As she had done on several occasions, Jean Faught drove by antiapartheid demonstrators at the South African Embassy Friday -- and honked her horn in support.
D.C. police officer Steven W. Bock promptly pulled her over and gave her a $25 ticket for making "unnecessary noise."
Bock, a 14-year veteran of the force, said yesterday he gave out four tickets for honking that day and has cited other motorists elsewhere for the same offense because honking a car horn, except in an emergency, is a moving violation.
But in a town where politicos, sports fans and other mortals have strong opinions -- "Honk If You Think He's Guilty," "Honk If You Love Animals," "Honk If You Love Jesus" come to mind -- police officials moved quickly yesterday to uphold the right to honk.
"Unless there are extenuating circumstances, we would not issue a traffic citation for honking," said police spokesman Lt. William White III, adding that the department's traffic branch is investigating whether the citations are valid or whether they should be withdrawn.
The unnecessary noise rule normally applies to loud mufflers, the squealing of tires or to leaning on the horn in the middle of a traffic jam. But White said horn honking as a political act, such as occurred outside the Russian Embassy when the Soviet Union shot down a Korean airliner, is not considered a police matter.
Since Nov. 21, more than 1,320 antiapartheid demonstrators, including 20 members of Congress, Effi Barry, the wife of D.C.'s mayor, Harry Belafonte and other celebrities have been arrested for demonstrating within 500 feet of the embassy on Massachusetts Avenue NW. The protest has become a weekday afternoon ritual, and -- urged on by a picket sign -- motorists, including Metrobus drivers, have frequently honked their support for the demonstrators.
Faught, who sells real estate and drives by the demonstration every day on her way home, had sounded her horn before, and was surprised Friday when she was ticketed.
"I said, 'This is ridiculous,' " she recalled this week. "He said, 'That's ridiculous, what's going on over there' and pointed to the demonstration."
Bock repeated similar sentiments yesterday, saying the apartheid protests serve no useful purpose and are "a joke down at the police station."
The ticketing incident appears to support recent indications that police are getting increasingly annoyed at pulling embassy duty. The protests are now in their 15th week, and though no one has been prosecuted, the demonstrations have kept the spotlight on South Africa at a time when Congress is considering legislation that would impose various sanctions against the white minority-ruled government.
Many police in the department's special operations division, which handles the embassy arrests, have long grumbled about drawing the assignment, especially in cold weather.
Three weeks ago, organizers of the protest felt they witnessed police annoyance first hand when 101 demonstrators were left standing outside the embassy in subfreezing temperatures while police took their time arresting them.
"They sang "We Shall Overcome" for a full hour, and police refused to arrest them," said Randall Robinson, demonstrations coordinator.
White said the delayed arrest incident has caused a "redefining" of department policy to prevent a similar occurrence. But he said that in the weeks the demonstrations have been conducted, the department has handled them "in a professional way."
Robinson said the protests -- and the horn honking -- will continue and that both actions are protected by the First Amendment guaranteeing freedom of expression.