But both proposals are scant on dollar amounts.
Putting organizers on the hook for the costs of policing could mean invoices in the tens of thousands of dollars, according to U.S. Park Police budgets obtained by The Washington Post through the Freedom of Information Act. That’s enough to price most activists out of protesting altogether, according to experts and activists awaiting a decision from the Park Service.
“If someone called me to say, ‘I want to have a protest,’ and I said, ‘Cool, the Park Service is going to charge you $150,000 for security,’ they would hang up the phone,” said Samantha Miller, an organizer with DC Action Lab, a company that helps out-of-towners plan and organize demonstrations in Washington. “There are already a lot of preexisting fees that organizers get asked to pay. Add in something like a security fee, and there’s just no way most people or organizations would be able to afford it.”
To obtain a permit for a protest in the District, organizers are typically required to provide a number of amenities to demonstrators, most of which cost money, Miller said. They include, but are not limited to, toilets, medical tents, cooling stations for hot days and audiovisual equipment for large demonstrations.
For a protest such as the People’s Climate March — a rally in which tens of thousands of people marched from the Capitol to the White House — groups can already expect to stare down a budget of more than $100,000, Miller said.
“You already need to have a certain amount of access to funds to try to get a permit for a certain size protest,” Miller said. “That’s already a huge burden.”
The Park Police, which patrols demonstrations in some of the most popular rally points in the city — including the Mall and Lafayette Square — has requested hundreds of thousands of dollars in emergency funding over the past two years to support such events.
In 2017, when the Women’s March on Washington flooded streets with a crush of women wearing pink pussy hats, Park Police requested $86,846 to cover what they thought would be a rally of about 200,000 people, federal documents show. The crowd that showed up the day after President Trump’s inauguration was, by most estimates, much larger.
The anti-gun violence March for Our Lives in 2018 cost Park Police about $153,596 to secure the youth-led demonstration, which drew hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to Pennsylvania Avenue.
Park Police spent about $77,508 on security later that year for the Unite the Right 2 rally, in which a small group of white nationalists gathered near the White House as thousands of counterprotesters took to the streets to meet them.
D.C. police, public works and other city agencies, meanwhile, spent roughly $2.2 million to accommodate the Unite the Right 2 demonstration, according to estimates released by the mayor’s office. The District used a federal fund that exists to offset the cost of being the nation’s capital to pay for the protest.
Park Police did not provide numbers for other large-scale demonstrations, saying the agency does not have specific cost breakdowns for all events.
Officials with March for Our Lives and the Women’s March declined to say how much they spent to put on those demonstrations.
Civil rights organizations, as well as those on both sides of the political spectrum, have voiced opposition to the Park Service proposal.
“The government can’t, without violating the First Amendment, impose costs on demonstrators based on how much security they’re going to need,” said Art Spitzer, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s D.C. office.
The Park Service requires protests of at least 25 people to obtain a permit to protest on federal land — including green space downtown, the Mall, Freedom Plaza, federal buildings and national monuments. D.C. police ask that demonstrations that will close streets also get a permit from the city, although unpermitted demonstrations are common.
Before the Park Service will issue a permit to a group or individual, the agency must be satisfied that safety and security requirements will be met. That can include requiring groups to have a setup and teardown crew or ground cover to protect grass.
“On what they call the ‘Tier 1 grass’ on the Mall, we’ve gotten quotes of $180,000 just for ground cover,” Miller said. “It can get really expensive really fast.”
Groups short on cash often find ways to cheaply meet requirements, Miller said, leaning on volunteers instead of hired hands, or opting to move the demonstration from a prime spot — like a grassy area on the Mall — to a space with fewer restrictions, like the concrete block of Freedom Plaza.
One organization that put on a counterprotest at the Unite the Right 2 rally built a stage from plywood the morning of the event because organizers couldn’t afford to rent one.
“You can do something extremely powerful on a low budget, but you have to find creative workarounds,” Miller said. “Then there are some things you just have to have — porta-potties, for example.”
The Park Service last year posed the question that roiled civil rights groups and alarmed activists: Should the government seek to recover the money it spends on supporting protests in Washington? The biggest expenditure, by far, officials said, is policing.
Members of Congress weighed in. So, too, did more than 180,000 people, as well as several liberal and conservative groups, about the proposal’s impact on the public’s ability to exercise its First Amendment rights.
Dan Smith, the Park Service’s acting director, has said the agency received more than 71,000 “substantive” responses during a public comment period, including multi-page letters of opposition from civil rights groups such as the ACLU.
Smith told lawmakers the Park Service would likely make a decision by the end of summer. As of the first week of fall, agency spokesman Mike Litterst said, no decision has been reached.
About 750 First Amendment demonstrations converge on the Mall annually, according to the Park Service. Large rallies, such as the Women’s March and March for Life, often require additional support from Park Service personnel and Park Police to ensure safety and to limit harm to federal land.
The agency does not track how much it spends to support demonstrations, although Litterst said, on average, processing permits alone costs the Park Service about $700,000 annually in staff time.
Smith said the agency’s budget, which had been cut to 2010 levels despite having 28 new parks and 5 million additional acres of land to oversee, has been stretched in trying to support such events. The cost of those demonstrations, he said, has been “unbelievable.”
As a result, the agency has dipped into emergency funds.
It should be up to Congress to better equip the Park Service to support the growing interest in activism, Spitzer said, not citizens.
“Demonstrations are part of the cost of running a government,” he said. “Just like they have to repair the roads because people drive on them, demonstrations have certain costs, and that’s just part of why we pay taxes. That’s something that people have the right to do in a free society, just as much as they have the right to drive on the roads.”
But Banks, the congressman who represents Indiana’s 3rd Congressional District, said some protesters should repay police costs.
He announced about a week ago, after police arrested 32 climate change protesters who blocked D.C. traffic, that his constituents should not have to foot the bill for arrests at unpermitted protests in the District.
“It’s becoming a common occurrence in Washington, D.C., to have protests like the ones earlier this week where the law was broken, where arrests were made and the taxpayers are on the hook for police overtime associated with the protest,” he said in an interview. “Protesting is certainly an American virtue and a right . . . but Washington, D.C., coffers have been drained and Congress has been allocating additional funding from the federal treasury to afford to take care of protests like this one.”
Congress allocated about $13 million this year to the District in the fund that offsets the costs of being the nation’s capital. Funding for an emergency police presence at large-scale demonstrations can be taken out of the fund, although it isn’t clear how much the District pays to process arrests at unpermitted demonstrations.
Banks said his proposal was inspired by a Pennsylvania bill that sought to recoup police overtime costs from protesters. The legislation was, upon its introduction in 2017, described by the ACLU as “almost certainly unconstitutional.” At least 18 other states have considered similar measures.
Though he said he understands the “highly charged political atmosphere of Washington, D.C.,” Banks added that he supports the Park Service effort to recoup costs of increasingly common demonstrations.
“I think that’s what the National Park Service is learning, too — that there’s only a limited amount of resources,” he said.
Spitzer said the ACLU and other civil rights groups remain poised to fight back against legislation that seeks to impose fees on protesters.
“It’s certainly no more justifiable than charging every tourist who comes to D.C. a $100 fee for the cost of picking up their litter,” Spitzer said.