The Nation's Pulse

Happy Birthday, Thomas Jefferson

Park police celebrated by locking up a woman who questioned authority.

By 4.15.08

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"And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances." -- Exodus 15:20

At the climax of the 1984 film Footloose, Kevin Bacon's loose-footed protagonist uses the biblical tale of Miriam at the waters to persuade a council of uptight fundamentalists to overturn the town's blue law prohibitions on popular music and public dancing. This being Hollywood, the council leaders quickly relent, recognize the error of their ways, and there was much rejoicing (and Kenny Loggins).

Whether a similarly upbeat conclusion awaits the individual dubbed the "Jefferson 1" remains to be seen, but already the U.S. Park Police have shown themselves far less amenable to reason -- and to the notion of dance as a metaphor for the soul's urge to breath free -- than was John Lithgow's fictional preacher.

Organized by Bureaucrash, the youth-oriented libertarian affiliate of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, the Thomas Jefferson Dance Party looked to revive the dancing-as-freedom meme with a dedication to many free marketeers' favorite founding father on the occasion of his 265th birthday.

The plan was simple enough: Freedom-loving individuals, invited by way Facebook, would gather in the Jefferson Memorial just before midnight, April 13, and spend ten minutes bopping, swaying and moonwalking to honor the author of the Declaration of Independence.

So as not to disturb any fellow memorial visitors, the group -- which numbered about 20, fewer than the 25 that would require a permit -- opted to wear headphones and listen to their own iPods. As it turned out, the half-dozen or so unrelated onlookers who happened to be on-hand (the park is open 24 hours) appeared mostly amused by the spectacle.

SECURITY PERSONNEL MOST assuredly were not amused. Within two minutes of the event's start, they began moving to disperse the crowd, ordering the dancers to leave immediately, forcibly laying their hands on some and hurling profanities at others.

A few party-goers attempted to explain the nature of the event, but memorial staff were in no mood to discuss political theory. At 11:59, just four minutes after the event's start, U.S. Park Police had detained and were handcuffing the aforementioned "Jefferson 1" -- 28-year-old occasional Spectator contributor Brooke Oberwetter -- ostensibly for unauthorized dancing.

Or, as former Bureaucrash chief Jason Talley puts it, "One minute I'm taking video of people celebrating the freedoms etched in the walls surrounding us, the next we see armed agents of the state putting chains on a friend of ours."

Questioned about the arrest at the scene, security and park police alternately posited that Oberwetter's crime was disorderly persons, or disturbing the peace, or they refused to offer any rationale at all. While her compatriots protested and sang Happy Birthday to Jefferson from the memorial's steps, the tall, willowy blond was led away in handcuffs, placed in the back of a police van, and brought downtown to be booked and processed.

When she was released nearly five hours later, Oberwetter was cited for "interfering with an agency function," a charge unique to the National Park Service. USPP Public Information Officer Sgt. Robert LaChance, reached early April 14, did not yet have any details on the incident, though he confirmed that he had received other inquiries about it.

Even as Oberwetter -- who declined comment for this story -- sat in a dank holding cell, the story was already making the rounds online, picked up by bloggers like Radley Balko, Julian Sanchez and the Atlantic's Megan McArdle. A Facebook group dubbed "Free the Jefferson 1" attracted more than 300 members in its first 24 hours, and Oberwetter's case drew an offer of representation from Alan Gura, lead plaintiffs counsel in the District of Columbia v. Heller Second Amendment case currently before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Not all of the reaction has been positive. Among the hundreds of comments to posts about the story on sites like fark.com have been dozens, most by ostensibly "liberal" contributors, that have focused on Oberwetter's race and presumed socio-economic status as excluding her from sympathy.

Others simply presumed there must be more to the story -- that she must have been intoxicated or boisterous or abusive toward the police.

A VIDEO OF THE INCIDENT posted by Talley to YouTube tells a different story. In it, a calm, demure-looking Oberwetter has this exchange with the security guard who requested her arrest:

GUARD: Exit, exit, exit. Lady, I'm not going to tell you again.

OBERWETTER: I'm just...what did we do?"

GUARD: Exit. Exit, now...

OBERWETTER: What rule are we breaking? It's against the rules to dance?

GUARD: Yes it is. Read the sign inside the memorial. It says quiet."

OBERWETTER: I'm standing here being very quiet.

GUARD: You're dancing in here. That's disorderly.


The camera then tracks away from as Talley has an exchange of his own with a guard, only to return, not quite a minute a later, to the site of Oberwetter being handcuffed against the columns, the statue of Jefferson looking down on the scene.

Skeptics are free to question what was said in that last minute, though witnesses reported the only additional question Oberwetter posed was "why?"

But assume the worst. Assume, upon being approached by an agent of the state and given a patently ludicrous instruction, she was less than perfectly respectful or cooperative, perhaps a bit irritable or even abusive. Ought that be grounds for arrest?

In 2008, apparently, it is. Citizens now routinely grant police the same broad latitude in the exercise of power normally reserved for baseball umpires. Walk on eggshells. Show utter submission. Don't dare question any direct order. Anything less than that, and you could find yourself locked in a cell.

Jefferson himself observed, in his Preamble to a Bill for the More General Diffusion of Knowledge, "experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny."

Now, there's a sentiment truly worthy of a memorial.

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