Cool Day in History: The Tent of Dreams

A rare video of McPherson Occupiers raising the Tent of Dreams and placing it over the park’s central statue

On Monday, January 30, 2012, Occupy DC erected a giant blue tent in the middle of McPherson Square and draped it over the statue of General McPherson. It was a final act of defiance against the National Park Service and Rep. Darrell Issa, who was using his position as Chairman of the House Oversight Committee to crush Occupy in the nation’s capital.

Visually captivating and rich in symbolism, the “Tent of Dreams” made national news that day:

As if determined to vindicate the occupation movement’s every argument about the power of the 1 percent, Rep. Darrell Issa, the richest man in Congress, had taken the greatest offense at their use of public space in the heart of the city to broadcast their egalitarian message. Last week, the California Republican called a hearing to browbeat the flak-catchers of the federal bureaucracy to enforce a ban on camping in public places. And on Friday he got his way. The Park Police posted a yellow notice that come Monday at noon the demonstrators would all be subject to arrest for sleeping in the park.

In response, an ad hoc committee of about 15 occupiers got together last Friday night to talk about what they wanted to do. ”We wanted a confrontation on our terms,” said Ricky Lehner, a 23-year-old man from Florida who has made the camp his home since October.

“We know the Park Police are very protective of the statue,” said Travis McArthur, a researcher at a well-known liberal nonprofit, referring to the mounted figure of Maj. Gen. James McPherson, a Union hero in the Civil War, that stands in the center of the square. ”Since I came here, I’ve come to think of him as our patron saint, our protector.”

If the authorities were going to take away their tents, they decided, they would have to do so on a grand scale. So when the Park Police deadline arrived at noon on Monday, they struck. As the square was thronged with cameramen and spectators looking for confrontation, a couple of young men mounted the statue and the rest hauled out a huge blue nylon dropcloth, which they hoisted up and over McPherson’s shoulders. They secured the flaps to the little iron fence around the statue so everyone could see the yellow and white stars (and a Star of David). They dubbed it, “The Tent of Dreams.”

“The idea was let us sleep so we can dream of  better world,” said McArthur, and all around the tent sprouted witty indignant signs: “I dream of First Amendment Rights” and  ”I dream of taxation on the 1%” and “No sleep, no justice,” and “We the non-corporate people.”

Occupy DC hoists “Tent of Dreams”

Chanting “Let us sleep so we can dream,” Occupy DC erected a tent over the statue of General McPherson. It was an act of defiance against the National Park Service, who posted yet a third notice yesterday warning that it would enforce rules against camping and sleeping in the park.

Occupier Caty McClure blamed Rep. Darrell Issa, who convened a hearing of the House Oversight Committee last week to put pressure on the Park Service. “Once again,” she said, “we have the federal government trampling over DC.”

Occupy DC: Change is in the wind

Gusts of wind blow over a sign at Occupy DC-McPherson Park

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.

The Washington Post reports:

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.

House Oversight Committee holds hearing on Occupy DC

Darrell Issa

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.

Showdown: Darrell Issa wants a reckoning with Obama, not Occupy

The Artist and General McPherson

Does Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) want January 3 to be a day of reckoning for Occupy DC-K Street? On December 12, Rep. Issa–Chairman of the House Oversight Committee–read the riot act to Department of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. In a four-page letter, he ripped into the DOI and the National Park Service for allowing the Occupy DC protest to pitch tents in McPherson Park starting in October.

Issa essentially lists four core concerns in the letter: legality and enforcement, damages to McPherson Park, who’s been letting them stay, and the motivation behind letting them stay. He’s given the DOI until January 3 to respond. But make no mistake–Issa launched this paper airplane across the National Mall hoping it would drop a bomb on the White House.

First, let’s dispense–at least in part–with a sum that’s been getting a lot of airtime: $400,000. That’s how much money the stimulus bill allotted to a McPherson Park renovation project, and how much damage Issa says Occupy DC has done to McPherson Park by killing the grass. $400,000 in stimulus funds was in fact budgeted to the rehabilitation, which a NPS spokesperson said included “new grass, concrete curbs, refurbished benches, new light poles, water fountains, new paint, new chain fencing, 12 new trash cans and new light meters.” The Contracts-Award Summary also lists removal of a Chinese elm, installation of electrical conduits and waterline/irrigation system, and site grading. The project status is listed as 50% completed.

