Saturday, around 50 people held a demonstration through dance at the Jefferson Memorial in southern Washington, D.C., which overlooks the Potomac River. Over 2,000 people had testified on Facebook that they would show up, but these testimonials apparently turned out to be the Internet’s letting off steam.
A week before, U.S. Park Police arrested five protesters for silently dancing in the memorial, which they did in response to the April 12, 2008 arrest of Mary Oberwetter, a 28-year-old D.C. resident, who was eventually charged with “interfering with agency functions.”
The video of recent arrests received in its first 24 hours well over 100,00 views and, at the time of this writing, nearly 900,000. Russia Today journalist and 2010 House Candidate Adam Kokesh, a self-described Ron Paul Republican, found himself thrown to the ground and, briefly, even choked, last weekend for dancing, as he said, in celebration of the principles of Thomas Jefferson.
Recently, the Washington Post ran a consensus editorial claiming that by silently dancing in the memorial, the protesters had in fact justifiably invited their booking and whatever force shown to them. “If it goes anything like previous ones, it will not be pretty,” wrote the Post‘s editors, adding, “And that won’t be the fault of the U.S. Park Police.” However, Saturday’s protest did go a great deal better than the previous weekend’s. There was no resorting to direct violence, but in the face of protesters already backed off to the steps of the memorial, where the Post’s editors swore back and forth that “anyone is free to polka,” police were in fact brandishing automatic rifles.
Speaking on the steps of the memorial just minutes before the noon start of the demonstration, Medea Benjamin, co-founder of activist group Code Pink and one of the five arrested the previous week, lamented that the “pursuit of happiness” advertised in the Declaration of Independence, authored largely by Jefferson, was outside the prerogative of the defense by Park Police in the memorial. She cited the unobtrusive nature of listening to headphones and silently dancing in commemoration of the declaration’s author.
The popularity of the subsequent video footage on Kokesh’s blog, “Adam Vs The Man” – even as other nonviolent protesters in Bahrain and Syria faced permanent injury if not total execution – displayed the degree to which the treatment of the protesters was clearly outraging many domestically.
The heart of the matter is a view of whether celebration of Jefferson’s ideals can even be done by dancing inside the memorial . Dancing is “distracting from the atmosphere of solemn commemoration,” agreed an appellate court with the original lower-court decision Kokesh et. al. were initially protesting. There seems to be an at least popularly-enough held skepticism that in fact any sort of dance-based celebration can even earnestly be done in honor of Thomas Jefferson. However, in the face of Jefferson’s legacy that people of the majority of ethnicities should live free or die, the brandishing of automatic rifles and tear gas canisters in the face of harmless expression seems a more serious defiling of that spirit of “solemn commemoration.”
The point of Americans who genuinely believe that dancing in a public memorial warrants its closing to the public, daresay violence against dancers, is that disbelief that the dancing is even being done in sincere celebration of the ideals of the First Amendment, an high-minded ideal that in reality has always been subject in one way or another to restrictions of minor status, obscenity, sedition or national security restrictions, or the general popularity of one’s ideas.
During the exchange with Benjamin, Tighe Barry, who was also one of the five arrested last week for dancing, said, “I think Jefferson would have said a long time ago that it’s time for government to grow up. If he were to spring up alive right now, he wouldn’t know what to make of any of this. I do know from the words that he said he would have changed the laws that are antiquated and outdated. He doesn’t seem like the person that would ever want a memorial that would be solemn and you have to come and pray to a certain god.”
Jefferson, on record discouraging celebrations of his birthday and whose grave marker does not mention his highest office of the presidency, is the figurative “god” to which Barry is saying that the courts’ decisions have demanded reverence.
The Washington Post’s editors would blatantly participate in libel against the protesters, saying “a group of self-proclaimed libertarians who decided to defy the court on Memorial Day weekend.” Barry and his girlfriend, Code Pink Cofounder Medea Benjamin, are obvious socialists, as indicated by, among many things, their not-so-subtle habit of wearing pink clothing.
