Occupy D.C. protest stays peaceful as no-camping deadline passes

January 30, 2012

8 a.m. update: The camp remained peaceful overnight into the morning, with little police presence . Protesters gathered under the huge blue “tent of dreams,” talking, singing and playing Scrabble.

The large tarp, which U.S. Park Police said is a violation of its rules, remains in place Tuesday morning.

Occupy D.C. protesters unfurled a huge blue tarp in McPherson Square on Monday, hoping to provoke mass arrests as a National Park Service deadline to halt camping there came and went. But the police sidestepped confrontation and chose a wait-and-see approach, citing “incremental” progress as demonstrators began hauling bedding and other belongings out of the square.

The Park Service announced Friday that it would begin enforcing its long-standing regulation prohibiting camping on federal parkland Monday at noon. Protesters living at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza were warned to stop camping overnight in the parks and remove all sleeping gear and other equipment — or risk arrest.

As the deadline loomed, many protesters in both camps packed up their belongings and put them in borrowed storage space. The landscape of McPherson Square in particular changed, as the blue tarp dubbed the “Tent of Dreams” flapped in the breeze. The kitchen area was cleared out and other tents were emptied, serving as symbols rather than living spaces.

By midday, U.S. Park Police spokesman David Schlosser said that “voluntary compliance” was underway.

“We’re very pleased our enforcement activities that have begun and will continue are being met with success,” Schlosser said. The “end goal” is that the group can exercise its “constitutionally protected rights,” he said.

The Park Service long supported the protesters’ right to conduct a “24-hour vigil” at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, where they have been living in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement since October, advocating economic equity. But sleeping in the parks overnight is not considered part of a vigil.

Under pressure from congressional Republicans concerned about health and safety conditions, the Park Service announced last week that it would begin enforcement of the no-camping rules. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House committee that oversees the District, has called the enforcement “appropriate and overdue.”

Meanwhile, supporters of Occupy D.C. were awaiting a court hearing Tuesday morning in which U.S. District Judge James E. Boasberg is expected to take up two related cases. Protesters are seeking to restrain the Park Police’s ability to enforce its camping ban.

As Monday noon approached, many protesters said they were girding to be arrested.

“I, personally, am glad that the confrontation is here,” said Phil Maggi, 48, an unemployed administrator living at McPherson. “We either get on with the agenda or get our heads kicked in.”

As a phalanx of media watched, protesters climbed over the fence surrounding the statue of Maj. Gen. James B. McPherson in the square, chanting, “We are unstoppable, another world is possible,” and slowly shrouding the general in a blue tarp decorated with gold stars. Others danced and meditated.

During an impromptu news conference, protesters repeatedly interrupted Schlosser, the Park Police spokesman. They were angry that police had arrested one of their fellow protesters on Sunday and used a Taser on him.

Ryan Lash, 25, an unemployed landscaper from Carroll County, was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after he tore down police notices listing the no-camping rules. Schlosser said an officer had used the Taser to subdue Lash and that the agency has opened a routine inquiry into the use of force.

The scene was calmer at Freedom Plaza. Protesters spent the weekend converting their camp into a “vigil” space, and most bedding had been stowed by the time police walked through. Some tents were empty. Other demonstrators had rolled and folded their cots and sleeping bags and stacked them inside their tents or just outside.

Jerry Jackson left his job as a cook at a TGI Friday’s in Lakewood, Fla., three months ago; he was tending to the kitchen at Freedom Plaza on Monday. Protesters in Freedom Plaza have installed two large canvas tents with the approval of the Park Service, one housing a nearly full-service kitchen.

“We’re complying by the rules,” Jackson, 32, said. “We want to show [police] we’re not going to start a fight. But we’re not going to back away, either.”

Still, a feeling of nostalgia settled over some campers as they folded blankets and stacked sleeping bags.

Joseph Lee, 27, a student from Philadelphia who had been camping in McPherson Square while attending classes at a nearby technical institute, said his schooling was up in the air as he weighed where he would go now that he can no longer live in the square.

“I’m not sad personally, I’m sad for the community,” Lee said. “Hopefully the message will [continue] and change things for the better.”

But neighbors in the office buildings near McPherson Square, who grew tired of the noise, trash and rats, said they will be glad to see an end to the camping.

“At first I was on board with their policies and what they are trying to do,” said Kevin Porter, 35, a salesman from Alexandria who was watching the Tent of Dreams unfold on Monday. “But at this point, I’m kind of done with walking through here.”

Staff writers Maggie Fazeli Fard, Frederick Kunkle, Katie Rogers and Del Quentin Wilber 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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