Officials should prepare for closing Occupy D.C. encampments
NO MATTER ONE’S views about Occupy Wall Street and its imitative protests across the country, it’s hard to quarrel with the principles that propelled New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) to clear Lower Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park. From the start, Mr. Bloomberg expressed a commitment to the First Amendment rights of protesters, but he also stressed the importance of guaranteeing public health and safety. When those two goals clashed, the mayor was right to take action.
In an early-morning raid Tuesday, New York police swooped down on the park, clearing it of protesters, as well as the tents, generators and other encampment paraphernalia that had occupied it for two months. To be sure, there were incidents, such as the banishment and arrest of reporters trying to cover the event, that should have been avoided. But police largely acted with restraint, and the well-planned operation was without the violence that has accompanied similar actions in other cities. More important, contrary to the claims of critics who likened it to crackdowns in despotic countries, the effort was not undertaken to end the protest or to squelch its message about the concentration of economic and political power. Demonstrators were allowed back in the park but without tents and other gear needed for an indefinite stay.
The problems of Occupy Wall Street have not been restricted to Manhattan. In camps across the country, there have been mounting issues with noise, sanitation, safety and crime. Conditions, as a Post report noted, seemed more akin to a police blotter than a political demonstration, with a sexual assault in Philadelphia, drug overdoses in Portland, Ore., and a shooting in Oakland, Calif.
Fortunately, trouble has been more limited so far in Washington, where Occupy D.C. encampments have been set up in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza. There has been cooperation between officials and protesters. Not only has the National Park Service gone the extra mile to accommodate protesters by looking away from violations of no-camping rules, but some members of the D.C. Council have endorsed the campers’ right to stay. Clearly, the District’s experience as host to the nation’s protests has equipped it to deal with the current situation.
How long that status quo will last, though, is a matter of some concern. Businesses near McPherson Square say they are being adversely impacted, and earlier this month D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier warned about the “increasingly confrontational and violent” character of the protesters. The group at Freedom Plaza has a permit that expires Dec. 30, and we have to wonder what will happen then. Any thought that cold weather would drive protesters away seems unrealistic. It’s worrisome that, as sources have told us, federal officials, who have sole jurisdiction over the plaza and square, and city officials, who are most impacted by the occupations, aren’t really talking about the next step.
“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 D.C. Council member Mary M. Cheh (D-Ward 3). Since turning out the lights isn’t an option, it’s important that officials develop ways to deal with what could be an increasingly thorny situation.