D.C. Council members support rights of Stop the Machine and Occupy DC to protest
By Tim Craig and Sylvia Carignan,
Several D.C. Council members said Tuesday they have no problem with antiwar and anti-Wall Street protesters setting up extended encampments on National Park Service property in the city, and one council member hopes they “stay for years.”
Two groups are entrenched in Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square downtown. Protesters with the Stop the Machine and Occupy DC groups have erected tents and piled up boxes and other living materials as they hold meetings, decamp for marches and protests and otherwise traverse the city.
In Freedom Plaza, Stop the Machine group organizer Margaret Flowers said Tuesday that the group and the National Park Service agreed to extend its permit to stay there through Dec. 30. At McPherson Square, Occupy DC protesters have said they have no permit and have not been bothered by authorities.
In interviews Tuesday, eight of 13 council members supported the protesters’ presence.
“Sometimes for people without means, the only way to get a message out is a public display,” said council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), a constitutional law professor at George Washington University. “Other issues could develop, such as public health, but I think we shouldn’t be too quick to sweep them off the public plaza.”
Flowers said Tuesday that while her group has a permit for the entire Freedom Plaza park area, other groups have permits for events there and she would make sure space is cleared. Meanwhile, she said her group may apply for another extension that would run through February.
“We can’t say how long we’ll be here,” Flowers said. “We’ll see an end when our groups accomplish what they need to accomplish.”
The D.C. Council has long been considered a supporter of progressive causes, and several members said they sympathize with the protesters’ overall goals — including taking a harder line against corporations and raising taxes on the wealthy — and their stated determination to remain.
Council member Marion Barry (D-Ward 8), who traces his start in politics to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, said the protesters have an “absolute right” to remain in the park indefinitely.
“They can stay for years,” said Barry, one of the council’s most liberal members. “They have a campaign and we need more young people against Wall Street.”
Even more moderate members of the council voiced no opposition to reports that the Park Service was considering giving Stop the Machine an extension.
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” and that the Park Service can decide 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.” He said the encampments should be considered a nuisance only if the occupants let trash build up or become disorderly.
Council members Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5), Jim Graham (D-Ward 1) and Michael A. Brown (I-At large) also said they supported the protesters’ right to be in the parks.
“The people, they own this,” Thomas said.
Though the encampments are on Park Service property, the District police are largely responsible for monitoring the associated demonstrations. Bill Line, a spokesman for the Park Service, said Tuesday night that the service has issued an extension and amended the existing permit for the protesters at Freedom Plaza.
D.C. Council member Phil Mendelson (D-At large), chair of the Public Safety and the Judiciary committee, said there will be some cost to city taxpayers but those should be “secondary to people’s First Amendment rights.”
Still, Mendelson said every protest and demonstration must have a time limit. “If [the Park Service] comes out and says it will be a year, I think there will be conversations,” he said.
Elsewhere in the District, the U.S. Capitol Police said six protesters were arrested in the Hart Senate Office Building on Tuesday. The protesters, who were carrying banners, were arrested shortly after 11:30 a.m., according to Sgt. Kimberly Schneider, a spokeswoman. They were charged with unlawful conduct.
And during rush hour Tuesday evening, some Occupy DC protesters frustrated commuters when they marched, danced and chanted on downtown streets with a police escort, tying up traffic.
Staff writer Maggie Fazeli Fard contributed to this report.