GONE ARE the matted bedding, ragtag cooking gear and piles of debris. There are still a few tents, but a normalcy has returned to McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza. That the District of Columbia was largely able to avoid the ugliness experienced by other cities handling the Occupy demonstrations is due to the deftness of the National Park Service in balancing the needs of the public against the rights of protesters.
Concerns about potential hazards — a growing infestation of rats, unsanitary toilet conditions, increasingly unruly behavior by protesters — prompted the Park Service to take action this month at the two downtown parks, the sites of Occupy D.C. protests since October. Unlike other cities, which saw violent clashes between demonstrators and police, the D.C. operations were carefully planned and well-executed. The protesters were given plenty of notice about the planned police action, and the U.S. Park Police, as was made clear in The Post’s news accounts, showed restraint and discipline in dealing with protesters. There were minimal arrests and injuries. Indeed, the most serious incident was a police officer being hit in the face with an object thrown by a protester. According to Park Police, the officer is recovering well, and he is expected to return to duty soon.
During the months that the protesters resided at the two parks, the Park Service came under criticism — most notably from House Republicans who suspected political motives by the Obama administration — for not taking a harder line. The District’s elected officials, who early on had welcomed the Occupy D.C. encampments, changed their stance in the face of complaints from the business community, mounting health concerns and increased costs to the city for related police actions. Perhaps it would have been wiser for the Park Service to be more vigilant in enforcing its rules against sleeping in the parks, but park officials argued that they were limited by court decisions upholding the right of protesters to conduct 24-hour vigils and construct temporary shelters.
E-mails obtained by The Post show that federal officials were conflicted about how to deal with an increasingly volatile situation, but there is no evidence that their actions were the result of political bidding from the White House. The fact that park officials have been so cautious — indeed, bending over backward to protect the constitutional rights of Americans to free expression — should be reason for applause, not condemnation.