Civil Liberties

Urban Dance Squad


Last Saturday night, a group of about 20 D.C.-area libertarians headed down to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial for some flash mob fun. The prank was harmless revelry: To ring in Jefferson's birthday, we would meet on the steps of the memorial at 11:55pm, wearing iPods, then dance for about 10 minutes, capture the whole thing on video, and leave.

I had planned to participate, but was about 10 minutes late. By the time I arrived it was already over. The National Park Police broke the whole thing up just a few minutes in, punctuating their lack of a sense of humor by arresting one of the dancers, a friend of mine and a regular at reason events (she's asking her name be kept private until she can speak with an attorney). She was cuffed, taken out to a paddy wagon, then booked and held at a Park Police station. Everyone I spoke with says there was no noise, there were no threats, and no laws broken. The woman who was arrested was stone-sober, wasn't aggressive or threatening, and the dancers weren't trespassing—the Memorial is open to the public 24 hours.  Even if one were to assume this was a "demonstration"—a stretch, anyway—permit are required only for 25 or more people.  There were about 20 at the Memorial.

At the time, the police refused to answer any questions, referring all calls to the communication number of the Park Police. They also refused to give their badge numbers.

After being held for five hours, the woman was booked and released. She was charged with "interfering with an agency function," which sounds to me like a handy catch-all. Her crime was apparently to ask "why?" when the park police told the group they had to disperse. I'd probably have asked the same thing if I hadn't been late. This all happened at around midnight. No one was bumping into tourists, or obstructing anyone's way. The only conclusion one is left to draw is that it's apparently illegal to dance on the steps of the Jefferson Memorial–even with headphones. In this post 9/11 world, whimsy, frivolity, and any straying from the routine will not be tolerated. Also, never question a cop's authority.

Of course, the real irony here is that all of this happened at the Jefferson Memorial, in observance of Jefferson's birthday. Go out to celebrate the birth of the most hardcore, anti-authoritarian of the Founding Fathers, get hauled off in handcuffs. The photo is almost poetry. One of history's most articulate critics of abuse of state authority looks on as a park police cop uses his elbow to push a female arrestee into one of said critic's memorial pillars.

The dancers I spoke with say the other officer pictured in the foreground of this photo was also rather rude, telling other dancers to "shut the fuck up" when they inquired about their friend's arrest. When one person politely asked why it was necessary to use the word "fuck," the officer replied, strangely, that if the questioner used any more profanity, he too would find himself arrested.