As growing numbers of Occupy DC campers at McPherson Square begin making plans for chilly weather, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton said Saturday that the National Park Service should allow them to maintain their settlement.
“This is a city, the seat of government, where every deference must be made to allow people to petition their government,” Norton (D) said in an interview. “So it would be a particular outrage to keep people from petitioning their government.”
In recent days, some Downtown business leaders have expressed concerns about the safety and upkeep of the square, which now features more than two-dozen tents and other structures, such as a makeshift kitchen. But Norton described the protestors as peaceful and said the campers should be allowed to remain so long as they do not interfere with city commerce.
On Saturday, the protest drew a couple of public figures. Demonstrators posted pictures on Twitter of the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson Sr. listening to “a teach-in” at the park in the evening. Earlier in the day, Bill Maher, host of “Real Time With Bill Maher”on HBO, dropped by. Maher tweeted a photo of himself standing in front of the Occupy DC sign on K Street NW, adding: “At the Occupy Wall Street happening in our nation’s capital - there’s something happening here!”
With their numbers swelled by weekend visitors – and a growing number of tourists snapping photographs – the settlement has become a mini compound.
Despite prohibitions on campaign in downtown parks under Park Service control, Norton noted that past protest groups, including some veterans and civil rights activists, have remained in District parks for extended periods of time.
“These are King’s people,” said Norton, referring to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, who in 1968 organized the “Poor People’s Campaign” on the Mall before he died.
Earlier in the week, several D.C. Council members also said they supported allowing the protestors to remain in the park.
Though the Park Service has issued a permit for a separate Stop the Machine protest group to remain in Freedom Plaza through December, the Occupy DC group never had a permit for McPherson Square, and the Park Service has made few public statements about whether they will be allowed to remain.
Demonstrators and their supporters were holding committee meetings, taking Yoga classes, reading books from a makeshift library and planting grass seed in between their marches. On Friday night, Occupy DC members said they voted to try to use solar generators to power their computers. They have also erected a 24-hour information tent to collect the names and e-mail address of passersby interested in joining their movement.
On Saturday morning, a Park Service sanitation truck moved through the square picking up garbage. Later, District police officer walked through the park chatting with the demonstrators about their various grievances.
Charlie Ertel, 24, of Buffalo, said he plans to remain “as long as it takes” to show that he’s worried about corporations’ influence on the political process. When asked how he planned to survive the looming fall chill, Ertel said the camp is “getting donated supplies for colder temperatures.”
“We can stay here all winter and we have the supplies to do so,” Ertel said.
Ryan Gomez, 24, who lives in Colesville but slept at the camp on Friday night, said Occupy DC demonstrators are in contact with an “Occupy Boston weatherization committee” that’s working on how to keep protesters warm.
“They are the experts,” Gomez said.
Many of the people in the square Saturday say they have been returning to their homes in the Washington region at night instead of camping out. But one protestor, who would only identify himself as George, predicted the camp “isn’t going anywhere.”
“They made it through the rain last week,” said the 47-year-old Potomac resident. “It’s going to stay warm around here till at least December…It’s like the new ’60s and the Western world waking up.”
Still, the movement has left some city leaders unclear on the participants’ demands. In an interview, Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) said he’s “not fully sure what their agenda is” but generally agrees with their overarching message of “a spirit of justice.”
“I think the agenda is ‘occupy,’” Gray said. “But they have been very cooperative.”