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Transcript: Permit Negotiation with the National Park Service for a Political Demonstration at the 2009 Inauguration in Washington, DC

The following is a transcription of a permit negotiation with the National Park Service Capitol Division, a regular part of the process for getting a political demonstration of more than 25 people to be approved by the bureau that controls public access to these federal lands. Recording of the conversation was explicitly agreed to by Robbin Owen and the representatives of the Park Police who sat in on the conference call over which negotiations took place on the morning of Friday, December 6.

I’m publishing the text of our conversation as part of an effort to be transparent about the process of getting a political demonstration in Washington, DC permitted. Notice, for instance, the introduction by the National Park Service of a new marshal requirement not mentioned in the Code of Federal Regulations and seemingly excluded for this type of demonstration by the NPS’s own permit application. I wish I’d known about that wrinkle before the negotiation began, and I hope sharing this transcript helps other applicants prepare better for their own conference calls with the Park Service. Of course, I am also posting this in order to share substantive information about the particular political demonstration I’m planning: a pro-Constitution demonstration to take place in DC on Inauguration Day: January 20, 2009.

Robbin Owen, National Park Service, Office of Park Programs (Capital Region): I need to know how many people are coming down. You said probably 50?

Jim Cook, Irregular Times: Yes, that’s right, and that’s my estimation based on an organized event based around the same topic area which were put together by some pretty prominent organizations like the ACLU and National Religious Campaign Against Torture. They actually had the Mall, and they had an effort to bring people in, and they only got about 250 people in.

Owen: OK, that’s good. As you know, it’s going to be a large Inauguration with several thousand visitors, and there will be limited space on the Pennsylvania Avenue sidewalk. Now, if we issue you a permit, you are going to be restricted to just one small area. But that’s not to say that you’re going to have the general public mixed in with you.

Now, if you have 25 people or less, that does not require a permit. You can carry your signs and walk the sidewalk. So I don’t know: do you want to pursue that, or go with a designated location?

Cook: Well, if we have a designated location, does that become a reserved location?

Owen: You will have a permit for it, but that’s not to say the general public’s going to be mixed in with you, and you’re going to be just landlocked to that one location.

Cook: Uh huh. But just to clarify again, and I’ll be a little bit more concrete with that, if we — I understand there are going to be a lot of people coming in. If, let’s say, we have a particular spot on Pennsylvania Avenue that’s specified on the permit, will individuals be able to come and claim that space without having to, say, camp out the night before in this subfreezing weather?

Owen: Well, you wouldn’t be able to camp out the night before, but no, you would, that would be your location for your demonstration.

Cook: And we would be guaranteed that spot, even if other individuals came in and, let’s say…

Owen: You’re still going to have the general public mixed in with it. It’s up to you to have a marshal there that works with the United States Park Police, and have your people there in a timely fashion.

Cook: Well now, so, our demonstration is scheduled to begin at 12 noon. It’s also my understanding from the National Park Service that under 500 [people in attendance], marshals are not required.

Owen: I’m sorry?

Cook: That with under 500 individuals, marshals would not be required.

Owen: I’ve not seen that language, sir. We require marshals to assist with crowd control within your permitted area and assist you in that respect. And again, because of the volume of people and the number of Park Police officers and metropolitan police dedicated to us for activities, certainly there will be an officer in the general vicinity, but you would have to have someone on site to deal with that officer. That officer cannot stand there and hold a spot for you.

Cook: This was actually in the application materials, in the application materials marshals are not required because there’s no equipment, no movement, so we actually would have…

Owen: I’m not actually familiar with that.

Cook: Well, OK, so I’m looking at the application materials…

Owen: Application for the National Park Service…

Cook: That’s right, and this is for the National Capital Region, and it refers to marshals being necessary with this distinction between over 500 and under 500 [note: I was incorrect; the actual threshold is 750].

Owen: There is nothing on the application that states over 500 or under 500. Where are you actually reading that, sir?

Cook: OK, so I’m actually going to go to the National Park Service Capital Region website here and draw that up, but the existence of the marshal in general is required when there are additional services [note: see #13-16 on the form] or we would be an additional burden, and I don’t see how we would be an additional burden, because we’re only going to be doing what other members of the crowd are doing, which is standing there. We’re not going to be having speeches, we’re not going to have any structures erected, or anything else like that.

