Although the District’s two Occupy encampments have come under increasing fire in recent days for health and safety concerns, at least one of the groups will be able to stay until the end of February, the National Park Service said Wednesday.
Carol Johnson, a spokeswoman for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, said that the Park Service has granted a new permit to the group that now calls itself Occupy Washington, D.C., which allows its members to continue their protest encampment on Freedom Plaza through Feb. 28. Their current permit expires Friday.
“We would have stayed with or without the permit,” said Kevin Zeese, one of the protest organizers. “But we’re pleased to have the support of the Park Service.”
The Occupy group will have to share space on the plaza in February with a group from the National Center for Public Policy Research, a free-market think tank based in the District, the Park Service said.
That group plans a number of pro-capitalism, pro-free-market rallies at lunchtime on the plaza from Feb. 12 through March 15.
Amy Ridenour, the group’s president, said that members were inspired to apply for the protest permit weeks ago to counter the message of the Occupy movement, which speaks out against what it sees as corporate greed and economic inequality. But Ridenour’s group had believed that the Occupy protesters would be gone by the time the think-tank protest began and did not expect to be sharing the plaza.
“They were doing what we perceived to be a big-government message and we thought we should stand up for small-government Americans,” Ridenour said.
Both sides said they hope to coexist peacefully.
Zeese’s group — which once called itself Stop the Machine! but now goes by the moniker Occupy Washington, D.C., — shares similar goals with but is separate from the Occupy D.C. encampment at McPherson Square, where protesters have been living without a permit since Oct. 1.
Both camps in recent weeks have raised the ire of local leaders, who have complained about health and sanitation concerns, growing numbers of arrests and the estimated $1.6 million in overtime and maintenance costs incurred by the city. A congressional oversight committee this month launched an investigation to determine whether the protesters at McPherson Square are illegally camping on federal land.
The Park Service has said that both camps are allowed to operate a “24-hour vigil” to exercise their First Amendment rights.
“Essentially, all I can really say is that it was within their rights to apply for another permit and it was issued for Jan. 1,” Johnson said. “They will still be expected to abide by park regulations.”