Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Letter to A Bureaucrat

This post was written a few years ago - there was never a resolution. We lost.

Recently a friend of mine who plays lunchtime pickup game of soccer received an email from a bureaucrat with the National Park Service. The email required that the lunchtime pickup game of soccer be ended. A quote from the email reads, “The National Park Service (George Washington Memorial Parkway) operates under a series of regulations which are designed to protect the resources and we are not at liberty to randomly enforce them”. Then he cites from the regulation, 36 CFR (7-1-01 Edition), Ch. 1 Part 7.96. He obviously believes he is enforcing this regulation and therefore applies it to the casual game of lunchtime pickup soccer that now must end.

First some history-
Pick-up soccer, as with all pick-up games, is not an organized athletic event. Running at lunchtime, even though many people may do it, is not an organized event either. To suggest that lunch is an organized activity is a bizarre twist of facts. Pick-up soccer, for those who play several times a week, is indeed as regular as clockwork. It is far from organized. It is not the competition that compels us to play – a necessary aspect of all organized athletics. It is not the physical exercise. What compels players to play pick up soccer is the sheer freedom of this activity. There is no league, there are no fees, and thus there is no profit. There are no boundaries, there are no team loyalties, there is no championship match, and there are no winners or losers. This lack of organization is exactly what makes this activity of great appeal to those who play. There is only a fellowship with the grass, a diversion from our daily thoughts, and the ability to breathe fresh air.

All it takes to play soccer is a patch of grass. In many parts of the world grass isn’t even a requirement. It’s tough to say that a pick-up game of soccer played by children on a dirt lot in a small town in Central America is an organized sport simply because it is played everyday at the same time – after school. It is tough to say any pick-up game is an organized affair. It is by its very nature an unorganized game that “picks-up” when the time and condition are right. Lunchtime, recess, or a carefree Sunday morning are all the right times. A patch of grass is the right condition.

In most pick-up games last names are unknown, first names and nicknames are all that are used. There are no rosters. If you come to a pick-up game played at the Pentagon long enough you will run into many faces that you recognize – but not the uniforms. It’s surprising to note that the player you passed the ball to yesterday is wearing the rank of Lt Cmdr in the US Navy today. It’s surprising to note that the player who beat you in the air and scored with his head after a perfectly crossed ball was a Senior Airman in the US Air Force. It’s also surprising to note that on this occasion a Brigadier General in the US Army showed up and crossed the ball to the Senior Airman.

Our patch of grass was originally the rolling park beneath the Pentagon mall entrance. The game was played three days a week all year long and had been occurring for the past 25 years. That game was disrupted when the new postal facility was constructed to move potential threats from these deliveries. The Pentagon Building manager and Pentagon Grounds Manager responded quickly to allow us to meet at lunch on the lower drill field just above the marina. Here we ran and played below the windows of Cohen and later Rumsfeld. And this patch of grass was unlike any other soccer pitch any of us had ever played on. 100% grass – but not just any grass – a soft thick carpet of grass with soft earth to hold the roots and allow the grass to grow and thrive. Some different rules applied – no playing when the ground was wet or after the first snow, no playing again until after the new seed in the spring began to germinate. We can play within these rules. Unfortunately this patch of heaven was violently ripped from our hands after 9/11 after which the Pentagon Helicopter Port was temporarily moved to our patch of grass. For a time we played on – sharing the field with our rotary winged friends. We stopped only for their arrival or departure – unable to hear from the turbine noise but able to feel every beat of the blades and the burst of wind from the rotor wash. 9/11 also took one of our own – Navy Lt Cmdr Bill Donovan. Most of us did not know his last name or rank until his picture appeared in the news. We stood down for a few days to honor those who fell. We continue to play on to honor those who fell.

With new construction about to reroute Route 110 directly across our sacred grass we will permanently lose this playing area. We looked to the National Park Land that surrounds the Pentagon for an alternate location. We found one - A large grassy island in the middle of the George Washington Parkway. There are no nature trails, there is no wildlife in harms way, and there is no risk of environmental damage. Since we have been playing there we have heard no complaints from the owners of this property - the public - and we have interfered with no one. It is our national park – we live in the National Capital Region. We would like to use our national park system. But we cannot for the regulation reads: “(b) Athletics - (1) Permits for organized games; "Playing baseball, football, croquet, tennis, and other organized games or sports except pursuant to a permit and upon the grounds provided for such purposes, is prohibited."

Oddly enough under the same regulation, although we cannot play an organized game we could assemble in an organized protest. Therefore it is time to organize a protest. This protest would be a demonstration of our rights to use our national parks in ways that strengthen our minds and bodies. This protest would take the form of a non-violent activity. We would play soccer. Five days a week, all year long. Here is how it would work. Everyday, a number of players would arrive at the patch of grass known as Columbia Island/Lady Bird Johnson Park. It lies smack between opposing directions of George Washington Parkway just north of Lady Bird Johnson Park. This protest would be held daily between 12 pm and 1 pm. The protest will consist of a group of protesters continuously running through the grass for exactly 60 minutes each day. The protestors will zigzag, crisscross, run sideways, forwards, and back and forth. And the demonstrators will kick the head of a government bureaucrat at the National Park Service between their feet. Occasionally they will take aim and shoot the ball in an attempt to bounce this effigy off one of two portable soapboxes placed at each end of the park. These soapboxes are permitted structures allowed under the regulation and are positioned for orators to speak from in the event someone would like to talk at our protests – it’s not required that anyone speaks. We cannot play – organized games are prohibited. We can certainly protest – and the best part of this is that we will not require a permit. Protests that number less than 25 do not require such organization and planning – unless it is anticipated that a large crowd will be drawn to watch. Drawing a crowd seems unlikely as this particular patch of grass is an island locked between lanes of traffic on George Washington Parkway. It’s about a mile run from the closest building, the Pentagon. And there are no trails to or through this section of the national park. There are also no concessions, facilities, or benches to sit on.

This is our national park. This land belongs to everyone. This land does not belong to some pencil neck bureaucrat who temporarily has the job of “protecting the resources” and ensuring that he does not “randomly enforce” his sacred regulations. If the Pentagon were in Yosemite we might choose to rock climb at lunch. If the Pentagon were in Yellowstone we might choose to hunt or fish. These parks also belong to us as well. They are just a little less convenient to get to on our lunch break. This particular park happens to be a fairly flat stretch of grass within our lunchtime reach. Some individuals chose to spend this time running like children at recess through this National grass. There is no organization and there is no protest in doing so. There is freedom and the ability to breathe. What more can they ask? What better use is there for our National Parks?