Washington Area Coalition to
Stop U.S. Intervention
in the Middle East
2111 Florida Ave. NW.
Washington DC 2000&
28 February 1991
Hon. Sidney YatesDear Congressperson Yates:
Thank you very much for the opportunity to submit written comments to the Interior Subcommittee. The Washington Area Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East ["the Coalition"] has a number of concerns about the conduct of the United States Park Police in recent weeks and welcomes the attention of the subcommittee.
The Coalition is comprised of about 50 D.C. area groups opposed to the recent war in the Persian Gulf. Since August of 1990, the Coalition has sponsored numerous demonstrations and vigils protesting the military build-up and the war. Many of these actions have occurred on the sidewalk in front of the White House (Pennsylvania Avenue side) and in Lafayette Park across from the White House. The Coalition has been diligent in always attempting to work with the Park Service and obtain the necessary permits for these demonstrations.
Additionally, some members of the Coalition have engaged in continuous vigils in Lafayette Park. Since the beginning of the war, some of these people have protested by means of continuous drumming. The drumming has received national and international press attention, including being the subject of Gary Trudeau’s Doonesbury strip.
House Appropriations Committee
Room B 308 Rayburn Office Bldg.
Washington, D.C., 20515
Partial list of endorsers: ACORN. American Indian Support Committee, Bethesda Food Co-0p, Bikes Not Bombs, Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Church Action Against S. Carolina/Georgia Nuclear Ruin Coalifor Universities in the Public Interest, Communist Party USA, D C Chapter of Science for the People, D C. Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador, D C Area Student and Youth Against War in the Middle East, D C Fellowship of Reconciliation, D.C. "Hands Off Cuba" Coalition, D.C. SANE/FREEZE Canvass, D.C. Student Coalition Against Apartheid and Racism, Disciple Peace Fellowship Dorothy Day Catholic Worker Ecumenical Program for Inter-American Communication and Action English Graduate Organization, University of Maryland, Food Not Bombs, Greenpeace, GW University Progressive Student Union, Institute for Transportation and Development Policy, Jobs with Peace National Association of Black Semiranins/Howard University Chapter, National Lawyers' Guild, Network in Sol Guatemala, Nonviolence International, No VA Democratic Socialists of America, Palestine Aid Society, Palestine Solidarity Committee, Peace Committee of the All Souls Unitarian Church, Peace Committee of the Friends Meeting of Washington, Peace Park Anti-Nuclear Vigil, Positive Force, Potomac Valley Green Network Prince George's County Pledge of Resistance, Proposition One Committee, Socialist Workers' Party, South Africa Women's Day Committee, Union of Palestinian Women's Associations, United States Student Association War Resisters League, Washington Area Pledge of Resistance, Washington Peace Center, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, Women's Strike for Peace, Young Koreans United, Young Socialist Alliance.
Recently, the Coalition has received numerous complaints about the Park Police's harassment of anti-war demonstrators. One need not agree with everything that the demonstrators say in order to he concerned about what the Coalition views as very serious abridgements of fundamental freedom of speech rights.
The complaints can be divided up in a variety of categories: 1) general harassment, 2) unreasonable regulation of free speech activities; 3) excessive use of force.
1) General Harassment
The Coalition has noticed an increase in what we would call general harassment by the Park Police.
For instance, it has become usual for the Park Police to photograph and videotape people who participate in our demonstrations. There is no purpose for such surveillance other than for intimidation of demonstrators or for compilation of secret dossiers -- neither of which is proper in a democracy.
Another example is when the police confiscate personal property, such as backpacks laying on the ground which belong to demonstrators. We have regularly seen the police begin to cut bicycle chains when bicycles are locked to park benches -- in such cases, the Coalition announces over our p.a. system that the owner should claim the bicycle before the police seize it. Of course, there are no signs in the park warning that the police will seize unattended personal property, such as bicycles, nor are there any bicycle racks available to the users of the park.
We feel that the behavior of the Park Police in truth these regards -- surveillance and seizure of personal property -- reveals a fundamental disregard for the First Amendment rights of the demonstrators.
2) Unreasonable Regulation of Free Speech Activities
The Park Service's regulation of free speech activities at the White House and in Lafayette Park has attracted much attention over the past decade. In the early 1980s, the Park Service adopted a very detailed list of rules and regulations covering almost every aspect of protests on the sidewalk and in the park. Codified at 36 CFR § 7.96, the rules place strict and detailed limits on the number of demonstrators, the size and thickness of signs that demonstrators can carry, the use of public address systems, and where on the White House sidewalk people can stand, as well as outlawing leaving signs "unattended." T
here are also restrictions on "camping" in Lafayette Park.
