We lose when the public space becomes a battlespace

David Poulson

By David Poulson

The guard burst from the presidential gatehouse with his gun drawn.

“Stop that,” he yelled as he pointed his weapon at me.

Stunned, I slowly lowered my phone to the ground. I was dressed for an early morning run in Lilongwe, the capital city of Malawi in Africa. As I often do when working out-of-town, I had combined my morning run with a little sightseeing.

Several miles from my guesthouse and down a dusty road, I had come across the entrance to Malawi’s presidential palace. The residence lay somewhere beyond the fence, hidden by a hill. I had stopped to take a quick snap of the gatehouse covered in colorful, exotic flowers.

The guard quickly approached, stopping when he was a few feet and his gun was a few inches from me.  I figured he thought I had held a bomb.

Not so. He demanded that I pick up the phone and delete the pictures. I sputtered that I had not yet clicked the button.

He was unconvinced.

“How would you like it if I came to your country and took a picture of your president’s home?” he snarled.

Despite the circumstances, I nearly laughed. For my enduring memory of Washington D.C. is of tourists jostling outside the White House to take pictures as if they could capture something other than what was already on millions of postcards.

When I first visited Washington with my family as a young boy, I pushed a camera between the bars of the fence to get an unobstructed shot of the White House.

It was excitingly close.

Tourists had their pictures taken with cardboard cutouts of the president, the real White House serving as backdrop. Across the street in Lafayette Square – yes, that same park – protesters carried signs and homeless people slept on the ground.

This was exciting stuff for a kid from a small Midwestern town.

I often relived that thrill as an adult when visiting Washington for work or for pleasure. I still laughed at the tourists and pondered the park’s daily protests. Someone was always upset with the White House’s current occupant, or at least while I was in town.

It didn’t bother me much when I discovered during one of those morning sightseeing runs that  a section of Pennsylvania Avenue with the White House was closed to all but pedestrians.

That happened in 1995 after the Oklahoma City bombing. But I could still run by.

Now, the White House is expanding and hardening its borders. Concrete barriers and a  fence too tightly woven for a camera shot have been installed.

Lafayette Square is yielding peaceful protests to tear gas and rubber projectiles.

Instead of the same countless pictures of the White House, we’re obsessed with controversial images from across the street of the president holding a Bible aloft.

In Malawi, the guard’s senior officer came to my rescue. He quickly scrolled through the images  and said something to the guard, who then retreated.

He returned the phone and suggested I run back to the guesthouse. I quickly complied.

Later, when I recounted the experience to my Malawian driver, he was incredulous.

“Are you crazy?” he laughed. “You can’t do that.”

I joined him, the classic dumb American, uneducated in the ways of the country I visited and assuming its customs were no different than those of my own.

But months later as I retold that story and reflected on the experience, I felt gratitude for living in a country where you could take a picture of the president’s house without the action perceived as a threat.

Now, I worry that may become no longer a distinction.

Supporters of the president say the stepped-up security is a necessary show of law and order to protect our democratic institutions. His critics say it’s a misguided attempt by a weak president to appear strong.

Regardless, I regret that the area immediately outside Our House where tourists, protesters, politicians, bureaucrats, residents, workers and the homeless once gathered, has become that much smaller and that much more distant from a seat of power.

We all lose when the public space becomes a battlespace.

David Poulson is the senior associate director of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism

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