TRICKS OF THE PROTEST TRADE
A DEMONSTRATION THAT WILL draw 250,000 or more people to Washington and tie up the Mall for a whole day is no small undertaking. It may cost several hundred thousand dollars, take six months to a year of planning, and require close cooperation among organizers, the Park Service, and other public agencies.
Demonstration organizers know from their experience that the Park Service will want to know in great detail, well in advance, what they are up to. They will have to draw up a "site plan," showing where they will march and where they will build their stage as well as the location of first-aid stations, water supplies, crowd-control fences, and an area for claiming lost children. And they will have to agree with the Park Service on a schedule to be followed before, during, and after the demonstration, including everything from when they'll "drop the steel" for construction of the stage to when they expect delivery of the rented toilets.
The Park Service knows from its experience that some demonstrations will be well organized and others will be shaky. The Million Man March, which was undercapitalized and left too much to the last minute, caused anxious moments in the Park Service but came off with few problems, and the 25th-anniversary celebration of Earth Day last spring was so disorganized that planners finally hired a professional rock concert promoter to get it on track.
Among the best-organized groups are said to be the AFL-CIO, which held big demonstrations here in 1981 and 1991, and the National Organization for Women, which has conducted several big marches organized by a woman named Alice Cohan, who now works for the Feminist Majority Foundation and is renowned for putting on events that run on time: and within budget.
Robbins also still marvels at the efficiency of the followers of the Reverend Sun Yung Moon, who once demonstrated in Lafayette Park as Ronald Reagan was preparing to go to Capitol Hill for a State of the Union address, moved the whole demonstration to Capitol Hill, and set up before the president arrived--managing also to feed everyone en route.
ONCE A DATE FOR A BIG DEMONSTRATION has been cleared by the Park Service. the agency typically calls the first of half a dozen meetings between its staff, the organizers, and other officials. The Park Service will be represented by someone from the office of Sandra Alley, who has run the public affairs office of the agency's national capital area for the past 15 years, as well as a liaison person from the US Park Police's special forces unit. The DC government may send someone from the police department's special operations unit and the mayor's Office of Emergency Preparedness, and a representative of the Capitol Police is likely to be on hand too. Depending on the event, there may also be people from police units at the Smithsonian and the National Gallery of Art, from the Secret Service, from the Transit Authority, or from police units in Arlington County and at the Pentagon.
It's here that the nitty-gritty begins to be sorted out, including such matters as:
Permits. Besides a Park Service permit for the Mall, a big demonstration probably will need permits from the DC government, which polices the city's streets, and the Capitol Police, which has jurisdiction over the Capitol grounds. Organizers may also need to request that certain streets be closed or that other accommodations be made. In 1991, for the parade celebrating the American victory over Iraq in Operation Desert Storm, some streetlights along the route were removed to allow room for mobile rockets to maneuver.
Transportation. Buses bringing demonstrators to town are usually sent to parking lots at Robert E Kennedy Stadium or, if it's a weekend, to the Pentagon--and it's important that they go there, because the Park Service factors bus counts into its crowd estimate. A few of the largest demonstrations also make arrangement with Metro to get subway hours extended.
The Stage. Because a typical demonstration features lots of speeches and music, the stage is a focal point in event planning. The Park Service demands to see construction plans, and inspections are made to ensure it won't collapse. Other effort goes into setting up "delay towers" which synchronize sound as it moves down the Mall from the stage, and in putting up huge video screens that bring the action closer to those in the back. Most of this is contracted out to experts, some of whom also work the concert circuit. "Never shortchange sound," says Alice Cohan. "When people come from so far away, they have a right to hear what's said."
Water. With so few drinking fountains on the Mall, organizers are cautioned to bring their own water supplies. Some lay in huge supplies of bottled water, and others rent tank trucks called "water buffaloes." Running out of water can be a disaster on a hot day. In 1991, at an AFL-CIO march, the tank trucks ran empty, and hundreds of demonstrators had to be pushed back by police horses while they were refilled. Sixty people were treated for heat exhaustion at George Washington University Hospital. Portable Toilets. The Park Service recommends renting one for every 300 demonstrators. Anything less, and people begin crowding into Smithsonian restrooms, tensions rise as lines at the portable johns grow ever longer. and police are asked to intervene as desperate men relieve themselves behind trees.
ALL OF THIS COSTS A LOT OF money. Construction of a stage and rental of the sound and video systems may run from $150,000 to $500,000, says Boden Sandstrom, a Washington-area technical producer. Portable toilets rent for about $50 per event, and you may need several hundred. The DC Fire Department and the Red Cross now charge for the medical services they once provided for free, and DC charges for use of the RFK parking lot.
