Dancers shimmy at the Jefferson Memorial

June 4, 2011

It might not seem like the spot for a dance party, but on Saturday, dozens of people shimmied, shook and even funky-walked inside the Jefferson Memorial in protest of a recent court ruling banning such behavior.

About 200 people gathered on the steps to highlight their opposition to a U.S. Appeals Court decision handed down in May that banned dancing inside the memorial. More than 3,000 had signed up via Facebook to attend the event.

But unlike last weekend, when five people were arrested and video posted to YouTube raised questions about police conduct, no arrests were reported. However, the memorial was shut down for about 90 minutes as officers worked to clear out demonstrators.

The festivities began a little after noon with a series of speeches on the steps of the memorial.

“If our government refuses to treat us like human beings, then it’s time for revolt,’’ said Adam Kokesh, an Iraq War veteran and well-known protester in Washington, who was one of the five arrested last week. The crowd hooted and cheered.

Then, slowly, demonstrators began moving inside the memorial. About 75 people — some wearing tutus, one dressed as Abe Lincoln and another as Thomas Jefferson — began dancing around the third president’s statue. At one point, there appeared to be more people shooting video and snapping pictures than actual dancers. About a dozen U.S. Park Police officers looked on. One officer shot photographs of those dancing.

Among those shimmying and gyrating were Hailey Jones, 18, and her mother Nora Super, who’d driven in from Arlington.

The pair said they were puzzled by a court ruling that banned dancing inside the memorial and felt it was important to be a part of Saturday’s event.

“We should be able to dance wherever we want to,” Jones said. “What makes this country so original and special [is that] everybody is able to express themselves the way they want to and it doesn’t matter where they are.”

Jay Aristade and his son Orion, 14, spent $200 and drove seven hours from Columbus, Ohio, to be a part of the protest.

“This is a chance to make a change — to stand up for something,’’ the elder Aristade said as he and his son danced. “I think calm, quiet, private reflection is the right of every American, and if someone wants to dance quietly himself, or with his girlfriend, around the Jefferson monument — the Jefferson monument especially — then [he] can. It’s [his] right as an American citizen.”

After watching about 10 minutes of dancing, leaping and otherwise funky walking, police slowly began moving the crowd toward the entrance facing the Tidal Basin. By about 12:40 p.m., the interior of the monument had been completely cleared.

Out on the steps of the memorial, organizers of the event said the fact that police moved so carefully and deliberately to clear demonstrators was a sign that authorities understood force was unnecessary.

The debate over dancing at memorials began in 2008, after 18 members of a flash mob were arrested for holding a silent dance in the memorial to commemorate Jefferson’s 265th birthday. The dancers were asked by police to leave, and when they refused, they were handcuffed. One of the dancers sued the Park Police on First Amendment grounds but lost. The case was appealed, and in May, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled that such dancing is forbidden, “because it stands out as a type of performance, creating its own center of attention and distracting from the atmosphere of solemn commemoration.”

Although it’s impossible to know how Jefferson would have reacted to the court’s ruling (the third president was apparently quite fond of dancing), many in Saturday’s crowd said they thought Jefferson would have frowned on the decision.

Nevertheless, officials with the National Park Service stood firm in a statement released on Friday: “. . . just as you may not appreciate someone using a cellphone in a movie theater or someone dancing in front of your view of a great work of art, we believe it is not appropriate to be dancing in an area that memorializes some of the most famous Americans.”

Lori Aratani writes about how people live, work and play in the D.C. region for The Post’s Transportation and Development team.
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