Things That Tick Me Off: The D.C. Chinese New Year Parade

I have a new addition to our series, “Things That Tick Me Off,” encounters and experiences that go beyond the usual level of inconvenience or stupidity in everyday life. This weekend, we took the kids to the D.C. Chinese Lunar New Year parade in Chinatown with another family. It was not just the worst experience we have had in an outing with the kids, we felt fortunate to leave the parade without injury. It was nothing short of unbelievable.

First some history. Leslie and I took the kids years ago to the parade and had a uniquely bad experience. It had poor crowd control and the parade itself was incredibly short — literally a parade that passed by in its entirely in a matter of minutes. However, we wanted the kids to experience this culture and decided to give it another chance to celebrate the Year of the Dragon. It was a huge mistake.

The parade organizers appear to have spent more time in advertising the event than actually planning it. There was an almost complete absence of crowd coordination or any parade security to be seen. Thousands of people were packed into a tiny area where the stage was set up at H and 6th street. Security tape was placed across the middle of the street at one point and people did not know if the parade would come to the end of the street or if they should stand behind the tape in the middle of the street. Since there was no one to direct people, there was a surge of people just before the start of the parade into the middle of the street. This led everyone to give up their spots and fight for a position to see the parade. The lead car of the parade then came directly down the parade and beeped for people to move. There were virtually no police to be seen. The result was chaos. People were fighting for their old positions and the crowd was forced back to the sidewalks.

We were caught with the rest of the people in the stampede. It was unbelievably dangerous and thousands of people were pressed on to the sidewalk. You literally could not breathe. People were pressing from all sides. One woman was trying to get her mother with MS out of the crowd in a wheelchair. Families like ours tried to keep our children from being crushed. I literally put Aidan on my shoulder because adults were stepping on children to get out. The conduct we witnessed of adults was shocking with people screaming at each other and other people having panic attacks. At one point, I wanted to take a picture of the scene but I could not reach into my pocket for my phone with people pressing from all sides. People were coming from both ends of the street (particularly on the side with the Metro stop) and trying to move in opposite directions. In the meantime, shop owners in Chinatown were screaming at people not to even step on their stairs to get out of the away because it was “private property.” The effect was literally crushing with people pushing from both ends of the street and people pushing back from the street . . . and shop owners pushing people away from their doors.

When D.C. police were finally seen in the street, they made things worse by ordering people sitting on the curbs to move to the sidewalks — ignoring cries from people that they were being crushed. A stampede could have broken out easily at any time.

The situation was better away from the short street with the stage but there was also a lack of police or security present. People walked in front of cars and officers simply drove down the street expecting people to get out of their way. I personally had to grab two children (not my own) who were standing in front of a turning truck. The mother was behind in the crowd. The most dangerous situation however was on the block with the stage. That is where people were being crushed and literally unable to move. The city risked a serious disaster for its lack of planning and effort.

The most bizarre moment came when the mayor and council members appeared on stage to give speeches after the the remarkably short parade had passed. As people clawed to get out of the area, one council member could be heard proclaiming “This is what D.C. is all about.” Unfortunately, that may be true.

The lack of planning and security could have led to a disaster. It may need a lawsuit to get the parade organizers and city to show a modicum of efforts and judgment. The fault falls primarily on the organizers who created a dangerous situation for the public. However, the D.C. police and city share the blame for such a chaotic situation. I saw officers who seemed entirely clueless on what they should do. Others seemed intent on ignoring the reality in front of them — after the passing of the parade, ordering hundreds of people to get out of the streets and onto sidewalks that were in total gridlock.

If this parade cannot be held without creating such peril, it should not be held. That would be a shame. The Chinese community deserves better. A better parade and a better planning committee. For our part, we promised the kids that they would never have to go to the parade again. They looked totally shell shocked for about an hour. In order to show the better side of the Chinese culture, we took them to a wonderful Chinese restaurant in Virginia. It helped a bit but the kids were still shaken by that vicious conduct of adults and the scary situation on H St.

The situation at the D.C. parade is a disgrace. The city is fortunate that it is not looking at a massive lawsuit after a stampede . . . as are the organizers. For a city that routinely hosts parades and protests, it was a shockingly negligent performance. If they continue this type of dangerous lack of planning, they may learn the wisdom of the Chinese proverb 失足成千古恨 (yi shi zu cheng qian gu hen): “The error of one moment becomes the sorrow of a whole life.”

18 thoughts on “Things That Tick Me Off: The D.C. Chinese New Year Parade”

  1. My dad explained to me that in a crowd the reason people die on events like Black Friday or the Haj s that the people in back are pushing forward and the people in the front have nowhere to go but forward this creates a huge press of people’ The best way to solve this is to create barriers that separate the crowd.

  2. If you wanted you kids to immerse in the culture, that is the way things are in Asia, particularly China. From the way you described the event, it sounds pretty spot on.

