October 11, 2011

PROTESTERS ENCAMPED at Freedom Plaza fully expected to be arrested Monday after their permit for use of the downtown site expired. They were not: The decision by the National Park Service to avoid a confrontation by working out a solution was the right one. If any city should go the extra mile to accommodate free expression, it’s Washington, D.C. The onus is now on the demonstrators to show that they can be reasonable in cooperating with authorities so that their presence doesn’t infringe on the rights of others.

Since Thursday, hundreds of protesters aligned with the Oct. 6 Coalition and other groups decrying war, economic disparities, money in politics and other causes have occupied the Pennsylvania Avenue plaza just east of the White House. A permit for the protest expired Monday, and park officials, no doubt mindful of the ugly scenes of like-minded protesters being arrested in other cities, sought to reach some agreement with the group.

After a meeting with protest leaders, the Park Service on Tuesday extended the permit through Dec. 30. Bill Line, spokesman for the Park Service, told us efforts were made to reach an agreement because “we hold the First Amendment in high regard. . . . we are aware of the need to accommodate free speech and expression as much as we can.”

One issue that had to be resolved was the use of the plaza by other groups that have obtained permits or have permits pending. D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), for example, has plans for a Saturday rally for full democracy for the District. A yoga group is set to conduct a demonstration, and another organization has an event to raise funds to fight leukemia. Protest leader Kevin Zeese told us that he was sure there were people from his group who would be interested in doing yoga, rallying for justice for the District and fighting leukemia. But in any event, the Park Service offered the protesters alternative demonstration sites for dates already offered to other groups.

So far, the group has shown itself to be a good neighbor: Vigilant attention is paid to trash, noise has not been a problem and relations with police have been respectful. Organizers say they are committed to nonviolence and the protests have been largely peaceful; a handful of people were arrested Tuesday at the Hart Senate Office Building, and an incident at the National Air and Space Museum over the weekend appears to have been started by an outside provocateur.

Public reaction to the Freedom Plaza protest — as well as a smaller encampment at McPherson Square — has been mostly nonchalant, if not accepting. We find that reassuring. No one has to agree with the sentiments — and sometimes they are hard to discern — of this ragtag protest, but the protesters should be given their space.

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