Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
Closing the sidewalk in front of the President’s home would mean demolishing the country’s most vital public forum—and another norm shattered by the Trump administration.
From morning ‘til night, people assemble in President’s Park, the plaza between the White House and Lafayette Square. School groups in red MAGA caps cheese for photos. So do tourists, from every corner of the globe. Americans make long pilgrimages to the White House in order to stand outside and shout their piece at the office itself. Washingtonians jog across the pedestrian avenue in the evening. The so-called “Kremlin Annex” protest is still going strong, 12 weeks in and counting. One protester held her vigil there for 35 years.
The stretch of President’s Park running along Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House is one of the best and most necessary public plazas in the country, a forum for American ideas (and selfies). But a new rule proposed by the National Park Service would all but prohibit civic gatherings outside the White House, spontaneous and planned alike—limiting the White House sidewalk so severely that it would cease to be a plaza at all.
The National Park Service aims to dial back the White House sidewalk from 25 feet to 5 feet, an 80 percent reduction. That’s one of a dozen proposed restrictions that would rethink civic space in federal D.C., from establishing quiet zones near memorials to charging groups for hosting demonstrations. Taken altogether, the proposal would fundamentally reshape the way that Americans exercise their rights to speech and assembly in the nation’s capital.
“The spaces around the White House and through the Washington, D.C., area have historically been places where people can express their views and places where people gather for very positive action,” says Leonard Hopper, professor at the City College of New York and a landscape architect for Weintraub Diaz. “I think we should feel threatened, in a way, if they [the administration] feel that it’s a security threat to let people gather.”
The most visible of these changes would be eliminating public access to the White House sidewalk (which is really a pedestrian-only strip of Pennsylvania Avenue). As D.C. residents know, the Secret Service occasionally narrows this thoroughfare or closes it altogether under special circumstances, such as French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit in April. The National Park Service aims to make this restriction permanent.
As the American Civil Liberties Union notes, the National Park Service offers no explanation for this change. In fact, the section of the proposal (as it appears in the Federal Register) that deals with President’s Park comments only on the south entrance, where restrictions are already in place. The closure proposed for the north side—where tourists, joggers, and protesters mix it up every day—only surfaces in the proposed language of the bill.
If risk is the reason for closing the White House sidewalk, then it’s redundant. The Secret Service already plans to build a new, taller fence along the north White House entrance, where pranksters or intruders have occasionally scaled the wall (including more than one person who was dressed as Pikachu). Closing the space to any and all pedestrians might in fact be doubly or triply redundant. After all, as Hopper explains, the fence itself is hardly the only security barrier in place to protect the White House.
“That might be the only visible perimeter security you see, but it’s not the only perimeter security there is,” he says. “If the security needs to be modified some way, I think that would be the approach to take, rather than limit the people’s ability to gather and express their views.”
Taken altogether, though, the National Park Service’s proposals are not entirely geared toward security theater. For example, the new codes would “[m]odify and establish restricted zones at memorials on the National Mall where special events and demonstrations would not be allowed in order to preserve an atmosphere of contemplation.” This is fairly straightforward, prescriptive language for how memorials should be used.
Demonstration-free zones already exist for the classics: the Lincoln Memorial, Thomas Jefferson Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, and the Washington Monument. At these memorials, the restricted areas are narrowly confined to the central memorial features: so no special events inside Honest Abe’s house. The new code would carve out restricted areas around more recent memorials—the World War II Memorial, Korean War Veterans Memorial, and Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial—whose more modern features include significant landscape features. Closing off the public plaza that makes up much of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial would neutralize this space, giving it an assigned value and paternalistic purpose, in a way that is inconsistent with its present use (and with the values of the man it remembers).
Other wish-list items outlined by the National Park Service are more prosaic, such as charging demonstrators for services like removing trash and maintaining the green on the National Mall. Of course, the National Park Service does not currently charge any of the other 45 million people who visit the National Mall annually, so it would be tough to calculate speech-based activities as a special cost to the Mall when it was created to facilitate speech.
Elsewhere, the proposal seeks to eliminate the distinction between “special events” (things like parades or marathons) and “demonstrations,” creating a new category of “events” without spelling out the advantage to this approach. (Currently, special events always require permits, while many demonstrations do not.) The National Park Service also seeks to extend more-onerous regulations on protest signs and structures near the White House to other park areas, a measure to protect the historic viewshed of the National Mall’s historic grounds. (Despite the fact that these structures area always temporary.)
Cutting costs, streamlining regulations, and eliminating risk all seem to be motivating factors behind the National Park Service. But it’s not clear that promoting speech was considered with equal weight. Given the sweeping nature of the changes and the prospect for direct harm to the nation’s most important public plazas, it’s not clear that protecting speech was given any weight at all.
What’s more, it’s not clear who within the National Park Service is suggesting these far-reaching changes. As the ACLU notes, acting personnel currently hold several critical positions at the Department of the Interior, including director of the National Park Service. These changes are not modest, and if they are enacted, they will not go unnoticed. Closing the White House sidewalk would mean demolishing the country’s most vital public forum—and another norm shattered by the Trump administration.