One recent evening while jogging home up Massachusetts Avenue, I met with two automobiles parked in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the South African Embassy. Off to the side and oblivious to what seemed an obvious violation of the law sat a uniformed Secret Service officer.
Wondering how guests or officials of a foreign diplomatic mission could be so uncaring of public property and how a U.S. law enforcement official could sit idly by, I called the Secret Service's Foreign Mission Branch when I got home. The operator promised to look into it. In the meantime, I reported the violation to the D.C. police. After only a few minutes, someone from the Secret Service phoned me back to explain that she had spoken to the officer on duty. She said he had given people permission to park there because the embassy was having a party, and no space was left in the lot.
I am a D.C. resident and taxpayer, and I know I wouldn't give my guests permission to park on 39th Street's sidewalk when overflowing crowds arrive at my social events. I was outraged, so I asked to speak to someone in charge at the Secret Service. I was connected to a polite, sympathetic but ineffectual captain who gave me the song and dance that it wasn't within the Secret Service's authority, that even if the Secret Service called D.C. police, towing the vehicles away would have a low priority. He sidestepped the issue of whether his officer had given the guests permission to park there.
Next, I telephoned the South African embassy and spoke to a man who identified himself as being with "security." First, he told me the cars were parked on South African land but then admitted that the embassy's land ended where the sidewalk began. Next, he proffered the excuse that the embassy was having a "function" and went on to explain that there was nowhere else to park. I tried to remind him that he and his embassy were foreign guests and could at least obey the city's laws and respect the taxpayers whose money would have to pay for repairs to that sidewalk.
There must be some alternatives to parking on the sidewalk -- like getting the city's permission to close the street's right lane, as is done for churches on Sundays, busing people in from nearby lots, or borrowing spaces across the street from the British Embassy or asking for space next door at the State Department's facility in the old Iranian embassy. And, of course, there's the vice president's spacious lawn just up the road at the Observatory.
The most outrageous part of this incident was the apparent complicity or acceptance on the part of the Secret Service. If the officer had wanted to really help out our South African friends, perhaps he should have offered to park the vehicles for them. -- Mike Meyers