The tourists from China didn’t know what to make of it as they contemplated the sign posted in front of one of Washington’s grand memorials.
“Because of the federal government shutdown, this National Park Service area is closed except for 1st Amendment activities,” the sign declared.
Did that mean they weren’t supposed to walk up to the memorial, a giant bronze flaming sword commemorating those who died in the 2nd Division of the U.S. Army? They weren’t sure. Neither was their escort from Pennsylvania, John Li, who didn’t know if looking at a memorial is covered by the First Amendment, which among other things grants freedom of speech and the right to peaceably assemble.
“That’s hard to tell,” he said.
Washington’s monuments and memorials are supposedly closed for the duration of the government shutdown. But even when the signs are clear, enforcement is erratic at best.
The barricades were moved to the side on Wednesday in front of both the Korean War Veterans and the Vietnam Veterans memorials. People just walked around them, ignoring the signs warning that the area was closed.
“I was surprised to find it open,” said Evan Salholm from Dublin, Ireland, after he visited the Vietnam memorial. “Everyone else was going through, so we did, too.”
A nearby National Park Service policeman seemed unconcerned, chatting with tourists about the closest place in the area to find a decent burger and a beer.
The Park Service did block a broad footpath near the memorials. “Because of the Federal Government SHUTDOWN All National Parks Are CLOSED,” announced the sign on a metal barricade.
People just scooted over a few feet and walked around it.
“It’s amazing, they blocked this off to just make you walk on the grass,” laughed one woman. “Hello?”
A jogger noticed geese on the other side of the barricade.
“If the geese are going past it, then so am I,” he said. “Why should the geese get to have more rights than I do?”
The Lincoln Memorial was most definitely shut down. The “closed” signs hung from barricades that blocked entry, keeping visitors at a comfortable distance.
But if they wandered a few steps, they could find a grassy spot to sprawl out or stroll the gravel paths along the Reflecting Pool.
The World War II Memorial is the subject of special attention. Members of Congress were on hand Tuesday and Wednesday to move the barricades as cameras rolled and the elderly veterans passed through.
The Park Service didn’t object to that.
But by Wednesday afternoon the memorial was closed again, this time with yellow tape declaring “Police Line Do Not Cross” wrapped around the barricades, in case people weren’t getting the message.
The situation was fluid at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Visitors easily walked around the barricades and onto the grounds, at least until a Park Service policeman had enough and went in to kick them out.
A reporter asked the cop how enforcement was being decided.
“No sir!” he responded.
By Sean Cockerham
McClatchy Washington Bureau