Skip to main content
Blog post main image
  • The Rules of Free Speech and Culture of Protest in Washington, D.C.

    On Pennsylvania Avenue, across from the north lawn of the White House, there is a structure that resembles a shrine. Colorful signs painted with slogans adorn a white tent, in which rotating shifts of weather-worn volunteers take refuge and talk politics to passersby and tourists. This is the “White House Peace Vigil,” and it is the longest running anti-nuclear weapons protest in the United States.

    Since 1981, the white tent and generations of protesters have sat in front of the presidential residence for twenty-four hours a day, (almost) every day, rain or shine. Over the years, the tent’s signage has expanded beyond nuclear weapons in reaction to current events, bearing different messages in relation to wars, economic crises, immigration issues, women’s rights, LGBT rights, and the list goes on. Like a weathervane for the nation, the tent reflects whatever political storms are brewing in the country.

    In 2017, millions of people flocked to Washington, D.C., to attend the political, religious, and social gatherings that are now continual occurrences. Some of those people also put up tents—like David’s Tent, an ongoing Christian worship on the National Mall that began in 2012. You might be familiar with the year’s headliners: the Women’s March, the pro-Trump “Mother of All Rallies,” or even the Juggalo March on Washington, in which fans of the punk rock band Insane Clown Posse protested the FBI’s labeling of them as a “gang.”

    Mother of All Rallies
    Mother of All Rallies on the National Mall, Washington, D.C, on September 16, 2017.
    Photo by Faye Yan Zhang
    March for Racial Justice at Trump International Hotel
    March for Racial Justice at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., on September 30, 2017.
    Photo by Faye Yan Zhang

    Beyond the headliners, a political gathering (left, right, and in between) happens nearly every day of the week. It’s too difficult to keep track of them all, though I have tried, subscribing to calendars on Facebook and websites like But as world events change hour by hour, so do the calendars. Movements rise and fall at breakneck pace, and certain events are only known to people who are already “in the know” or share the same ideologies.

    At the same time, organizing a protest on government property has become more complicated, so much so that some forms of activism have become an arcane art that requires deep knowledge of legal language. Seasoned protest organizers know that, legally speaking, it is not enough for would-be activists to call upon their First Amendment rights, pick a time and location, create a social media page, and start sending mass invites. The First Amendment is not a free-for-all but actually comes with a caveat: the Public Forum Doctrine, which says that although speech and assembly cannot be banned, their time, place, and manner can be regulated if such regulation serves a “compelling state interest.”

    On the ground, this means that protests of twenty-five people or more in Washington, D.C., need special permits from any one or more of the different law enforcement agencies that are in charge of different places in the capital. To protest on or around Capitol Hill, approval is granted by the U.S. Capitol Police; marching in the streets needs a nod from the Metropolitan Police; the National Mall is under the provenance of the U.S. Park Police; the Supreme Court has its very own police force; while the Department of Homeland Security is in charge of most downtown federal buildings. The White House alone has three law enforcement agencies for adjacent zones around the property. Protests and marches feel spontaneous. In reality, activists need to navigate a complicated map before marching on.

    March for Racial Justice at Trump International Hotel
    Muslim/Refugee Ban: A Year of Resistance in Washington, D.C., on January 27, 2018.
    Photo by Faye Yan Zhang
    March for Racial Justice at Trump International Hotel
    Tea Party Rally in Washington, D.C, on September 23, 2017.
    Photo by Faye Yan Zhang

    The justification for permit requirements is that they protect people from violence and prevent protests from getting out of control, although this reasoning has its critics. One criticism is that regulation makes it difficult for activists to react quickly to current events. Although acquiring a permit is speedy for some locations, others take days, weeks, or months. By the time a permit is in hand, the critical moment may have already passed. Instead of a nimble mass reaction to a piece of legislation, there may be a disjointed string of protests, perhaps lessening their impact.

    In the battle over Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), for example, it can be hard for activists to organize immediate responses to the tumultuous events surrounding the immigration policy. A few pro-DACA rallies have drawn huge crowds; others, like one I went to in early September 2017, was tucked away in a corner of the Capitol grounds and drew only a couple dozen people over the span of a few hours. When I asked the organizer why she thought turnout was small, she explained it wasn’t that people didn’t care about the issue. Rather, she thought people were burned out by the inundation of protests, and besides, the only permit she could get on short notice was in this small, hard-to-find location. And it didn’t help that people were confused by a Tea Party rally happening on the same day across the lawn.

    On the other hand, the usefulness of permits can be seen in situations where violence escalated because proper regulations weren’t followed. During the tragic Charlottesville protests in August 2017, armed white nationalists marched across the University of Virginia, surrounded by counter-protesters. Instead of sticking to a route preapproved by Charlottesville police, for which they had a permit, and which would have kept them separate from surrounding crowds, the white nationalists marched headlong into the path of the counter-protestors. Although Charlottesville police were prepared for the original route, they lacked the experience of their D.C counterparts. The sudden change took them by surprise, and they were unable to react quickly as violence broke out between the opposing groups, leading to many injuries and one death.

    White House Peace Vigil
    The White House Peace Vigil in Lafayette Square, Washington, D.C., 2017.
    Photo by Faye Yan Zhang
    White House Peace Vigil Philipos Melaku-Bello
    Philipos Melaku-Bello at the White House Peace Vigil, 2017.
    Photo by Faye Yan Zhang

    In response to the myriad rules that could lead to its demise, the White House Peace Vigil has taken the time-tested strategy of simply never leaving its post. Its relationship with law enforcement is like a strange cat-and-mouse chase, in which the mouse never goes into hiding. Activist William Thomas headed the project until his death in 2009, whereupon the mantle was taken on by a Spanish immigrant named Concepción Picciotto. Reputedly, only once in her three-decade watch was the Peace Vigil’s tent totally dismantled: in 2013, a volunteer erroneously left the tent unguarded in the early morning, and the U.S. Park Police packed it away, because anything left unattended near the White House is subject to removal. Hours later, activists reclaimed the white tarp and its signs and reassembled them exactly where they were before.

    After Picciotto’s death at the age of eighty in 2016, the Peace Vigil has mostly been staffed by Philipos Melaku-Bello, who sits in his wheelchair for up to eighteen-hour shifts and chats gregariously with curious onlookers. Despite occasional saboteurs, harsh weather, and a dwindling number of volunteers, the Peace Vigil remains a permanent fixture, as much a part of the D.C. landscape as the White House itself.

    In the nation’s capital, these are just a few of the relationships between activism and regulation. Marches and movements with thousands or millions of participants can now be sparked with little more than internet access. But to make a physical protest actually happen, and for it to be successful, requires a complex choreography. This choreography has perhaps taken away some of the spontaneity that seems definitive of political activism; however, D.C. protests and laws have always existed in action and reaction to each other, enmeshed within a city that also includes populations of tourists, migrants, students, workers, and many more identities. As protest cultures evolve in the twenty-first century, they continue to evolve with the laws that regulate them, even as they integrate deeper into the fabric of Washington, D.C.

    March for Racial Justice
    March for Racial Justice in Washington, D.C., on September 30, 2017.
    Photo by Faye Yan Zhang

    Faye Zhang is a visual artist, a writer, and currently a fellow at Smithsonian Folkways Recordings. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English at Harvard University, where she was a staff artist for The Harvard Lampoon and contributing writer for The Harvard Crimson.

  • Support the Folklife Festival, Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, Cultural Vitality Program, educational outreach, and more.