Want to have a protest in DC? You might want to get a permit. We know it can feel like an infringement of your rights in some ways, and some groups have had success with non-permitted protests in the city, but dealing with the police bureaucracy and getting a permit can help make your event a lot less stressful on the day of.
When do you need a permit? Protests of 25 people or more on the National Mall or other National Park Service operated spaces in DC require a permit require a permit, as does any event that requires streets to be closed. The Metropolitan Police, because they lost an important court case, are required to allow permit-less marches in the street as long as they stay within a single lane. Demonstrations on public sidewalks are legally permissable without a permit so long as they don’t block the walkway and fewer than 100 people are expected.
What’s the process? Police officials require very specific details about stages, speakers, tents, food, and potential for violence or counter-protests. They will help you to work out the details over a series of meetings, and permits rarely get denied in DC. However, it is best to start early since permits are allocated on a first-come, first-serve basis and DC is a popular place to protest.
Who do you talk to? Our city has a lot of different law enforcement groups with different jurisdictions, and the permit process is different depending on where your protest is going to be held.
- Capitol Police: For protests on or around the Capitol Buildings, you need to apply for a permit with the Capitol Police. They say to apply at least five days in advance of your activity to guarantee processing, but to allow up to 2 weeks if applying by snail mail. This page on the Capitol Police web site has a map of the Capitol grounds, plus guidelines for permitted activities and steps to get a permit and contact information for the Capitol Police Special Events Unit. For more information, you can also call (202) 224-8891.
- National Park Police: For protests in one of the many parks around the city, including the National Mall, you’ll need to get in touch with the National Park Service (NPS). Events with a lot of equipment, sound amplification, food, or participants can require a month or more for the entire permitting process with the NPS, so start early! First Amendment activities do not need to pay any processing fees. To ensure your event is determined to be a first amendment activity on the permit application in the section purpose of the activity write “Free speech demonstration for (your issue)”. This office is open Monday through Friday from 8:00 A.M. until 4:00 P.M., holidays excepted. Call 202-245-4715 to obtain additional information.
- Metropolitan Police: If you’re planning a march and would like a police escort or streets closed, or if you’re having a rally somewhere outside of a park, you are probably under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD). Since the settlement of the court cases stemming from the illegal mass arrest of protesters at the 2002 IMF/World Bank meetings, the MPD is required to allow groups to protest in the street without a permit, as long as they stay in a single lane. They can get a little rough, though, so decide for yourselves what makes the most sense for your event. For parades, demonstrations, and other permits controlled by the Metropolitan Police Department, you can initiate this notification by completing the appropriate forms and mailing them to the MPDC’s Special Operations Division. If expecting more than 100 people, you can find the permit application at the Metropolitan Police Department’s Get a Permit for a Special Event page. Sidewalks are supposedly public property, but some activists have experienced severe police harassment for protesting outside of private businesses.
For further information on MPD permits, contact:
• Metropolitan Police Department, Special Events Branch, 202-671-6529
• DC Emergency Management Agency, (202) 727-9099
Commonly Used Locations:
- The White House
The White House has three different law enforcement agencies in charge of different pieces of it and they all have different rules. Lafayette Park is run by National Park Police and you’ll usually need a permit to do anything there. When you apply for the permit, you’ll also schedule a security sweep with Park Police for the day of your event; a police dog will sniff anything you’re bringing into the park. You’re only allowed to bring 1 structure (such as a stage) so if you are borrowing WPC’s 2 stages you’ll need to tie them together securely so they can be counted as one. There is electricity there that can be turned on for you, but it’s not always reliable. The sidewalks between the park and Penn Ave and between Penn Ave and the White House are also run by Park Police. You can protest and have signs there but you must keep moving at all times so you don’t block it. Pennsylvania Ave in front of the White House is run by MPD (see above) and is the easiest place to hold something. Generally there’s no permit needed, but you’re also not allowed to bring a stage or to reserve the space – it’s first come, first served and there have been multiple protests or events happening there at the same time before. The Secret Service is in charge of the fence and touching it or chaining yourself to it is an arrestable offense.
Protests outside embassies are generally on public sidewalks, which are under MPD’s jurisdiction. You need to leave a path for pedestrians to get by but otherwise you can have protests there without a permit if you’re under 100 people.
- Supreme Court
The Supreme Court has its own police force and they appreciate being notified if there is going to be a protest there. You can email email@example.com directly and there is no permit needed. It is first come, first served so there potentially could be another protest or event happening there as well. You are not allowed to walk on, stand on or even touch the Supreme Court steps if you are holding a protest sign or even wearing a protest button and the police force takes that very seriously.
- Federal Buildings
In the years since 9/11, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has taken over policing most federal buildings downtown. In addition to obtaining a permit from MPD if necessary, they appreciate a notification of any upcoming actions. You can email Elliott.E.Grollman@hq.dhs.gov directly to inform him. DHS doesn’t have the capacity to handle arrests so if you’re doing an arrestable action there, they will generally either give you a ticket or hand you off to MPD, who may or may not choose to arrest you.