An Open Letter to District of Columbia Authorities
In allowing coup supporters to lay siege to the Venezuelan embassy, D.C. Police are violating the First Amendment and District of Columbia law
At this writing, a rightwing mob of supporters of Juan Guaido, (the self-described, U.S.-named “interim president” of Venezuela, who has no legitimate, lawful claim to that office) has been blocking access to the Venezuelan embassy, located at 1099 30th St., NW, in Washington, D.C., since April 30th. This mob has been actively supported by the Metropolitan District of Columbia Police and the U.S. Secret Service (SS).
Together, the police, SS and the Guaido mob have physically barred supporters from entering the embassy in order to deliver food, water and other essentials to the U.S. citizens currently residing in and protecting the embassy. The U.S. citizens in the embassy, including Green Party, Popular Resistance, Code Pink, ANSWER Coalition and other peace activists, joined together as the Embassy Protection Collective, are present in the embassy with the express permission of the government of Venezuela.
The Embassy Protection Collective was formed on April 10th in response to the Trump administration’s act forcing Venezuelan diplomats to leave the country. On April 30th, as the latest coup attempt by Guaido failed spectacularly in Venezuela, pro-coup supporters began assembling outside the embassy, and Carlos Vecchio, Guaido’s fake “ambassador,” attempted to gain entry to the building. Although that attempt was repelled, pro-coup supporters literally pitched tents and set up camp on the sidewalk, and soon began physically blocking supporters from entering the building with food or other supplies. The D.C. Metro Police and SS then cordoned off the area surrounding the entrance to the embassy, and barred Collective supporters from entering that area, giving coup supporters complete control of that space. Subsequently, electrical power and water to the building have been cut off, under the direction of the SS, even though these utilities have been fully paid for.
On May 9th, Gerry Condon, President of Veterans for Peace, was blocked by coup supporters in attempting to deliver food, so he attempted to toss a cucumber through a window to a Collective member. He was immediately surrounded by half a dozen Secret Service police, then pushed violently to the pavement, causing a bloody gash to his head. He was arrested and spent nearly a full day in jail. (One is left to wonder if the officers thanked him for his service after battering and arresting him.) Ursula Rozum, Green Party activist from Syracuse, and other supporters, have also been arrested for attempting to deliver food, while those physically attacking them, with one exception, have not been arrested.
In short, the SS and D.C. Metro Police are collaborating with pro-Guaido thugs in what amounts to a medieval siege, hoping to force the legal occupants of the embassy to leave the premises by starving them out and making it impossible to remain there. They are replicating the same strategy of illegal economic warfarethat the U.S. government has employed against the nation of Venezuela itself — only this time, aimed at U.S. citizens.
On the evening of May 13th, Secret Service police came to the door of the embassy and posted a ridiculous “trespassing notice” on the embassy door, while threatening to arrest the residents. Although some members of the Collective departed under the threat of imminent arrest, others remained. The “notice” had no letterhead, no agency or author identified, no signature, and no contact information. (Granted, the utterly puerile nature of the “notice” strongly suggests that it came from the Pompeo State Department.) The unknown author(s) claimed that the residents were “trespassing in violation of federal and District of Columbia law,” but did not actually cite any law. In sum, it was of no actual legal significance but was part of an attempt to force the removal of the Collective by intimidation. Embassy protectors told the police that they would leave “under circumstances that upheld international and domestic law.”
What follows is my own complaint letter to the District of Columbia City Council, Mayor Muriel Bowser, and Chief of Police Peter Newsham, to demand an end to the siege. Their e-mail addresses appear below. Readers are free to borrow, replicate and amend this letter and are otherwise encouraged to send in a complaint of your own. For more information, updates, and other steps you can take to help end the siege, please check these resources: Popular Resistance, the ANSWER Coalition, the Black Alliance for Peace, Veterans for Peace, the Grayzone Project, Consortium News, and the United National Antiwar Coalition blogspot.
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Dear Mayor, Chief of Police and City Council Members,
I am writing to express my deep concern and strong objection to the brazenly unlawful, unconstitutional and inhumane conduct of the Metropolitan police, in support of a lawless mob blocking the entrance to the Venezuelan embassy at 1099 30th St., NW.
The embassy is presently occupied by U.S. citizens who are residing therewith the express permission of the government of Venezuela. I am not addressing you in their behalf in my capacity as an attorney. The Americans residing in the embassy, known as the Embassy Protection Collective, are already well represented by counsel. I am writing to you in my capacity as a concerned citizen, defender of First Amendment principles, and proponent of the rule of law. I also write in support of the proposition that police should not be used as tools to serve political agendas but should enforce laws in a non-discriminatory manner that upholds, rather than offends, the Constitution. Finally, I have friends and allies in the embassy, and supporters on the outside, who have suffered injury, hardship, threats to their life and restrictions of their liberty as a result of police actions.
My complaints, specifically, are as follows:
1) Since April 30th, the police, acting in concert with Secret Service police, have allowed a rightwing mob to pitch tents and otherwise permanently blockade the entranceway to the building, physically obstructing supporters of the Collective.
2) Police have stood by and refused to remove or cite the persons blocking the entranceway, for repeatedly violating the District of Columbia Criminal Code, specifically Title 22, section 1307 of the Code: “It is unlawful for a person, alone or in concert with others: (1) To crowd, obstruct, or incommode . . . [t]he entrance of any public or private building or enclosure.” D.C. Code Ann. § 22–1307 (a)(1)(B) (2019). Not only have they refused to enforce this provision, they have aided and abetted those committing the unlawful obstruction, by setting up barricades to protect them, barring supporters of the Collective from approaching the entrance of the embassy, and (with one reported exception) refusing to arrest members of the mob who have assaulted and/or battered Collective supporters, and stolen food intended for embassy residents.
