National Park Service defense of Occupy action is a muddle

Robert McCartney
Columnist January 25, 2012

I finally put my finger on it. Those local Occupy protesters remind me of one of my childhood heroes: Yogi Bear.

The epiphany occurred during Tuesday’s congressional hearings about the Occupiers.

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Like Yogi, the activists live cheerfully in national parks. They regularly get away with breaking the rules. Most of all, they drive the authorities batty. (“Yogi Bear is always in the ranger’s hair” went the cartoon’s theme song.)

Yogi’s antagonist was Ranger Smith. The officer most befuddled by the local Occupy protesters is National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis.

Jarvis’s challenges reached a new peak when he testified at the hearing of the House Oversight subcommittee responsible for District affairs.

Trim in his green uniform, Jarvis came under relentless, often sarcastic questioning from Republicans. They pressed him to explain why he has failed to prevent demonstrators from sleeping in tents on parkland at McPherson Square since October in blatant violation of explicit regulations barring camping.

Unfortunately, Jarvis’s performance highlighted a serious case of the muddles on the part of the Park Service and, by extension, the Obama administration.

The director offered a number of reasonable arguments for the Park Service’s actions. Basically, he said, it was erring on the side of respecting precious First Amendment freedoms over the anti-camping provisions.

But Jarvis didn’t stick to his position. He jumped from argument to argument — and ultimately backed down.

More than an hour into the hearing, under questioning from the fourth in the lineup of GOP critics, Jarvis finally promised to start enforcing the anti-camping provisions “very soon.”

He didn’t explain how. Curiously, Jarvis seemed unprepared for this line of questioning, although it was easy to predict that the Republicans would be stressing it.

Afterward, however, the Park Service’s chief spokesman said the agency will encourage the protesters to stop sleeping at McPherson Square and instead maintain a 24-hour, waking vigil there. That wouldn’t count as camping and would be constitutionally protected.

The plan is “to meet with them and explain to them how this [new approach] works and encourage them, and give them some time to give them someplace else to sleep,” spokesman David Barna said.

It wasn’t clear whether defying the rules and continuing to sleep on parkland would warrant an arrest or merely a ticket.

The Republicans won the concession by hammering Jarvis for selectively enforcing the law. If the protesters can camp on federal parkland, they asked, then can anybody do so, anywhere in the country, as long as they claim to be advocating a cause?

Jarvis’s opening statement dodged the issue. He argued that the protesters were already engaged in a round-the-clock vigil.

Dissatisfied, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the subcommittee chairman, forced him to define prohibited “camping.” Camping, Jarvis conceded, is sleeping overnight or preparing to do so.

Then Gowdy forced Jarvis to concede that sleeping overnight is exactly what the protesters are doing. “Are they all insomniacs?” Gowdy asked, caustically.

Later, when Jarvis tried belatedly to argue that camping as a protest might be different from recreational camping, Gowdy asked, “Is there First Amendment sleeping versus recreational sleeping?”

Jarvis made some good points. He noted that at least two precedents exist for permitting demonstrators to sleep overnight for weeks at a time on federal parkland in the District: by anti-poverty protesters in 1968 and pro-farmer activists in 1979. The left-leaning Occupy movement wants to reduce economic inequality and corporate influence over government.

Jarvis also suggested that the Park Service had chosen to tolerate the camping partly out of concern that evicting the protesters would incite violence.

So where is this heading? Occupy demonstrators whom I interviewed at McPherson after the hearing said the group would probably split over whether to give up sleeping there and settle for a vigil. The new policy is also sure to meet resistance at the other camp at Freedom Plaza, where spokesman Barna said the changes also would apply.

However, several McPherson demonstrators said they’d welcome such a compromise. If they did, I think it would show that, like Yogi, they’re “smarter than the average bear.”

I discuss local issues at 8:51 a.m. Friday on WAMU (88.5 FM). For my previous columns, go to postlocal.com.

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