A coalition of antiwar activists accused inaugural planners yesterday of trying to restrict access to the Pennsylvania Avenue NW parade route to protesters, an allegation that federal authorities denied.
Organizers with International ANSWER, an antiwar coalition that has sponsored numerous protests of the U.S. war in Iraq, said at a news conference that a map they received from the National Park Service shows blocks of the avenue taken up by 10- to 42-foot-high bleachers, including many areas where the coalition hoped to stage protests.
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Brian Becker, the coalition's national coordinator, said the Bush administration, the Park Service and the Presidential Inaugural Committee are attempting to prevent demonstrators who oppose the administration's foreign and domestic policies from assembling near the parade route in large numbers. The administration wants to "marginalize dissent and push free speech to the background," Becker said.
Park Service spokesman Bill Line said that the accusation was without merit and that the public and demonstrators will be allowed onto open areas of the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalks on Jan. 20.
ANSWER applied to the Park Service in January for permits to assemble on the avenue and in other downtown areas, including Freedom Plaza. Line said the Park Service expects to issue permits to the coalition for designated portions of the sidewalks. He said that the bleacher plan is not final and that the coalition's request for other spaces is still being evaluated.
Line said no determination has yet been made on where protest groups will be allowed to assemble along the parade route, but he emphasized that they will be allowed to assemble there. "Demonstrators of all types, regardless of their message, will be fully allowed access onto Pennsylvania Avenue," he said.
Park Service officials and organizers with ANSWER, which stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, plan to meet Monday.
The coalition's protest is one of several planned for Inauguration Day, and organizers expect tens of thousands of anti-Bush activists from across the nation. Protesters have established Web sites such as www.counter-inaugural.org, posted ideas and inquiries on e-mail discussion groups and created a loose-knit coordinating body that meets weekly in Washington and includes representatives of several dozen groups.
The D.C. Anti-War Network has called for a permitted march from Meridian Hill Park in Columbia Heights to Franklin Square. The group also plans civil disobedience in the form of a "die-in," details of which are still being worked out.
Another group has called for a "silent" protest, asking activists to leave their signs and buttons at home, find spots along the route and, at a given signal, turn their backs on Bush. Jet Heiko, 31, national organizer for turnyourbackonbush.org, said 10,000 people are expected to participate. With up to 500 organizers in 39 states involved, he said, that number will grow.
Four years ago, thousands of demonstrators filled parts of downtown and lined several blocks of the inaugural parade route.