For 34 years, motorcycle-riding veterans and the supporters have flocked to Washington, D.C., on Memorial Day weekend for a ride to remember American prisoners of war and those missing in action. For 32 of those years, they’ve used the Pentagon’s parking lot as a staging point.
This year, President Joe Biden’s Department of Defense might finally put an end to that.
According to WJLA-TV in Washington, the Pentagon announced Friday that it’ll refuse to allow AMVETS — the veterans group that stages the event now called Rolling to Remember — to use its parking as a staging point. The Pentagon cited coronavirus pandemic concerns as its reason.
“A gentleman at the Pentagon told me that after careful consideration, our permit application was denied,” AMVETS Executive Director Joe Chenelly told WJLA on Friday.
“He said considerations involved the continued spread of COVID-19 in the region and the nature of our event, being that we are proposing a large gathering for an extended period of time.”
A Pentagon statement released Friday evening confirmed that.
“Unfortunately, the department has disapproved AMVETS permit request. The department took into careful consideration all aspects of AMVETS request, to include the current Health Protection Condition status on the Pentagon Reservation; substantial community transmission of COVID-19 in Arlington County, Virginia; number of Americans fully vaccinated across the nation; nature of this event with its decreased ability to maintain physical distance; and large crowds in one location for an extended period of time,” the Pentagon said.
“This event draws national attention and participation; therefore the risk of exposure from participants from other communities extends well beyond the National Capital Region.”
BREAKING: @AMVETSHQ tells me the @SecDef & @DeptofDefense has denied it the use of the Pentagon parking lot for this year’s @RollToRemember on Memorial Day weekend. The veteran’s group now will attempt to secure RFK Stadium as a new rallying point for 10K veterans. @7NewsDC pic.twitter.com/sVE8AgPGHl
— Scott Taylor 7 News I-Team (@ScottTaylorTV) April 30, 2021
The statement said it would be willing to consider hosting a future event, perhaps on Labor Day weekend.
“The department looks forward to supporting future events with AMVETS, and as always, we appreciate AMVETS’ support of our veterans, their families, and their communities, including promoting better awareness of veterans’ issues, as well as AMVETS continued support for our missing-in-action service members.”
The event started in 1988 as Operation Rolling Thunder, according to a 2005 report on its history by U.S. Veterans Dispatch
In 2019, Rolling Thunder founder Artie Muller announced it was getting too expensive and complicated to logistically control and that year would be its last, according to a Washington Post report from the time.
AMVETS, a non-partisan veterans’ service organization, took over the event in 2020 and renamed it to Rolling to Remember, WUSA noted in a report last year.
The ride was scaled back last year because of the pandemic, but the tradition continued for its 33rd year, AMVETS reported.
The Pentagon parking lot had served as the central meeting point for 32 of the past 34 iterations of the ride. The riders then move on to the National Mall for the main event.
WJLA’s report cited unnamed sources saying the Pentagon was concerned about the optics of the event.
Chenelly told WJLA that AMVETS is looking to use RFK Stadium as a backup staging point.
The decision from Biden’s Pentagon is a poor one from a number of vantage points.
For starters, the rally comes as much of Washington is already opening up, with the Smithsonian opening several of its facilities in May. If COVID really is the reason behind the move to deny an outdoor rally a permit, doing so at the same time D.C. is loosening restrictions on indoor museums is a curious look, especially since those are tourist locations that would also draw in “participants from other communities … well beyond the National Capital Region.”
There’s also the lateness of the hour. Chenelly told Stars and Stripes that he made the application to the Pentagon last July, expecting to hear back on it in January. In April, AMVETS got an approved permit from the Pentagon’s office for special events, only to have it revoked days later. When Stars and Stripes’ reported on the situation on April 21, Chenelly said the Pentagon “won’t even talk to us.”
“We’ve been trying to really be good partners in all of this and not blast the Pentagon, but we’ve gotten to point recently where we have to put the pressure on them,” he told the military publication.
Other government agencies have been more cooperative, according to Stars and Stripes.
“AMVETS has gained approvals for the event from the National Park Service, Metropolitan Police Department, Arlington County Police Department, Arlington County Fire Department, Virginia State Police and the District of Columbia Fire and Emergency Medical Services Department,” the news outlet reported.
Ignore the illogical suggestion the Pentagon made in its statement, which was to hold a rally to remember MIAs and POWs — what you would normally do on Memorial Day — on Labor Day weekend. That Rubicon has already been crossed, since the Department of Defense dallied on the permit well past the point of no return.
There are already veterans from around the country planning to come to Washington on Memorial Day weekend. The question is whether you want them to be staged in one place where rules can presumably be better enforced or in smaller groups around D.C., which is what Rolling to Remember says other veterans are planning to do on social media.
Not only would that be suboptimal in terms of curbing COVID spread, it would also snarl D.C. traffic and make the situation far more unpredictable than it would ordinarily be. And, if the organized rally itself goes away, Rolling to Remember turns into a spontaneous event with no cohesive agenda, something that would be far harder for authorities to control in any substantive way.
There’s also the fact that events like Rolling to Remember and Rolling Thunder tend to draw in conservative individuals. (For instance, in 2019, the head of Rolling Thunder predicted a swarm of bikers would descend on the capital if the Democrats impeached then-President Donald Trump.)
One imagines that might have played a part in the decision, particularly since any gathering of conservatives larger than a community dinner theater performance would draw is seen as a Grave Threat to Democracy™ after the Jan. 6 Capitol incursion.
However, it looks worse when you consider those bikers are already coming to Washington and don’t have a place to gather, there’s no imminent threat identified and, if COVID is being used for a pretext for all of this, we’ve already seen demonstrations like these on the streets of the capital after Joe Biden was declared the victor of the election by the mainstream media:
— ANI (@ANI) November 7, 2020
The difference, one suspects, is the dominant political sensibility of those who might be attending the Rolling to Remember event — and not their “decreased ability to maintain physical distance.”
But then, those celebrating Biden being declared the winner were adults fully able to weigh the risks for themselves — the same as the veterans who are coming to D.C., whether there’s an organized rally or not.
This is a disastrous call by a nannying Pentagon that likely made the COVID risk from Rolling to Remember far worse than it would have been if its participants could use the Pentagon parking lot, like they’ve done for the past 32 years. Nice work.
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.