Officer Marcus: Well, this is Officer Marcus speaking. I think she was referring to you don’t want other members of the general public in your permitted area, and the only way to preserve that is to have a marshal there. The general public’s going to be mixed in with your group.

Cook: I have no problem with the general public being mixed in with our group, as long as we have a permit to actually collect there and be there.

Owen: OK, and that’s fine, that’s perfectly acceptable, but you do realize that you will be contained to that permitted area, and you will not be able to move about.

Cook: I’m fine with that.

Owen: OK.

Cook: With the exception, of course, that people would be allowed to leave that area…

Owen: Oh, they would be allowed to leave, they would be allowed to come and go as they please.

Cook: Right.

Owen: But you can’t move your permitted organized activity from your designated location.

Cook: We have no plan to do that. We have no march, no movement whatsoever.

So, again, I’m coming back to, I’m not clear why it would be necessary to have marshals. Hello?

Owen: Yes, I’m here sir.

Cook: OK, I’m sorry, why it would be necessary to have marshals or additional security of any kind.

Owen: OK, again, sir, where are you referring to this information?

Cook: OK, so I’m going to the National Park Service National Capital Region online, and right now I’, actually trying to pull up that document

Owen: What we go by is the regulations, 36 CFR 7.96

Cook: Yes, I see that, and I have that regulation in front of me.

Owen: OK.

Cook: OK. So there’s been a distinction between what the National Park Service has told me, and…

Owen: Who in the National Park Service, sir?

Cook: Well, Sheila lately in the National Capitol Region, but before that I spoke with individuals on the phone, at first I was told anybody would need a permit.

Owen: No sir, our regulations are very specific.

Cook: That’s right.

Owen: With less than 25 and you don’t have any obstructions or stands, you’re just holding signs, it doesn’t require a permit.

Cook: Yep…. So, if I were to have… let’s just, moving forward on this point for the moment, if I were to have a marshal, and let’s say that marshal was myself, what would that individual need to do? Simply liaise with an officer?

Owen: It is to be a liaison with a United States Park Police officer assigned to that area. You would be responsible for identifying the members of your group.

Cook: Well, there’s a problem with that which is that I won’t necessarily know who the individuals are who are members of the group. They will be assembling from across the country and I won’t have necessarily met them in person before.

Owen: Yeah, but aren’t you putting out information that, once we decide to talk about location, that they are coming to a certain location, that they will be identified by, you know, their signs or some kind of t-shirts or anything like that? Or are you just asking people to come?

Cook: I’m asking people to come and hold signs. So they will be identifiable by holding signs.

Owen: Right. And that’s what the marshal would do.

Cook: OK, and that would be fine, and I’m certainly willing to do that.

Owen: OK. And you’re anticipating anywhere from 50 to… what, sir?

Cook: If it’s wildly successful, 250. I realistically expect approximately 50 people.

Owen: Now, the United States Secret Service will be putting out guidelines — they have not done so yet — on what you can and cannot bring into the secure area, which includes the length of Pennsylvania Avenue. It could be that the size of signs will be restricted, or the type of material you can use.

Cook: Um, to what extent, and I’m sorry to break in, this is just for clarification: 36 CFR 7.96, the federal regulations are very specific about the signs, and what kind of signs…

Owen: Yes, sir, I totally agree with you, but the United States Secret Service because it’s a national security event will put restrictions on what items you can bring into the secure area. They did so in the last two inaugurals since 9-11. They have not completed their list yet of restricted items, but that of course will be in the conditions of the permit. They have been advised to get something to us as soon as possible. The last inaugural we did not get information from the United States Secret Service until about a week out from the event.

Cook: And the Secret Service has the ability to supercede federal regulations in this regard?

Owen: Yes, sir.

Cook: OK, well there’s nothing I can do about that!

Owen: It’s their event, sir.

Cook: Nothing I can do to stop that. But it’s Inaugural Committee’s event, and the Inaugural Committee in the federal regulations is limited to certain areas.

Owen: That’s correct, sir. Again, you’re coming into a secure area. This is a national security event.

Cook: So do you have a realistic expectation based on past events — I’m not asking you to make a commitment —

Owen: No, sir, I do not. As soon as we get the information we will pass it on to you.

