Some lawmakers say members of Occupy DC are breaking the law by sleeping on federal property.
The National Park Service plans to issue one last warning to Occupy DC protesters that camping will not be allowed in McPherson Square.
Protesters have been living in tents there since October. The NPS said it recognizes the protesters' First Amendment rights to occupy the park, but a House subcommittee that oversees the D.C. held a hearing Tuesday to ask why camping is allowed despite its apparent illegality.
"I need a definition of camping because I have to go back to South Carolina and tell everyone who wants to spend the summer in one of our parks what camping is and what it is not," said subcommittee Chairman Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C.
"The distinction for a 24-hour vigil is that they are awake at all times providing information or signs or whatever is associated with their First Amendment activities," NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis said.
U.S. Park Police have allowed protesters to sleep in the park but in December moved in and arrested some when they built a permanent wood structure in the park.
Recently, public health and safety concerns prompted D.C. to ask the Park Service to move the McPherson Square campers to the Freedom Plaza encampment so the McPherson Square can be cleaned.
"We are the United States of America, and people are living in suboptimal conditions where they are putting themselves at risk, and they are putting the rest of the community at risk,” D.C. Department of Health Director Dr. Mohammed Akhter said.
McPherson Square has become infested with rats, health officials said. Freedom Plaza, which is fully paved, has fewer sanitation problems, according to the city, which does not control either property.
The protesters are exercising their constitutional rights, D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said.
"The District of Columbia better watch out because the District of Columbia could have had a real conflagration here if the Park Police hadn't found a way to deal with the protesters so there would not be an escalation of the kind that gets young people too excited," Norton said.
“Each of our First Amendment demonstrations (is) a little bit unique, and this one is, let's say, unprecedented,” Jarvis said. “The core of their First Amendment activity is that they occupy the site. 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.”
Jarvis cited other examples of long-running vigils on park service property in the nation's capital, including a sit-in by farmers with tractors on the National Mall in 1979 and an ongoing one-person, 30-year vigil against nuclear proliferation in Lafayette Square across from the White House.
“The enforcement of the camping regulations does not require that the protesters leave the park,” Jarvis said later, according to a spokesman. “We will encourage them to sleep elsewhere. Typically at these vigil sites, the protesters use rotational shifts such that someone is always on site and awake.”
Lawmakers including Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, said they were concerned about selective enforcement of the camping ban and suggested that the Park Service was bowing to pressure from President Barack Obama’s administration by allowing the protesters to remain.
“They have a clear ability and requirement to prohibit overnight camping according to their own rules and they are not doing it, and I'm deeply disappointed,” Issa said. “I fear that the park service has entered into an ideological fray by making this decision on behalf of the administration.”
Jarvis said NPS treats each protest as unique and said decisions on enforcement were being made from the bottom up, by police officers who patrol the site. He said he had not been pressured by his superiors. NPS is part of the Department of the Interior, and Jarvis said he regularly briefs Interior Secretary Ken Salazar on issues related to the camp but is taking no direction from him on how to handle it.
“I am ideologically neutral on this. I could care less what their cause is,” Jarvis said.
NPS has previously posted fliers in McPherson Square reminding Occupy DC participants about the restrictions on camping, sleeping and cooking. Jarvis did not say what form the final warning would take.
When Park Police begin enforcing the camping ban, it will be enforced against individuals, not as a full-scale eviction of the protesters.
“The group has a right to be there,” Jarvis said after the hearing.
Jarvis did not say whether the park service would enforce the camping ban at a separate, smaller encampment in Freedom Plaza, also near the White House, that calls itself Occupy Washington D.C. That protest, led by veteran anti-war demonstrators but ideologically similar to Occupy DC, has a permit that runs through Feb. 28, although the permit does not allow camping. Permits are not required in McPherson Square for gatherings of fewer than 500 people.
No one from Occupy DC was invited to testify at the hearing, but a couple dozen participants attended, wiggling their fingers in approval at supportive statements from Democratic lawmakers.
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said he didn't understand why Issa had fast-tracked a hearing on Occupy DC instead of more aggressively investigating the foreclosure crisis, which he said was the cause of many of the frustrations voiced by the Occupy movement.
Occupy DC said in a statement that participants would be happy to work with the park service and other officials to improve the health and safety of the park.
"We're happy to work with them to keep the park clean and safe, but we think we have the right to be there,” Occupy DC member Sam Jewler said. “The First Amendment gives us that right. So whatever they want to do as long as we can stay there I think a lot of people will be happy to do."
Sara Shaw, an Occupy DC participant who sleeps in McPherson Square, said enforcement of the camping ban would disproportionately harm the long-term homeless residents of the park, some of whom were there before the protest began. She said fines for camping would be a nuisance but would not end the occupation.
“We're not here to camp in the park,” Shaw said. “We're here to exercise our First Amendment rights.”