The director of the National Park Service said Tuesday that U.S. Park Police will “very soon” begin enforcing a no-camping law at McPherson Square but that the Occupy D.C. movement has a prevailing First Amendment right to continue its vigil there.
“We are about to enforce the camping regulations, but we are not evicting the Occupiers under any circumstances, unless there is an emergency,” National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis said Tuesday at a subcommittee hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees the District.
A spokesman for the Park Service later clarified that, while the Park Police will encourage the protesters to sleep elsewhere, those who ignored such entreaties risked being arrested or cited.
During a series of sometimes sharp exchanges, committee members quizzed Jarvis about the Park Service’s handling of the situation at McPherson Square, where protesters in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement have been camping without a permit since Oct. 1.
The protesters have come under fire in recent days for health and safety concerns after the District’s health director said the rat population was “exploding” in the area and an infant was found abandoned in a tent.
Republicans on the subcommittee often seemed exasperated as they pressed the Park Service for its legal reasoning allowing the protesters to stay in violation of its own no-camping regulations. The Park Service has said decades of case law supports protesters’ right to operate a 24-hour vigil on parkland; Republicans cited a Supreme Court opinion that says protesters can stay — but not sleep — in public parks.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), the subcommittee’s chairman, said the Park Service has created a precedent for others to freely camp on federal land despite rules prohibiting it.
“I find it curious tourists can’t pitch a tent in McPherson Square for fun, but if they’re pitching a camp in protest of fun then the National Park Service would welcome them,” Gowdy said.
About 30 members of Occupy D.C. were in the hearing room. They did not interrupt the proceedings, although they said afterward that they strongly objected to not being allowed to testify about their own activities.
Sara Shaw, one of the protesters, said that they were disappointed to hear that the Park Service would begin enforcing the law against illegal camping and that the group hoped to work with the agency to find another solution.
“We’re not going to go easily,” Shaw said. “We’re here fighting for our First Amendment rights and for what we believe in. And occupying that space is one of our tactics.”
Jarvis said the Park Service would give the protesters one more official warning before beginning enforcement in the coming days. So far the Park Police have made more than 80 arrests at the site on McPherson Square and another encampment on Freedom Plaza for various offenses, including theft and assault.
Paul Quander, the District’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice, said after the hearing that the city would still prefer to have the square at least temporarily cleared so cleaning and rat abatement could be done. The city estimates that it has spent $1.6 million policing and maintaining the protest sites.
Staff writer Tim Craig contributed to this report.
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