Park service defends occupiers, but will evict

U.S. Park Police plan to crack down on the Occupy D.C. encampment that has lingered in McPherson Square for almost four months, the leader of the National Park Service said at a congressional hearing Tuesday.

Lawmakers grilled National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis during a two-hour hearing called by the House of Representatives Committee on Oversight and Government Reform to discuss “the decision-making process that has allowed continued camping in McPherson Square for more than three months despite the apparent illegality of it,” chairman of the subcommittee Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., wrote in a letter of invitation to witnesses.

Jarvis stood by his department’s decision to allow occupiers to stay in their tented village since October as an exercise of free speech, even with a rule that bans camping – sleeping or preparing to sleep in public places – at the square.

Title 36 of the Code of Federal Regulations lists a provision that outlaws camping in parks not designated for such activities without explicit permission from the National Park Service.

“The protesters – the demonstrators – exercising their First Amendment rights, have the rights to be in McPherson Square for 24 hours a day,” Jarvis said. “The core of their First Amendment activity is that they occupy the site.”

He said protesters would receive a warning before being pushed out, unlike the mid-November clearing of Zuccotti Park by New York City police.

David Barna, chief spokesman for the park service, said the department waited to enforce the no-camping rule but will now move forward to uphold the ban.

“We kind of wanted to see where this would go, in terms of how big a size or shape,” he said. “But at the same time, we’re getting a lot of input from the local community – the people who work up there and live up there – that they don’t think it’s appropriate.”

Barna added that those who sleep at the park will receive civil citations, similar to parking tickets, but that the park service will meet with protesters and warn them ahead of time.

Jarvis contended to the committee that the Occupy D.C. protest is unique in nature, because it is small in population and similar to a vigil, and therefore is not required to seek out explicit permission.

Protesters began camping out at McPherson Square Oct. 1 to form Occupy D.C., an offshoot of the Occupy Wall Street movement that began in New York, against what demonstrators call “corporate greed and corruption.” While the movement gained thousands of supporters in New York, it saw a much smaller pool of support in the District.

“The evidence is clear, at least in my judgment, that sleeping, cooking and camping are taking place in McPherson Square, despite protestations to the contrary and apparently despite the clear prohibition against camping,” Gowdy said at the hearing.

While the occupiers have a right to be heard, chair of the House oversight committee Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said at the hearing that Congress could not allow any group to break the law and set up camp simply because they claim to be protesting.

Issa told Jarvis he “turned a blind eye to four months of law-breaking.”

The settlement of tents scattered across McPherson Square was also scrutinized two weeks ago when Mayor Vincent Gray suggested the protesters shift to Freedom Plaza, after the city’s health agency raised concern regarding a “dangerous rat infestation as well as the serious potential for communicable disease, hypothermia and food-borne illness,” according to the report. Freedom Plaza is home to a separate, smaller encampment with a permit that runs until Feb. 28. The move would also allow for a clean-up of the square.

Jarvis, hammered with questions regarding the park’s condition throughout the hearing, defended his policies at the park, including trash pick-ups three times daily.

Twenty-four-year-old Sara Shaw, a California native who made a home at one of the about 30 tents sprawled across McPherson Square and who was involved in Occupy Wall Street in New York, said she was upset by the lack of protester representation at the public hearing. Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., read Occupy D.C.’s statement for hearing records.

“I think it was quite representative of how our government suppresses the voices of those that they don’t really want to hear,” Shaw said at the park Tuesday evening.

If police attempt to evict or relocate her out of McPherson Square and into Freedom Plaza, Shaw said she would resist, because she prefers her present location – between the White House and K Street, near lobbyist firms and a seat of power.

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