Small acts of defiance help maintain normality in shut-down Washington DC

America Letter: Locked playgrounds symbolise official dysfunction in US capital

A padlocked chain on a gate interrupted the daily after-school ritual of playing in one of Lincoln Park’s two playgrounds during the shut-down...until an unlocked gate was found.

A padlocked chain on a gate interrupted the daily after-school ritual of playing in one of Lincoln Park’s two playgrounds during the shut-down...until an unlocked gate was found.


From lockdown to shutdown – little Amy Rose Carswell has experienced the extremes of American policing and politics more than most Irish three-year-olds, all in a space of just two weeks.

Reports of a shots fired by a gunman or gunmen – it wasn’t clear until later that day – rampaging around a US naval facility in Washington DC near her Capitol Hill primary school led to a dramatic email from the school’s principal with the subject line “Navy Yard Situation,” followed by a recorded phone call delivering the same message.

“As a precaution, we are on lockdown. Special teachers in the outdoor classrooms are teaching their classes in homerooms. We will also have indoor recess. All normal activities will resume as soon as we hear that the situation no longer poses threat,” the principal told parents in the email circular. “I will keep you updated. Please avoid coming to school. We want all doors to remain closed and locked. Email or call if you have questions.”

The memory of what happened at the Sandy Hook primary school in Connecticut, still less than a year ago, couldn’t but jump into your mind. It led you to consider such alien though rational thoughts such as how far is it from her school to whatever is happening down at the navy yard (answer: 1.6 miles) and how would the principal react if I showed up in a panic demanding to bring my daughter home.

There was no comfort in hearing later on that a troubled lone gunman who murdered 12 people at the start of their working week was killed by police.

But there was plenty of discomfort seeing how one of the worst US mass shootings in recent years barely made the television news by the end of the week.

It is appalling that an incident as shocking as the Navy Yard shootings that can “lock down” at least six schools in America’s capital cannot compel the country’s lawmakers – working as close to scene of the slaughter as my daughter’s school – to act to prevent such tragedies happening again and again.

Regardless of the position you take in the debate – whether such mindless acts of violence are as a result of bad gun laws or a failed mental health system or whatever else may be argued – the apathy in the aftermath of the killing of a dozen innocent people in less than an hour is still scary.

A fortnight later, proving the challenge of finding agreement on changes to gun laws or anything else contentious in the great political divide between Republicans and Democrats, the US government shut down on October 1st. It had an unexpected consequence for Amy and her schoolfriends.

A padlocked chain on a gate interrupted the daily after- school ritual of playing in one of Lincoln Park’s two playgrounds.

Earlier in the day the National Park Service ordered my youngest daughter Kate and her babysitter, along with nannies and other toddlers, out of the Capitol Hill playground. Its employees were among more than 700,000 government workers sent home on unpaid leave just hours after Republicans refused to pass a budget because they didn’t like president Barack Obama’s healthcare law.

Much like veterans refused to be shut out of the National World War II Memorial three miles away on the National Mall, local parents within shouting distance of the Capitol would not bend. They may not have been able to do much about politicians’ tantrums but were not going to tolerate toddlers’ tantrums.

A day later parents found a second unlocked gate on each playground. Nobody’s sure whether a chain had been cut overnight or whether the park services had simply locked one gate as a token gesture of the shutdown. It didn’t matter – in ignorant defiance of Congress, Amy, Kate and their friends kept playing.

Again, just as the war memorial became a plaything in the political blame game over the shutdown, locked playgrounds on the day of the shutdown were used by local television news crews to show how the deadlock had upended everyday lives – even those of the little children, dammit!

The end of the shutdown
this week officially reopens federal-run parks and playgrounds across the capital as well as the National Zoo and “Panda Cam” – the around-the-clock live web streaming of the zoo’s giant panda Mei Xiang and her almost two-month-old female cub. The online broadcast covers Washington’s newest panda much like television channel C-Span covers Washington’s politicians.

The cub weighed just over 3lbs at the end of September when the zoo gave its last update before the shutdown. She now weighs 5lbs but won’t be able to walk until she’s four months old.

That will be, as the Huffington Post noted, shortly before Wednesday’s budget deal runs out.

Amy will enjoy seeing that, if Congress can keep the zoo open long enough.