Correction to This Article
An April 16 Metro article mischaracterized the actions of a woman who was arrested while celebrating Thomas Jefferson's birthday at the Jefferson Memorial. She did not return to the memorial chamber after authorities ushered her out.

Paying the Fiddler Over Celebration of Jefferson's Birth

Jefferson Memorial Lit. After the new lighting
Jefferson Memorial Lit. After the new lighting (Courtesy of Osram Sylvania)
By Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 16, 2008

It is just before midnight at the Jefferson Memorial, and as the celebrants dance in honor of the founding father's birthday, wind whips across the Tidal Basin and spotlights gleam off the towering bronze statue in the echoing sanctum of the monument.

Suddenly, in a video and audio recording of the event, a shadow looms and a voice commands: "You gotta go. Leave. You're acting disorderly."

"Why?" a voice asks. There is a commotion. Protest. Cursing. A woman, a former ambassador's daughter, is handcuffed, arrested and taken away. And within moments, an event that participants say was a simple libertarian celebration of Thomas Jefferson's birthday turns into a tense encounter between police and the public.

This was Saturday, and the face-off between the celebrants and the U.S. Park Police and private security guards has splashed across YouTube and the blogosphere. It has also prompted complaints about what some say is a trampling of the individual rights that Jefferson championed.

The author of the Declaration of Independence would have been appalled at the conduct of the police, the celebrants say.

Not so fast, says one noted Jefferson scholar: The country's third president would more likely have been angered at the civic disobedience of the revelers, which he would have seen as a threat to orderly democracy.

The Park Police, for their part, say the group was violating a federal law that prohibits disturbances in the sanctuaries of hallowed memorials.

"They were dancing and just generally making a distraction, and the chamber is posted that you are to remain quiet so you don't disturb other visitors," said Sgt. Robert Lachance, a Park Police spokesman. "The chamber of the Jefferson Memorial is a restricted area for demonstrations or causing any kind of activity that could distract other visitors . . . [in order] to preserve a spirit of tranquility and reverence."

Jason Talley, 33, of Crystal City, whose recording of the incident quickly landed on YouTube, denied that the group was being disorderly. He said the late hour was picked to avoid disturbing others: "We were there to celebrate Thomas Jefferson and his ideas. We were not prepared for a police action."

The arrested woman was identified as Mary Oberwetter, 28, of the District, the daughter of James C. Oberwetter, a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and a longtime friend of the Bush family's. She was charged with a misdemeanor count of interfering with agency functions and released.

Contacted yesterday, she declined to speak for the record because she lacks legal representation.

The police and several of the celebrants said the incident unfolded late Saturday, on the eve of Jefferson's 265th birthday. In an interview, Talley said it was a long-planned gathering of friends, many of whom espouse libertarian philosophical views and are linked by the Internet social network Facebook.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2008 The Washington Post Company