It was 1970. The crime? Flying kites.
Fast-forward four decades, and we’re right back in that lovely state of Absurdistan. Only this time, people are being arrested at the Jefferson Memorial, and their crime is dancing. On Saturday, the dancers promise to descend on the memorial again, all but inviting another confrontation with the U.S. Park Police.
This latest crackdown sounds so much like those 1970 kite arrests, which came in waves as groups of dissenters decided to set their box kites or Red Barons aloft in what came to be called kite-ins.
It began with one guy, Joseph Larry Boyd, who was hanging out with a bunch of other hippies at what was known as the P Street Beach in the summer of 1969. He flew a red kite with a white tail. A police officer told him that was illegal. The kite could interfere with radar signals and low-flying planes, the officer told Boyd.
Radar signals? Planes? The hippie scoffed. But then he was cuffed.
And the cop was right. It was an old law, passed in 1892, that made kite flying illegal in a Washington that had electric trolley cars and their overhead power lines all over the place.
According to the law, the U.S. Park Police officer had the right to arrest Boyd. But was it the right thing to do?
That arrest of that 18-year-old college kid in 1969 set off a maelstrom. There were more kite-ins and more arrests, and congressional hearings soon followed.
The Washington Post covered it. A young Carl Bernstein wrote about the antiquated law. The Smithsonian Kite Festival had to be moved to Maryland because it was clear that the government had been colluding for years on that very popular criminal act.
Meanwhile, the country was at war, and folks wondered why everyone was wasting time on kites.
Last weekend, five protesters were arrested at the Jefferson Memorial for silently dancing.
That particular activity is basically against the law, thanks to a court decision on memorial dancing handed down this year. It was in response to a lawsuit filed by a woman arrested in 2008 for dancing quietly just before midnight in the chamber of the Jefferson Memorial.
The court says the memorial is a place for quiet contemplation, reflection and respect. The protesters say it’s not up to the government to decide how people should contemplate, reflect and respect. And they are staging their own version of the kite-ins.
Adam Kokesh, an Iraq War veteran who is a well-known protester in Washington and one of the dancers arrested last weekend, is promoting a “Dance Party at TJs” extravaganza on Saturday at noon, asking folks to come dance inside and around the memorial.
They’ve invited actor Kevin Bacon as an homage to the “Footloose” overtones of the whole episode. (So far, he hasn’t responded, but more than 2,800 others have promised to attend.)
After I wrote about the dancing arrests this week, I got some e-mail from folks upset that protesters are making a frivolous point.
“Dancing in the Jefferson Memorial may be harmless, but it is not appropriate . . . the Park Police were quite right to turf them out,” one reader said.
“They’re wasting tax dollars and officers’ time by getting themselves arrested,” another wrote.
I’ll admit I was skeptical, too, given that there are greater things at risk in America these days.
Wait. Wasn’t that the stuff that got said about the kite-ins in 1970? And yet, we’d all probably agree that those arrests look preposterous in hindsight.
But the “long-hairs” — as even their attorneys called them — fought back against the government’s broad enforcement of laws that absurdly restricted something as harmless as flying a kite. It was a principle that extended beyond the kites and into the area of free speech.
“It seemed absurd that they would arrest people for disorderly conduct even though there was no disorder, just disagreement with the government,” said Ray Twohig, a lawyer in New Mexico who, along with Charles Daniels, now chief justice of the New Mexico Supreme Court, represented some of the kite fliers back then.
Yes, some of those kite fliers were also the folks staging sit-ins at the Supreme Court and massive anti-war protests on the Mall. But others weren’t. They were just out there for the joy of sending paper and wood aloft on a windy day.
Sending them all to jail showed just how ridiculous the whole exercise of arresting folks to the letter of the law can sometimes be.
And that’s a delicate distinction that the professional protesters were making when they did their awkward two-steps at the bronze feet of Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson, who was a dancer and avid fiddler, may have been cool with a little shimmy, a quiet boogie. Who knows?
But more important, he probably would be more interested in sticking to the principle in a letter he wrote in 1791: “I would rather be exposed to the inconveniences attending too much liberty than to those attending too small a degree of it.”
Go ahead, dancers — annoy some of us, dance badly, whatever. But keep on dancing.
Me? I’m going to fly a kite.
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