Metro Weekly

Protest Coverage Cut Short [UPDATED]

Park Police, Secret Service give contradictory accounts of why Lafayette Park was ''closed'' during White House protest by present and former servicemembers

Reporters expect to have occasional fights over access. It comes with the job. But, it’s unlikely reporters expected the literal pushback they faced on Tuesday afternoon when reporters covering the latest Get Equal protest were moved more than 300 feet back from the activists handcuffed to the fence in front of the north side of the White House on Pennsylvania Avenue.

In video taken when six former or current servicemembers handcuffed themselves to the fence in protest of what they consider insufficient action from President Obama to help with the repeal of the ”Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law, the police present can be seen telling reporters and onlookers, ”Park’s closed, everyone back up.”

On Tuesday afternoon and evening, when asked about the matter, the U.S. Park Police and the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division provided contradictory accounts of who ordered the move and the White House declined comment.

On March 18, when Lt. Dan Choi and James Pietrangelo chained themselves to the same fence, spectators and media eventually were moved back across Pennsylvania Avenue to Lafayette Park, which is about 100 feet away from the fence. On Tuesday, however, when Choi and Pietrangelo were joined by four former servicemembers – Mara Boyd, Larry Whitt, Autumn Sandeen and Victor Price – the police first moved people to that same location but then took the additional step of moving people back further, halfway into Lafayette Park – roughly another 200 feet.

Why the similar action led to this additional step was not clear to any of the reporters captured on the video, which was shot by AmericaBlog’s John Aravosis.

When reached on Tuesday afternoon, Lt. Felt with U.S. Park Police told Metro Weekly, ”We had an impromptu demo . . . When we got up there, we secured the area.” Asked why the south half of Lafayette Park was closed, Felt said, ”You’d have to talk to the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division . . . I believe that was done prior to any of our arrival.”

Malcolm Wiley, with the U.S. Secret Service Uniformed Division, reached later, disputed Felt’s comments, ”We’re going to have to confer with them; I don’t see how that’s correct.”

Explaining further, Wiley said, ”We don’t have the authority to do that.” In addition to not having the authority to do so, he added, ”I don’t have any information that we did shut the park.”

Later, Wiley added about the Park Police, ”If they decided to shut it down and asked for our assistance, then certainly we would give them that. The Secret Service cannot give an order to shut down the park.”

U.S. Park Police Communications Shift Supervisor Loveland disputed Wiley’s comments, saying of the Secret Service, ”They close it all the time; they’re giving the run-around.” Saying ”they’ve got the authority in the city,” Loveland added, ”Believe me, they take full advantage of it.”

(UPDATE, April 21: Park Police Spokesman Sergeant David Schlosser told Politico’s Ben Smith Wednesday morning that Tuesday’s incident was the fault of the Park Police. Politico reported that Schlosser said, “We had some young officers who, when they were told to move the people back — which we typically do when we’re going to make arrests – they moved the people back a lot further than we typically do. . . . That was a rookie, amateur error and they screwed up on that.”)

With a Get Equal sign displayed at the protest telling ”President Obama, It’s time for leadership, end Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell now” and a group of protesters described by Robin McGehee, one of the group’s organizers, as including ”women, men, trans, communities of color and every branch of military,” the activists were providing a picture-ready protest for the media.

Although those pictures might have been cut short on Tuesday, Get Equal reports the six are being held overnight at the District’s jail in Anacostia and are scheduled to be arraigned in D.C. Superior Court at 2 p.m. Wednesday, April 21. At Choi and Pietrangelo’s prior arraignment for the March 18 arrest, the two spoke to reporters following the court hearing.

Other members of Get Equal disrupted Obama while he was speaking at a fund-raiser for Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) on Monday, April 19.