Cook: I appreciate that.

Owen: Now your folks are planning to arrive at noon?

Cook: Well, if we can be guaranteed the area, yes. If we cannot be guaranteed the area, I understand people will be…

Owen: Do you have in mind where in the public area.

Cook: Yeah, I have an ideal location.

Owen: What is that ideal location?

Cook: The ideal location would be on the southwest corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and 9th Street, or some place close to that which is outside the Department of Justice building.

Owen: DOJ?

Cook: Mmm-hmm.

Owen: Now if you are going to be located there you cannot block the entrance or exits of the Department of Justice.

Cook: Understood. We have no plan to do any kind of civil disobedience or any other kind of activity, just to be near the building.

Owen: We will have a problem with that location, because that is an announcer stand and media area that is right on that corner.

Cook: OK, is there…

Owen: You would probably have to be east of that stand.

Cook: Um, well, east would be…

Owen: Excuse me, west of that stand.

Cook: And that would be outside the Department of Justice nonetheless, right.

Owen: Right. It would be in front of the Department of Justice building.

Cook: That would be acceptable. That would be fine.

Owen: OK, if you plan on arriving at noon, we have not been told when the avenue will be open, but your folks will have to go through checkpoints.

Cook: That’s fine. Everyone will have to do that, won’t they?

Owen: Yes sir, they will. Advise your participants that everyone has to go through a checkpoint. And if you’re on the south side, they need to enter from the south because if you’re on the north side there’s not going to be a way to cross the street.

Cook: I understand. So if individuals want to enter from the south side, is there going to be a Metro station available for that?

Owen: Uh, Federal Triangle.

Cook: And I’m sure I’ll be able to find that information on the inaugural website eventually. Does it actually look like a permit at that location is going to be possible?

Owen: Again, I will have to cross-reference it with the Inaugural Committee application and what the designated locations are, and certainly we will work with you in that respect to get you a spot in front of the DOJ.

Cook: That’s great. I appreciate that.

Owen: And you plan to be there at that location for the whole length of the parade?

Cook: Yes, that’s our idea. That’s why we specify 12 noon to 6 pm, just to be able to encompass that time.

Owen: You don’t know if your folks will be identified in any special way? Will they wear t-shirts or jjust be holding signs?

Cook: Some people may be wearing t-shirts, although frankly, I imagine it’s going to be a little cold, so they may be covered up. The plan is to hold signs regarding the U.S. Constitution, and so we would be identifiable by those signs. That’s actually a pretty good standard for who’s in the demonstration, because that’s what the demonstration is. People who aren’t doing that really aren’t in the demonstration.

Owen: “To preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”

Cook: That’s correct, and so individuals may hold signs that contain the text of the Bill of Rights, they may hold signs saying, “President Obama, please preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States,” it’s just the text of the oath of office. And it’s not even really a protest, since he hasn’t really done anything yet as president. It’s more simply a demonstration.

Owen: OK. And sir, you will be the person in charge?

Cook: Uh huh.

Owen: Do you have a contact number, a cell phone so the assigned officers can be in communication with you?

Cook: Yes, I can give you that number. That number is ________.

Owen: I need to go to my office for just a second and come back and read you the language concerning marshals and why we require or request you have marshals.

Cook: Sure. By the way, I’ve downloaded that permit application, and I may have been a little incorrect in the association with the marshals and “500,” but the information on marshals, this is question number 13 on the application, it said marshals are “Required for waivers of numerical limitations,” which I’m not actually requesting.

Owen: Well, that’s only for the White House Sidewalk and Lafayette Park.

Cook: Yeah, “AND for demonstration activities held simultaneously on White House Sidewalk and Lafayette Park.” So I don’t actually fit under that.

Owen: No, you do not. So why don’t you sit back and I’ll get the language to you.

Cook: Thank you.

[Pause in conversation]

Owen: OK sir, so this is what we’ve put in all of our demonstration permits. It’s under what we call “Demonstration Marshals”: We request that basically that they are “identified in some manner such as an armband or t-shirt, and the demonstration marshal should be aware of the responsibilities and location of stations and have received demonstration training and organizing instructions. Demonstration marshals should be aware of the time and location of the assembly and any march throughout, the location of any first aid stations, water and toilets, be knowledgeable of exits and entry points, be able to communicate with law enforcement as well about what to do if they think they observe any problem. While demonstration marshals do not act as police, they do help to maintain order among the participants, explain to nonparticipants that a certain area may be under permit, and be able to work with and assist Park Police in the event that they observe a problem on National Park land.”

