As small groups of protesters affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement continue to camp in the city, D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said Wednesday he’s not sure what level of civil disobedience the city should tolerate to allow the protesters to get their message out.
Since last week, protesters affiliated with OccupyDC have been conducting periodic marches through city streets, often at rush hour, to protest the influence corporations have on the political process.
In separate actions, protestors associated with another group, Stop the Machine, caused a ruckus at the Air and Space Museum over the weekend and unfurled large banners in the Hart Senate Office Building on Tuesday.
On Tuesday, about 100 OccupyDC protesters also escalated their tactics when they briefly blocked all traffic at the intersection of 14th and Constitution Avenue Northwest during the evening rush hour.
The protest and the group’s subsequent march back to McPherson Square, where the group is headquartered, led to gridlock on many city streets. During the protests, some motorists honked their approval but others were clearly frustrated, including one woman who was nearly in tears while waiting at a police roadblock because she said she was already an hour late in picking up her children from day care.
At a press conference Wednesday, Gray appeared receptive to the overall idea using civil disobedience to make a political point, especially for what he considers to be important causes, such obtaining D.C. voting rights.
“I support citizens of this city rising up and letting people know how outraged we are,” Gray said.
But when pressed by reporters, Gray said he wasn’t sure where the line between political activist and criminal should be drawn for those protesting voting rights or other causes in the District.
“I don’t know,” Gray said. “I guess it inconveniences some, but, you know, what is really an inconvenience is for citizens not to be able to have control of your own budget, not to be able to have control of your own local dollars, not to be able to have a vote in the Congress, not to be able to have senators and congressional representatives, that is really an inconvenience.”
In April, Capitol Police arrested Gray and 40 other people, including several council members, when they sat down on Constitutional Avenue near the Dirksen Building to protest the lack of voting rights.
After giving his answer, Gray turned the microphone over to Joe Madison, a veteran civil rights activist who is also a talk show host on Sirius XM radio.
Madison, who had joined Gray to promote a planned march Saturday in supporting of voting rights and economic justice, noted the ongoing demonstrations pale to those that hit the city in the late 1960s. He cited the “poor people’s campaign” in 1968, which was being organized by Dr. Martin Luther King before he died.
“What Dr. King had planned was to disrupt all of Washington D.C., to disrupt (the Housing and Urban Development Agency), to disrupt the FBI, Justice Building,” Madison said. “Some of us, either didn’t know that history, or some of us forgot that history.”
Madison continued, “I would suggest, if Dr. King was here today, that he would have probably - with or without the mayor’s permission - he would have done a lot more than disrupt traffic.”
Gray then added, he hopes that residents also focus on the issues causing people to come to the city to protest.
In an interview later, Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier acknowledged that some motorists maybe “inconvenienced” by the OccupyDc protests. But Lanier noted District police have a long history of trying to work with protesters to allow them to express their First Amendment rights, including blocking off streets for their own safety.
“We handle demonstrations like this all the time, for many, many years, from protest groups with an intention on disrupting traffic,” Lanier said. “We only have a concern when there is road blockage for fire, police and ambulances.”