The Park Service cleans up after demonstrations at taxpayer expense but asks organizers to help out by setting out litter boxes and dumpsters. The Park Service also absorbs the cost of law enforcement and crowd control for demonstrations, because charging might have a chilling effect on free speech and might invite a lawsuit from Art Spitzer
"Special events"--the parties, sporting events, and other non-political affairs that take place on Park Service land--face higher costs than demonstrations protected by the First Amendment. If you want to set up a stage or a tent, it will cost $1,000 a day, and you will have to pay the Park Service for policing your event.
For a five-kilometer footrace, there's a standard course on Haines Point and a set fee if more than 500 runners participate. The charges cover five Park Police officers setting up and taking down barricades, working at $37.50 an hour (the overtime rate) for a minimum of five hours. Organizers of special events also are required to put down money up front to cover any damage they may do to monuments, trees, flower beds, and grass--a requirement from which political demonstrations are exempt.
Demonstrations do occasionally result in major damage that taxpayers end up paying for. "Resurrection City," an encampment near the Lincoln Memorial set up in 1968 by the Reverend Ralph Abernathy's Poor People's Campaign, turned that area into a sea of mud.
Turf on the Mall took a beating in 1979 when American farmers, who had driven 500 tractors to Washington in a protest over the farm economy, were penned in there by buses and garbage trucks to prevent them from disrupting commuter traffic.
In January of 1993, the Clinton inaugural celebration on the Mall, which occurred during unusually warm and rainy weather, resulted in $334.000 worth of damage to the grass--most of it paid for by the inaugural committee.
Another case of bad luck involved a private group that held a modest-size tented party on the Mall several years ago. After a heavy rain the truck that came In to remove the tent--as well as a tow truck-got stuck up to their axles; the ruts were so bad that the area had to be regraded and reseeded, costing the group nearly $60,000.
THE NEVER-LEAVE-ANYTHING-TO chance approach to demonstration planning sometimes also includes an agreement between demonstrators and the Park Police on arrests for civil disobedience-- "negotiated CD's" as they are called in the trade. That way there's no trouble, nobody gets hurt, the demonstrators make the evening news, and everyone goes away happy.
Though many demonstrators know this drill--agreements are usually made on the number, timing, and location of the proposed arrests--some are so inexperienced that the Park Police have to read them the regulations and point out the opportunities for choreographed lawbreaking. More than 90 percent of the arrests are made on the White House sidewalk for violating that Kodak-moment regulation, which requires picketers to keeping moving so as not to obstruct the view of tourists.
The arrests are made under procedures that have been refined over the years to meet all possible objections by the ACLU. Typically, a police commander on a loudspeaker gives three warnings, two or three minutes apart, that demonstrators are in violation of their permit and risk being arrested. Access to the area is closed off, so no one can claim he was an innocent bystander, and the demonstrators are then fitted with disposable plastic "Flexi-cuffs" and put in patrol wagons. They end up at a Park Police facility in Anacostia, where they're given a $50 citation, payable by mail, and released.
A few groups insist on keeping their plans for civil disobedience secret, which the Park Service considers a big headache. Among the surprise tactics: Members of ACT-UP, the radical gay group, once lay down in the street and blew whistles. And members of Greenpeace, the radical environmental organization, chained themselves to trucks-some of them protected by cloth diapers against the messy call of Nature.
But the police sometimes have the last laugh by simply letting demonstrators wear themselves out. Robbins remembers a group of people who sat down in a street near the White House one cold winter evening begging to be arrested; as nighttime temperatures dropped, they eventually dispersed on their own. One hot summer day, a group of people who'd chained themselves to the White House fence discovered they'd forgotten to bring any water and that nobody had remembered the keys for their locks; eventually someone turned up with the keys, and they slunk off with sweaty brows and dry throats.
Much to the chagrin of media-savvy demonstrators, the Park Police also usually don't arrest women with babies and people in wheelchairs.
ANOTHER WORRY SURROUNDING demonstrations is how to handle counter protests. Sometimes the confrontations are small-scale--pacifists singing "Give Peace a Chance" surrounded by heckling Young Americans for Freedom singing "God Bless America" or gay demonstrators greeted at a subway stop by lone man bearing a sign that reads: PROTECT OUR PRIVATES. ARMED FORCES FOREVER STRAIGHT.
Other times the potential for trouble between opposing groups is much greater. Confrontations between factions of Iranian students in the 1970s turned violent, and a march by a couple of dozen Ku Klux Klan members in 1990 set off scattered brickthrowing by left-wing groups. In 1989. during a pro-choice march by feminists, pro-life advocates put set up a mock graveyard at the foot of Capitol Hill filled with crosses symbolizing abortions.
