The United States has long been known internationally for the robust freedoms protesters could rely on, including access to high-visibility and symbolic public spaces near the White House.
But the events of the past two weeks — from the clearing of protesters from Lafayette Square to the temporary erection of barriers to the north of the White House and the Ellipse to the south — have damaged the capital’s reputation as a physical role model for liberal democracies, according to observers abroad.
On June 1, groups of predominantly peaceful demonstrators gathered in the street outside Lafayette Square, north of the White House, to protest police brutality and abuse, after Minneapolis resident George Floyd died in police custody after an officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes. Law enforcement officers in riot gear later scattered the protesters, using tear gas and rubber pellets.
The police operation on June 1 enabled President Trump to pose for a three-minute photo op at the historic St. John’s Episcopal Church, across the street from Lafayette Square. The images reverberated far from Washington in foreign capitals.
Some observers abroad were quick to point out that liberal democracies around the world tend to allow protesters to get close to government sites, whereas authoritarian countries have often sought to keep such demonstrations as far away from government premises as possible.
Workers have since largely dismantled the barriers erected around the White House, but the fence — which initially created a de facto protest-free zone extending more than 500 feet into the surrounding city in some areas — temporarily put the United States more in step with the Kremlin than with other liberal democracies around the globe.
Protests in proximity to Kremlin, for example, are also banned. Free speech advocates say the law is vague, but they interpret it to mean protesters need to stay at least 500 feet away from the structure. Since July 2018, at least 57 individuals were charged or detained for holding rallies on the Red Square, which is within the prohibited zone, according to human rights group OVD-Info.
Blank protest bans in public areas as a worrisome sign
Max Bohm, head of the Open Society Initiative in Europe that promotes civic discourse, said he felt “a cold shiver” run down his spine when he watched from 4,000 miles away in Germany how police cleared Lafayette Square in Washington.
Bohm argued it mattered that protesters were removed from nearby the White House “because it’s important that [elected officials] can look out of the window and see or hear the protesters. Physical proximity can achieve different outcomes,” he said.
Gina Ford, a landscape architect in the United States who has done research on protest movements, noted that the locations of some Black Lives Matter protests in the United States have been shifting from the “traditional seats of power” to neighborhoods where alleged incidents of policy brutality occurred.
But the area around the White House, she added, remained a particularly symbolic space.
Some of the spaces that were put behind barriers, she said, were designed to “accommodate the whole spectrum of civic life, of city life."
“The deployment of barriers, the deployment of military forces and police forces in large numbers, I think it’s a really concerning shift. And if it doesn’t go back to, ‘normal,’ I think every American should be very concerned about the lasting impacts to our sense of democratic action and public space,” Ford said.
Ford and others fear the clearing of the space around the White House could serve as a “how to kit” to prevent future protests and could set a dangerous precedent in the United States and beyond.
In Russia, restrictions on protests near presidential residences, including the Kremlin, were included in a 2004 law under President Vladimir Putin, who appeared determined to prevent a repeat of major protests that occurred there during the early 1990s.
When anti-Putin protests spread across the country after strongly disputed legislative elections in 2011, access to areas around the Kremlin was temporarily cut off entirely.
The protest-free zone around the Kremlin was soon replicated elsewhere, with regional administrations declaring more public spaces off limits. Some activists were put on show trials to stymie opposition and harsher punishments were introduced.
Researcher Jan Matti Dollbaum said there are still significant differences between Russia at the time and the United States today — including institutions that continue to uphold the rule of law in the U.S. But he cautioned that — just as in Russia — erecting physical barriers around seats of power could act to suppress political dissent.
“One idea behind [the Russian] regulations is to constrain the act of protest itself, to sort of avoid these symbolic pictures,” said Dollbaum, who has researched Russian protest movements at the German Research Center for East European Studies.
But the regulations, he added, are also often deliberately complex and difficult to decipher, handing authorities justification to crack down on protesters who may unknowingly violate the opaque rules.
In states or territories with a history of quashing public dissent, officials have recently tried to turn the turmoil in the United States to their advantage and accused the country of embracing on double standards.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam last week responded to criticism of the government’s crackdown on pro-democracy protesters by pointing to the U.S. response to recent domestic protests.
In Russia, Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova echoed Lam, saying “authorities should not violate the rights of Americans to peaceful protest."
The comments appeared to validate prior warnings by several groups, including the Freedom House, a nongovernmental organization that wrote in its annual 2020 report that attacks on “pillars of democracy coming from American leaders, including the president himself, undermine the country’s ability to persuade other governments to defend core human rights and freedoms, and are actively exploited by dictators and demagogues.”
The report from Freedom House, which tracks the state of democracy worldwide, included data showing that the United States has fallen behind many other Western countries in its freedom index.
How liberal democracies welcome protests
The space available to protesters outside the White House is one of many elements that will factor into how the U.S. standing in the world will evolve going forward, but advocates of freedom of assembly argue it is a crucial one.
It markedly differentiates liberal democracies that are comfortable with criticism from governments that are unable or unwilling to tolerate dissent, they say.
In contrast to the United States, in New Zealand, protesters are explicitly encouraged to take their demonstrations right to the government’s front door.
In the capital city of Wellington, parliament grounds — located both next to the legislative body and the prime minister’s executive office building — are accessible to protesters, who are permitted to assemble as long as they do “not mount the main steps nor interfere with the use of Parliament buildings by those entering or leaving it in the normal course of their business."
The official Parliament website invites activists to contact the Speaker’s Office in advance “to make sure [the protest] is a success.”
Even though German protesters cannot walk right up to the front entrance of German leader Angela Merkel’s chancellery, creating space for public discourse was a key aim when Berlin’s government district was built in the 1990s.
Today, the vast area between the Reichstag parliament building and the chancellor’s office is the site of frequent protests.
Activists have recently also sought to revive the idea of creating a “people’s forum” outside the Chancellery; the forum was initially planned by the government itself but not pursued.
“We’d like to establish citizens as experts who can make proposals to their elected officials in a sort of people’s workshop,” said Bohm, one of the initiators.
Dozens of members of parliament from across the political spectrum have already vowed to support the idea, he said.
“We need spaces that bring people together,” said Bohm.