The White House.
To the world, it’s the image of the United States.
To Americans, it’s the “us” in U.S. — and the universally recognized metaphor for the president and the administration behind him.
And for at least 100 years, it’s been the prime spot for demonstrators focused on many of society’s most important issues — war and peace, abortion and gun rights, health care policies and more.
In First Amendment terms, the White House may well be the premier place we go to exercise our rights of free speech, to assemble peaceably and to petition the government for redress of grievances.
The usual space for protests is on the White House’s north side, on a sidewalk along Pennsylvania Avenue, and across the street in the park-like Lafayette Square. While the immediate streets are now closed to vehicles due to terrorist concerns, the sidewalks and green spaces still see daily protests — from a single person adorned with handmade signs to organized rallies that fill the square and beyond.
But the National Park Service has now proposed new regulations and is considering new fees that thousands fear will dissuade most demonstrators from protesting “at the White House.” Park service officials want to limit protesters to a narrow, five-foot strip on the curb side of the 25-foot sidewalk and may establish new charges for security, trash clean-up and such things as “harm to turf.”
The park service argues the changes are needed to help cover higher costs of dealing with what it says is an increasing number of demonstrations. Critics say the moves are a poorly disguised attempt by the Trump administration to thwart visible, anti-Trump protesters — and even dispute the claim of more protests than in previous years.
According to news reports, more than 10,000 people have responded to a public comment period on the new regulations that ended Monday — most in strong opposition.
What would we lose if we moved demonstrations away from the White House?
No less than a century of permitting citizens to send a direct, audible and visible message to the occupant of the Executive Mansion.
In January 1917, a dozen women met in Lafayette Square to start a protest that eventually led to a constitutional amendment granting women the right to vote. The women — called the “Silent Sentinels” — are credited by some historians with creating the first picket line at the White House. Rain or shine, six days a week, they quietly held signs asking, “How Long Must Women Wait For Liberty?” and “Mr. President, What Will You Do for Woman Suffrage?” They stayed on line until June 1919, when Congress sent the 19th Amendment to the states for ratification.
During WWII, crowds were reported to have gathered periodically on the sidewalks at the White House — including a huge gathering Aug. 14, 1945, to hear the news from President Harry S. Truman that the war had ended.
President Lyndon B. Johnson was taunted in the late 1960s by Vietnam War protesters outside the White House, who chanted loud enough to be heard in the White House at all hours: “Hey, hey LBJ — how many kids did you kill today?” During the Nixon administration a few years later, President Richard Nixon could hear car horns beeping — Watergate protestors would ask passing cars to “honk if you think Nixon should be impeached.”
Since Trump took office Jan. 20, 2017, Lafayette Square has been a regular stop for marches and demonstrations, though those in the massive Women’s March a day after the inauguration were prevented from entering the square because of the viewing stands and security fences that remained from the inaugural parade — obstacles that remained into March.
Yes, social media greatly expands the reach of a march anywhere in Washington, D.C. — and online campaigns potentially reach thousands if not millions more. But the unique opportunity for the physical voices of citizens to be heard across the White House grounds remains a unique feature of American democracy — for now.
Yes, there surely are expenses associated with protests and other demonstrations, at the White House and other public areas that might also be affected, but as a nation, we have in the past found ways to absorb such relatively low costs as a price of democracy.
Core freedoms should not be dissected, disassembled or denied via a balance sheet. And there’s hardly anything more un-American than finding back-door ways to mute our right to protest, with vigor and passion and at times with volume, at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W.
Gene Policinski is president and chief operating officer of the Freedom Forum Institute. firstname.lastname@example.org.