Occupy D.C.: In it for the long haul?

November 15, 2011

Anthony Sluder says the moment he knew that he and the rest of the Occupy D.C. protesters would be in McPherson Square for the long haul was about two weeks ago, when a flatbed truck pulled up — carrying two Porta-Potties.

In the weeks since local protesters took up residence along K Street in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street, their encampment has grown from a handful of protesters into a full-fledged tent city where more than 100 people sleep each night. They have an elaborate food service operation, two generators, a medical and dental tent, and even a library.

But with the occupation have come concerns, officials say. Protesters have clashed with police, annoyed nearby business owners and, U.S. Park Police say, sparked a rise in crime that includes arrests for assault, drug possession and disorderly conduct.

But as police have moved to curb or shut down protests in such places as Portland, Ore., and New York, where more than 200 people were arrested in Zuccotti Park on Tuesday, local officials say that Occupy D.C. can remain — for now.

“Right now we’re working to facilitate their First Amendment rights,” said Sgt. David Schlosser, a Park Police spokesman. “We have no immediate plans to do anything as far as removing anybody in the park.”

Several members of the D.C. Council also voiced their support Tuesday, although they raised concerns about potential public health and safety problems around the camp.

“I think we should continue to monitor the situation, and once circumstances become such that health, sanitation or safety become an issue, we are going to have to ask them to leave as overnight guests,” said Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3), chairman of the council’s Committee on Environment, Public Works and Transportation.

The protesters do not have a permit to stay in the park overnight; a similar group of protesters in Freedom Plaza does have an active permit.

Reactions of local businesses have been mixed. Protesters hang out at the Starbucks across the street, and nearby health clubs have donated time for showers. But the Downtown D.C. Business Improvement District expressed concern about the use of flammable materials and the presence of permanent structures in the park and have had to deploy extra maintenance crews to pick up what the organization describes as “a steady stream of litter and trash” around the encampment.

On Nov. 4, members of Occupy D.C. clashed with police near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center during a dinner held by the conservative group Americans for Prosperity. Six protesters were arrested or cited in a fracas during which at least three pedestrians were hit by a passing car. The two sides differed on who was at fault.

D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said afterward that the protesters were growing “increasingly confrontational and violent.”

On Tuesday, about 200 demonstrators marched around downtown during the afternoon rush hour before ending up at the White House. They marched mostly without incident, although several dozen protesters overpowered a security guard and forced their way into an office lobby.

Privately, police and others had voiced hopes that Occupy D.C. would flag once the weather turned cold, but demonstrators say that’s not happening. They are planning more protests in the coming weeks as well as welcoming a group of Occupy Wall Street protesters who are walking from New York to arrive in the District on Nov. 23, the deadline for the congressional “supercommittee” to submit its debt reduction plan.

Meanwhile, Occupy D.C. organizers say they are hunkering down for winter, soliciting donations for subzero sleeping bags and four-season tents. On Tuesday, a chalkboard titled “Needs” listed tents, sleeping bags, winter clothes and water heaters. Elsewhere, on the unseasonably balmy November afternoon, protesters preparing for the march later in the day painted placards and played chess.

Chris Knight, 27, who works for an education nonprofit group, said some protesters have felt stressed out watching other encampments nationwide shuttered and protesters arrested. “I feel pretty positive,” Knight said. “My hope is we will continue to have a presence through the winter. That way the movement won’t die off.”

Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.

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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