3) Instead, police have arrested those victimized by the mob, including those who have sought to break the blockade by tossing food through open windows.
4) Electricity and water supplying the embassy have been cut off since May 9th, even though the Venezuelan government had paid the bill to the electrical supplier, Pepco. While this appears to have been done at the initiative of the Secret Service, it raises a question regarding Metro police complicity with these unlawful and inhumane acts.
5) The police have engaged in blatant viewpoint-based discrimination, by allowing supporters of Venezuelan coup leader Juan Guaido to monopolize the space immediately outside the entrance to the embassy, while opponents of U.S. intervention and Guaido have been confined to a separate penned-in area across the street. Those who support Guaido were allowed to have the space that best served their goals — of blocking the entrance and literally starving out their opponents inside the embassy — while those opposing U.S. intervention were physically barred from entering the same space, based on their political viewpoint. The latter group was being denied its goal, of gaining access for the purpose of delivering food and other necessities to the Collective members.
A video recording taken on May 11th (one of many) illustrates this. When attorney Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, representing Collective members, attempted to enter the coup-supporter zone, she was barred from entering by police, who insisted that they were authorized to do so in the interests of public safety, even though Verheyden-Hilliard pointed out that she was not carrying a protest sign or anything else that would identify her as a protestor.
There is no question that this police practice violates settled First Amendment law. The Supreme Court has held that public ways and sidewalks” “occupy a ‘special position in terms of First Amendment protection’ because of their historic role as sites for discussion and debate.” McCullen v. Coakley, 573 U.S. 464, 476 (2014). Such public spaces, described by the Court as “traditional public fora,” have “immemorially been held in trust for the use of the public and, time out of mind, have been used for purposes of assembly, communicating thoughts between citizens, and discussing public questions.” Id.
In such public spaces, “the guiding First Amendment principle that the ‘government has no power to restrict expression because of its message, its ideas, its subject matter, or its content’ applies with full force.” Id. at 477. “As a general rule, in such a forum the government may not ‘selectively … shield the public from some kinds of speech on the ground that they are more offensive than others.’” Id.
Thus, both coup supporters and coup opponents have equal rights to the same public spaces, and the government may not, under the First Amendment, favor one side or the other. Yet that is exactly what the Metro Police are doing. Yes, the District of Columbia has a legitimate state interest in maintaining public safety, but, thus far, it is only the Guaido proponents who have committed acts of violence and theft, not the Collective supporters. Therefore, if the District and its police were actually interested in maintaining public safety, it would arrest those committing assault, battery and theft, not shield them.
At a minimum, even assuming for the sake of argument that a legitimate public safety purpose is served by keeping the two groups separated, a non-discriminatory approach would allow Collective supporters to have equal time to occupy the space immediately outside the entrance.
Moreover, while proponents of all points of view have an equal right to the sidewalks, the physical obstruction of entrances and exits to buildings is another matter. The physical act of blocking an entrance is conduct, not “speech.” The Supreme Court has recognized this key distinction in protecting the free speech rights of abortion opponents in such cases as McCullen and Schenck v. Pro-Choice Network of W. New York, 519 U.S. 357 (1997). The Court has struck down restrictions on protestors’ rights to come within close proximity to the entrances of medical service providers, so that they can speak to workers and clients — but it draws a line at physical obstructions to buildings, recognizing the public interest in “ensuring public safety and order, promoting the free flow of traffic on streets and sidewalks, protecting property rights, and protecting a woman’s freedom to seek pregnancy-related services.” McCullen, 573 U.S. at 486–87; Schenck, 519 U.S. at 376.
In other words, provisions like § 22–1307 (a)(1)(B) do not violate anyone’s First Amendment rights — and should be enforced. By choosing not to enforce its own laws, in order to enable and assist the Guaido proponents, the District is further engaging in unconstitutional viewpoint-based discrimination.
As others have called to your attention, the actions of the pro-Guaido mob and their police enablers also violate Article 22 of the 1961 Vienna Conventions, on Diplomatic Relations, which require host governments to protect foreign embassies. Article 22 states, in pertinent part, that “[t]he premises of the mission shall be inviolable,” and that the “receiving State is under a special duty to take all appropriate steps to protect the premises of the mission against any intrusion or damage and to prevent any disturbance of the peace of the mission or impairment of its dignity.”
Finally, to state the obvious, the actions of the Metro police are not only unlawful and unconstitutional — they are shockingly inhumane. The police are helping to impose a de facto medieval siege on the embassy, participating in the denial of water, food and other necessities to the U.S. citizens residing there. Leaving aside the political and legal questions, the District’s participation in such acts of cruelty against fellow human beings is reprehensible and shameful.
I respectfully request that you immediately implement a new policy and practice, allowing supporters of the Collective to deliver food, water, medicine and other necessities to the residents of the embassy, and that you instruct the Metro police to do what they are supposed to do: Enforce the laws of the District of Columbia and protect public safety in a manner that comports with the requirements of the Constitution.
Richard J. Whitney
Attorney at Law
Whitney is an attorney from Carbondale, Illinois, now working as an appellate public defender. He is one of the founding members of the Illinois Green Party and served as the Party’s first candidate for Governor in 2006, winning over 360,000 votes. His current activist roles include serving as co-chair of the Illinois Green Party, and as an active participant in the Green Party Peace Action Committee, the Peace Coalition of Southern Illinois, the Chicago Committee Against War and Racism, the United National Antiwar Coalition, and the Illinois Coalition Against Fracking. He is also a Green public official, serving on the Board of Directors for the Jackson County Mass Transit District.