Park Rangers Decide to Crack Down on Smokedown: ‘Flash Mob’ Is Questioned

After three successful demonstrations each with more than a hundred in attendance, wherein no law enforcement official engaged a participant officially or otherwise for openly smoking marijuana at the corner of Market and 6th Streets in Old City Philadelphia, National Park Rangers chose an unplanned, small-scale “Smokedown” to begin their predictable response of hamstringing protesters’ ability to assemble for their purpose through policies of intimidation and maximum use of National Park Service enforcement jurisdiction.

(Smokedown 'flash mob' demonstrating at Independence Mall, line of tourists to see the  Liberty Bell in the background. Photo By Joanne Michele)

Smokedown ‘flash mob’ demonstrating at Independence Mall, line of tourists to see the Liberty Bell in the background. Photo By Joanne Michele

While out in Center City with Joanne running errands, she  brought my attention to a Facebook update posted by a mutual friend calling for an impromptu “smokedown’ at Independence Mall (in fact it called for a ‘flash mob’ and for it to bring its own signs). I’ve been to two of the total of three “Smokedown Prohibition” protests as a journalist – all had been announced as events on Facebook weeks before their scheduled dates and each has drawn at least one-hundred people to defy what they see as an unjust law by openly breaking it – calling loudly for pot decriminalization, counting down to 4:20, and then cranking the reggae and sparking up the direct action.

We headed to Old City from a dozen blocks away, mostly with the notion in mind that the smaller group a half-hour’s notice would bring out might be more likely to be engaged by Park Rangers, who along with the police had not mustered any more than cursory naked-eye surveillance from a comfortable distance. Neither had reacted yet at 4:20 on the afternoons when hundreds smoked reefer in front of the Liberty Bell, dozens of joints etc, until about 4:25. At moments of low wind this meant ignoring a discernible cloud.

When we arrived a minute or two after 4:20 we found a group of six in apparent pose, seated on the park’s 1st Amendment monument and to any observer within 50 feet or so clearly passing several joints between them. I asked for them to tell me why they were there, for the camera:

It seemed that things would be going down in the same easy, zero-conflict fashion as with the 3 past demonstrations, as a single passive (actively text messaging) ranger had been watching for some time. As we spoke with Poe for a few moments, in which time the size of the Smokedown crowd doubled, Joanne observed the arrival of a second Ranger on a bike, and then another, who in shorter order became five or six who did in fact have an interest in our doings and interrupted our conversation.

Joanne’s phone video camera, pointed at the ground,  captured the most of the audio from the encounter:

Before the video starts a ranger in dark sunglasses asks Poe if he is the organizer of this ‘event,’ and Poe asks him what event he is referring to – just prior to the audio beginning the ranger then asks Poe, “OK then, may I ask what your business here is today?” To which Poe aptly responds (after what I swear was a brief, silent gasp of disbelief)

What? My business here? I’m having a conversation.

While no one present ever seemed to feel under threat of imminent arrest (a participant on scene was not asking when he said “well, we’re going to walk away”), the officers stated probable cause for questioning us, and in fact retrieved several ‘roaches’ from the area where the group was sitting. Near the end of the encounter, the same ranger in sunglasses took some issue with my clarification of what I understand to be federal as opposed to city standard procedures for prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana offenses. US law enforcement typically issue citations which can be disposed with a $175 fine and no required court appearance. He asked if I’d attended the ‘other events’ to which I replied that I had been to two, as a journalist (a fairly exclusive abstention for me is when acting as a journalist, in any circumstance). After asking if he could provide me with any more information, the conversation ended with the barely tacit menace: “We’ll see you when you come back.”

And the activists, organized by The Panic Hour and PhillyNORML, intend to come back. SMOKEDOWN Prohibition IV is scheduled for April 20th (4/20) and the discussion for an expanded event is enthusiastically taking place in the interim. Given what I believe can be taken as implicit acknowledgement from the senior ranger that the protesters can expect another encounter upon their return, it will be useful to infer a likely scenario given what is happily a reasonably-documented history of the Park Service’s response to civil disobedience in just this environment.

In summer of 2012 the Occupy National Gathering took place in Old City, its kickoff and workgroups, speakers and other activities planned on many public grounds, including Independence Mall. The aggressive response upon Gathering attendees’ arrival resulted in a violent altercation, and eventual retreat and relocation of planned events.

Rangers and Park Police fight to apprehend a protester after National Gathering attendees attempt to erect a tent at another Park Service site near Independence Hall. Photo by Joanne Michele

Rangers and Park Police fight to apprehend a protester after National Gathering attendees attempt to erect a tent at another Park Service site near Independence Hall. Photo by Joanne Michele

Due to our anticipation of such earnest measures, Joanne Michele requested per the Freedom of Information Act documents and relevant communication from the National Park Service, which she recently obtained.

