Going medieval on DC's ass
July 27, 2011 2:20 PM   Subscribe

DCLaw/OrdinanceFilter: Is carrying a torch and pitchfork in Washington, D.C. illegal?

This is from a friend who is considering his own personal demonstration where he would carry a typical real four-pronged pitchfork and some form of lantern, probably a Coleman camping lantern (due to lack of traditional torch forming means). He will be shouting, but otherwise not attacking or threatening people or property with said torch/pitchfork combo.

Would carrying a pitchfork be considered brandishing a weapon? Sedition? Treason? Disturbing the peace? What other risks may he entail?
posted by Mister Fabulous to Law & Government (13 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Beyond what the law itself says, the outcome depends on how your friend's style of pitchfork-waving correlates with a potential arresting officer's highly subjective understanding of the applicable brandishing/menacing/disturbing the peace/etc. statutes.
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:46 PM on July 27, 2011

Best answer: I just read through what look to be the relevant snippets of DC Code (available online here), and the closest I found to a prohibition on pitchfork-waving is as follows (from DC ST ยง 22-1321):

(a) In any place open to the general public... it is unlawful for a person to:

(1) Intentionally or recklessly act in such a manner as to cause another person to be in reasonable fear that a person or property in a person's immediate possession is likely to be harmed or taken;
(2) Incite or provoke violence where there is a likelihood that such violence will ensue; or
(3) Direct abusive or offensive language or gestures at another person (other than a law enforcement officer while acting in his or her official capacity) in a manner likely to provoke immediate physical retaliation or violence by that person or another person.


(c) It is unlawful for a person to engage in loud, threatening, or abusive language, or disruptive conduct, which unreasonably impedes, disrupts, or disturbs the lawful use of a public conveyance by one or more other persons.

So, while your friend may be as low-key as possible in his brandishment of the pitchfork, it also seems that he could be construed to be acting "in such a manner as to cause another person to be in reasonable fear." If I saw someone on the street with a pitchfork, I'd be a little afraid.

That said, regardless of how much statutory knowledge he's armed with, it seems like an especially bad idea to wave something that could be perceived as a weapon in security-conscious DC. Maybe he should make a fake pitchfork?
posted by mudpuppie at 2:59 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I will say this: a real pitchfork is heavy.
posted by dhartung at 3:06 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I will say this: a real pitchfork is heavy.

I know, I'd be tired of carrying around on a hot DC summer day within an hour.

Maybe he should make a fake pitchfork?

Yeah, that was my suggestion to him. He insisted it be real. Thank you much!
posted by Mister Fabulous at 3:40 PM on July 27, 2011

No matter what you're doing, cops can find something to arrest and charge you for. It may not stick, but something to consider.
posted by Brian Puccio at 3:49 PM on July 27, 2011 [4 favorites]

Given the general paranoia in DC, I give him about 15 minutes before one of the dozen or so police forces with jurisdiction in DC has him in cuffs.
posted by COD at 4:25 PM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Best answer: INYL, TINLA: This question is ambiguous. In one sense, you're asking whether it's actually illegal. The other is whether you might run afoul of the local constabulary.

The statute provided above does not expressly prohibit carrying farm implements or archaic lighting, at least not outdoors. And since Heller and McDonald, it's an open question as to whether you could openly bear arms (assuming that a pitchfork is an arm).

On the other hand, getting arrested is not a prudent way to test the law. Your friend should probably consult the local constabulary to find out whether he can brandish a pitchfork for a certain non-criminal purpose or whether he could get a permit that would allow it at a specific time and place. If the answer is yes, getting it in writing would be smart.
posted by Hylas at 4:39 PM on July 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

Also be mindful of what percentage of property (in the parts of DC worth protesting in) is federally owned. As landowners, governments have a lot more freedom to tell you what to do than they do when they're just, you know, the government.

To put it another way: at my state capital building, you can't have signs with handles. They make you remove the handles before you're allowed to protest (at least, this is what happens when people feel like remembering the rules.) Apparently cardboard signs are much more dangerous when you add two feet of balsa wood. I sort of suspect a pitchfork would give the rule-rememberers a coronary.
posted by SMPA at 4:54 PM on July 27, 2011

DC cops are very good at shooing protesters off. Almost all of the good spots are, indeed, federal property, and even if it's not they can usually get you with something like obstructing traffic/the sidewalk unless you have a permit. My friends and I were almost chased off from the old Library of Congress building (across from the Capitol building) because we had a poster and camera. They let us stay when we explained we were doing a school project and showed them our architecture poster. I got the impression that they give even the crazy protestors a first warning before escalating, so I think the amount of real trouble your friend is inviting depends on how he reacts to the cops telling him to move along.
posted by anaelith at 6:26 PM on July 27, 2011

I am not an angry villager; I am not your angry villager.
It seems to me that anything could be construed as a weapon in the eyes of the police.
I presume there will be no bales of hay in the area...so what conclusions do you think the police would make?
posted by calgirl at 9:06 PM on July 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

Just to repeat for emphasis what others have noted:
1. There's something like 8-10 different law enforcement groups with jurisdiction in DC --- the DC city police, park police, Capitol police, Secret Service, and on and on --- your friend should check with ALL of them, get a written okay from ALL of them, AND get a permit to demonstrate.
2. Carrying weapons (not only waving around that sharp & threatening pitchfork, but also the fuel-filled possible-molotov-cocktail of a Coleman lantern) on the extremely security-conscious streets of DC? I'd bet COD is right: he'll be in cuffs in 15 minutes or less.
3. As a regular person your friend might pass with his pitchfork and lantern, hell YES I for one would definately feel threatened. He's not gonna get a lot of sympathy from your average DC resident.
4. Has he ever been here in summer? Today is a comparatively 'good' summer day: it won't be much over 91 degrees, extremely humid with an air quality index of "code orange" (unhealthy, stay indoors). Tomorrow is supposed to be back up to 100 degrees, still very humid and unhealthy, but with the occasional heavy thundershower, which brings up another problem with that pitchfork: lightning strikes are a very real possiblilty.

Please ask him to re-think this.
posted by easily confused at 3:50 AM on July 28, 2011 [1 favorite]

also, keep in mind that there are multiple police districts in DC, capital police, dc metro, wmata police, park police... each have different jurisdiction and laws that apply...
posted by fozzie33 at 7:24 AM on July 28, 2011

A single, shouting protestor brandishing the accoutrements you describe would be ignored for a while, but if someone complained to 911 local authorities would (at a minimum) probably detain him. If he did this too close to the Capitol, those authorities would be the Capitol Police, if it was somewhere on the Mall, the Park Police, if it was too close to the White House, maybe the Secret Service (although I doubt they'd care, unless said pitchfork got too close to a Presidential motorcade). Otherwise it would be the Metropolitan PD.

It would make a great demonstration, however, if your friend could enlist more people in his cause. To minimize any trouble, you'd want rubbery plastic business ends for your marching pitchforks. I think carrying Coleman lanterns is not what people envision for this kind of display, you'd need real torches, like the SA and HJ would be carrying in a 1930s rally in Nürnberg. Said torches would upset the DCFD, but if you had enough marchers (and obtained a parade permit beforehand -- dunno if they're ever allowed at night) you might get away with it.
posted by Rash at 10:09 AM on July 28, 2011

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