The Capitol’s west terrace. Photo by The Great Photographicon.

On Monday, April 12 and Tuesday April 13, fifty heads of state will convene at the Convention Center for the Nuclear Security Summit hosted by the State Department. 

The Secret Service will cordon off numerous streets around the Convention Center, creating significant traffic jams, forcing the rerouting of numerous bus lines and subjecting residents of the adjacent affordable housing complex to warrantless searches as a condition of accessing their own homes.

Do Washington’s unique security fears limit the Bill of Rights for its citizens?  While on the campaign trail, candidate Obama decried Pres. Bush’s uses of warrantless wiretaps as violations of the Fourth Amendment, but President Obama believes there’s an exception for residents around the Convention Center. DHS has declared the event a “National Special Security Event”, placing it in the same category as an inauguration, State of the Union, or Super Bowl, thus legally putting the Secret Service in charge of security.

Too many Federal officials, who are granted special access to these closed spaces and don’t live in the city anyway, think little of harassing innocent citizens and shutting off public access to public spaces.  The West Terrace of the Capitol, providing one of the finest views of the Mall, has been closed to the public since 2001.  Numerous Federal agencies have turned public street parking beside their buildings into permit-only parking for their employees under the pretext of “security”. 

E Street south of the White House is closed to car traffic, yet still intimidates pedestrians with a phalanx of barriers, fences, and guards.  The Ellipse is now a parking lot for White House employees. Hideous Jersey barriers mar the monumental landscapes.  An entire Flickr photo group is devoted to photographers harassed by police and Federal officers for photographing ornate public buildings or public art.

Plan for street closures and checkpoints for the summit.

The federal government’s imperious re-appropriation of public resources is nothing new and the District government isn’t innocent either.  To stem the string of homicides afflicting the Trinidad neighborhood in the summer of 2008, the DC police set up checkpoints requiring anyone entering the neighborhood by car to provide a “legitimate” reason for entry. The U.S. Court of Appeals ruled a year later that the checkpoints were unconstitutional.

In response to the Trinidad checkpoints, Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh, herself a professor of Constitutional law, told the Washington Post, “This is not Baghdad.  It’s the United States of America. People have the right to enter their communities without running through a police gauntlet.”

Cars pass beside, in front of, and even below the United Nations headquarters in New York, yet this summit in Washington unleashes a hysteria of greater proportions, closing off streets for blocks.

Extra risk is the cost of living in a free society and public spaces, including streets, are by definition public.  What makes city life unique, and in the view of many, enjoyable, is that much of it is conducted in public.  City residents, because of our population densities and high rates of walking, biking and transit use, must share streets more so than suburban and rural residents, who rely more on enclosed private cars for traversing public thoroughfares. 

Public spaces are not for the select few — appointed or self-appointed — to rule as their exclusive, private dominions.  They rightfully belong to everybody.