Although Issa is sure that the protestors have “ecologically damaged the park significantly,” he doesn’t allege that they’ve done more than kill the grass–which they’ve obviously done. Planting grass didn’t cost $400,000, so let’s stop saying that Occupy DC squandered hundreds of thousands in stimulus funds for a project that isn’t even completed yet. It’s perfectly legitimate to complain about however much the grass cost, but it didn’t cost that much.

Oh, by the way, Darrell Issa wants you to know that he’s not condoning Obama’s evil Stimulus bill, since “the merits of this stimulus funding are debatable.” The Contracts-Award Summary says the park renovation creates 26 jobs.

And just so you know, Rep. Issa slashed the National Park Service budget by $101 million when he voted “aye” last March on the Continuing Appropriations Bill, the stopgap budget agreement that staved off a government shutdown for two weeks. That’s how much Rep. Issa cares about our National Parks.

Even though most of the letter is given over to hand-wringing over ecological damage and squandering stimulus funds, it states its real purpose up front: “This situation raises questions about why those decisions were made, who participated in making them, and whether political judgments played a role in not enforcing the law.” Among the requests for information, Issa demands that the DOI hand over “all communications between the NPS, DOI, and the White House involving the Occupy DC protests in McPherson Square.”

This is a fishing expedition hoping to finger Obama with sympathy for Occupy. Ironically, while claiming to investigate possible improper political motivations in policy enforcement, the House Oversight Chairman is exploiting his position for political scandal-making during an election year. I suspect we’ll see some creative spinning even if the DOI has had no contact with the Administration about McPherson Park.

UPDATE: The National Park Service spokesperson says the grass itself only cost between $20,000 and $30,000.

UPDATE 1/3/12: Not surprisingly, the Department of Interior couldn’t finish the report over the holidays. (What kind of Grinch makes a deadline like January 3?) Issa is giving them until the end of the week to hand it over.

UPDATE 1/4/12: The Department of Interior tells Examiner reporter Aubrey Whelan that they will respond to Rep. Issa’s request “in the coming days.” (In college, after you begged your professor for an extension, did you ever keep working at that paper because it was already officially overdue?)

UPDATE 1/10/12: Deputy director of operations for the Park Service Peggy O’Dell tells the Washington Post that the sod only cost $8,000.

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House Oversight Chairman Targets OccupyDC Camps

Mounted officers of the National Park Police at McPherson Park, December 4, 2011

GOP Rep. Darrell Issa, who during his tenure as House Oversight Committee Chairman has desperately sought a scandal with which to tarnish Democrats, has turned his sights on OccupyDC:

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the committee, sparked the investigation with a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar this week, accusing Occupy D.C. of damaging McPherson Square after $400,000 in taxpayer funds were spent in recent years to improve it. He also questioned whether the Park Service has disregarded its own rules by making exceptions for the 10-week-old protest.

The OccupyDC encampments at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza may be unique among the Occupy sites because they are located on federal land. Federal parks are under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, part of the US Department of the Interior. In using his authority as House Oversight Chairman, Issa may have found a way to harass the Movement gaining steam for opposing Big Business’s undue influence over politics and simultaneously pin Obama with favoritism toward the leftists.

An entrepreneur and head of a business empire worth hundreds of millions, Issa epitomizes the enmeshment of wealth and Congressional power. In August, the New York Times ran a lengthy piece about Issa’s numerous business transactions during his Congressional term and how he may have profited from his current position.

Department of Interior officials haven’t yet responded to Issa’s letter. The National Park Service sent a memorandum to both McPherson Park and Freedom Plaza on November 23, notifying them that they would be stepping up their patrols “due to increasing problems of public urination and defecation, illegal drug and alcohol use, and assaults.” Some took this notice as the first step toward eviction, but the NPS emphatically denied the intention to evict through their spokesperson, Carol Johnson.

McPherson Park may have tested the National Park Service’s limits on December 4 when it erected a 15-foot tall modular wooden shelter. National Park Police immediately moved in to insist that it be taken down, resulting in a day-long standoff, 31 arrests and the fear of immediate eviction.

While the Park Service still seems tolerant of the camps, there are rumblings from the business sector that they aren’t going to suffer the hippies any more. The Park Service will feel the pressure from below from District grousers, and now from above with Darrell Issa’s investigation.

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