Protesters Kept From Steps

Posted January 29, 2007 at 7:01pm

While Members’ reactions ranged from concern to outrage after the Capitol’s West Front Lower Terrace was defaced by protesters over the weekend, some Congressional and police sources on Monday disputed initial portrayals of the incident.

What is known for sure is that no arrests were made Saturday after protesters left anarchist symbols on the sidewalk that runs in front of the Capitol’s West Front, although numerous protesters were arrested during incidents inside Capitol buildings on Monday. Saturday’s defacement occurred just yards from where Capitol Police officers had formed a line to stop protesters from getting to the steps of the Capitol.

That police line was not the first of the day, and it actually was closer to the building than where department officials had originally planned to stop the protesters. But police brass had pulled in the lines during the course of the afternoon to better protect the Capitol and to avoid any violent confrontations with an unknown number of anarchists who had joined the larger anti-war demonstration that was taking place on the National Mall.

In an e-mail explaining the situation Saturday, Chief Phillip Morse wrote, “While there were minor instances of spray painting of pavement by a splinter group of Anarchists who were seeking a confrontation with the police, their attempts to breach into secure areas and rush the doors of the Capitol were thwarted. The graffiti was easily removed by the dedicated AOC staff, some of whom responded in on their day off to quickly clean the area.”

Drew Hammill, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), was quick to support the police and disputed some media reports of a confrontation between police and protesters.

“At no time was the small group of breakaway demonstrators allowed on the Capitol steps and, while the Capitol was briefly closed to tourists, it was not locked down,” said Hammill. “A minimal amount of spray paint and chalk graffiti was left on the West Front sidewalk, which remained open to the public — there was no graffiti on the Capitol steps and none on the Capitol building.”

Hammill added that “according the Office of the House Sergeant-at-Arms, in the judgment of the Chief of police appropriate police action was taken given the nature of the event, and tactical decisions were made to protect the safety of the thousands peaceful marchers who were exercising their First Amendment rights.”

But in a letter Monday requesting a meeting with Morse, Sen. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.), ranking member of the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, said he was “absolutely dismayed” by the weekend’s incident.

“It is my understanding that protesters were allowed to spray paint the Capitol steps and deface buildings around the area while Capitol Police were instructed to not arrest anyone engaging in these unlawful acts,” Allard wrote. “Under U.S. law … it is prohibited to deface U.S. Capitol grounds. Law enforcement is expected to enforce these statutes, and I am appalled that the deliberate violation of this law was tolerated.”

Capitol Police Labor Committee Chairman Andy Maybo said his officers “are upset that some of this weekend’s demonstrators were able to deface part of the Capitol complex.

“The officers, who did their job both professionally and courageously, were ordered to withdraw by their officials and let the demonstrators have the area where the graffiti was later discovered,” he said. “We, as officers, take our duties and responsibilities very seriously and are disappointed that no arrests were made. But, we must follow the orders of our officials even when we may disagree with such orders. We are just thankful that no one was injured.”

A Congressional source said Monday that despite some reports, officers never actually saw the defacement occur, explaining that protesters who spray-painted the sidewalk did so when they mixed in with a large group of tourists who had taken a tour of the building and were exiting the Capitol from the West Front. By the time the tourists had dispersed from the area the defacement had occurred.

That account was confirmed by a police source Monday.

“Obviously if our officers had seen the defacement of the property, arrests would have been made,” a second police officer said.

Senate Sergeant-at-Arms Terrance Gainer, who serves as the chairman of the board that oversees the police department, said Monday that he stands by the officers’ actions on Saturday.

“Having been in the midst of so many of these things there’s a lot of different issues going on and sometimes you turn the other cheek cautiously and you can avoid a larger confrontation. … If it comes to serious damage to property and threats to life that’s a completely different issue but with these young irritant protesters, minor violations you might put up with for a greater good and I think that’s what” Capitol Police brass did.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) spokesman Howard Gantman said the Senate Rules and Administration Committee expects to receive a full report on the incident in coming days and will decide whether further action is needed.

“We’re not aware of any major problems that developed,” Gantman said.

A spokeswoman for House Administration ranking member Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) said the “committee is pleased with how the Capitol Police handled the situation.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on the legislative branch, has a prearranged meeting scheduled with Morse on Wednesday, according to a Democratic source.

Spokesman Jonathan Beeton said Wasserman Schultz won’t second-guess the officers who were at the scene. While nobody is happy with the overall outcome of the incident, it was better than some possible alternatives, including letting the situation become violent, he said.

“I think that it exemplifies the challenges facing the police force at the Capitol in maintaining a safe environment, both for the people visiting it and for the people working here,” Beeton said.