Federal authorities set to crack down on camping at 'Occupy DC' sites

Story highlights

  • National Park Service warns "Occupy" demonstrators against camping
  • Enforcement posture shifts after tough congressional hearing
  • Demonstrators vow to continue vigil at two sites in DC
The National Park Service plans to crack down on what it calls "sleeping activity" that may take place at two longstanding camps established by "Occupy DC" demonstrators in the nation's capital, according to a letter issued by the federal agency Friday.
The announcement follows a harsh congressional hearing Tuesday in which lawmakers questioned why the camps have been allowed to continue for more than 100 days. Lawmakers cited petty crime, damage to Park Service property, and health concerns from poor sanitation at the makeshift camps.
Starting mid-day Monday, January 30, the Park Service letter begins, authorities will act against "camping and the use of temporary structures for camping in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza," the two locations in downtown Washington that took form late last year as the "Occupy" movement gained momentum.
Many of the other sites across the country the demonstrators established have since been dismantled or curtailed. Some "Occupy Wall Street" demonstrators migrated to McPherson Square last month after New York City police pushed them out.
The Park Service letter includes a definition of camping as one that involves sleeping activities or "making preparations to sleep," and said the presence of bedding, or the storage of personal belongings could establish a violation.
Until now, the camps have been allowed to continue in Washington under a Park Service interpretation that considered the activity a "24 hour vigil."
Two weeks ago, National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis told CNN the "Occupy" demonstrators were behaving within their constitutional rights, and he saw no reason to end their encampments.
"We have the National Mall, McPherson Square, Freedom Plaza, all of those are First Amendment sites," he said, "and I think if there's any place in this country, Washington, D.C. is the place where we need to be the most tolerant of individuals that are exercising their First Amendment activities."
But California Republican Congressman Darrell Issa disagreed.
"Mr. Jarvis is completely out of line," said Issa, "it is not his job to interpret the Constitution, over law."
Issa, who last month wrote a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar citing damage to part of a $400,000 renovation of McPherson Square, continued his criticism at Wednesday's House hearing, and came away unsatisfied with Park Service answers.
Afterward, Issa told CNN, "Director Jarvis came in, he read a prepared statement and stuck to that statement," although the congressman acknowledged "we did get a vague statement they're gonna issue one more warning, and that would be the final warning, and the next would be a 'please leave.'"
"I don't plan on leaving, I would assume most people don't plan on leaving," said a participant who identified herself only as Sara. She told CNN Friday the situation next will depend on how police handle enforcement.
Thursday night, she said U.S. Park Police visited the McPherson Square location, asking inhabitants of the "Occupy" camp to allow them to inspect tents. But she said few of the demonstrators cooperated. Police later said several were detained on charges of being disorderly.
No one was charged with a violation of the no-camping rules ahead of enforcement now planned next week.