By Ben Nuckols
April 20, 2017
WASHINGTON — The major protests in Washington that have greeted President Donald Trump’s first year in office are set to return in force, continuing an already expensive year for city officials who work to keep people safe during mass gatherings.
With polls showing Trump facing unusually strong disapproval of his agenda in the first 100 days of a presidency, organizers are promising spring rallies for a variety of mostly liberal causes including science, climate change, immigrants’ rights, gay rights and arts funding. Last weekend, demonstrators called on Trump to release his tax returns.
District of Columbia officials are accustomed to accommodating First Amendment demonstrations. But there’s a real chance the city will burn through the money it gets every year from Congress to cover police overtime and other costs.
The busy year for protests also comes amid an ongoing debate about crowd sizes and how they’re estimated, which is nothing new. The National Park Service stopped counting crowds after it was accused of racism for estimating that 400,000 people attended the Million Man March in 1995. But Trump has been particularly focused on how many people show up at events to support him and his agenda.
For local law enforcement, responding to protests is usually no big deal. The violence around Trump’s inauguration, when a group of self-described anarchists broke windows at downtown businesses and set fire to a limousine, was unusual and led to hundreds of arrests. With routine demonstrations, police take a hands-off approach, even when groups don’t get permits, block traffic or commit other civil disobedience. No one was arrested during the Women’s March on Washington, which drew hundreds of thousands of people the day after Trump was sworn in, making it one of the largest demonstrations in the city’s history.
“It’s the nation’s capital. It’s where people come to voice their grievances with the government,” Metropolitan Police Department Chief Peter Newsham said. “We welcome that.”
The bean-counting, handled by the city’s homeland security department, is the tough part. Congress sets aside money every year to reimburse the city for the cost of First Amendment activities. That number fluctuates yearly but is usually around $15 million, said Christopher Geldart, the city’s former homeland security director, in an interview before he stepped down in early April. Sometimes the city spends more, and sometimes less, but in general the appropriation isn’t too far off, and if it’s too much, the money rolls over to the following year.
The biggest cost is police overtime; the department pays officers extra to staff demonstrations so it’s not taking anyone off regular patrol. For the current fiscal year, Congress has set aside $14.9 million to reimburse the city, and $3.8 million of that had already been spent by Jan. 1, which doesn’t include the women’s march. The city is also still seeking reimbursement for what it spent on the inauguration. While Congress allocated $19.9 million, the city spent more than $30 million.
By contrast, Congress gave $50 million to the cities that hosted last year’s presidential nominating conventions — much smaller events than the inauguration that attract a fraction of the crowd. Geldart said that if Congress makes the District whole for the inauguration, there should be enough to pay for the women’s march and all the other planned demonstrations. But there’s no guarantee they’ll be successful with a Republican Congress.
It’s also not clear which protests will gather momentum. City officials track bus, train, air and hotel bookings to get a sense of what to expect.
Among the groups that have asked the National Park Service for protest permits this spring, the March for Science, scheduled for Saturday, is promising the biggest crowd: 150,000 people.
For the hospitality industry, demonstrations are a mixed bag, said Elliott Ferguson, who heads Destination D.C., the city’s tourism bureau. On one hand, the crowds spend money at hotels and restaurants while they’re in town. But international visitors could also be turned off if they perceive Washington as a cauldron of dissent.
“If you’re marching for immigration rights or whatever the case is, and it’s tied to Washington, then it becomes, ‘All bad things happen in Washington, D.C.,’” Ferguson said.
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