Numerous local and federal agencies are involved in what has been described as “sensitive and delicate” discussions about the future of the Occupy DC camp in McPherson Square downtown, but as of now the protest will be able to continue, Park Service officials and police said Saturday.
With the number of tents in the park growing and with protesters vowing to stay into winter, officials with the National Park Service, Park Police, District mayor’s office, U.S. Attorney’s office, D.C. Attorney General’s office, District police department and Interior Department have been in constant contact about the situation.
At issue, officials say, is finding a balance between the protesters’ First Amendment rights and some concerns about health and safety and public access to the square.
Since the Occupy Wall Street movements began in New York in late September, two groups have set up similar camps in Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square. A group called Stop the Machine has a permit to use Freedom Plaza until late December, but it could be in violation of a Park Service ban on camping in District federal parks. The larger Occupy DC group never had a permit for McPherson Square, and may also be violating the camping ban.
But Bob Vogel, the superintendent of the Park Service’s National Mall and Memorial Parks, said the protests will likely continue in the short term so long as the demonstrators remain orderly and abide by guidelines for cleanliness and upkeep.
“Certainly, freedom of speech is a proud tradition on the National Mall and we recognize and support that,” Vogel said. “That being said, we want to make sure our facilities are protected and most importantly their health and safety is protected. …We are walking that fine line.”
On Monday, Park Service officials plan to distribute fliers to the demonstrators outlining “safety and health” issues that they expect the protesters to adhere to, Vogel said.
On Friday night, in response to concerns from Downtown business owners about trash build up, a decision was also made to add another daily garbage pick up at McPherson Square.
Vogel added the Park Service has also been in contact with various “freedom of speech attorneys” because officials prefer to “work positively to resolve issues.”
“We are not trying to be confrontational,” Vogel said.
Lt. Mike Libby of the Park Police said there have been a “few incidents in the park” since the occupation began, but police are looking “at the big picture” by weighing “public safety versus the First Amendment.” But Libby added numerous local and federal agencies are involved in the discussion about the future of the camp, which he said have been complicated at times because the Occupy DC protest is part of an international movement.
“Many people, many agencies, have a direct responsibility and interest in this,” Libby said.
On Saturday, a small group of Occupy DC staged a protest in front of the Wells Fargo bank on P Street in Logan Circle. On the march back to McPherson Square, some protesters stopped traffic at the intersection of Vermont and K Streets Northwest for about 10 minutes. D.C. police officers initially urged the protesters to move to the sidewalk, but decide to shut down K Street when they refused. There were no arrests.
Occupy DC organizer James Ploesser, 30, said the protesters “have had good relations so far” with Park Service and District officials, but are unlikely to voluntary leave McPherson Square.
“People really want to keep that camp,” Ploesser said. “The occupation is centered there and it has become our home and hope.”