Alice Cohan, who has organized most of the recent feminist marches, tutors demonstrators in advance on how to deal with hecklers--drown them out with a well-rehearsal song or chant. She also shows them how to move a heckler out of the middle of a crowd without touching him and risking a worse confrontation--talk to him. surround him with a circle of people, then gradually ease him to the fringe of the crowd.
Other tricks of the protest trade are aimed at maximizing news coverage. Much more is involved than the sudden posturing, chanting, and brandishing of signs when television crews show up. Experienced organizers try to schedule their celebrity speakers early in the day so television reporters can have their tape "in the can" in time for the evening news. Organizers also sometimes rent a flatbed truck to drive slowly ahead of the march, providing camera crews a plat form for good angles of the crowd.
There are ways to control image, too. Feminist leaders, concerned that some marchers were carrying signs that were too anti-male, began flooding subsequent marches with preprinted signs expressing less off-putting messages. Encouraging women to wear white clothing when they marched not only harked back to the attire of early suffragists, but subtly forced them to upgrade their image by leaving their blue jeans at home.
A GOOD DEAL OF THE SPIN ON demonstrations surrounds the "crowd count," which is always issued by the Park Police and takes on importance as a measure of a cause's influence. For many years the police did this in a seat-of-the-pants fashion, using what they referred to as the SWAG (Scientific Wild-Assed Guess) method. But in the early 1990s, when complaints from demonstrators about undercounting reached Capitol Hill, Congress suggested that the Park Police come up with a counting method that would be public, consistent, and as accurate as possible. The resulting method relies on aerial photographs of the crowd, taken from a police helicopter, that are then analyzed using an overlying grid and assumptions about how many people ordinarily occupy a square meter. Those estimates are crosschecked with a count of the number of buses parked at RFK Stadium and the Pentagon and with subway ridership figures from Metro.
Hardly any group of demonstrators is satisfied with Park Police estimates, which are nearly always lower than the estimates of demonstrators themselves. Demonstrators often see political bias in the counts, and bad feelings develop. "It was an act of intimidation to keep people silent and in the closet," declared a leader of a gay rights march in 1993. We were "lowballed," said Eleanor Smeal of the Feminist Majority after a march in 1981). "Give me a damned break."
J.J. McLaughlin, the Park Police officer who makes the counts, has heard it all: "I've been called a pro-choice, pro-life, homophobic, bureaucratic racist who's opposed to nonviolence." So the deep anger last fall among many African Americans about the Park Service's count on the Million Man March was not unexpected-heightened by the high expectations inherent in the march's name and the camaraderie in the crowd. The Park Service gave an official count of just 400,000, using its usual aerial photographs as well as Metro ridership figures and bus numbers at RFK Stadium that were far short of what the Million Man March had predicted.
March organizer Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, threatened to sue, and the matter became further embroiled in controversy when an expert in satellite imagery at Boston University, called in at the request of ABC News, put the figure at 837,000. The difference was mostly the result of differing assumptions about the density of the crowd--the Park Service assuming three people were standing in each square meter, the Boston University professor assuming six.
SORRY, THAT'S NOT ALLOWED
GETTING THE PARK SERVICE'S permission for a political demonstration is fairly routine. No permit is required at all if 25 or fewer participants are expected. Bigger groups must fill out an application at the agency's regional headquarters in East Potomac Park. It's a first-come, first-served operation, the best locations going to those who get there early. "They run a permit service that is customer friendly, service oriented, and efficient," says Art Spitzer. "And they try to accommodate everyone."
The rules allow groups to apply for a date and location up to a year in advance, which has led on occasion to a wild rivalry. One of these in the 1980s--a competition to reserve Lafayette Park on the Fourth of July--pitted the Family Celebration Coalition, a group organized by former DC Delegate Walter Fauntroy, against the Cannabis Coalition, a pro-marijuana group that wanted the park for a smoke-in. The two groups would send representatives to the permit office on the morning of July 5, a year in advance, and they'd make a dash to be first in line when it opened.
There are times when the Park Service is less
permissive--denying permits for certain non-political events, demanding that plans be modified or enforcing its rules to the letter. Behind this stance at times is the issue of safety. Though civil libertarians believe the ban on structures in Lafayette Park is aimed mostly at making the place tidy and respectable, the Park Service also justifies it on grounds of security.
It's possible, goes the argument, that someone with a missile aimed at the White House might hide in a plywood hut using it as a kind of "terrorist duck blind." This was the same logic the Park Service used a few winters ago in tearing down an igloo someone had built in the park.
Other restrictions are intended to maintain a level of"dignity" deemed appropriate for national memorials. No demonstrations are allowed inside the Lincoln and Jefferson memorials, within the ring of flags at the Washington Monument, on the south edge of the White House grounds, or around the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. The Vietnam Memorial is protected by an even wider perimeter where high-decibel sound systems are banned. The dignity issue also was part of the reason the Park Service denied permission to tie a yellow ribbon around the Washington Monument to welcome home American hostages held in Iran.
