going to be scouring the social media as well as our federal partners for any potential threats that could occur for the inauguration.”
■ Betting on the media. A different media story was playing out in suburban Maryland where Prince George’s County was welcoming the new MGM Casino. For weeks leading up to the official opening, the casino welcomed all sorts of media inside and out on its property to help feed the buzz. After the opening activities, several news organizations were taken aback when MGM declined to let their reporters on the property for follow-ups. Some said the casino was just managing the big crowds, while others thought the reams of free publicity apparently had served its purpose.
Tom Sherwood, a Southwest resident, is a political reporter for News 4.