Amid rising tension between Occupy D.C. protesters and some congressional leaders, a House committee is investigating why the National Park Service has allowed demonstrators to remain camped in McPherson Square.
The probe by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee represents a new turn in the debate locally and nationally about whether Occupy Wall Street protesters should be allowed to stake claim to public property as part of their demonstrations against what they say are economic and political inequalities.
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.
Citing a federal law that appears to prohibit camping in the square, Issa demanded that Salazar turn over by Jan. 3 “all communication” among Park Service officials, the White House and Occupy D.C. protesters. Issa also wants a “written explanation” on why the Park Service allowed demonstrators to “camp in McPherson Square” and a complete accounting of all arrests related to Occupy D.C.
“While the protesters’ continued occupation of the park appears to violate the law, the NPS has not taken any action to enforce the relevant statute,” Issa wrote. “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.”
Interior officials did not directly address Issa’s letter and gave no indication Tuesday that they would shift their stance toward the protesters.
The letter, which comes as three Occupy protesters enter the second week of their hunger strike for D.C. voting rights, represents the first direct congressional intervention in the protest on K Street.
But in a city where skepticism of congressional Republicans runs deep, the letter could help galvanize a movement that is struggling to come up with a plan for sustaining itself through the winter.
On Tuesday, the gaunt and weary protesters on the hunger strike held a day-long sit-in outside the Capitol Hill office House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio). “They are stepping all over us, and we can’t let that continue,” said Rooj Alwazir, 23, a McPherson Square dweller who accompanied the hunger strikers to the Hill.
A separate protest group, Stop the Machine, has a Park Service permit to keep tents in Freedom Plaza, but the demonstrators in McPherson Square, affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement, do not have a permit to remain in the park overnight.
While police across the country have cleared out Occupy encampments in their cities — there was an early Tuesday morning raid on a park near Baltimore’s Inner Harbor — Park Service officials largely have adopted a policy of nonconfrontation with the McPherson Square protesters.
Backed by D.C. leaders sympathetic with the protesters’ goals, federal officials have stressed that they have been trying to uphold the citizens’ right to picket the government. Although more than 100 tents crowd McPherson Square, the federal officials have said there is precedent for allowing temporary structures on Park Service land as a part of a protest.
Adam Fetcher, Salazar’s press secretary, said the agency is working with D.C. leaders to “ensure that demonstrations associated with the Occupy movement are conducted safely and in compliance with the law.”
“The National Park Service and the U.S. Park Police are firmly committed to upholding Americans’ First Amendment rights while also enforcing our nation’s laws, guarding public safety and protecting the resources with which we are entrusted,” he wrote.
In his letter to Salazar, Issa accused the Park Service of allowing protesters to kill newly planted grass and damage upgrades to the park that had been funded with a $400,000 grant from President Obama’s 2009 stimulus bill.
“We can all agree that once the federal government had invested the funds, no government agency should have allowed it to be damaged or destroyed when it legally could have been prevented,” Issa said.
Issa’s letter comes as some local business leaders are growing weary of the demonstrators. Over the past two weeks, more than 100 Occupy D.C. demonstrators have been arrested for blocking traffic and for other acts of civil disobedience. The protests are aimed at a host of concerns, including perceived corporate and lobbyist influence on government.
Several high-ranking D.C. officials said the Park Service should try to avoid a high-profile clash with the protesters.
“We don’t want the same thing to happen here as has happened in other cities,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). “We support their underlying message. We just want them to be careful about the rights of others while they get their message out.”
On Tuesday, the leaders of D.C. Vote, an advocacy group, accompanied the hunger strikers to Capitol Hill to press for voting rights and local control over the D.C. budget. Adrian Parsons, Kelly Mears and Sam Jewler sat in wheelchairs in front of Boehner’s office for more than four hours in an effort to speak with him.
The speaker declined because he was focused on “getting Americans back to work,” his spokeswoman said. The protesters questioned why Congress is worried “about grass seed in a park” but not “D.C. democracy.”
Staff writer Annie Gowen contributed to this report.
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