WASHINGTON — Occupy DC protesters will get one final warning before U.S. Park Police begin to enforce the ban on camping in McPherson Square, but enforcement will be conducted against individuals and will not lead to a full-scale eviction of demonstrators, the National Park Service’s director said Tuesday.
NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis testified at a hearing of a House oversight subcommittee, taking pointed questions from Republican lawmakers about why camping has been allowed since the protest began in early October in the small park just blocks from the White House. He conceded that protesters have been sleeping in tents and that no one has been cited for it, and said park police have taken a cautious approach toward bringing Occupy DC in compliance with all regulations.
“Each of our First Amendment demonstrations (is) a little bit unique. And this one is, let’s say, unprecedented. The core of their First Amendment activity is that they occupy the site,” Jarvis said. “We felt that going in right away and enforcing the regulations against camping could potentially incite a reaction on their part that would result in possible injury or property damage.”
The park service contends that protesters are allowed to maintain a 24-hour vigil in the park, and Jarvis cited other examples of long-running vigils on park service property in the nation’s capital, including a sit-in by farmers with tractors on the National Mall in 1979 and an ongoing one-person, 30-year vigil against nuclear proliferation in Lafayette Square across from the White House.
“The enforcement of the camping regulations does not require that the protesters leave the park,” Jarvis said later, according to a spokesman. “We will encourage them to sleep elsewhere. Typically at these vigil sites, the protesters use rotational shifts such that someone is always on site and awake.”
Lawmakers including Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said they were concerned about selective enforcement of the camping ban and suggested that the park service was bowing to pressure from the Obama administration by allowing the protesters to remain.
“They have a clear ability and requirement to prohibit overnight camping according to their own rules and they are not doing it. And I’m deeply disappointed,” Issa said. “I fear that the park service has entered into an ideological fray by making this decision on behalf of the administration.”
Jarvis said the park service treats each protest as unique and said decisions on enforcement were being made from the bottom up, by police officers who patrol the site. He said he had not been pressured by his superiors. The park service is part of the Department of the Interior, and Jarvis said he regularly briefs Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on issues related to the camp but is taking no direction from him on how to handle it.
“I am ideologically neutral on this. I could care less what their cause is,” Jarvis said.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the subcommittee that oversees the District of Columbia, said the lack of enforcement would have troubling implications for other parks.
“I’m going to be making sure that anyone who wants to camp throughout the United States, as long as they say they’re protesting, can do whatever they want in federal parks,” Gowdy said.
The park service has previously posted fliers in McPherson Square reminding Occupy DC participants about the restrictions on camping, sleeping and cooking. Jarvis did not say what form the final warning would take and stressed that even when the camping regulations are enforced against individuals, the group would not be evicted. Police in other cities, such as Atlanta, have swiftly cleared parks of overnight Occupy protesters.
“The group has a right to be there,” Jarvis said after the hearing.
Jarvis did not say whether the park service would enforce the camping ban at a separate, smaller encampment in Freedom Plaza, also near the White House, that calls itself Occupy Washington D.C. That protest, led by veteran anti-war demonstrators but ideologically similar to Occupy DC, has a permit that runs through Feb. 28, although the permit does not allow camping. Permits are not required in McPherson Square for gatherings of fewer than 500 people.
District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray has suggested that the protests be consolidated in Freedom Plaza to allow for cleanup of McPherson Square, which city health officials say has become infested with rats.
Dr. Mohammed Akhter, director of the city’s Department of Health, said Tuesday there were serious health concerns at McPherson, located in the heart of the city’s business district. Freedom Plaza, which is fully paved, has fewer sanitation problems, according to the city, which does not control either property.
No one from Occupy DC was invited to testify at the hearing, but a couple dozen participants attended, wiggling their fingers in approval at supportive statements from Democratic lawmakers.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said he didn’t understand why Issa had fast-tracked a hearing on Occupy DC instead of more aggressively investigating the foreclosure crisis, which he said was the cause of many of the frustrations voiced by the Occupy movement.
Occupy DC said in a statement that participants would be happy to work with the park service and other officials to improve the health and safety of the park.
Sara Shaw, an Occupy DC participant who sleeps in McPherson Square, said enforcement of the camping ban would disproportionately harm the long-term homeless residents of the park, some of whom were there before the protest began. She said fines for camping would be a nuisance but would not end the occupation.
“We’re not here to camp in the park,” Shaw said. “We’re here to exercise our First Amendment rights.”