As Fourth of July fights go, James Watt v. the Beach Boys in 1983 is better known, but the Cannabis Coalition v. the Family Celebration Coalition is surely the city's longest-running July Fourth feud.
For several years, the Cannabis Coalition, which includes the Youth International Party (Yippies) and other groups opposed to marijuana laws, has locked horns with a profamily coalition over which one gets the use of Lafayette Square for a big Fourth of July bash.
The battle has involved lawsuits in federal court, charges of skullduggery by the National Park Service, all-night campouts to be first in line for the prized Lafayette Square permit and even a footrace to the permit office that ended in cries of foul play from the losers.
This year the July Fourth Cannabis Coalition won. It will be ensconced in the sought-after location across from the White House. The Family Celebration Coalition will hold its outing two blocks away in Pershing Park, at 15th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
In Pershing Park, the message will be "Strong families make a strong America," according to the coalition. There will be gospel singing, magicians and speeches by D.C. City Council members.
In Lafayette Square, the other group will hold a rally against the Reagan administration's drug policies. On the program is a punk band called Reagan Youth and speakers involved in efforts to legalize marijuana.
The pro-marijuana groups starting gathering in Lafayette Square in the 1960s and had no competitors until 1982, when a pro-family coalition complained to the National Park Service, which issues demonstration permits for the park, according to Jim Fosbinder, a lawyer representing one of the organizations within the Cannabis Coalition.
"We explained to them about the First Amendment," said Park Service spokesman Sandra Alley, who said permits are issued to groups without regard to their beliefs on a first-come, first-served basis one year before the demonstration date.
That set off a scramble on July 5, 1983, when representatives of both groups showed up before the Park Service permit office opened at 7:45 a.m, according to Alley.
A representative from each group made a run for the permit office, and a U.S. Park Police officer grabbed the pro-marijuana runner "by the throat" until the other runner got ahead, according to Fosbinder. Government attorneys denied that allegation, made later in a lawsuit filed by Fosbinder's group.
"I understand the Yippies got up earlier last July 5 and secured their permit," said Johnny Barnes, a spokesman for D.C. Del. Walter Fauntroy, who supports the family group. "That's not such a big deal. But the message of the family day celebration is a big deal, and that's why the celebration is continuing."
Said Fosbinder: "We're back in Lafayette park, and that's a symbol of freedom. . . freedom to complain that people are being persecuted for the use of marijuana for no reason at all."