Since October, the federal Park Police—who oversee the space where DC’s two Occupy encampments at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza—have admirably refused to evict the protesters.
There have been occasional confrontations, like when the protesters at McPherson Square tried to literally build a house, but for the most part, the Occupy encampments have been allowed to exist peacefully.
Federal regulations prohibit camping at the two locations, but Occupiers have been sleeping in tents for months. The Park Service has said they consider this more of a twenty-four-hour vigil—similar to the 1979 farmworkers demonstration—than a true campground, and that the Occupiers must receive some First Amendment considerations and be spared a forcible eviction.
This is laudable, but admittedly a fine line to walk, and one that Congressional Republicans are more than happy to explore. At a hearing yesterday of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, chaired by Representative Darrell Issa, Republicans blistered Park Service representatives over this claim, and gamely tried to get the Park Service to admit that President Obama was behind it all.
The Park Service, for the most part, held the line. “Each of our First Amendment demonstrations [is] a little bit unique. And this one is, let’s say, unprecedented. The core of their First Amendment activity is that they occupy the site,” National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis said. “We felt that going in right away and enforcing the regulations against camping could potentially incite a reaction on their part that would result in possible injury or property damage.”
But after the hearing, a federal official told the Washington Post that the Park Service will start issuing citations to Occupiers who are sleeping in the parks. It will apparently try to enforce the camping ban by “encouraging” people to sleep elsewhere, and issuing tickets if they don’t, but will not attempt to forcibly evict the entire encampment.
That’s the only real news to come out of yesterday’s hearing—the rest was just the predictable grandstanding by Republican members of the committee. There was one moment of (unintentional) levity, however, when freshman Tea Party Representative Trey Gowdy cited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” as a reason the Occupiers should immediately be locked up: