How Capitol Hill sledders flouted the law--and won

After Congress left town and snow showers arrived Thursday, children and adults descended, toting their sleds to make use of the literal hill at the Capitol. The Capitol police tried to turn them away.

"We ask people not to sled on Capitol grounds," a police officer, appearing on the west lawn of the Capitol building, said to one sledder. A scrum of reporters and their cameras hovered close to the policeman, who was dressed in snow gear and wearing dark sunglasses in spite of the overcast sky.

The man he was speaking with, Tim Krepp, a one-time candidate for the District of Columbia's delegate seat in Congress, nodded his head as he listened but didn't back down.

"We've been sledding here for many years now. This is kind of a silly problem to have," Krepp said in response. Behind the father of two, a crowd convened, holding hand-made signs that read "Sled free or die."

It was the latest episode in the District of Columbia's ongoing snow saga, where sledders have repeatedly faced off against Capitol police over the sledding ban.

Effectively enforced after 9/11, Section 16.5 in the U.S. Capitol Police Traffic Regulations specifically prohibits winter sports on the grounds--sledding included. The U.S. House code dates back further, saying, "It shall be the duty of the Capitol police on and after April 29, 1876, to prevent any portion of the Capitol Grounds and terraces from being used as playgrounds or otherwise, so far as may be necessary to protect the public property, turf and grass from destruction or injury."

Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District's non-voting delegate in the House of Representatives, started a campaign to lift the ban.

"Families have started calling my office because they do not want to be turned away once again from sledding on U.S. Capitol Grounds," Norton wrote in a plea to Capitol Police and the Sergeant-at-Arms.

Norton wasn't the only one clamoring for better sledding conditions: House members like Rep. Harry Reid, R-Nevada, sent some supportive Tweets her way, while a petition to lift the sled ban garnered hundreds of signatures.

"Have a heart, Mr. Larkin," Norton implored. "A kid's heart, that is."

But Capitol Police stood firm.

They denied the congresswoman's request, saying, "[T]he Board cannot grant exceptions," though they would continue to review the traffic regulations and update "as necessary."

Norton was "deeply disappointed" with the police board but undaunted.

"The nation's capital is teeming with families and young children who are the latest generation to regard sledding on 'America's front lawn' during our rare snowstorms as one of our oldest and best traditions," Norton said in a responding statement. "I have not asked for unfettered or unregulated sledding. Rather, I have requested reasonable regulation of sledding to replace the absolute ban. I do not believe that is too much to ask for the Capitol Grounds, which are used for walking dogs and other activities, in a city that has so few snowfalls that can accommodate sledding."

And the sledders came anyway. Protests over the ban snowballed into civil disobedience, culminating in a protest on Capitol Hill.

"Despite efforts, the sled ban has not been waived for this weekend," a popular D.C. neighborhood blog, Prince of Petworth, announced Thursday morning. "But if you are up for a little civil disobedience, a sled-in is planned for today at 1pm. West lawn of the Capitol. Come armed with sleds!"

Lyndsey Medsker, a public affairs specialist, brought her two young sons to the slopes Thursday. Her family had tried two weeks ago to sled down Capitol Hill during Washington's last snowstorm. But Medsker's children, Finley and Atley, were only able to get a couple of runs in before Capitol Police ordered them to disperse.

She organized the "Sled-In" after hearing that her online petition had failed to sway Capitol Police.

Though a Capitol Hill officer confronted the sled enthusiasts about the ban, the police made no arrests, and D.C.'s delegate rejoiced.

No enforcement of #sledding ban on Capitol Hill today," Norton announced on Twitter. "Thank you Capitol Police!"

It wasn't the first time the Capitol softened on enforcing the ban. During President's Day weekend in 2010, then-Senator Chris Dodd, D-Connecticut, successfully petitioned Capitol Police to stop enforcing the sledding ban.

"At Snowmaggedon, Senator Dodd got the architect of the capitol to let us do it," Jody Pratt, a mother and D.C. resident, said as she stood with her sled outside the Capitol building.

"I think if you look around, you will see a lot of kids sledding and having fun in the snow," Medsker, the petitioner, said. She pointed out her own two children perched atop a bright orange sled. "And that was the entire intent of all of this."