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A civil rights group on Wednesday urged US officials to free up Washington landmarks for thousands of people planning protests around the inauguration of president-elect Donald Trump.
The Washington-based Partnership for Civil Justice Fund (PCJF) said the National Park Service (NPS) had handed over control of sites such as the Lincoln Memorial to the private committee overseeingTrump’s inauguration “weeks” before and after the ceremony on January 20.
That move has left at least a dozen protest groups without prime venues, a violation of Americans’ constitutional rights, fund officials said. The Lincoln Memorial is a symbolic reminder as the site of 1960s protests for civil rights and against the Vietnam War.
The National Park Service “has done a massive land grab inhibiting all those who want to exercise their right to free speech,” Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, a constitutional rights lawyer and PCJF executive director, said at a news conference.
Officials are expecting around a million people to descend on Washington for the inauguration and events surrounding it.
Several groups have vowed to demonstrate, including more than 137,000 people who have said they would take part in a march for women’s rights on January 21, Donald Trump’s scheduled first full day in office.
Street protests allowed
The Guardian reported on Thursday that the NPS, on behalf of the Presidential Inauguration Committee, had filed documents securing large swaths of the national mall and Pennsylvania Avenue, the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial for the inauguration festivities.
“None of these spots will be open for protesters,” the newspaper reported.
“The NPS filed a ‘massive omnibus blocking permit’ for many of Washington DC’s most famous political locations for days and weeks before and after the inauguration on 20 January,” it added, citing Verheyden-Hilliard.
PCJF’s website published Verheyden-Hilliard’s full statement: “We are faced with the extraordinary and unconstitutional situation where Trump’s private partisan Inaugural Committee is being allowed to decide where or even if demonstrators will be allowed to protest the Trump agenda on federal land in the nation’s capital.”
Trump’s election on November 8 led to days of sometimes-violent protests by people who said the New York businessman and former reality TV star encouraged racism, bigotry and misogyny in his campaign against Democrat Hillary Clinton and was a threat to American values.
National Park Service spokesman Mike Litterst said agency rules in place since 2008 give an inaugural committee preferential access to some public areas along Pennsylvania Avenue, the National Mall and surrounding land.
A federal court has upheld the rules and most public sidewalks along the parade route down Pennsylvania Avenue — the boulevard running from the Capitol to the White House — are open to protesters.
The Partnership for Civil Justice said that it was the first time in recent memory that permits to the land had been extended to a private inauguration committee in the days around a president’s swearing-in.
It said that despite the decision, city law nevertheless allowed peaceful street protests to go ahead without permits.
“For all of those who are concerned, who are thinking about changing their plans — because that is the unconstitutional effect of what the Park Service and Trump’s inaugural committee are doing — we’re here to say that it is lawful and safe to peacefully march in Washington DC, and we welcome everyone to the District of Columbia to engage in their free speech rights,” Verheyden-Hilliard said.
The fund is prepared to sue to get the permits pulled so protesters may gather near the White House and the National Mall, she added.
Trump’s inaugural committee did not respond to Reuters’ request for comment.