WASHINGTON — The National Park Service (NPS) said Tuesday it will “very soon” clamp down on a Washington offshoot of Occupy Wall Street that pitched camp near the White House nearly four months ago.
Testifying on Capitol Hill, NPS director Jonathan Jarvis defended his federal agency’s decision to tolerate open-ended camping by Occupy DC on McPherson Square — even if its own rules say camping is prohibited.
But, under pressure from Republicans on the House of Representatives oversight committee who barely concealed their distaste for the Occupy movement, Jarvis signaled that time is running out for the encampment.
“We are planning very soon to begin the enforcement of camping regulations,” said the 35-year NPS veteran, as about two dozen of Occupy DC’s most active members quietly looked on from the back of the hearing room.
“We’ve given them plenty of time to come into compliance,” Jarvis added. “We will be giving them one more notice” before NPS regulations against camping in McPherson Square are enforced.
He stopped short of saying the scruffy, windswept tent village — which the NPS classifies as a “24-hour vigil” — would be evicted altogether from the block-sized park in the K Street lobbying district.
Together with a separate, smaller protest known as Occupy Washington DC, Occupy DC is the most visible remnant of the Occupy movement after New York police swept away the original Wall Street encampment in mid-November.
Both sites direct their outrage at income inequality and what they call the corrupting influence of big corporations on the US government.
Like many public spaces in Washington, McPherson Square — named for a Civil War general — belongs to the NPS, a division of the Department of the Interior, and is overseen by the agency’s own police force.
No permit is needed for groups of fewer than 500 to gather in the 1.66 acre (0.67 hectare) site, but NPS regulations clearly state that overnight camping is not allowed.
Outside the hearing room, protester Brian Eister vowed that Occupy DC “will continue to hold a 24-hour vigil in McPherson Square for the sake of preserving our democracy” if the camping ban is enforced.
“I think that when you are dealing with a regulation which exists primarily for cosmetic reasons … this is not nearly as important as the First Amendment upon which our country is founded,” he told reporters.
No protester testified, but in a statement read into the record, Occupy DC called its encampment “a necessary tactic to express our concern for the country?s direction in a way that will maintain public attention.”
Tuesday’s two-hour hearing was called by oversight committee chairman Darrell Issa, a wealthy Republican from California who accused Jarvis of having “turned a blind eye on four months of law-breaking.”
Jarvis, testifying in a crisp green park-ranger uniform, said that when protesters descend on Washington, as they often do, his agency must find a balance between its own rules and the constitutional right to free speech.
Occupy DC was “unprecedented,” he said, because it made occupation a central part of its message — and because it had no structured leadership with which the NPS could engage.
When Illinois Republican Joe Walsh insinuated that the NPS was under orders from the Obama administration to lay off Occupy DC, Jarvis replied: “Absolutely not… I am not taking direction on this.”
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