Most of these regulations have survived constitutional challenges during the mid-1980s. See e.g. White House Vigil v. Clark, 746 F. 2d 1518 (D.C. Cir. 1984). However, the Coalition continues to have concerns about the appropriateness of such rules regulating free speech at one place where speech should be at its fullest -- at the very center of our democracy, the White House. Accordingly, the Coalition would like Congress to look closely at these regulations and to enact legislation rescinding or amending them. The Coalition would be happy to help the subcommittee staff review the regulations in some detail.
One regulation that has not been challenged yet in court, however, is a noise rule at 36 C.F.R. § 2.12 which prohibits noise in all national parks from radios, televisions, tape decks or musical instruments over sixty decibels or noise which is "unreasonable."
After President Bush complained publicly about the drumming from Lafayette Park, the Park Police began to arrest and charge people criminally with violating this rule. Moreover, the alleged enforcement of this rule has led the Park Police to break-up peaceful and non-violent anti-war protests in the park.
(See # 3 below )
While the criminal cases for violation of the noise rules have yet to come up in court, the Coalition has grave concerns about the Park Police's use of this rule. It is our opinion that this rule was originally intended to prevent unreasonable noise in all of our country's parks -- to keep wilderness and other nature areas free from noise pollution. We seriously doubt whether this rule was ever intended to control political demonstrations in Lafayette Park, in the middle of a major metropolitan area.
Sixty decibels is hardly loud and often the ambient street noise exceeds that level. Certainly the honking of car horns -- which pro-war demonstrators in the same area request, without penalty -- is louder than the drumming.
It is our opinion that the Park Police is using this rule improperly to stifle freedom of expression and the right to petition the government.
3) Excessive Use of Force
Whatever one has to say about the propriety of some of the rules used by the Park Police to control demonstrators in the park or in front of the White House, the Coalition believes that the Park Police officers are using excessive and unreasonable force in enforcing those rules.
Rather than just citing and releasing the alleged v violators, many People, are physically arrested and taken into custody, sometimes to jail, for Simple Park code violations. Interestingly, many of the people who have been maintaining the permanent vigil in the park are well known to the police and, in their cases, the police could not in good faith claim that there was a failure to identify oneself properly. it is our feeling that custodial arrests for such petty offenses are both improper and done for the purpose of harassment.
Moreover, the Coalition has received reports of the police using excessive force when arresting people, sometimes physically assaulting them.
A recent example of lack of control by the Park Police is an incident that occurred on February 24. Between 5 p.m. and 6:45 p.m., the Coalition had a lawful demonstration in the Park, with about 200 people in attendance. After the end of the program, many of the people carried their signs and candles to fence along the Pennsylvania Avenue side of the park. Some people chanted slogans others drummed; others just turned their signs outward to the street. None of the demonstrators were in the street. There was a small group of pro-war demonstrators on the White House sidewalk who were shouting and asking cars to honk if they supported the war. However, there was little or no direct contact between the two groups.
There were perhaps two dozen park Police present, some on horseback in the park, others on the traffic median in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue. For no reason, the police began videotaping the demonstrators at about 7 p.m. a police car pulled up to the protestors and made an announcement. Some witnesses thought the police mentioned the fact that the demonstrators were exceeding the sixty decibel level. Others thought the police just ordered the demonstrators to disperse. A few minutes later, about 30 uniformed officers came into the park and formed themselves into lines around the demonstrators. The demonstrators linked hands around the drummers.
Without any warning the police rushed into the crowd and began assaulting people with their hands and nightsticks, throwing people around and onto the ground. Witnesses have told us that they saw officers kick and choke people. Others saw police horses stomp on people. The officers often verbally abused demonstrators.
About 10 to 15 people were arrested: some were dragged to a waiting police van. None of the demonstrators offered any resistance. The police melee continued for about ten minutes Ultimately Metropolitan police appeared and a stand-off developed between the remaining demonstrators and the police, with minor incidents of police shoving demonstrators who asked questions or shouted at the police. The Coalition has witness statements and video footage showing these events.
None of the people arrested were charged with violating the noise rules -- Rather they were charged with disorderly conduct, which was ironic given the fact that it was the police who were disorderly.
In all the Coalition believes that the, noise rule was used solely as a pretext for breaking up a demonstration that was at odds with the White House's positions. The amount of force used was completely unreasonable given the petty nature of the alleged offenses.
In all the Coalition believes that Congress should look very closely at the Park Police's behavior in recent weeks and should adopt appropriate restrictions on the police that protect those in our society who exercise their First Amendment rights.
/s/ Neil M. Fox
Neil M. Fox
/s/ Lisa Fithian
for the Washington Area Coalition