Police in the District are planning for sizable but civilized protests this week by groups affiliated with the anti-Wall Street demonstrations in New York as the movement gains support in cities across the country.
“Right now, we haven’t had any sign that there is going to be any civil disobedience,” said Lamar Greene, a Metropolitan Police Department assistant chief. “We have sufficient manpower out there if it was to drastically change. Things could change pretty rapidly.”
In three weeks, the protests that started with a handful of college students camping out in a park near New York’s financial center have swelled to the thousands and resulted in hundreds of arrests Saturday as protesters swarmed the Brooklyn Bridge.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, which is speaking out against corporate greed and corruption and to express a mass feeling of injustice in society, has spawned similar movements with marches on financial centers in cities including Chicago, Boston and Los Angeles. Another component of the movement is the encampments that protesters have erected in busy downtown corridors, which they say will remain indefinitely.
In the coming weeks, marches are planned for nearly every major U.S. city, and some not-so-major cities. An Occupy Fargo-Moorhead protest for North Dakota anti-capitalists is slated for Wednesday.
The fledgling Occupy D.C. movement has been small in number since kicking off efforts Saturday. By its own count, approximately 120 people showed up for a meeting that night. The number of protesters gathered at McPherson Square dwindled Monday but is expected to gain momentum this week leading up to events scheduled in conjunction with other organizations on Thursday at Freedom Plaza.
“The indication is we might have up to 1,000, but you never really know up to the day of the event,” Chief Greene said.
Due to the mass arrests and complaints of police brutality in New York, both police and organizers in the District plan to keep a close eye on interaction between protesters and police. During protesters’ occupation thus far, interactions with police have been “mostly cordial,” said Chris Carraway, a Georgetown University law student working with the National Lawyer’s Guild to help organize legal observers.
The handful of protesters sleeping at McPherson Square have purposely chosen to sleep on sidewalks rather than in the square itself, which is illegal, Mr. Carraway said.
“The general assembly has decided they want to proceed nonviolently and without breaking any laws,” he said of the group’s organizing body.
MPD officials are meeting with protest leaders prior to Thursday’s event and may use cameras to document interactions, a common practice for First Amendment-related events, Chief Greene said.
“We do have protests almost on a daily basis, so our procedures are pretty current,” he said of the way MPD handles protesters.
The police department’s strategies have greatly improved over the last decade, thanks in part to two multimillion-dollar class-action lawsuits brought by people arrested during protests.
“Ten years ago, you couldn’t go to a demonstration in D.C. without risk of being falsely arrested and that is very different now,” said Mara Verheyden-Hilliard, executive director of the Partnership Civil Justice Fund, which brought the lawsuits against the District.
The District paid out $22 million in protest settlements for two separate incidents, the arrest of 400 people in Pershing Park in the District in 2002, and the arrest of 700 people in 2000 during a protest near the World Bank. The arrests also led to changes in law that dictate how police must deal with protesters in the District.
Legal observers will be out among the protests this week to ensure protesters are treated fairly and police follow the law.
“We’re monitoring the police action in D.C. with regard to this growing protest movement in part to ensure compliance with the very significant changes we’ve secured in D.C.,” Ms. Verheyden-Hilliard said.