Barry would also fire back at the editorial’s charge that the “dancers’ energy and presumably good intentions would be better channeled by addressing real injustices.”
“I was in Tahrir Square [in Cairo, Egypt], looking – I was there for the entire revolution. I was looking for someone from The Washington Post editorial board to come out and say something about what was going on. And they waited and waited until the very last minute, when they figured out who was going to win and then they editorialized. You know, this is the Washington [Post] editorial board. You know, they need to straighten it out.”
After approximately 10 minutes of silently dancing, which began roughly around noon, a few protesters immediately began silently dancing, apparently without any requests that they stop dancing. After another 10 minutes, approximately 50 people had joined in and were making their way in a conga line around the statue of Jefferson himself. Clearly upping the ante from the previous complaint that they had not been allowed to silently dance, the emboldened crowd began yelling slogans and cheering jubilantly, several chanting the text of the First Amendment. As the circular marchers made passes by, Kokesh stopped, roughly in front of me, and made a point of accepting handshakes from generally admiring coprotesters.
Recording video on phone, it was apparent that the initial discussed tactic of the police was to walk up to protesters and simply ask them to leave, if they felt like dancing. I didn’t hear any of those initial conversations up close, but their occurrence was apparent because individuals would began asking others to not leave, because that’s, as some protesters loudly suggested, when the police would begin their arrests. No matter one’s conclusions about the rights of Kokesh et al and those of the original demonstrator, Oberwetter, to silently dance, by the time the monument was shut down a week later after the first Kokesh protest, activists had chosen to turn their new demonstration into a markedly less silent one.
Without announcement, the police had put up a metal barrier at the entrance to the memorial, without any sort of public announcement. This tactic was effective insofar that it made it so that police didn’t have to block people, with their own bodies, from coming back in once they had left. However the tactic was not so effective because it also made it difficult to comply with their orders, once requested to do so. Once asked to leave, this reporter attempted to make his way out of the meter-wide gap in the barrier, only to find it impossible to get out through the line of camera-bearers all too intent on capturing more salacious police brutality, if in fact it went down.
Unable to make my way out of the gap, which I was facing, trying to push my way through, and refusing no request, a Park Police officer shoved this reporter into the crowd of not-budging cameramen. It was unnecessary force, but their motivations were clear enough. If the police did not apply at least a little unnecessary force this time, they stood to lose even more face than they obviously did last weekend, when as Kokesh said to RT, they were inundated with angry phone calls, which, he suggested, could have expedited the release of the libertarian and socialist protesters.
You can see it in my footage after I’m shoved: My hand is shaking. Memories of last week’s footage came back to me. While I never feared for an instant that, on account of the dancers, foreign tourists would think less highly of Jefferson or America, I did fear, perhaps irrationally, that police would begin a disastrous power trip that could end with a lot of hurt people. In light of more substantially more egregious civil rights abuses, it easy to, as did The Washington Post, dismiss the cause of dancing in the Jefferson Memorial as trivial. At the same time, it is impossible to at the same time, maintaining consistency, suggest that the police actions, up to and including the mere closing of the memorial, in response to such trivial actions are more warranted. The pretense of this solemnity enforcement is that it will stop ridicule of Jefferson or impress upon visitors an “appropriate” regard for the man, when the idea that a law can enforce such a genuine internal consideration is an illusion, a mirage.
As I reported for the Buffalo BEAST back at Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in front of the Lincoln Memorial, the naïve idealism of some American Revolutionary revivalists is really quite striking. It is the product of a grade-school indoctrination Americans receive, one not unlike that of many country’s citizens regarding still-vogue leaders past. It reminded me of being in the 4th grade in a school in Virginia hearing my teacher ask, sure, slavery was bad, but what were some of its benefits.
I caught this same tone repeatedly at the Jefferson Memorial dance-off, between the chants of “TJ, TJ” and blood-boiled, screeching testimonials to Jefferson’s beyond-reproach character.
