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The weekly drum circle in Meridian Hill Park that has been a mainstay in the District since the civil rights era was disbanded by U.S. Park Police Sunday, since the park is federal land and supposed to be closed due to the government shutdown.
The drum circle started as normal at around 3:30 p.m and was scheduled to run until 9 p.m. At around 5:30 p.m., two Park Police officers approached the approximately 40 drummers and told them the park was closed and they had to leave. The park, nestled between the Adams Morgan, U Street NW, and Columbia Heights neighborhoods, was also filled with families, picnickers, and tightrope walkers.
“I don’t have an army to shut the park down, all I can do is tell people,” one of the officers told people as they questioned why the park had to shut down.
Most of the drummers left the park after police instructed them to do so. The officers disappeared after about a half-hour and, with the exception of the drum circle, most activities resumed as normal.
William Taft, an organizer of the percussion gathering who is listed as one of the holders of the permit that allows the drummers to assemble each week, said the Department of the Interior contacted him last week to tell him that because of the government shutdown, his permit would not be valid this weekend. (Taft, who has participated in the drum circle for decades, said everything went on without a hitch during the 1995 and 1996 shutdowns.)
At around 4:45 p.m., Taft held up a sign in the middle of the drum circle and told everyone that, because of the government shutdown, they could not legally be there and they should leave soon so they don’t risk losing their permit, which runs through November.
“If we keep doing this we may lose our permit for the next four weeks,” he shouted.
“Or we may not,” one woman responded.
Soon after, the cops showed up because they said they had received a complaint.
The drum circle has deep roots in the history of D.C.’s black residents: When slaves were emancipated in D.C. in 1862, some celebrated by dancing on Meridian Hill. According to drummers, the regular drum circles began in 1965 following the assassination of Malcolm X. Today, a large group of mostly African descendants from all over the world plays African rhythms (and other percussion styles) to celebrate their history in a place that is also known as Malcolm X Park.
“I feel that we have the right to assemble,” said Keren Sheffield, who kept on drumming even as the cops tried to break up the circle. “Just because the government shuts down doesn’t mean us paying our homage to our ancestors does.”
After the drum circle dispersed, many of the participants went to nearby Girard Street Park, which is owned by the city, not the feds.
“This is what the shutdown looks like,” Joe Kennedy, a longtime participant and coordinator of the drum circle, yelled.
Top photo by Matt Dunn; bottom photo by Perry Stein