On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
Trump supporters and far-right groups descend on D.C. this week to protest the results of the presidential election, egged on by false claims from the president that he won reelection. Local officials are urging residents to stay away from the demonstrations out of concerns that protesters will incite violence like they did in December. And members of right-wing groups have discussed on social media sites how to bring guns into D.C., which doesn’t allow open carry and prohibits concealed carry on federal land and near protests.
The National Parks Service’s Mike Litterst tells us about NPS’ preparations for the protests. WAMU’s Daniella Cheslow joins us live from the demonstrations. And we hear from Dana Fisher, a professor of sociology at the University of Maryland and author of “American Resistance,” about how protests have changed during the Trump presidency and the pandemic.
Produced by Ingalisa Schrobsdorff and Cydney Grannan
- Michael Litterst National Park Service Chief of Communications for the National Mall and Memorial Parks
- Daniella Cheslow Politics reporter, WAMU; @DaniellaCheslow
- Dana Fisher Professor of Sociology, University of Maryland; Author, "American Resistance: From the Women's March to the Blue Wave"; @Fisher_DanaR
KOJO NNAMDIYou're tuned in to The Kojo Nnamdi Show on WAMU 88.5. Welcome. Later in the broadcast, we'll explore the reasons some African Americans might be skeptical about getting a coronavirus vaccine. But first, President Trump continues to promote baseless claims of election fraud, and he's called for massive protests today as Congress votes to certify Joe Biden as the next president. Thousands of pro-Trump supporters are gathering downtown. Joining us now is Mike Litterst, the National Park Service Chief of Communications for the National Mall and Memorial Parks. Mike, thank you for joining us.
MICHAEL LITTERSTKojo, good to be with you again. I appreciate you having me on.
NNAMDIMike, what can you tell us about the permits for today's two demonstrations? What's the schedule? Where are the gatherings? How many people are expected?
LITTERSTWe've got a couple of events taking place today. The big one, the one that is getting all the attention, is taking place on the Ellipse, in fact, as we speak, scheduled to go from 9:00 to about 3:30 today. That was a march for Trump rally organized by a group called Women for America First, and the organizers stated that they project about 30,000 participants to attend. The second is a smaller demonstration organized by a group called Silent Majority. Their event is, in their words, to support First Amendment rights. And they're on the Mall at 13th Street from about noon to 6:00 today, expecting about 250 people.
NNAMDIWell, the National Park Service processes permits for all kinds of First Amendment events in D.C. Tell us a bit about the permitting process. What kind of things do you consider, and does the group or the message play into whether it's approved or not?
LITTERSTYou're absolutely right. As federal land, the National Mall provides a wonderful forum in which citizens can express their rights of speech and assembly. Permits are issued. We look at a few things. First of all, is the area that's requested available on that time and date? And then the main thing that we're looking at is are organizers able to ensure that there won't be any damage to the park. We're looking for preservation of our park resources and the safety of not only participants, but our park visitors and our community members. So, it's a deliberate process, and as you mentioned, as far as content is concerned, we absolutely do not take the content of the message presented into consideration. We neither condone nor condemn the free speech that's being made. We merely provide the venue for its delivery. And ultimately, we the people will decide on the validity of the message.
NNAMDIMike, what's the role of the National Park Service during the demonstrations themselves?
LITTERSTOur main role in all of these is in the permitting process. So, in the runup to the event, we'll work with the organizers to issue a permit, provide conditions under which the event can take place. And on the day of the event, our main thing to do is to monitor events and ensure that the conditions of the permit are being followed. So, that can be anything from, you know, is the event accessible under the Americans for Disabilities Act, turf protection measures to protect the Mall, and even ensuring that there are an appropriate number of restrooms or medical aid facilities for the people that are attending.
NNAMDIWe're talking with Mike Litterst. He is the National Park Service Chief of Communications for the National Mall and Memorial Parks. Mike, D.C. Police arrested 10 people last night on different charges, including gun-related charges. National Parks -- which include places protestors are gathering, like the National Mall -- may have different rules. But what can you tell us overall about gun laws during these protests?
LITTERSTQuite simply, it is illegal to possess firearms on National Park Service areas, and this includes Freedom Plaza, the Ellipse, the Mall, where these events are taking place. Additionally, District law prohibits anyone from carrying a firearm within 1,000 feet of any First Amendment activity. So, for anyone who is attending any of the events, firearms are prohibited.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding officials have posted signs explicitly prohibiting firearms in the protest areas.
LITTERSTThat's correct. There's been a lot of messaging. I believe the mayor, in her press conference a couple of days ago, mentioned that. And there are signs posted at all times in National Parks about bringing firearms in.
