WASHINGTON — It was supposed to be “A Night of Golden Lights” — a candlelight vigil for children who died from cancer. But the event was ruined when Secret Service evicted the crowd, including terminally-ill children, from Lafayette Square Saturday evening.
More than 750 people, mostly families, were forced to stand on the curb for more than three hours as Secret Service agents shut down the area, even though the event had a permit to be there.
“The purpose of the vigil is to remember children who have died from cancer,” says CureFest for Childhood Cancer organizer Mike Gillette. The two-day event aimed to unite the childhood cancer community to raise awareness and money for research.
But Secret Service agents kicked out the attendees twice during the event because President Barack Obama was traveling to and from the White House.
Gillette says agents shut down Lafayette Square the first time while organizers were setting up the space. Agents told parents they may be kicked out again, but did not give a timeline. Later, Secret Service forced the attendees to leave again, this time until well after the event was originally scheduled to be over.
“We expected a brief shutdown of maybe 30 minutes. But what we did not expect was a shutdown of three hours. That was something that caused a lot of distress to our families,” Gillette says.
Only a handful of people were left by the time Lafayette Square was reopened.
— CureFest (@CureFestDC) September 20, 2015
Since the event was issued a permit to be in Lafayette Square — both this year and last year — Gillette says he believes Secret Service should have communicated with them about a temporary closure.
“The Secret Service knew we were there but they chose to have [the president] leave through an entrance or exit that was closest to our event … We understand protecting the president is paramount; it’s so important. But a little communication would have gone a long way. If they told us what was happening, we could have come up with a plan B,” he says.
Some of the attendees were terminally-ill children.
“They may never get to go to this event if we have it next year,” Gillette says.
In a statement, Secret Service Spokesman Brian Leary says the closures on Saturday evening “were put into place based on standard USSS protocols prior to protectee movements in the vicinity of the White House Complex. The Secret Service would like to express its regret for not communicating more effectively with this group concerning the timeline for protectee movements in the vicinity of Lafayette Park.”
For years, the group petitioned that the White House be lit up in gold, but were denied. So last year, they decided to add their own golden glow to the White House grounds with 1,000 battery-powered candles.
“They light the White House pink for breast cancer and they do it for other causes, so we would like to do that for childhood cancer. Each year we get denied. So last year we decided to do it ourselves,” Gillette says.
This year, the candlelight vigil included entertainment: speakers, dozens of performing children and a $10,000 custom-designed stage.
“We were really excited about the event and just minutes before we were supposed to start, we were evicted.”
This is not the first time the Secret Service has been criticized about its security policies. Last year, a man scaled the White House fence and entered the executive mansion before being arrested. Coincidentally, that incident happened just hours before the first “Night of Golden Lights” vigil, but it was allowed to go on. The group doesn’t blame the president, who likely had no knowledge about the event, but they do place some of the blame on the Secret Service.
“The whole purpose of the event was to honor children with cancer. Not to disrespect them and not to make them suffer or hurt their feelings,” Gillette says.
© 2015 WTOP. All Rights Reserved.