Occupy D.C. protesters are one warning away from a National Park Service crackdown, officials said during Tuesday’s House oversight committee meeting on the decision-making process behind the handling of the protesters.
Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis told a packed room of congressional and D.C. leaders, as well as a dozen Occupy members, that the agency is “planning very soon to begin the enforcement of camping regulations.”
“We’ve given them plenty of time to come into compliance,” he said. “We’re giving them one more warning, then enforcement.”
The warning was the first of its kind since protesters began living in McPherson Square more than three months ago. It would not affect the tent encampment at Freedom Plaza, along Pennsylvania Avenue Northwest, which has a permit from the Park Service.
The hearing before the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee that deals with D.C.issues also included testimony from D.C. officials who appear to be short on cash and patience amid the unresolved question: Is Occupy D.C. legally allowed to maintain a long-term stay in the Northwest square?
McPherson Square and similar federal properties are not open to camping, which Mr. Jarvis defined as “sleeping or preparing to sleep at the site.” However, a 24-hour vigil in which participants are awake at all times is permissible, he said.
Today, roughly 100 protesters are sleeping overnight in tents in the Northwest park but no citations, which are issued on an individual basis, have been issued.
Mr. Jarvis also said no political influences had been exerted in the decision to allow protesters to remain.
Mr. Jarvis said the agency’s decision to overlook the camping was prompted by its charge to protect First Amendment rights and by a concern early on that “going in right away and enforcing the regulations against camping would potentially incite reactions on [the protesters’] part that would result in possible injury or property damage.”
Rep. Trey Gowdy, South Carolina Republican and the subcommittee chairman, said he sees “at least two different sets of rules.”
“I find it curious that tourists cannot come and pitch a tent in McPherson Square if they are camping for fun,” he said. “But if they are camping in protest of fun, the National Park Service would welcome them.”
In recent weeks, the city’s health department has said unsanitary conditions in the camp have increased the local rat population. And Mayor Vincent C. Gray, a Democrat, recently sent a letter to the Park Service reminding officials that “District residents should not be forced to cover the costs of the Occupy D.C. protests,” referencing the $1.6 million in expenses incurred by the city.
The D.C. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul A. Quander Jr. has indicated the city police department had staffed up to 400 officers for a single Occupy protest.
However, not everyone at the hearing room was critical of the protest and Park Service decisions.
Rep. Danny K. Davis, Illinois Democrat, credited the local occupation’s ability to stay away from the “disarray” seen in other cities. He also questioned how one anti-corporate and government greed protest could rise to the level of congressional intervention.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat and the District’s nonvoting member of Congress, criticized the decision not to include testimony from Occupy D.C. members, though their written statement was added to the record.
Adrian Parsons, 29, an Occupier well known for his hunger strike last month, said one thing to take away from the hearing was that the camp “was not evicted today.”
“Occupy has overcome a whole host of legal issues and what we are fighting now is a constitutional issue.”
Mr. Parsons said he would remain in the park, even if the occupation became a 24-hour vigil.
“You can change tactics,” he said. “You don’t change ideas.”
• Meredith Somers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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