How to have a rally on the Mall

The Lincoln Memorial -- and the rest of the Mall -- is a popular site for protests and rallies. Here are some noteworthy ones that show how hard it is to measure the size of a protesting crowd. With Glenn Beck's Saturday rally, it's best to be wary of estimates.
By Ed O'Keefe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 27, 2010; 10:09 PM

The permit issued for Glenn Beck's rally Saturday at the Lincoln Memorial is one of about 3,000 issued annually by the National Park Service for rallies, cultural events, weddings and photo shoots on the Mall and other Washington area national parks and historic sites.

Alhough events are held near the White House, the Washington Monument and the Potomac River, among other landmarks, the Lincoln Memorial is often the venue of choice for large public gatherings. Examples include marches against the wars in Vietnam and Iraq, concerts to celebrate presidential inaugurations, religious ceremonies held by Sikhs, even a rally hosted by the Hemp Coalition of D.C.

Early Washington rallies usually took place in front of the White House or the U.S. Capitol, said Lucy Barber, author of "Marching on Washington: The Forging of an American Political Tradition."

The first "March on Washington" occurred in 1894, when a group known as Coxey's Army marched on the U.S. Capitol to demand money for road construction projects. About 300 people marched from Ohio to Washington, where hundreds of others joined them. The group then marched east along Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol, where police arrested the two leaders for trespassing on the Capitol grounds, Barber said.

That march was followed by scores of other rallies - for women's rights, racial equality and economic discrimination - including Martin Luther King Jr.'s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on Aug. 28, 1963. "That becomes the touchstone that subsequent marches are compared to," Barber said of the 1963 march.

Among the lasting effects of King's march was the choice of location. Organizers picked the Lincoln Memorial partly to draw lawmakers and other officials away from their home turf, at the White House or Capitol, Barber said.

Arguably the most effective rally at the Lincoln Memorial never happened, Barber said. In 1941, organizers planning to protest discrimination against African Americans in the military and defense industry canceled a rally when President Franklin D. Roosevelt agreed to sign an executive order prohibiting such discrimination. The group's efforts foreshadowed King's 1963 march.

"A march isn't just about getting political change instantly, it's often about movement-building and creating a sense of solidarity and, in our lovely virtual world, bringing people into a physical space together and letting them do things together," Barber said.

The Park Service no longer attempts to count the size of assembled crowds, but President Obama's 2009 inauguration, the Million Man March and some Vietnam-era protests are considered among the largest rallies.

People looking to hold an event on the Mall, at Lafayette Square, in Rock Creek Park and other areas operated by the Park Service can apply up to 48 hours in advance and no earlier than a year before the event.

About 60 percent of applications are for "First Amendment activities," including Beck's rally, which are defined as demonstrations, religious services and events designed to draw a crowd and express an viewpoint, according to federal law.

A spokesman for Beck would not comment on the talk show host's efforts to secure the permit for Saturday's rally.

A $50 application fee is required to host cultural events, photo shoots and weddings a the sites. Event organizers also may be asked to post a bond for staffing and park maintenance costs, the Park Service said.

Six Park Service employees review the applications, processing 15 to 30 a day, and the length of an application process varies depending on the complexity of the event, the agency said.

Even the organizers of established national events, including presidential inaugurations and the Smithsonian Institution's annual Folklife Festival, must apply each time. The agency did not say what types of applications it might reject, if any.

Application forms and information about the application process are available on the Park Service's Web site,


© 2010 The Washington Post Company