U.S. Army Lt. Dan Choi was arrested Thursday after handcuffing himself to the White House fence in protest of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” (Photo by Joe Tresh)
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A gay Army lieutenant and two others were arrested Thursday outside the White House in an unannounced protest against the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” law that bars gays from serving openly in the military.
Lt. Dan Choi, who is in the process of being discharged from the U.S. Army because he’s gay, and Jim Pietrangelo, a former Army captain who was discharged in 2004 for being gay, were charged with failing to obey a lawful order to disperse after they handcuffed themselves to the White House fence along Pennsylvania Avenue.
Uniformed officers with the U.S. Secret Service separately arrested Robin McGehee of GetEqual.org, who helped organize the protest, on the same charge. McGehee was one of the lead organizers of the October 2009 LGBT march on Washington.
A crowd of about 100 people cheered as the Park Police officers cut the handcuffs that Choi and Pietrangelo used to attach themselves to the White House fence and placed a new set of handcuffs on the men before escorting them into a police wagon.
Prior to their arrest, Choi, while handcuffed to the fence, led the crowd in reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Many of the supporters in the crowd carried American flags.
A Park Police spokesperson said the men were taken to a Park Police station at Anacostia Park, where they were booked. A Secret Service spokesperson said McGehee was expected to be taken to a D.C. police facility to be booked and processed.
For reasons that could not be immediately determined, Choi and Pietrangelo were held overnight at the Central Cellblock, which is operated by D.C. police. McGhee was released after the Secret Service dropped the charge against her when she agreed to pay a $35 “post and forfeit” fine. Choi and Pietrangelo were scheduled to be arraigned Friday afternoon in D.C. Superior Court.
Choi announced plans for the White House protest about a half hour before it began during a noon rally in Freedom Plaza that the Human Rights Campaign organized in support of efforts to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
Choi was not a scheduled speaker at the rally. In a statement, HRC spokesperson Trevor Thomas said that Choi first asked HRC President Joe Solmonese if the solider could have a speaking role at the event.
“Joe explained that it wasn’t his sole decision to make on the spot given that there was already an established program that included Kathy Griffin, other organizations and veterans,” Thomas said.
Choi then spoke with Griffin, Thomas said, and she agreed to bring him on stage and speak to the crowd during time allocated for her remarks.
Once on stage, Choi urged rally attendees to march with him to the White House to send a message to “repeal ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ — not next year, not tomorrow, but now. Now is the time.”
“I am going to the White House right now,” he said. “I want you all to take out your cell phones and any recording devices and document this moment right now with me as we together make history.”
Choi then turned to Griffin and asked, “Kathy, will you go with me?” In response, Griffin said, “Of course.” Choi then asked Solmonese if he would join the march. Solmonse said nothing, but raised his arm and gave Choi a thumbs up.
“Will you all here go with me?” Choi asked, and the audience roared with applause. Choi did not tell those attending the rally that he and Pietrangelo planned to handcuff themselves to the White House fence.
After Choi left the stage, Griffin continued the rally by telling attendants what number to text on their phones to learn the names of their congressional representatives. Griffin then asked for a moment of silence, allowing the crowd to pose with miniature American flags for a photo shoot.
A crowd of about 200 then followed Choi and Pietrangelo for the four-block walk from Freedom Plaza to the White House.
Thomas said that Solmonese and Eric Alva, a gay veteran who appeared alongside Solmonese and Griffin at the rally, chose to remain at Freedom Plaza to build on the efforts underway there.
“Joe Solmonese along with Eric Alva and others felt it was important to stay and engage those at the rally in ways they can continue building the pressure needed for repeal,” Thomas said. “This does nothing to diminish the actions taken by Lt. Choi and others. This is the nature of social change and everyone has a role to play.”
Phil Attey, a gay D.C. activist who attended the HRC rally, expressed particular distaste with Choi’s march to the White House and called it “politically unsophisticated beyond belief.”
“It’s a shame that our community needs to be educated about the political process and they don’t get it,” Attey said. “They don’t understand that Congress needs to be moved on this issue and that people across the country have the power to do that. And if they’re going to get them to yell and scream at the president, we’re going to fail, we’re going to lose.”
Shortly after Choi and Pietrangelo arrived at the White House, they handcuffed themselves to the fence, an action that drew a fast response from Secret Service personnel. Some uniformed Secret Service officers and U.S. Park Police quickly pushed the crowd away from the White House fence and into the street, and others erected yellow police tape around the area. About officers agents stayed behind the tape with Choi and Pietrangelo.
It was at around this time that McGehee was arrested near the White House fence.
In the moments that followed, the crowd began to chant “keep your promise, Obama,” a reference to the president’s oft-repeated pledge to end “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” As the chanting continued, four D.C. police cars joined an estimated 20 Secret Service and U.S. Park Police officers at the scene.
At one point, officers directed the protestors to stand at the nearby Lafayette Square. One woman in the crowd kneeled with her hands raised, praying aloud for the souls of gay people. At least one person told the woman that she should instead pray for equality.
About one hour after the protest began, uniformed officers released Choi and Pietrangelo from the handcuffs holding them to the White House fence. Both men were then arrested and taken from the scene in a white van.
Half or more of the crowd that arrived with Choi and Pietrangelo left the scene between the time the two men handcuffed themselves to the fence and the time police arrested them.
Alex Nicholson, executive director of Servicemembers United, said Thursday’s protest demonstrated the growing unrest the White House and Congress faces on “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.”
“The events that unfolded today should be a clear sign that people are worried that [‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’] repeal is getting derailed this year, they are angry that the ones most affected by this issue are being shut out of the process by ineffective insiders, and their patience is wearing thin with the standard ‘trust us, they have a plan’ line,” he said.
Staff writers Chris Johnson and Joshua Lynsen contributed to this article.
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