Defense officials have denied veterans advocates permission to stage their annual Memorial Day motorcycle rally at the Pentagon parking lot, saying the crowd size poses a potential public health threat given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
The decision will force up to 10,000 participants already planning on attending the event to set up somewhere else in Washington for the weekend, complicating — but not outright cancelling — the annual tradition.
“There are no options with as much space and convenient routes to the memorials [as the Pentagon parking lot], meaning it will be more difficult, disruptive, and expensive than if they were available,” said Joe Chenelly, national executive director for AMVETS, the organizers of the ride.
“We don’t have time to worry about who has said no to us at this point,” he said. “We are now squarely focused on pulling together everything we need in the final few weeks.”
The “Rolling to Remember” event is scheduled for May 30. It is the successor to the annual Rolling Thunder motorcycle ride that was held for 32 years to draw attention to American service members still missing in action from wars overseas.
Over the years, that event grew to one of the largest annual veterans gatherings in America, routinely drawing tens of thousands of riders to the National Mall each Memorial Day weekend.
But organizers ended the tradition in 2019, citing the growing costs of crowd control and a lack of consistent cooperation from leaders at the Pentagon, whose parking lot was used as a pre-parade staging area.
The new AMVETS event, which started in 2020, is designed to highlight both POW/MIA troops and veterans who died by suicide. Only a few dozen riders participated last year, which occurred in the early days of the pandemic. But Chenelly said that thousands of riders are expected to converge on the nation’s capital this year — with or without a formal event — to keep the tradition alive.
AMVETS has already gotten the event cleared by National Park Service officials, Department of Transportation officials and local law enforcement agencies. The group has spent more than $75,000 on logistics and planning work so far.
AMVETS submitted applications for use of the Pentagon parking lot as the event last summer, and was given initial permission to use the space earlier this year. But days later, Pentagon officials rescinded that decision. A final decision was made with just 30 days left to plan before the event is scheduled to occur.
In their rejection note, Pentagon officials cited the ongoing pandemic, the “substantial” levels of infection in Arlington County, Virginia, and the size of the demonstration. Pentagon officials did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
But AMVETS officials said they factored those issues into their request, noting that the spacious Pentagon parking lots would have allowed adequate social distancing for participants as well enhanced safety practices for all riders.
“In the end, the Pentagon decided to deny the application without any meaningful communication with AMVETS,” National Commander Jan Brown said in a statement.
Organizers said they are confident they can still hold a “safe, reasonable demonstration outdoors that incorporates social distancing, masking where appropriate, and sanitation stations” even without the Pentagon’s cooperation, although they acknowledged that finding another site on such short notice remains challenging.
Officials said they will update staging plans and the motorcycle parade route in coming days on their web site.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.