The U.S. Secret Service ordered hundreds of parents and their cancer-stricken children out of Lafayette Square on Saturday night so President Barack Obama could leave the White House to deliver the keynote address at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual gala.
The Secret Service barricaded the park for two hours because the president chose to leave the White House from an entrance near the square where the group of parents and children had planned to hold a candlelight vigil to raise awareness about childhood cancer research.
Organizers of the event told the Washington Post that plans to hold their second candlelight vigil outside the White House “came about partly because of the group’s inability to persuade the White House to light up the mansion in gold as a symbol of support for the cause, as it has done for other causes.”
The group had obtained a permit to stage an event from 7 to 9 p.m. and had already set up the stage for speakers and an acoustic musical performance. But just as the music started to play, the sick children and their parents were ejected.
Some of the parents and children expressed hurt and disappointment that the Secret Service and Park Police, citing security precautions, virtually shut down part of a two-day event called CureFest for Childhood Cancer.
“We ended up waiting at the gates for two hours, and they never let us in,” said Natasha Gould, an 11-year-old from Canada who started a blog after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor this year. “And to be clear, the entire crowd was half kids. I cried last night in my hotel room because it was my first CureFest, and I couldn’t believe people were acting like they don’t care about children.”
Brian Leary, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said in a statement that the closures on Pennsylvania Avenue and Lafayette Park were “put into place based on standard [Secret Service] protocols prior to protectee movements in the vicinity of the White House Complex.”
But as the closure continued on, some of the sick children, fatigued by the wait or the need to receive medication, had to return to their hotel rooms, organizers said. Others began crying, and some parents became enraged. Attendees said the group of at least 700 people was not allowed access to personal items they left behind, such as chairs and blankets.
“At first, we were patient. I mean we’re a peaceful community; we’re fighting for kids’ lives,” said Anthony Stoddard of New Hampshire, who, after the death of his 5-year-old son, started an initiative to light public buildings in gold as a show of support for children who have cancer. “But after about an hour, or hour and a half, it started getting a little angry, some of the fathers.”
Some parents considered the park closure excessive, perhaps driven by the agency’s embarrassment over previous high-profile security lapses. Others read into it signs of a White House snub of their cause.
“I feel like this may be overcompensating for glaring errors that the Secret Service has made in past years. And again, we understand the need to keep our president safe. But we think a little consideration would have gone a long way,” said organizer Michael Gillette, a documentary filmmaker from Fairfax City, Va. “When we get shut out of the president’s front yard, it’s just disheartening.”
“Police were telling a lot of people in our group to leave because it was so close to the road there was a traffic issue. It got really frustrating. No one was giving us answers about when we would get in. So finally, about 10:30, we gave up,” Stoddard said. “It was heartbreaking.”
“Disheartening” and “heartbreaking” are two words to describe what happened. Another one is “infuriating.”
Couldn’t the president have taken a different route to the CBC gala that wouldn’t have affected the demonstrators? If not, couldn’t the delay have been minimized, if handled more efficiently?
Also, I get that the White House can’t light up in support for every single cause that’s out there.
But the fact that the Obama White House lit up in spectacular fashion to celebrate the highly controversial Supreme Court ruling on gay marriage, but won’t light up in gold to show support for unlocking a cure for childhood cancer — something virtually everyone supports — tells us everything we need to know about the “Divider-in-Chief’s” priorities.