During a chaotic hour preceding the march on Saturday, D.C. officials first said that organizers informed them that the crowd was too big and they would not attempt to have the mass navigate the original parade route.
Then, D.C. officials say, organizers changed their minds and essentially decided to have the crowd shift north and west, toward the White House.
It wouldn’t be so much a march with leaders in front, as simply having everyone who attended turn around and exit toward the White House.
At about 2:30 p.m., organizers announced from loudspeakers that those in the crowd should all walk north across the Mall or the nearest street, simultaneously filling in the end of the marching route. That essentially meant some of those who were last to get to the speeches and were furthest back, near 14th Street, were arriving first at the White House.
From the middle of the sea of people, a group soon emerged to take the lead, heading north along Seventh Street.
Organizers had already estimated the crowd to be a half million people — or more than double what they had been approved to have under a city permit. But a spokesman for D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said city leaders were never concerned about public safety, and with the crowd being peaceful, decided to leave the final call about whether to march or not in the hands of organizers.
“There was no real concern from a public safety standpoint, and this had already been a very successful event for organizers, exceeding their expectations,” said Bowser spokesman Kevin Harris. “This was always the organizers’ decision to make, and so they changed their mind, and that’s fine.”
Harris’s explanation, which came as the march was getting underway, glossed over massive confusion even among the city’s most senior public safety officials.
As organizers were announcing on stage that the march was still on, officials in the city’s emergency operations center, across the Anacostia River, were telling reporters the march was canceled.
Kevin Donahue, the District’s deputy mayor for public safety, said interim D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham had been with organizers at the event when the decision was made.
“The march just became impractical, you can look at the size of the crowd and get a sense — it stretches back to 14th Street, effectively most of the length of the planned march,” Donahue said.
“Essentially, as soon as they turned around, the march would be over,” said Chris Geldart, director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency.
Reached by text message in the middle of the crowd, John Falcicchio, the mayor’s chief of staff, said the march was still on.
Asked by a reporter how city’s public safety officials could not be in agreement, he wrote: “We are — And we’re marching.”
Newsham could not immediately be reached for comment.
It was not immediately clear that D.C. officials had conducted any review of whether the march should be allowed to proceed in its modified format — and with twice as many people as originally planned for — after organizers announced the changed route via loudspeaker.
Harris disputed that D.C. officials had been caught off guard or had not properly reviewed the evolving security situation.
“We have been in constant communication with organizers discussing, advising and deliberating on their movements and prepared to support them given they had more attendees then anticipated,” he said. “If we at anytime felt a march would conflict with public safety then we’d intervene, but the fact is this was a peaceful demonstration and we saw no reason to not assist them in exercising their rights. Overall it was a fluid situation and the reason it was successful is because of the coordination between the city and organizers which is something that should be celebrated given how many choose to act irresponsibly in these situations.”