Cook: OK, I just heard that and I’m happy to do all of those, by the way, and to have some kind of armband or something and work that out with you. Just for my reference, I don’t see that on the application or in the Code of Federal Regulations.

Owen: It’s not. It is particular language that has come out of our solicitor’s office to assist us with the small to large scale demonstrations.

Cook: Is there a place I might be able to look that up, for my information?

Owen: Uh, not to my knowledge. It was something that our solicitor’s office had written up. But that language will be in the permit you see.

Cook: And that will be forwarded on to me?

Owen: That will be sent to you once we finalize the permit.

Cook: And what would the schedule of that be?

Owen: It probably will not be sent out until we get all the information back from the United States Secret Service about what will be prohibited items, so that will be contained in the body of your permit.

Cook: And the timeline on that is…? I’m just trying to figure out…

Owen: Sir, I can’t give you a timeline. Our solicitor has encouraged their solicitor to come forth as soon as possible with that information for us. Until that comes forth, I really can’t give you a timeline for when this permit will be issued. We will have it in a timely fashion before the event.

Cook: So this may be some time in January?

Owen: It could possibly be. We just have to wait to hear back from the United States Secret Service.

Cook: Logistically speaking, people are going to want to know information. Is there a certain level of information that I can reasonably communicate to people, or am I not going to know about location until January?

Owen: No, I’ll probably have the location for you before January.

Cook: That would be great. I’d really appreciate that.

Owen: I can call you and let you know what that would be. I’m going to try to get you as close as possible in front of the Department of Justice building.

Cook: That’s great. I really appreciate that, and I know you’re working hard, at least according to the news reports you must be pretty busy.

Owen: We’re pretty busy, that’s correct. OK? Do you have any more questions or concerns at this point?

Cook: I sure do. I guess I want to make sure, because I want to do this as transparently as possible: is there any way you could send me an e-mail with that solicitor’s letter attached?

Owen: No sir, I cannot do that. It is not a letter, it is a memo that is protected as an internal document. Again, it will be in your permit.

Cook: Is there a sample permit you might be able to…

Owen: Sir, there is not a sample permit. We don’t have sample permits.

Cook: So there’s nothing you can obtain for me besides the permit itself that might have that marshal language that you could send to me?

Owen: Just what I read to you is the standard policy that we have, and it will be in the body of your permit.

Cook: All right. I just have one other question. Is it fair to say this permit is on track for approval? Are there any hangups that you see that would cause difficulty?

Owen: Right now we are on track for approval. We are just, sir, as I said, to get the language back from the United States Secret Service.

Cook: All right.

Owen: OK, and the other factor we will look at is the setup that the Presidential Inaugural Committee will have, and any prior or previous demonstration applications that came in before you.

Cook: Are there any other demonstration applications that you’re aware of?

Owen: Yes, sir, there are. I have about three other permit applications that I have to deal with.

Cook: Particularly ones that are asking for that space?

Owen: Most of them just say Pennsylvania Avenue, so what we do is we take a look at who came in first and what preferences they have for what they’re looking for. All right?

Cook: OK. Thank you.

Owen: Thank you sir, and we’ll be in touch.

1 comment to Transcript: Permit Negotiation with the National Park Service for a Political Demonstration at the 2009 Inauguration in Washington, DC

  • Ralph

    Hilarious as always, Jim.

    I love how there are “about three” other applications he has to deal with before he can deal with yours. Maybe two, maybe four, it’s hard to say.

    I wonder if those previous permit applications he has to deal with before he deals with your application include the Park Service’s own application submitted to itself on behalf of the Inaugural Committee who hadn’t formed yet. Might take a while to straighten all that out.

    I also love how their requirements for demonstrations are not available to the public, and they refuse to supply you with a written copy. What possible reason could they have to be secretive about the way in which they WANT demonstrators to behave?

    Being so vague and secretive toward someone who wants to exercise their rights without inconveniencing them seems more than a bit cartoonish.

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