NNAMDII'm assuming that NPS and the U.S. Park Police are coordinating with D.C. Police and the National Guard. How does that work?
LITTERSTThe National Park Service, of course, and the United States Park Police have a long history of cooperating with the local law enforcement agencies in the area. So, we have been working with those partners. There's a long history of managing demonstrations and counter-demonstrations in the city. So, the Park Police, their public safety partners are constantly monitoring for potential threats and have been working with the applicants, D.C. Police and other partners to ensure that all the protocols are in place today for a safe event.
NNAMDIHere's Robert in Silver Spring. Robert, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ROBERTThank you, Kojo. I'm concerned about the safety, too, and not the big things, like the guns. But I'm wondering -- I drove down through the Mall about an hour and a half ago, and I would say the vast majority of protestors I saw did not have masks on. It seems to me like their presenting a danger to the Park Police and other officials that are there, or pedestrians or anyone else.
NNAMDIWell, Robert, it is my understanding that the Metropolitan Police Department is not, today, at these demonstrations going to be in the business of enforcing the law requiring masks to be worn. But I don't know about the National Park Service. Mike?
LITTERSTWhen we have large events or any events, part of the permitting process in the COVID era, if you will, is to have a discussion about COVID mitigation with the organizers. We include discussions in those plans, and we require a COVID mitigation plan as part of the permit to include social distancing, face coverings, temperature checks, hand sanitizing stations, as appropriate. But as you mentioned and consistent with practices of the D.C. government, which the Park Service strongly encourages those measures, we do not require nor enforce their use.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call, Robert. Mike, Women for America First estimated the size of their event today at 30,000 people. We'll be hearing soon from a reporter about what that turnout actually looks like. But the National Park Service doesn't offer its own estimates for demonstrations. Why is that?
LITTERSTFor many years, the Park Service and the U.S. Park Police did provide crowd estimates. There was some fairly well-reported-on disagreement during the Million Man March as to what the actual crowd size was. In the months following that, there was some language placed into an appropriations bill that effectively forbid the Park Service from making crowd estimates, and we have maintained that posture ever since.
NNAMDII remember the late, great Dick Gregory used to say, "Just say googobs of people were there. Googobs." Mike, looking ahead for just a moment, the presidential Inauguration is just around the corner. What can you tell us about plans for that day, in terms of both the Inauguration itself and surrounding protests?
LITTERSTPlans are still evolving. The National Park Service has a major role during the Inauguration, because we provide a lot of the locations where some of those events take place. In a normal inauguration, if you will, crowds will gather on the Mall to watch the swearing in ceremony. They'll gather along Pennsylvania Avenue on our sidewalks to watch the parade. There's often an inaugural kickoff concert at the Lincoln Memorial. So, we are still working with the Presidential Inaugural Committee as their plans evolve and still working through what some of these reimagined events are going to look like in the era of COVID. But we will, as always, issue permits for the events to take place wherever the pick decides to have them. And, additionally, we will also host demonstrations of all stripes in the days leading up to, during and following the Inauguration.
LITTERSTSo, our permit staff is quite a bit busy this month between the Inauguration permits and the various demonstration permits that they'll be issuing.
NNAMDIMike Litterst is the National Park Service Chief of Communications for the National Mall and Memorial Parks. Mike, thank you very much for joining us. Happy New Year to you.
LITTERSTThank you, Kojo. Same to you. Thanks for having me.
NNAMDIJoining us now is Daniella Cheslow. She is a Reporter for WAMU. Daniella, thank you for joining us.
DANIELLA CHESLOWThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIIt's my understanding, Daniella, that President Trump called on supporters to gather at 11. And it's my understanding that he's speaking to the crowd right now. Where are you right now, and what are you seeing?
CHESLOWKojo, I'm at the foot of the Washington Monument, and just around -- a little further, Trump is speaking to supporters right now. He's been telling them things like, "The media is the problem." Or "There have been two elections, and I won them both." The crowd is enthusiastic. It's big. It's thousands of people. They're waving Trump flags, and they're shouting, you know, "Stop the steal" and "Fight for Trump".
NNAMDITrump supporters began gathering yesterday at Freedom Plaza of the 80 Percent Coalition, supposedly the 80 percent of Trump voters who don't believe Joe Biden won the presidency. Anything to report, and do we know how many people came out?
CHESLOWThere were quite a lot of people who came out yesterday, and a number of them, later in the evening, I believe, were arrested. My colleagues Martin Austermuhle and Rachel Kurzius were following that, and Jenny Gathright was in the scene there. Today, the scene has been quite docile, although people have said things like they're willing to fight, and there are a few people here who look like they're wearing tactical gear. I haven't seen any firearms here, and I've seen, in general, people who are more interested about talking about their grievances than in fighting about their grievances.
