National Park Service e-mails indicate confusion after Occupy camps went up

As waves of Occupy protesters set up high-profile camps in two downtown parks this fall, the National Park Service juggled widespread public health concerns, turf scrapes with District officials and its own media spin, recently released documents show.

E-mails from senior Park Service officials reveal there was at times considerable confusion within the agency as leaders struggled with their message and response to sustained criticism while Occupy D.C. camps in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza grew more permanent.

The more-than-400 pages of documents and e-mails reviewed by The Post offered only limited insight in how Park Service officials made their decisions, but they suggest that Park Police were constrained by outside concerns that were not evident within the pages.

The documents, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show no indication that the decision to allow the protesters to stay in the parks was driven by high-ranking officials at the Obama White House or the Department of Interior, as Republican critics have alleged.

But in an e-mail on Nov. 1, U.S. Park Police Chief Teresa C. Chambers suggested that her agency had minimal input in macro decisions about the future of the camps.

“This is bigger than the USPP,” Chambers wrote to several police officials in response to a request from a spokesman about how to make public a reported assault at McPherson Square.

Sgt. David Schlosser, a Park Police spokesman, said Tuesday that the e-mail was designed to reinforce that the Occupy protest should not be treated differently “simply because of the media attention.”

For months, the Park Service said the protesters’ First Amendment right to conduct a 24-hour protest vigil outweighed broad concerns from downtown and District officials that the camps were a public health hazard.

But by late January, under pressure from congressional Republicans and local leaders, Park Service officials announced a new crackdown on camping in the parks. During a dramatic early-morning raid Feb. 4, Park Police swept through McPherson Square, taking down dozens of tents and removing piles of trash in what officials said was a “nuisance abatement” for rats and other hazards. A similar encampment at Freedom Plaza was swept the following day.

Dozens of e-mails to and from Steve Whitesell, the Park Service’s regional director, and Bob Vogel, superintendent of the National Mall and memorial parks, from October through mid-December show business leaders voiced grave concerns about health and safety soon after the protests began in early October. Downtown leaders raised questions about flammable materials, potential weapons, rats and illegal drugs.

“They are destroying McPherson,” Richard H. Bradley, Downtown DC Business Improvement District executive director, wrote in an e-mail to District and federal officials on Oct. 17, urging them to devise a “containment strategy” for the protests.

Park Police and Park Service officials acknowledged that the protests were escalating, but their reluctance to challenge the protesters resulted in small-scale turf battles with the District.

Chambers told two deputies via e-mail that “things are heating up” after she received a complaint from the business improvement group. Then, on Nov. 7, after three Occupy protesters were struck by vehicles at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Whitesell wrote in an e-mail to staff that the “natives” were “getting restless.”

In early November, Park Service officials told District police they did not want them to go into McPherson Square to issue fliers outlining city laws.

“We have indicated our preference that MPD not do this as we think it has potential to escalate the tenuous relationship between MPD and occupy,” Vogel wrote to Whitesell. ”We are not sure whether MPD will honor our request. I have asked that if anything goes wrong, not to call us in the middle of the movie tonight!”

Despite that request, two District political officials entered McPherson Square that night without incident to talk with protesters, according to a video recording of the meeting on YouTube.

Long before the public furor heated up, Park Service officials worked carefully on their “messaging” to defend their decision to the media and public, the documents show. On Oct. 11, chief agency spokesman David Barna sent other agency spokespeople “some thoughts” for them to keep in their “back pocket” when speaking about “First Amendment demonstrations” and why they were permitting the protesters to stay.

Barna also organized a conference call on “messaging” in late November at the request of Lisa Mendelson-Ielmini, a deputy regional director for the Capital region.

Even Jon Jarvis, the director of the Park Service, got involved in shaping the agency’s message. When the agency got an interview request from Washington Post columnist Robert McCartney in early December, Jarvis told agency and Interior Department officials it was a “a good opportunity to distinguish the work of NPS/USPP in Washington as the center of First Amendment experiences.”

“The focus by USPP on ‘quality of life’ ensures the safety of occupiers and visitors while respecting their rights to protest,” Jarvis wrote.

The documents also reveal the frustration of neighbors.

“Just spent 50 minutes being transferred from one national park department to the other — no one taking responsibility for this mess you all have created,” one neighbor, Laurie Carter DeWitt, wrote in an e-mail Nov. 22. “The grass is ruined, the trash is horrendous and the rat population has at least tripled. At night I get to listen to their parties. . . . I get to hear sex, see public urination and be subjected to early morning drums on my one day off — Saturday.”

Vogel, the superintendent of the Mall and memorial parks, wrote back that while the sudden appearance of the encampment “is disturbing to many,” court rulings that support “temporary structures” for First Amendment demonstrations are allowed. “Enforcement action in this area is limited and challenging,” he conceded.

After two portable toilets were delivered to McPherson Square in early November, Park Service officials appeared confused about who provided them, e-mails suggest.

In early December, after protesters built a two-story wooden structure in McPherson Square, officials struggled to identify what building codes apply to federal parks in the District, records show. It was later dismantled.

But Park Service officials closely monitored the protesters and their activities, e-mails show. Each day, for example, officials received a briefing paper of police calls to the park, planned marches and news clippings on Occupy Wall Street.

Still, Park Service officials showed tolerance for the protesters longer than Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D). He initially supported the protests but later demanded that they be moved from McPherson Square and that the federal government reimburse the city for the estimated $1.6 million costs.

“I think it’s time we plan together for a serious change in how we have been approaching them in DC,” Gray’s chief of staff, Christopher Murphy, wrote on Nov. 17. “We are increasingly concerned.”

Tim Craig is The Post’s bureau chief in Pakistan. He has also covered conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and within the District of Columbia government.
Annie Gowen is The Post’s India bureau chief and has reported for the Post throughout South Asia and the Middle East.
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