With two weeks left to go until President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration, activists hoping to sponsor demonstrations in Washington say they are being stonewalled by the federal permitting process that determines who can use what land that weekend.
Some groups, including the Women’s March on Washington, have secured permits through the D.C. police department, which has jurisdiction over local land in Washington.
The National Park Service — which handles permitting for federal park land, including the Mall and monuments — has issued just a few permits even though more than a dozen groups have applied to demonstrate during the weekend of Jan. 20.
While permits are not necessary for federal land use, the groups do need permission to have speakers, stages, portable toilets and other amenities.
Trump’s Presidential Inauguration Committee has first preference on most of the federal land and has been slow in relinquishing any of its access to allow for demonstrators. On Thursday afternoon, the committee said it would not be using the Ellipse near the White House — the first time it has said it would not use a piece of land on which it has dibs during the inauguration.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee did not respond to a request for a comment Thursday.
Federal regulations give priority to the inaugural committee, setting aside prime land, including the entire Mall between First and 14th streets NW. The Park Service, as a matter of standard practice, applies on behalf of the committee for the sweeping permits a year in advance, according to Mike Litterst, a Park Service spokesman. The Ellipse by the White House and the Lincoln Memorial were included in those applications.
The Presidential Inaugural Committee then typically relinquishes some of those spaces, allowing demonstrators to secure their permits.
The permitting process is attracting special attention this year because the bitterly contested election spurred more people to organize demonstrations. Federal officials said that for a typical presidential inauguration, just a few groups seek a First Amendment Permit from the Park Service.
“Permitting for the inauguration and associated events is a deliberative, time-intensive process in what is often a rapidly changing environment, and it requires considerable negotiation between the National Park Service and permit applicants,” Litterst wrote in an email. “We are still working with more than 30 permit applicants on the logistics for their events, and we have continued to receive new applications.”
The Partnership for Civil Justice Fund, which has fought many legal battles seeking access to federal land for protesters, criticized the Park Service on Thursday, alleging at a news conference that it is violating the Constitution and hoarding permits for the inaugural committee.
While the NPS has said there is no legal deadline by which the committee has to decide on the land it will use, the park agency asked it to inform them by last week. Litterst said he hopes to be able to accommodate a few more groups now that the Ellipse is available.
But activists say they are in limbo and can’t properly plan.
“There is a point where a delay becomes so long that it constitutes obstruction,” said Carl Messineo, the Partnership for Civil Justice Fund’s legal director.
The National Park Service has issued permits to the ANSWER Coalition — a left-leaning antiwar group that has mounted legal battles to use a portion of Freedom Plaza and part of Pennsylvania Avenue NW.
Bikers for Trump also is expected to get a permit to gather at John Marshall Park on Inauguration Day.
D.C. police also have issued a number of permits to demonstrators, including one for up to 200,000 people for the Women’s March on Washington the day after the inauguration.