The protesters who took over two D.C. parks in October have mostly existed peaceably — setting up elaborate kitchen tents, trucking in portable toilets and even getting police escorts for their marches. But the goodwill has begun to evaporate as protests have become more contentious and some local leaders have begun turning on them.
Last week, pressure intensified when a congressional oversight committee launched an investigation into whether the National Park Service was allowing the Occupiers to camp on federal parkland illegally. Counter-protesters emerged, one toting a sign that said “We want R park back.”
Even the city’s mayor, Vincent C. Gray (D) — who was arrested in an unrelated act of civil disobedience in April — cited increasing frustrations in a television interview Thursday, saying he would ask the federal government to reimburse the city for an estimated $1.6 million in maintenance and policing costs.
“It was a novelty initially, then it became a nuisance and now it’s a concern,” said Jim Dinegar, president and chief executive of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, who has accused the Occupiers of turning McPherson Square into a “toxic waste dump.” “We’ve become the Occupy of last resort. We’ve seen it grow until it’s packed to the gills. You couldn’t get another tent in there.”
Now, with the shift in the city’s attitude, winter approaching, the possibility of congressional hearings and out-of-town protesters continuing to arrive, the Occupy D.C. movement is at a crossroads. Spokesmen for both the McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza Occupy camps have vowed to stay on, but there’s a real question of whether the city and federal governments have had enough.
“I do think more and more people recognize this is where money and power come together,” said Kevin Zeese, an organizer of the Freedom Plaza protest. “People will get that more and more, Washington is the center of action.”
But even as his encampment has grown — to the point that Zeese wonders how they are going to feed the approximately 140 people getting meals each day — organizers are debating whether to move part of their group inside for the winter.
And as the protesters try to figure out their next step, government officials and their lawyers are determining how much leeway they have because decades of legal precedent have codified certain freedoms for protesters in the nation’s capital.
Last week, Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, which oversees the District, launched an investigation into why the Park Service is allowing the Occupiers to stay in McPherson Square, where they have lived without a permit since Oct. 1. Issa said the Occupiers have torn up $400,000 in new sod and other improvements made to the park in 2010 — and paid for with federal stimulus money.