Child cancer event shut down outside White House by Secret Service

© Jonathan Ernst
There's been public outcry on social media after hundreds of children with cancer and their parents – holding a pre-cleared candlelight vigil to raise awareness of childhood cancer – were told to exit Lafayette Square outside the White House on Saturday.

The US Secret Service and Park Police barricaded the park for at least two hours based on security concerns, according to The Washington Post, disrupting an event – for which organizers had obtained a proper permit to hold – called "A Night of Golden Lights," during which participants would hold electric candles.

Attendees of the two-day event known as CureFest for Childhood Cancer told the Post that some police officers and Secret Service agents on the scene said the closure occurred because President Barack Obama had left the White House from an area near the square in order to attend the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's annual gala several blocks from the White House, at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

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As the closure wore on Saturday evening, some cancer-stricken children had to leave to address their fatigue or take medication, according to the Post. Some children began crying, and parents were disappointed in the Secret Service's insistence on barricading the park.

“At first, we were patient. I mean we’re a peaceful community; we’re fighting for kids’ lives,” Anthony Stoddard, father of a young boy who perished at age 5, told the Post. “But after about an hour, or hour and a half, it started getting a little angry, some of the fathers.”

Brian Leary, a Secret Service spokesman, told the Post the restrictions at Lafayette Park and Pennsylvania Avenue were “put into place based on standard [Secret Service] 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," he added.

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Attendees of the event said that once the area was closed down, at least 700 people were not allowed to go back into the park to access personal items, like chairs and blankets, they had brought with them. Organizers said the closure may have had something to do with the Secret Service's embattled public image, damaged by several high-profile security lapses in recent years.

“I feel like this may be overcompensating for glaring errors that the Secret Service has made in past years," said organizer Michael Gillette, director of The Truth 365, a documentary film concerning children with cancer and the lack of research funding to address childhood cancer. "And again, we understand the need to keep our president safe. But we think a little consideration would have gone a long way."

He added: “When we get shut out of the president’s front yard, it’s just disheartening.”

The vigil's organizers had a permit to hold an event – with a stage for speakers and musical acts – from 7 to 9 p.m., according to Stoddard. It was the second year for the candlelight vigil, organized in part after the White House refused the organizers' request to light up the mansion in gold in support of the group's cause.

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“Police were telling a lot of people in our group to leave because it was so close to the road there was a traffic issue. It got really frustrating. No one was giving us answers about when we would get in. So finally, about 10:30, we gave up,” Stoddard said. “It was heartbreaking.”

Lafayette Square, the public park set just across a closed street from the White House grounds, has been subject to tight security protocols since the September 11, 2001. Yet the park is also a staging ground for numerous demonstrations, rallies, festivals, and assorted public events for causes of all stripes, complicating the balance between security and public access around the president's home.

The Secret Service came under scrutiny during President Obama's appearance at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 2014 gala as well. A man pretending to be a congressman snuck into a secure backstage area at the Walter E. Washington convention center, where Obama had just given an address to attendees. The man was eventually outed as an imposter and left the building without incident.