Last weekend, I was at the Mount Vernon home of the first constitutional president of the United States, George Washington, and in a line of tourists on the veranda. The lawn was quite vast, and the general had ordered his chattel slaves to have it cut with a scythe. Mind you, this was not a farming operation for the production of food; this was a prurient and petty exercise in aesthetics.
A guide was stationed out on the porch, with arm’s length of me.
“How many human beings did George Washington own? Eight hundred? A thousand?” I inquired, not stuttering, but the guide appeared mildly repulsed by the question, her chin pulling backwards in a kind of micro-whiplash, and then she asked me if I were asking about the general’s land-holding acreage, before I made a clarification, and she told me he owned more than 300 people.
It seems pretty clear that Jefferson would have been outrageously offended that people were facing police action, quite possibly to the point of advocating lethal-force resistance to the officers on the scene. Of course, this would have been and would be an evil mistake, but it goes to show the weakness of appealing to Jefferson’s authority itself to justify this resistance.
Somewhere around the 12:20 p.m. peak of the dancing, Kokesh stopped to face the throng of journalists, bloggers or onlookers to proclaim how acts of disobedience of this type were cardinal to bringing down the state. It was a thought-provoking comment. If the purpose of the action were to collapse the state itself, what monuments would there within which armed guards were to regulate behavior in the first place?
After the event, Kokesh said that, were he only allowed to not pay taxes, he would gladly give up his claim of access to the memorial.
It was then, after police had forced everyone willing to go out, Kokesh was on the steps bull-horning back at the stragglers in the sanctum and their onlookers, proclaiming that “the people had won” and requested that no one risk arrest at that point. The police’s granting 30 minutes from dancing’s starting until my being asked to leave, at least individually as a bystander, seemed tacit acknowledgment of wrongdoing.
A group of tourists told me that if the protesters inside had truly wished to fight for freedom, they should simply enlist, presumably to go fight in missions like that most tolling in Afghanistan, where some recent polling has shown that perhaps as many as 80 percent or more of men believe that the NATO mission is bad for Afghans, and NATO forces openly refuse to comply with President Hamid Karzai’s demands that they stop air attacks on houses.
It was fascinating to see a conception that their own personal liberties were maintained through military operations in a country where soldiers are largely undesired, and whose actions are roundly condemned by the elected leadership in place.
By the refreshment stand near the Jefferson Memorial around 1 p.m., a mid-30s man was yelling at another at the top of his lungs, swearing upon “the altar of God” “eternal hostility” to that tourist, blaming him and his ilk, not the police, for the monument’s closing.
The tourist complained that foreign tourists, families, and his prepubescent son were not able to see the memorial they had traveled to view. He indicated that the dancer yelling at him believed that “his rights were more important than mine,” adding “[my family pays] the bills to keep that open. You got it closed. You people got it closed. Congratulations.”
“We families,” he would continue, “we get our rights violated because you insist on being a buffoon. That’s what happened. That’s what happened. My rights are more important because I have a right to go in there and enjoy the monument.” The tourist would personally charge that the law can enforce a “solemn atmosphere” in the monument.
The tourist’s blood still boiling, I attempted to get his consideration of the predicament of another protesters, who had brought several of his young children, that police had told him that his children would be taken into protective custody if he stayed at the memorial. As that father stood far outside of the sanctum of the memorial, talking to his children, an officer approached them and said, “If you get caught up in the sweep, they go down also. It’s child services, just letting you know.”
I asked the tourist how exactly that officer’s request was in particular consideration of families. He did not answer the question, which encouraged me to ask him point-blank if indeed the protester’s children should have been placed into custody.
The frustrated tourist declined to answer this question directly but did indicate his sense that the police, who were carrying Armalite assault rifles in the face of dancing protesters, “didn’t do enough.”
As onlookers reacted belligerently to this claim, the tourist’s son said, “I’ve learned nothing from you.”