Protests in front of the White House are nearly as commonplace as lies in Washington – nary a week goes by without a handful of some decent ones. But actions taken by the U.S. Park Police and government lawyers in two separate demonstrations at the White House – one with LGBT activists and the other with environmentalists - suggest the government may be imposing stricter responses in order to dissuade peaceful protesters from staging certain demonstrations at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Though both of those demonstrations were designed to be actions in which the protesters risked arrest, the treatment of the activists who were arrested strays from the usual way in which acts of civil disobedience in front of the White House have been handled over the last few decades.
Here are the basic rules of the road: Protesters know that if they stop moving on the White House sidewalk within 10 yards to the right or left of the center line – the “picture postcard zone” – they will risk being arrested if they don’t respond to verbal warnings. Once arrested, peaceful protesters can have typically been offered what’s known as the “post-and-forfeit” option where they can post bail (around $50 to $100) and then choose to forfeit it without a trial. It involves no admission of guilt, leaves civil protesters with no criminal conviction, keeps the D.C. jail facilities from being clogged with non-violent offenders, and saves the court the trouble of adjudicating the cases in its already crammed schedule.
But “those days are over,” says Mark Goldstone, a Washington lawyer who has defended non-violent activists for about 25 years.
“The predictability of being able to exercise your rights in the picture postcard zone and coming out of there basically unscathed,” he says, “I think those rules that ...