Groups seeking to protest in the nation’s capital on the day of — and the days around — the inauguration of President-elect Donald Trump say they are being kept in limbo because officials have yet to issue permits for demonstrations.
About 20 groups — including the Women’s March on Washington, People’s Action and the ANSWER Coalition — have applied to demonstrate on federal property around the Jan. 20 event.
But the National Park Service, which handles permitting, said it does not grant any requests until the Presidential Inaugural Committee, which plans the parade and other events to usher in the new president, maps out where it will hold inauguration-related activities.
Although each incoming president is afforded the same courtesy, the issue is attracting special attention this year since the bitter election emboldened more people to organize to support their causes. Typically, federal officials said, only a handful of groups seek a First Amendment Permit from the Park Service for the quadrennial event.
Federal regulations essentially give priority to the inaugural committee, setting aside prime land, including the entire Mall between First and 14th streets NW and the Ellipse by the White House, for its use. Land around the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument also is included.
The Park Service, as a matter of standard practice, applies on behalf of the committee for the sweeping permits a year in advance, according to Mike Litterst, a Park Service spokesman. The committee then typically relinquishes some of them, allowing demonstrators to secure their permits.
The permits are doled out on a first-come, first-served basis. Trump’s Presidential Inaugural Committee hasn’t technically been issued any permits yet, but it’s at the front of the line to receive them. The committee, according to Litterst, has not yet rescinded any of the permits and does not have a deadline for deciding.
Alex Stroman, a spokesman for the Presidential Inaugural Committee, a private entity, said the group is still figuring out its plans for inauguration and has not yet made any decisions about which pieces of land it will use.
“We’re moving as quickly as possible,” Stroman said. “We are figuring out what events we are doing.”
Litterst said it is not unusual for an inaugural committee to still have this many permit applications in early December.
“This is always the way it happens,” Litterst said. “What makes this so complicated is that not only is this inauguration, but because there has been so much interest on both sides of this election, we are seeing all of these extra events that want to take place at the same time.”
Would-be demonstrators are eager to firm up their plans for the inauguration and the days around it.
People’s Action, a national organization promoting democracy and economic fairness, applied Nov. 14 for a permit for 2,000 people to demonstrate on the Washington Monument grounds between Jan. 19 and Jan. 21. Kathy Mulady, People’s Action’s press secretary, said she is now unsure how the group will prepare.
“Since we don’t have the permits, we are in a holding pattern. What can we do?” she said. “We don’t have a plan one way or the other.”
The Women’s March on Washington, scheduled for the day after the inauguration, promises to draw participants from across the country. Hundreds of thousands of people have RSVP’d to the event on Facebook, declaring on their social-media accounts they will travel to the District to march for human rights, justice and women’s health.
But tucked in between comments of solidarity and celebration on the march’s main Facebook page are people’s concerns about the permitting.
“What’s happening with the permit? Can you please update us! Will the date remain the same? Non-refundable airline tickets and hotels have us a bit nervous,” one woman posted on the page.
Bob Bland, one of the march’s organizers, assured people that the demonstration will be held Jan. 21 and that supporters should confidently make travel arrangements to the District. On Friday, organizers said they secured as a starting point for the march Independence Avenue and Third Street SW, an intersection under the jurisdiction of D.C. police. They have applied for a permit through the police department, though arrangements have not been finalized.
“The march is happening,” Bland said.
The Park Service asks groups of 25 people or more wishing to rally or demonstrate to apply for a First Amendment Permit, which is free. Protesting without a permit on federal parkland does not necessarily mean a group would be asked to leave, said Sgt. Anna Rose, a spokeswoman for the Park Police.
“It would depend on what else was going on at the time,” Rose wrote in an email. “We pride ourselves on facilitating everyone’s right to free speech and every effort is made to allow visitors to exercise that right.”
The question of who has the right to use what land for inaugurations has been the subject of frequent litigation,
In 2005, the ANSWER Coalition — a far-left-leaning group that stands for Act Now to Stop War and End Racism — filed suit that there were so many bleachers set up on Pennsylvania Avenue for people who bought inauguration tickets that it prevented demonstrations and kept the public from being able to watch free. A U.S. District Court judge agreed, and there was more room along the prominent thoroughfare for 2009’s inauguration.
Current regulations also reserve for the president-elect’s committee the sidewalk in front of Trump International Hotel in the Old Post Office Pavilion, in the 1100 block of Pennsylvania Avenue. The ANSWER Coalition is fighting in court for the public’s right to use that space, arguing recently that the case has heightened significance at a time when thousands of people across the country are protesting Trump’s election.
A U.S. district judge ruled in favor of the government in the case. It is now pending in a federal appeals court, and it’s unclear whether the case will be resolved before Jan. 20.
The government estimates that 84 percent of the sidewalks along the parade route are available for protest.
Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a lawyer and executive director of the nonprofit Partnership for Civil Justice Fund who is representing the ANSWER Coalition, said she thinks the inauguration committee is intentionally holding on to its permits for so long to confuse protesters and prevent them from organizing. She held a news conference Wednesday saying the Park Service and the committee are acting unconstitutionally in the permitting process.
“This is an extraordinary land grab,” Verheyden-Hilliard said in an interview. “It’s having, I think, the intended stifling effect. It’s having a distinctive negative on people’s ability to organize.”
Stroman, the committee spokesman, said those accusations are “absolutely not true.”
The permits for the Mall and other spaces are valid Jan. 6 to Jan. 30, theoretically giving workers time to set up before inauguration and clean up after it.