  3. This sounds very similar to Halloween in Georgetown a few years back where people were getting crushed against the storefronts. There were plenty of police there. The police on the southeast corner of the intersection told not to cross the street. The police on the northeast corner of the intersection were told to cross the street to keep people from getting crushed. When they crossed the street the police on the southeast corner said “Did you not F**king listen to me? I said don’t cross the street”. Someone responded “The police told us to cross” and he reached for is zip tie cuffs and started chasing people saying “Now you are giving me lip and now you are going to get arrested”. Needless to say it went downhill form there. Honestly if there were no cops it would have been a peaceful evening.

  4. Factoid about a term from an earlier generation that I did not know:

    “It is alleged to have originated when a ship staffed by British officers and a Chinese crew practiced a fire drill in the engine room. The bucket brigade drew water from the starboard side, took it to the engine room, and threw it onto the fire. A separate crew hauled the accumulated water to the main deck and heaved the water over the port side. The drill went according to plan until the orders became confused in translation. The bucket brigade began to draw the water from the starboard side, run over to the port side and then throw the water overboard, bypassing the engine room completely.”

  5. one drum circle and three people holding signs saying “we are the 99%” and you’d have all the police you ever wanted. plus that wonderful condiment spray.

  6. Chinese holiday parades are not anything the Koch brothers, Art Pope or Grover Norquist disapproves of, so the police had no reason to bother with it.

  7. You would think that of all places, DC would be huge control freaks when it comes to crowds and events. This wasn’t in the “outskirts” of the city/metro area – this was a few minutes walk from the core federal buildings, including Capitol Hill. looking at map…. Judiciary Square, FBI headquarters… Oh, hey look at that… 5 blocks from DC Metro Police Headquarters!

  8. It’s a wonder any of us survive. Take our party in Peking. Our guide when asked about the brass YIN-YANG, embedded in the concrete underfoot (green with age), replied he thought is was something forbidden to know about or some other nonsense,
    Then came the parade, where there the climax, to judge from the crowd reaction, was a “monument” of massive wood borne on the shoulders of 10 sweating redfaced men, each mightily strained.
    We were force like you, by the mob behind us, up close. If one of us or others had tripped the bearers……!
    No uniforms in sight. (The only ones we ever saw were in Tian Men square.)

  9. I’m glad to hear that your family is okay. Perhaps, the police were busy over at McPherson Square dealing with the Occupy DC protestors

    When my wife was in law school in the 1980’s in DC, she and her APALSA friends referred to “China Block,” because even then, it had shrunk to a degree that belied the name “Chinatown.”

    That being said, we stopped eating at restaurants there at least two decades ago, even in the absence of a parade. We live in the ‘burbs, and it is just so much easier to stay there when we go out to eat. We highly recomment China Garden in Rosslyn for dim sum on Sundays, if you are into that. It’s become our Mother’s Day tradition.

  10. The DC police were probably too busy watching peaceful protestors somewhere else in the city to actually control the crowds at this parade. Large groups of people and fireworks of all kinds is not a good mixture.

  11. On the bright side, you all escaped arrest for blocking the sidewalk, under the new “incommode” regulation, DC Official Code §22 – 1307 (2011).

  12. What a shame. I am glad everyone escaped physically undamaged.

    For years we took our children to an International Culture event in Canton, Ohio held in their convention center. The children sampled food, watched dancers and musicians on stage and attended “classes” held by each of the 40-50 countries represented. It became such a popular family event that the last two years we attended, they each were allowed to bring 3 friends for the all day and well into the evening festivities. The kids would spend weeks preparing, learning short phrases in particular languages in order to greet the workers at some of their favorite booths or teachers in their favorite short classes.

    I am so sorry your children had such a horrible experience as their first introduction to the culture of China and I hope they can be persuaded to give it another go at a safer and better organized event.

  13. As a Father of two, albeit now adults, I was horrified at the events JT described, because I could vividly see in my own mind how I would react were it my family. It brought to mind an experience one July 4th, when we brought our daughters to the Boardwalk in Long Beach, to view the fireworks on display from another beach only a few miles away. NYS does not allow the sale of fireworks and use of them is similarly barred. However, these are rules generally ignored by the authorities. Indeed, for years John Gotti put on a massive fireworks display in Howard Beach, with little law enforcement interference.

    That Fourth on Long Beach revelers were up and down the two mile boardwalk ad swarming over the Beach. Many had fireworks ranging from firecrackers to rockets. It seemed like a battlefield as we walked a few blocks and we had to leave hurriedly because my daughters were terrified by the explosions and reveling around them. The Boardwalk is typically heavily patrolled by police on most nights, but that night the few who could be seen were doing little to ensure order.

    Having been through that, knowing you have more children and in an urban setting, I could only imagine how difficult an experience this was.

  14. Unnfortunately crowd control is something many police and security forces are little trained in. Most governments equate crowd control with riot control.

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