N.C. Farmer Ends Standoff With Police
By David A. Fahrenthold and Arthur Santana
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, March 19, 2003; 1:51 PM
A North Carolina tobacco farmer, who had kept several hundred police officers at bay for 48 hours while threatening to detonate explosives on the Mall, peacefully walked away from his John Deere tractor and into police custody shortly before noon today.
Dwight W. Watson was not injured and it wasn't immediately known what convinced him to give up his siege in a pool in Constitution Gardens. Park Police Chief Teresa C. Chambers praised the "successful conclusion" of the protest, which had restricted a key section of the city. She thanked "motorists and commuters who had to be very patient" throughout the crisis when police closed part of Constitution Avenue and other roads in the area creating massive traffic jams.
Constitution Avenue was reopened shortly after 1 p.m.
Chambers reported that "for the past day, Mr. Watson has helped work out the details of his surrender and he followed those to the letter."
Chambers said officers would inspect Watson's tractor and equipment to make sure there are no explosives. The D.C. police bomb squad is on the scene.
The end of the siege began at about 11:35 a.m. when the agents of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms brought a large white truck on the north side of Constitution Avenue. About two minutes later, Watson began driving the tractor to the south side of the pond.
About five minutes later, about a half dozen agents lined up and began walking slowly in the direction of Watson, who then got out of the tractor with his arms raised. He began walking toward a white van that had driven onto the site. At that point, officers emerged from the van and apprehended him.
After two days and an intense night of negotiations, the protest was ended in about five minutes. Van Harp, head of the FBI's Washington field office, said that law enforcement authorities were in control of the siege from the start. He said that Watson followed instructions given him by negotiators. He said it was an "extraordinary accomplishment" that no one was hurt in the ordeal, adding, "The threat level was exceptional but it was de-escalated and controlled from the outset."
In a telephone interview yesterday Watson said that his goal was to deliver a message to the American public about the plight of farmers or "die trying." In a second interview last evening, Watson said that he did not want to hurt anyone and that he told police negotiators he would surrender peacefully today if they "treat me with respect."
Watson, 50, of Whitakers, N.C., was protesting the government's tobacco farming policies and initially rebuffed pleas from relatives and neighbors yesterday.
In the hours before the surrender, Watson sometimes gave conflicting signals to authorities on the scene.
For example, Watson continued to ignore police commands through the early morning hours to get out of the tractor. Sgt. Scott Fear, a spokesman for the U.S. Park Police, said communication with Watson was "off and on" and that by 10 a.m., they were talking with him either by cellular phone or bullhorn.
"You've got our attention, now come on out," an officer said about 6 a.m. "Dwight c'mon.... You're not keeping your word. You said you were coming out. Now come out."
The negotiator seemed at times to be adamant about her commands. "Open your door and come out!" At other times, she called out to Watson more subdued. "Please answer your phone."
Watson ignored the commands and continued to stay in the tractor's cab, occasionally rocking back and forth, snacking and waving his arms around at no one in particular.
At one point about 9 a.m., Watson stepped halfway out of the cab onto the running board to relieve himself into the pond. Later, Watson could be seen resting his head in his arms on the tractor's steering wheel and later shaving.
But that stalemate followed the most dramatic action thus far by authorities when, after seeing Watson put his tractor in gear and begin to move to the edge of the pond -- beginning to dig into the ground with his tractor's front-end spade -- they fired three cannon bursts, cracking the morning's stillness.
Ground floodlights, which had been directed at Watson in the darkness, immediately cut off after the blasts, and the tractor's perpetually blinking orange light could be seen moving. Watson stopped a few seconds later, began to gently rock back and forth in the tractor's cab as a U.S. Park Police helicopter immediately took flight, hovering, at times, very close to Watson's tractor, keeping their own floodlight trained on him.
"He started moving and getting a little anxious," Fear said. "And we were moving right along with him." Fear stressed to reporters camped out near the site that Watson did not fire the devices causing the flashes and loud bangs. Fear declined to describe the device used or to say if an actual weapon was deployed.
Staff writers David Nakamura and Allen Lengel contributed to this story.
© 2003 The Washington Post Company