NNAMDIHas President Trump made any specific suggestions to the crowd about how it can go about preventing Congress from ratifying the Electoral College vote?
CHESLOWYou know, he hasn't really been talking in specifics. And I think that's something that you're seeing people kind of reach the end of the line here at the protest, because they'll tell me things like, I met a couple who came in from Philadelphia. They believe their vote was stolen there. But then they don't really have a plan going forward besides saying, "We'll come here, and we'll fight." And so, the president has said things like, "Your vote was stolen from you," or "The Democrats took advantage of the pandemic to take advantage of your votes." But I'm not hearing exactly much in the line of tactics. He did say -- he called on Mike Pence to do the right thing, as he put it. In other words, to not certify today's election results. But other than that, I'm not hearing a lot of direct call-to-action.
NNAMDIOkay. Going to take a short break. When we come back, we'll talk with Dana Fisher, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland the Author of "American Resistance: From the Women's March to the Blue Wave" and with Daniella Cheslow. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. The demonstrations that President Trump called for are taking place today, even as we speak, with President Trump currently speaking to the demonstrators. Daniella Cheslow, Mayor Bowser and other city leaders have asked counter-protestors and city residents to stay away from the demonstrations today. Some say they plan to be there, anyway. Are you seeing or hearing about any counter-protestors out there now?
CHESLOWWell, Kojo, I hope you can hear me in the wind here.
NNAMDIYes, we can.
CHESLOWThe mayor did call --
NNAMDIWe can hear you.
CHESLOWYeah. There were some activists who called for a training last night in (unintelligible) to help people who opposed these demonstrations today, to do it safely. However, looking around the crowd here, I have not seen any them. It's been -- pardon me. It's been primarily Trump supporters. And if there are people from the Black Lives Matters community, they're not exactly here on the Washington Monument. On the other hand, Black Lives Matter Plaza, I believe, may have been closed for at least (unintelligible) Trump protestors have been staying away from it.
NNAMDIOkay. Joining us now is Dana Fisher, a Professor of Sociology at the University of Maryland and the author of "American Resistance: From the Women's March to the Blue Wave." Dana Fisher, thank you for joining us.
DANA FISHERThank you for having me, Kojo.
NNAMDIYou've been studying protests for more than 20 years. Is it common to see elected officials ask counter-protestors not to come out or engage the other side?
FISHERThat's actually quite uncommon. Usually, you would expect to see elected officials saying, "Participate in your, you know, opportunities to engage in free speech, free assembly. Just do it peacefully." The problem is, in this situation, we have people who applied for permits for peaceful protests who, at the same time, have been documented calling for, you know, acts of warfare. I mean, basically, we just saw Rudy Giuliani earlier addressing the crowd saying that there should be trial by combat. So, this is not necessarily a peaceful crowd, and as a result, the mayor decided to take this stand and ask for counter protestors to, you know, to not come out, and not at least come downtown to engage with the protestors who are there.
NNAMDIDana, you've talked with some groups who've held counterprotests to pro-Trump rallies before, like DMV Black Lives Matter. Do you think we could see come counterprotests today, and are they taking any other action that is not in-person counterprotesting?
FISHERWell, so far, what we've seen is a lot of these local groups -- including DMV Black Lives Matter, as well as Shutdown D.C. -- have worked very hard to lobby local businesses and hotels not to allow what they're calling white supremacists to stay at their hotels. And, you know, they basically are pointing out that the Proud Boys are out marching, are instigating, are attacking people, shouting hateful things, and actually some of them, I believe, were arrested last night because they had firearms. So, that's what the local groups have been doing. And, you know, I think that, in a lot of ways, taking this tactical stance makes a lot of sense. At the same time, we see those groups saying that they're out to support others who are concerned. But I think that, you know, a lot of people are taking to heart that there is a bigger risk, here. And what we saw last night, if you looked at video coverage of the conflicts that happened downtown last night, it was the basically Proud Boys and white supremacists, you know, basically clashing with the police.
FISHERAnd if there had been counter-protestors there what we would have seen instead is this conflict that would have turned probably a lot more violent. So, in a lot of ways, what we're seeing is these local groups standing back and letting the Proud Boys do what they want to do and deal with the fact that they're breaking the law, so the police will stand in or law enforcement will come in and deal with them.
NNAMDIHere's Helen, in Cleveland Park. Helen, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
HELENHi. I just spent two hours down on the Mall, and I had a wonderful experience. And I think it was just really great to meet people from all over the country who were being peaceful. And I think it makes me feel better about what they want to achieve in life. I mean, you know, they want to be happier and have a better life. I don't think they know what to do about it. But it was just a wonderful experience, and I think it's great to go down there, and it was very peaceful.
