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Washington, District of Officiousness and Petty Policemen

sunny 35 °C

The first thing any tourist must do on coming to Washington is the marble tour of the city, taking in all the major institutions of US government that are located in the city. I duly made by way up to the US Capitol, home of the US Congress. It was whilst I was queuing in a security line that I first met the officiousness of both the D.C and Capitol Hill Police. You see the Capitol Police do not permit food or drink to be admitted into the building. “But why is that?” “Sir, its the rules.” If only I could be so blissfully ignorant of the reason why I do things when I start work. So having secretly hidden my water and my sandwich in a part of the grounds I trotted off to and cleared security. The Capitol tour is worth the time; its short, but you see the building’s major attractions. It was whilst I was stood in the Capitol rotunda, the place which has hosted countless lying-in-state ceremonies and Ronald Reagan’s first inauguration, that a Capitol Hill Police officer came up to me and informed me that I couldn’t use my tripod in the building, “But officer, I haven’t even taken it out, I haven’t even moved to take it out.” “Just keeping you informed.” “Well then you’ve done your job, goodbye.” “You can get a permit to use it outside.” That was some useful information, so I went and asked a police sergeant for a permit. I was led down many stairs into the Capitol’s guts and eventually received my authorisation to take photographs. So I immediately went about taking photographs outside only to be stopped on a frustratingly frequent basis to be searched and asked what I was doing.

From the Capitol I made the short hop across the road to the Library of Congress (see the National Treasure film for your own glimpse). The library is impressive and would have been a non-event were it not for a brief confrontation, yes with the Capitol Hill police as I was leaving. “Sir, open your bag,” said an officer abruptly as I made for the exit. “And why should I do that?” I replied. “You’re been in the gift shop.” “No, I haven’t. “Sir, you need to open your bag.” “I will not open my bag and let you search arbitrarily, I haven’t been in the gift shop and even if I had been unless you’re arresting me, what’s in my bag is none of your business. What’s your authority to search me?” “Are you going to fight me on this one? It’s in the Constitution.” Well now I knew he was taking the piss. “In the Constitution? Are you being quite serious officer, have you read where it says that in the Constitution? Now am I under arrest?” “No, sir” “Then excuse me and have a good day,” and with that off I went, my liberty preserved. It felt like a small victory in the face of all the trouble the police had been giving me all morning.

Not far from the Library, in fact also just across the road is the US Supreme Court, the final arbiter of the law and Constitution. Not many people stopped and noticed it, but perhaps more would have done if they knew that it was withinin its walls where some of the most dramatic changes in US society first began; segregation was ruled illegal here long before President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, a moratorium on the death penalty was introduced by a court’s ruling before many states banned the sentence and of course abortion forming part of the right to privacy was recognised in the Supreme Court before any Act of Congress introduced it. For me, the court’s tall pillars offered welcome shade in from the stifling 35 degree heat and an opportunity to write some postcards.

I later visited the White House (the theme music to The West Wing[i] playing in my head as I walked up Pennsylvania Avenue) which was actually a lot smaller than I imaged it to be, then across to the towering Washington monument and, as the evening was drawing in, down to the World War Two and Lincoln memorials. The World War Two memorial is not unsurprisingly a popular attraction. In the scorching heat the low and long fountain allows visitors to bathe their feet in the cool water and so far on my trip, the half hour I spent there have been perhaps the most relaxing time I’ve had.

You will remember I still have a permit to take photographs of the Capitol. Well it expired at 11.59pm and I was determined to get some photos of the building illuminated at night, so I made the journey back across the National Mall. I was happily snapping away, but I noticed that I wasn’t being stopped, even though there were many police around. The night shift at the Capitol are clearly considerably less officious than the day shift (and I appreciated that!), however, I hadn’t got a permit for nothing, so I decided to test them and so I moved closer and closer, hoping they would take the bait. And yes eventually I felt the tug, “Hey bro you can’t be there,” “What, me Sir?” So I waited until he was up with me and told him I had a permit. “Oh you have a permit” he said recoiling in a defeated tone. For you see I have learned that there is one thing officiousness is incapable of tolerating, like Superman’s susceptibility to kryptonite and a slug’s to salt, and that is officialdom (or more particularly a piece of paper with a stamp on it). There was nothing he could do and he just walked away. His partner was wholly dissatisfied with this loss of face, but it was too late now. So as he was walking off she walked up and reminded me, “You know you can’t shoot photos into the windows there.” “What these windows - with the blinds down officer? I can reassure you I find no aesthetic interest in a window with the blinds shut.” Job done, it was time to turn in.


Posted by MattOGrady 14:46 Archived in USA

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