D.C. Council members said Tuesday they have no problem with anti-war and anti-Wall Street protesters setting up extended encampments on U.S. Park Service property in the city, and one council member even hopes they “stay for years.”
With two separate groups firmly entrenched Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square, the U.S. Park Service has been trying to decide how long the protesters can remain without a permit.
At both sites, protesters with the Stop the Machine group and Occupy DC have erected tents and piled up boxes and other living materials, creating what some consider an unsightly scene.
But interviews Tuesday with eight of 13 council members found broad support for allowing the protesters to remain, despite National Park Service rules about overnight camping in city parks.
“In terms of getting a message out, sometimes for people without means, the only way to get a message out is a public display,” said Councilwoman Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. “Other issues could develop, such a public health, but I think we shouldn’t be too quick to sweep them off the public plaza.
With the D.C. Council long considered a staunch supporter of progressive causes, several council members said they sympathize with the overall goals of the protesters, including taking a harder line against corporations and raising taxes on the wealthy.
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who can trace his start in politics to his efforts to help organize the civil rights movement in the 1960s, said he thinks the protesters have an “absolute right” to remain in the park indefinitely.
“They can stay for years,” said Barry, one of the most liberal members of the council. “They have a campaign and we need more young people against Wall Street…The movement is spreading.”
Barry added, “I’m a protester, it’s in my DNA…They should stay forever. That’s the American right…That is as American as Apple pie.”
Even more moderate members of the council voiced no opposition to reports that the Park Service was considering giving Stop The Machine a four-month extension of its permit.
Council member Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) who represents areas bordering both Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square, said the protesters have so far been “quite peaceful” so the Park Service can decided for itself how long they should be allowed to continue.
Council member David A. Catania (I-At large), another moderate, said the protests represent “the strength of this country.”
Instead of looking for “ways to squash” the protests, Catania said residents and the federal government should be trying to understand their message. Catania said the only way the encampments should be considered a nuisance is if the occupants let trash build up or if they become disorderly.
When asked if he worries the occupation protests could start a precedence that leads to more mass camping downtown, Catania said he doubts “this is something that is going be happening everyday.”
“Frankly, if it does happen everyday, there is something wrong with our country,” Catania said.
Council members Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Michael Brown (I-At large) also said they supported the protesters’ right to be in the parks, although Brown stressed they need to make sure they don’t conflict with other groups that may be planning to use the space for other events.
“The people, they own this,” said Thomas, as he looked across Pennsylvania Avenue at Freedom Plaza on Tuesday afternoon.
Though the encampments are on Park Service property, the District police are largely responsible for monitoring the associated demonstrations. In New York, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said that city has already spent nearly $2 million on police overtime for the Occupy Wall Street demonstration.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At large), chair of Public Safety and the Judiciary committee, said there will be some cost to city taxpayers, but added those should be “secondary to people’s First Amendment rights.”
Still, unlike Barry, Mendelson said every protest and demonstration “must have a time limit.”
“I’m not sure what that is,” Mendelson said. “If (the Park Service) comes out and says it will be a year, I think there will be conversations.”