WASHINGTON — The monuments dotting the nation's capital have become the front lines for an argument about whether the government shutdown is fundamentally painful for the average American, or only painful because President Obama and Democrats want it that way.
But the men and women of the National Park Service say they never wanted to be a part of the partisan battle. Their justification for the controversial barricades guarding D.C.'s monuments hinges on one thing: security.
"The really, really big point that I would like to make is that the difference between the innocent '90s and 2013, post-9/11 security concerns are 1,000-fold what they were between '95 [and 2001]," said Joan Anzelmo, a 35-year veteran of the Park Service who now serves on the board of the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees. "The kinds of security measures that have been put in at all the monuments and memorials — and all of the national park areas for that matter — but particularly at those iconic sites, really are there because they're there to protect the places, but they're mostly there to protect the people."
Interviews with veteran and current Park Service officials paint a picture of an agency badly frayed by the political heat coming its way after the government shutdown that started at the beginning of the month. Some say they are starting to worry the current shutdown will leave their agency politically polarized permanently, wrecking what rangers saw as a job that put them above partisan rancor and into the special role given to them by Congress: the protection and preservation of the nation's treasures.
There are some tangible differences between this shutdown and the last couple in the 1990s. These differences have helped foment conservative theories that political concerns — i.e., the White House making the shutdown as painful as possible in order to make Republicans looks bad — are behind the barricading of monuments on the mall. Press reports from the 1995 shutdown, for example, describe visitors wandering around the closed-but-not-barricaded Lincoln Memorial. Today, that monument is closed off by barricades.
But current Park Service employees and veterans of the last shutdowns claim the old press reports don't tell the whole story. They maintain that national parks were closed and barricaded across the country in the 1990s. The Lincoln Memorial was also completely shuttered at least part of the time, as this AP photo from 1995 currently being passed around Park Service listervs attests.
Veterans of the 1990s shutdowns say there were some similar complaints from conservatives about the closures of memorials and national parks back then. But those shutdowns were never expected to last very long, the veterans say. More than one said that without the social media machine to drive the national park conspiracies into the national conversation, most Americans accepted that the parks closed when the government closes.
"Most people recognized that it was only going to go on for a couple of days and we were ultimately going to get to a deal," recalled Chris Lehane, a top communications strategist in the Clinton White House during the '90s shutdowns. There wasn't much discussion at all about what got shut down versus what didn't, he said.
"I don't remember that," he said. "The timeframe was just very different. It was a different time of year, and people were operating under the premise that this was not going to last long."
Conservatives have complained that the closures of national monuments in Washington seems arbitrary at best and a trick at the worst. The World War II memorial became the site of political protest by conservative lawmakers who were asked by Honor Flight members to help them get in, despite the fact that Honor Flight organizers said they didn't want the event to become politicized. Groups like the Honor Flight are allowed into shuttered memorials during the shutdown under rules that allow "First Amendment Activity" at national sites in D.C. and Philadelphia.
But since the start of the shutdown, breaking into closed national parks all over the country has become the go-to act of civil disobedience for conservatives during the shutdown, putting park service employees on the front lines of defending a government shutdown they vehemently disagree with.
"The Park Service is not choosing this. The Park Service is doing what they need to do to carry out their mission of protecting the resources," Anzelmo said. "I deplore what I've seen. There are a lot of pundits, a lot of people who think they're experts and they do not have a clue."
The ongoing protests are causing problems for the skeleton Park Service crews who are manning national parks without pay while the shutdown goes on, she said.
"Many of the colleagues that I know in the national parks around the country had terrible things done to them," she said. "People are breaking through barricades and they end up getting injured and the same park rangers that they had spit at and cussed out are in the position of rescuing these people. They're leaving human excrement around park facilities. There are all sorts of despicable acts."
Anzelmo's group has launched a program to defend Park Service employees against conservative critics. A new online "I Am Not Ashamed" badge is meant to respond directly to Texas Republican Rep. Randy Neugebauer, who was caught on camera telling a park ranger in charge of communications she should be "ashamed" that the World War II memorial was closed.
Ironically, the shutdown has prevented the Park Service from defending itself against shutdown critics. One current official lamented that the agency was unable to dig up photos and other materials from 1995 proving that monuments were barricaded back then because all the archivists are furloughed. Same goes for many of the officials who wrote out the policy guidelines for closing D.C.'s monuments ahead of the Oct. 1 shutdown in the first place, making detailed questions about the barricade plan difficult to answer.
That hasn't stopped the Park Service from starting to push back against critics, however. The National Parks Conservation Association, an unaffiliated nonprofit staffed by former Park Service employees, published a long blog post responding to the political criticisms Tuesday. An Interior Department staffer directed BuzzFeed to the post Tuesday, saying it reflected the views of the agency.
The NPCA says that security concerns, and the timing of the shutdown, are responsible for the additional barricades this time around.
"There are many more visitors on the Mall now than there were 17 years ago, creating a larger challenge to protect park resources and visitor safety," the post reads. "The last shutdown occurred in the middle of winter, not at the beginning of October."
The 300 Park Service staff who service the national monuments in normal times has dwindled to seven under the shutdown, according to the NPCA. The veterans and current Park Service staffers note that the Lincoln Memorial was recently vandalized with green paint, marking the first time the monument had been defaced since its dedication in 1922.
That still leaves potentially incendiary questions unanswered about why some monuments in D.C. are barricaded more than others. On the record, the Park Service won't explain the methodology behind the barricade plan.
"We are unable to comment on how specific aspects of the contingency plan for the National Mall and Memorial Parks were developed, but it was done by the park superintendent in consultation with the United States Park Police to maximize the protection of life and property," said Mike Litterst, the acting chief spokesperson for the Park Service.
Litterst's answer is not likely to silence conservative critics convinced the parks are being used as a pawn by the White House to pressure the House Republicans into caving and reopening the government. And that fact has Park Service veterans like Anzelmo worried — and nervous about the future.
"That's one of the worries that many of the folks who are furloughed right now have. How do we go back? How do we reengage?" she said. "Everyone knows how to do their jobs, how to protect people and welcome the people to the parks. But the dialogue has become so destructive that I think everyone is sort of pausing and saying, 'Gosh, how do we go forward and do the job?'"
Evan McMorris-Santoro is the White House correspondent for BuzzFeed News.
Contact Evan McMorris-Santoro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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