Most of the 25 or so requests each year to shoot commercial photos or films on park land in Washington are approved. Clint Eastwood was allowed to eat ice cream on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in In the Line of' Fire, and Tom Hanks got to wade into the Reflecting Pool in Forrest Gump, though the movie company had to put down a pad to protect the bottom of the pool. But a few filming requests have been denied. Arnold Schwarzenegger, in town for the filming of True Lies, was turned down when he sought to gallop a horse through the Reflecting Pool in pursuit of Islamic terrorists.
Schwarzenegger tried to get the denial reversed by flexing some political muscle on higher-ups in the Department of Interior. Sargent Shriver, his father-in-law and member of the Kennedy inner circle, as well as Jack Valenti, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America, made some calls. But nobody at Interior, including Secretary Bruce Babbitt, would budge on the no-horse ruling.
Another case of political maneuvering on a permit involved the march for gay and lesbian rights in the spring of 1993. Organizers wanted to use a portion of the Mall that the Park Service had re-seeded and declared off limits. The organizers took their case to the Clinton White House and to Massachusetts Congressman Gerry Studds--and an agreement was worked out to allow use of the grounds. In the deal, an anonymous donor (said to be music mogul David Geffen) put up $300,000 to cover any damages; the grass held up surprisingly well, and most of the money was refunded.
GIVEN THE PARK SERVICE'S OBLIGATIONS TO MOTHER NATURE, it is no surprise that it is a stickler about protecting the grass and trees in the parks. For years it has had a dispute with the Smithsonian over the location of the institution's midsummer Festival of American Folklife, which attracts so many people that Park Service naturalists believe the soil around the Mall's beautiful American elms gets compacted, thus preventing water from seeping down to their roots.
Permits issued for the display of the AIDS quilt include a requirement that it be lifted every two hours to let the grass underneath get some air--a task that requires dozens of volunteers and has taken on a ceremonial aura."People come to see the lifting of the quilt thinking it's symbolic" says an organizer of the event, "but it's really just so we can get the damned permit."
Balloons on the Mall are another no-no discouraged because they may float away, fall to earth, and get caught in the throats of wildlife. The Park Service also doesn't like to see dead bodies brought to demonstrations, though it has happened at events focusing on AIDS, the homeless, and abortion.
The Park Service also takes a dim view of commercialism on the Mall and its other venues. Trade shows aren't allowed, the signs of corporate sponsors must be event related, and a promoter who wants to run a Grand Prix auto race around the Tidal Basin has been turned down several times. Only concessionaires with exclusive long-term contracts are allowed to sell commercially packaged foods or beverages, though there's an exception for ethnic foods sold at cultural festivals. But promoters keep trying. Cigar Aficionado, a magazine based in New York, has requested a permit for use of Lafayette Park in March "to draw attention to the fact that many responsible citizens from around the US enjoy smoking cigars."
The most publicized Park Service battle with commercialism on the Mall has involved T-shirt vendors. For years, a handful of groups sold T-shirts and other items to tourists near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial by getting permits, under the First Amendment, as "demonstrators." In 1994, reacting to complaints that the place was becoming a flea market, the Park Service proposed new regulations banning such sales, but publicity surrounding the proposed rules alerted other vendors that they too could sell under a demonstration permit.
Before long, as many as 400 vendors had tables heaped with T-shirts set up around the Vietnam Memorial, the Jefferson Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, and the Washington Monument--some using generators to run lights at night and hiring the homeless to guard their spaces.
To maintain the ruse that they were political demonstrators, some stamped slogans promoting DC statehood on their shirts, whose political content otherwise was limited to depictions of the cherry blossoms or Beavis and Butthead.
Although the Park Service eventually got a judge's approval to remove most of the vendors, the issue is still in the courts. Most likely, some T-shirt sales will be allowed, perhaps in zones set aside for that purpose.
ALL OF WHICH GOES TO PROVE that in our time, near the end of the 20th century, in this place, the capital of the federal government, nothing is ever simple. I can only imagine the questions that might face Don Quixote if he arrived on the scene with Sancho Panza seeking a permit to tilt at windmills on the Mall.
Clearly it would qualify as "symbolic free speech" under the First Amendment. But you have to wonder whether the blades of the windmills would pose a threat to bystanders, whether the Man of La Mancha's donkey was being abused, and whether the sharp tip of his medieval lance ought to be covered by a rubber protector.
Rick Robbins warms to this fantasy: "As long as we could ensure that the soil under the elm tree would not be damaged and that the Humane Society would have no objection on the donkey, I'm sure we could work something out."