Everything from a small protest by teachers to a massive antiabortion march could cost thousands — even millions — of dollars to express First Amendment rights on land that the demonstrators, the taxpayers, already own.
The truth is, these events are huge disruptions to the city and a drain on tax dollars. Washington was paralyzed when hundreds of thousands of women and their supporters took over the Mall, the parks, the monuments, the streets during the Women’s March the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017.
And then there was the fizzled Unite the Right march in August, when taxpayers spent an estimated $2.6 million protecting a baker’s-dozen worth of white nationalists who were escorted on a Metro train, in vans and by a phalanx of police to the front of the White House.
Should we be paying for them?
Yes. Rock solid, 100 percent amen, yes.
These are the demonstrations that grabbed headlines, sure. But would you believe there were 727 other demonstrations on the Mall last year besides the Women’s March? That’s not even as high as 2009, when citizens demonstrated 1,089 times on that space, according to Park Service records I got to look at.
But shouldn’t the Park Service get some help here? Why should my tax dollars go to protecting Nazi behinds?
The cash has to come from somewhere.
Red Bull probably isn’t going to sponsor a rally for refugees. Corporations avoid politically charged sponsorships because they fear triggering boycotts — despite Nike’s roaring success backing Colin Kaepernick.
No, this is how that would play out. (Previously) free speech would be bought and paid for by the one-percenters. Would the Koch March for Gun Rights be any better? Maybe the Soros Rally for Voting Rights would be more forthright.
Our dangerously divided nation wouldn’t be a place where the majority of reasonable Americans could freely express their views on the national stage, as long as they could afford the Greyhound ticket to get there.
These folks — called the “exhausted majority” by the research group More in Common — would be left out.
No, the Mall would wind up as the staging ground for the wealthy, white “wings” of the political debate — the “Progressive Activists” and the “Devoted Conservatives,” according to the group’s report on the country’s divisions, “The Hidden Tribes of America” — which would act out their own Second Civil War on the nation’s front lawn.
Allowing only the loudest, wealthiest groups that could afford to protest in public not only would significantly change the character of this historic space but also would have a fundamental effect on our already ailing national conversation.
“The National Mall is our country’s preeminent landscape symbol of American democracy,” said Judy Scott Feldman, chair of the National Mall Coalition. “It belongs to all Americans — not just as a place we should protect and respect but also as a place for people to gather, to express themselves, to participate in government.”
In its own documents, the Park Service underscores the Mall’s place in the national psyche, calling it the “National Stage of Public Expression” that “serves as the premier national civic space for public gatherings including First Amendment activities. . . . It is at National Mall and Memorial Parks that the constitutional rights of speech and peaceful assembly find their fullest expression.”
From Coxey’s Army of unemployed workers in 1894 to the iconic civil rights March on Washington in 1963 — whether or not they’ve had the means to pay for turf maintenance, security and port-a-potties.
This is at the heart of the debate for the Park Service, though. For every demonstration, it runs a complex, bureaucratic operetta, coordinating local, state and federal police, horses, trucks and buses, subways and trains, trash pickup, parking, electricity, water and, yes, port-a-potties.
How many times do you think they did all this for protests and special events on the Mall last year?
Get ready for this — over 2,000.
According to its count, the Park Service gave out 4,658 Mall permits last year. And here’s the thing — a bunch of them were paid for.
Hollywood doled out a lot of dough for each of the 857 times it filmed on the Mall last year. The 1,274 special events — such as concerts and fun runs — were paid for. So were the 211 weddings.
Bump up the price for events and filming — go ahead. Capitalism, after all. But facilitating the protests and demonstrations that happen there is baked into our promise as a democracy.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been fighting for citizens’ right to protest on this space since the 1960s. And in a detailed letter to the Park Service, Art Spitzer, the head of the local ACLU, reminded officials that many of the proposed restrictions go directly against court rulings that have stood for decades and that “many of the proposed amendments would be unconstitutional if adopted.”
The proposed fees for protest would also include — funny enough — demonstrations held on the broad sidewalks of Pennsylvania Avenue, such as the ones that happen to be outside the Trump International Hotel, said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which has been working on behalf of protesters in Washington for decades.
Verheyden-Hilliard’s group found the sidewalk item buried in 100 pages of proposed rules, and it vows to take the Park Service to court if it goes through with it.
The Park Service has been flooded by comments on the Mall proposal. I waded through hundreds of them. One of my favorites came from someone who said he was a World War II veteran who had been awarded a Purple Heart.
“I fought to protect our country’s rights of freedom of speech, press, and assembly,” he wrote, saying the Park Service plan violates our First Amendment rights, “is a blot on our democracy, and insults the sacrifices Americans made in World War II to maintain these rights.”
He is right.
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