As the editors described in our February article on the content of the 300-odd page stack of documents, the Park Service carried out at least a month-long intelligence and logistic operation in anticipation of Occupiers planned 5-days of actions within their jurisdiction. Consideration were as extreme as examining the possibility of bringing in reinforcement from US Park stations in Alaska, as well as monitoring expected attendees who they wrongly characterized as ‘organizers.’ For example, an intelligence memo was produced with tweets from my twitter account while I was in DC to cover the Bradley Manning hearings, with annotations such as “Numerous members of #TOYM [Team Occupy Your Mom, the playful nom de guerre of our editorial staff journalist collective] many of whom are leaders/organizers of the National Gathering, are in Fort Meade” and even @kennethlipp soliciting marijuana, posted June 5, 2012.”

Can those planning to burn one down at the Mall in April expect the same treatment? There are some key differences between the two scenarios that in the overall context make this an excellent opportunity for journalists who cover civil disobedience and law enforcement, especially in situations with unfamiliar jurisdictional lines and two-way blind communication between activists and authorities.

Summer 2012 the Park Service was overwhelmingly concerned with preventing the establishment of an encampment, as indicated by their response at the first sighting of a tent and as explicitly stated in the FOIA-obtained NPS communications. Their approach to what they regarded as planned violations of law or park regulations (many of which made more stringent for the occasion) was a stone wall, zero tents erected meant zero to evict. The show of force was effective.

National Park Police, called in from various stations, esp. NJ and NY, form an apparently rushed riot line at 'Bank 2' park. Photo by Joanne Stocker

National Park Police, called in from various stations, esp. New Jersey and New York, form an apparently rushed riot line at ‘Bank 2’ park. Photo by Joanne Michele

Preventing a few hundred from starting an encampment is of course an entirely different proposition than preventing a crowd of one hundred from simultaneously smoking marijuana. They will not be slapping joints from pursed lips at 4:19:59, and they cannot prevent access to the facility for those in possession of marijuana because they cannot conduct searches of every possible participant. They need probable cause for a search, and conducting one would be a practical nightmare without the barricades the National Gathering’s coincidence with Independence Day festivities on the Mall allowed them to employ prolifically.

But the Park Service has demonstrated their intention to observe federal law in this matter, and as long as that law includes the prohibition of marijuana and prescribes penalties for its possession, rangers responsible for enforcing that prohibition of course cannot allow it to be openly used (not to mention promoted), not indefinitely, and not now that large lines of tourists, parents and grandparents with children in tow, will be lined up behind them to indulge iconic, wholesome American culture. To do so they will need to make preparations well in excess of their local resources.

Expect drug dogs: though the Supreme Court recently ruled regarding their use at private residences, the Park Service is free to use them to patrol US Park grounds and may use them as indications of suspicious activity sufficient to stop and question someone. They have a reasonable chance of sufficiently discouraging assembly on site if participants arrive to find those first on scene receiving citations or perhaps even being arrested. The NPS will likely bring in US Park Police K-9 units, and I would not be surprised to see a certain USPP Gate officer with whom we have experience. 

What will occur if the Park decides to consistently enforce the law and issue citations if a large group of protester successfully amass by 4:20 and pull out their spliffs and cones and blunts and get high is largely unpredictable, but as they have telegraphed their awareness of Poe and his friends’ intentions we can assume they will be making some preparations. To issue citations to 100 or more people – to observe them in possession, detain them for ID and a summons – would require another well-planned and well-staffed special operation to be able to keep most of the crowd from simply wandering off – and even with such a force called in the large number of people who will still attempt to flee will likely be subject to forceful detention and arrest.

The total cost to taxpayers of US Park Service operations in response to the Occupy National Gathering was hundreds of thousands of dollars. While a drop in the ocean compared to the overall billions squandered to wage the Drug War, a few hundred grand spent to suppress the Smokedown’s 5 minutes of euphoric civil disobedience is another excellent reason to insist that politicians prove this is all worth it – and the evidence clearly indicates it is not – or change things. 

About Kenneth Lipp

Kenneth is a writer and researcher. He’s from Alabama, and will not apologize for it. He moved to Pennsylvania in 2012, but has been in love with Philadelphia since a late-night stroll down Ben Franklin Parkway to the Art Museum in July of 2011 with the love of his life. He is interested in telling Philadelphia’s dynamic and absolutely unique stories with the zeal of a constantly enamored newcomer. Kenneth is also passionate about government transparency and protection of whistleblowers, most notably PFC Chelsea Manning. His research and reporting on law enforcement and surveillance have been featured in various publications, including Rolling Stone (Meet the Private Companies Helping Cops Spy on Protesters) and Popular Science (Boston Tested Crowd-Watching Software That Catalogues People's Skin Color). His training is in both genetics and history and he likes the joke about being a helicase and unzipping your “genes.” He’s driven to know, and thinks you can handle, the truth. Follow him on Twitter @kennethlipp.

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