CORRECTION: One to two dozen counter-protestors did rally as scheduled on Monday, a smaller than expected turnout. The think-tank FreedomWorks is also a sponsor of the counter-protest.
Counter-protestors didn’t appear today for their first scheduled lunchtime rally at Freedom Plaza, site of one of the two Occupy DC camps. A conservative think-tank called the National Center of Public Policy Research obtained a permit to protest on the east side of Freedom Plaza, planning a kick-off of “Occupy Occupy DC” on February 13. They can easily make up for lost time, however, since their permit extends through March 15.
Freedom Plaza lost one quarter of its encampment on February 5 when Park Police conducted an inspection, removing any tents deemed not in compliance with Park regulations. The mood was distinctly different from the raid at McPherson Park the day before, when Park Police moved in before dawn with full paramilitary force, including helicopters with spotlights. Occupiers at Freedom Plaza have cultivated a friendlier relationship with Park Police and put up little resistance to the raid.
Will DC Occupiers sleep tonight? Most Occupiers in McPherson Square believe the Park Police will raid the camp in the early hours of the morning after no-sleeping enforcement went into effect at noon today.
The director of the National Park Service said Tuesday at a Congressional Oversight hearing that U.S. Park Police will “very soon” begin enforcing no-camping policy at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza. At the same time he emphasized their First Amendment rights to conduct protest vigils on federal land.
Although the Park Service this week has sought to clarify the meaning of enforcement of no-camping rules, the ramifications for Occupy DC are still uncertain.
Director Jarvis made it clear that he would not order wholesale eviction of Occupy DC at either site short of an emergency situation. But the Park Service’s position has evolved over the week–or at least the clarification of it–and the current form of Occupy DC seems even more threatened.
Sleeping in the park is now a no-no. Go to sleep in your tent and you risk a Park Police officer giving you a citation. The Park Service spokesman encouraged the protesters to sleep elsewhere. Given the number of homeless occupying the parks, this could pose a problem.
On Friday, the National Park Service posted notices at both Freedom Plaza and McPherson Park warning that it would begin enforcing no-camping rules beginning at noon on Monday, January 30.
To comply with the no-camping rules, protesters must remove all evidence of camping, including bedding, storage containers and anything used to make a fire, the Park Service said. If the protesters don’t comply, they may be arrested and their property seized.
The notice itself states:
While temporary structures or tents are allowed in the park under some circumstances, camping is not permitted…To allow for visual inspection and monitoring, all temporary structures and tents must have at least one open side.
But some Occupiers see no-camping enforcement as just a different method of eviction.
So the question is, will the Park Police enter McPherson Park and Freedom Plaza on Monday with the order to seize sleeping bags and personal belongings? And if so, what will the response by Occupiers be? Given how passionate the inhabitants of Occupy DC are about defending their community, their protest, and for many their only home at the moment, I can guarantee that there will be resistance.
The House Oversight Committee is holding a hearing this morning which may determine the fate of Occupy DC. Chairman Darrell Issa demanded that the National Park Service turn over communications regarding the two encampments at McPherson Park and Freedom Plaza. So far the National Park Service hasn’t fully complied with Issa’s request. It defines the camps as protests and maintains that First Amendment rights apply.
National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis is scheduled to testify at the Oversight subcommittee hearing.
UPDATE: CSPAN video of the Committee Hearing is here.
In his Jan. 17 letter, John K. Lambert urged that the Occupy D.C. protesters be evicted based at least in part on the fact that the site has rats. Let me assure him that the rats were here first. Since the dawn of civilization, rats have lived in cities underground, coming out at night to glean the food droppings of people, along with their teammates, the pigeons, a.k.a. “rats with wings.”
Occupy D.C. has moved into territory the rats had considered their turf. This is hardly a reason to deny the Occupy people their constitutionally guaranteed right to assemble and petition their government.
Mayor Vincent Gray wants Occupy DC out of McPherson Park, but so far the National Park Service is holding firm.
In a letter to the NPS, Gray cites the District’s Department of Health report on rat infestation at the camp and concerns about hypothermia. The Health Department director likened McPherson Park to a refugee camp, a comparison an Occupy DC media rep calls “totally inappropriate.”
The Park Service for now isn’t budging. An NPS spokesman said, “First Amendment rights and political free speech rights are what are at issue here, and we have rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court here that apply specifically to the District of Columbia. We, as any other federal agency, have to abide by what the Supreme Court tells us.”
In the letter the mayor first reminds the Park Service Director that he had previously asked him for reimbursement for costs the District has incurred ensuring “a safe and peaceful protest.” Gray has estimated those costs at upwards of $1.6 million.
Mayor Gray may have decided that the condemnation by the Health Department gives him leverage to turn up the heat on the NPS. At first friendly to Occupy DC, then confused as to the group’s goals, he’s grown less tolerant of the two camps.
Occupy DC announced Gray’s eviction threat at its General Assembly this evening. McPherson Park and Freedom Plaza are gearing up for a big event next week in conjunction with Occupy Congress, which could bring thousands of protestors to the District.