Washington - An activist who has projected protest slogans on famous Washington facades was arrested Wednesday night after he shined the words "Discrimination is wrong" on the Rayburn House Office Building.
The misdemeanour count against Robby Diesu, 30, marks the first time anyone involved in the group responsible for the displays has been criminally charged. The artist who heads the effort said participants have had encounters with police agencies over the past few years.
The projections have become a new fixture of protest in the District of Columbia, shared on social media and on TV news, targeting government and private buildings that include the Trump International Hotel, and FBI headquarters. Participants projected "PAY TRUMP BRIBES HERE" on the side of the hotel along with other slogans, and an image of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi on the outside of the Newseum to protest President Donald Trump's acceptance of Saudi Arabia's version of how he was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.
Robin Bell, the artist who has coordinated the unique protests, noted at least one projected phrase that contained an obscenity Trump used to describe Haiti, El Salvador and some African nations.
Bell said he found it ironic that "after everything we've done, you would think the one thing nobody would have an issue with would be "Discrimination is wrong," a message intended for legislators debating the Equality Act, a bill to ban discrimination against the LGTBQ community.
Bell added, "We are insanely public about what we are doing."
A spokeswoman for US Capitol police, Eva Malecki, said the charge was for demonstrating in a "prohibited demonstration area." Malecki said that by projecting an image onto the House building, the protester was "unlawfully demonstrating on Capitol Grounds." She said such activity is prohibited under D.C. code and traffic regulations for the Capitol grounds.
Malecki declined to provide the identity of the person arrested, referring the question to the D.C. Office of the Attorney General, which prosecutes misdemeanour cases. A spokesman for that office declined to comment, saying the office did not yet have the documents from the arrest.
Bell provided a copy of the citation. He said Diesu has helped him in at least eight projections and works for D.C. Action Lab, a local advocacy group.
Clay Calvert, a professor and director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, said the citation seems to be a collision between the First Amendment and trespassing law, and the critical distinction will be in the intent of police in the arrest.
"If the reason for the arrest is that the government didn't like the message, then that would raise major First Amendment, free-speech concerns," Calvert said. "If the government has a content-neutral reason from preventing images then that is more likely to be upheld. I think this is probably their message, that a government building is not a billboard for people's speech."
Calvert added, "It's really a novel question."
In an interview, Diesu said he was projecting from a public area on the side of the Rayburn building when an officer walked by, didn't say anything and then returned. He said a sergeant then drove up to him and, "instead of issuing a warning or asking us to stop," put Diesu in handcuffs and confiscated the projection equipment.
Diesu said he was taken to the Capitol police station and given a citation that orders him to court. He said he was released after about two hours.
Police still have the projection equipment; Bell declined to say how much it is worth but said, "If I didn't firmly believe in what we are doing, and I cared about money, I'd be upset. I feel we are challenging what the First Amendment is and creating conversations. It's worth every penny."
Bell said he wants the story "to be about what we're saying, not about us."The Washington Post