NNAMDIThank you very much for your call. Well, Daniella Cheslow, President Trump not only called on his supporters to gather and protest today -- presumably in the manner than Helen saw -- but he also predicted that crowds would be wild. What are you seeing so far? And what concerns are you hearing from officials?
CHESLOWI have not seen this crowd being wild. But I think, as your other speaker was saying, you know, last night, there were 10 arrests on gun-related charges and assault, assault on a police officer, crossing a police line. So, it might be that this is the kind of thing where, by day, you have quite a calm and restrained demonstration. And then as the night goes on, there would be some sort of other tone that people take. And, certainly, that's something that we've seen here in the past. On July 4th, there were a lot of Trump supporters who came into Washington to watch the fireworks display right here at the National Mall, and I was there for that. And in the daytime, it was pretty relaxed. And, at night, a group of Black Lives Matter supporters came down. There was some conflict between the Trump supporting group, the Black Lives Matter group. Ultimately, the two groups kind of started to scuffle with each other. I saw one Trump supporter pepper-spraying someone then. So, these events are volatile, though, right now -- at the Mall, at least -- it seems calm, it could go either way, as the day goes on.
NNAMDIAnd some would notice the irony that, as a private citizen, President Trump put out a full-page add in the New York Times asking for young black men who were out, quote-unquote, "wilding," to be given the death penalty. And now he's now calling on -- predicting that his own crowds will be wild. But be that as it may, Dana Fisher, can you tell us how demonstrations like these compare to protests from left-leaning folks, like those who engaged in protests in response to George Floyd this summer?
FISHERWell, I mean, that's a really interesting comparison. So, what we saw this summer is that protests erupted across the country after George Floyd was murdered. And those protests started out peaceful. There was, you know, a number of incidents of property destruction and there was a lot of information and a lot of discussion about pulling down statues, for example. And there were clashes, as well, with the police. But one of the things that really interesting about the post-George Floyd protests period is that we saw, you know, lots of younger people, lots of people of color coming out. And I think that there's a lot to be said for the role that COVID and people recovering are coming out of the lockdown or responding to the lockdown played in that, because we see more younger people coming out because older people -- particularly left-leaning older people -- were very concerned about being at risk. At the same time, I collected data at protests starting right after George Floyd was murdered through the Women's March in October.
FISHERThese are all left-leaning protests, and collecting data in D.C., New York and Los Angeles. And, in all cases, we saw everybody masked. And there were attempts, at least, to maintain social distance. I mean, the March on Washington in August, people got crowded, but people were really trying to maintain social distance. What I've seen from these pro-Trump rallies that have been taking place today, as well as yesterday's event, is that people are not masked, and they are really not enforcing any type of social distancing, whatsoever. So, that's really different. In addition, we see almost entirely white, older crowds out there in the streets.
NNAMDIDaniella Cheslow, there was violence the last time the Proud Boys and other Trump supporters gathered here in December. They also vandalized houses of worship, including two historically Black churches. The District has mobilized the National Guard -- even though it's my understanding that they are not armed -- and the MPD. What are you seeing in terms of officials doing to keep people safe today?
CHESLOWI'm not seeing a huge law enforcement presence here on the National Mall, and it might be that because the largest number of people here are from one political camp, there doesn't seem to be a lot of scuffling. That said, you know, Trump has been speaking while we've been talking and the now the crowd is dispersing. And so, we might see that change. And also, to the note about COVID, adherence and mask adherence, certainly here, the vast majority of people I'm meeting are not wearing masks. I met a nurse who came in from St. Louis, and she's been participating in some medical trials around COVID. I asked her why she wasn't wearing a mask, and she said she was taking her own precautions and drinking tonic water, which has quinine in it. But I don't believe that's been proven to be a medical treatment or prevention strategy that works for preventing COVID.
NNAMDIDana Fisher, we only have about 40 seconds. Today's demonstrations are very similar to Trump rallies. In fact, he explicitly called for them. What will protests look like on the right if President Trump is no longer in the public spotlight?
FISHERWell, once President Trump is no longer in the spotlight, I imagine that we will continue to see right-leaning protests. Today's event is really a political rally. I mean, you have basically the President of the United States leading a rally right now. And what we'll see with the crowd dispersing and having responded to -- you know, orders from the President of the United States in terms of what they think they should be doing now, and that's really different from a peaceful protests or even confrontational protests. We'll still see that. I imagine that we'll see a lot of the more moderate people starting to get more engaged in their politics, locally.
FISHERAnd not seeing as much --
NNAMDIAfraid that's all the time we have. Daniella, Dana thank you both for joining us. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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