The head of the National Park Service (NPS) defended his decision to let Occupy protesters camp out in a park in the middle of Washington, D.C., though he said Tuesday (January 24) the group will be given one last warning before being evicted, Fox News reported.
NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis testified to the House Oversight and Government Reform subcommittee on the District of Columbia that protests are a right under the First Amendment, although he acknowledged that some homeless people “have taken advantage of the situation.”
“Whatever they are protesting is irrelevant to our decisions. Our decisions are based on the totality” of the circumstances, he said.
“It’s not your job to determine which protest group, how to treat protest groups differently. They are breaking the law. Why aren’t you enforcing the law?” asked Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill.
Republican lawmakers have suggested Jarvis’ decisions are politically motivated, noting an exception had been made for a group that for all intents and purposes is camping, not protesting, and contended that the National Park Service was unequally enforcing the law, Fox News reported.
“Camping is not a First Amendment activity. It is a violation of law. Sleeping in a national park is not a First Amendment activity, it is a violation of law,” said Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the committee.
Issa, who noted that park police in other sites are permitted to remove trespassers at gunpoint if they have to, said NPS has a clear requirement to prohibit camping on federal property. He said he was disappointed that the agency was ignoring its own rules.
“I believe the National Park Service has allowed the protesters to camp indefinitely for ideological reasons,” he said.
There is a ban on camping in the park, but Jarvis suggested there is a gray area between constitutionally protected protests and illegal camping.
District of Columbia officials, including the city’s deputy mayor for public safety and justice, testified Tuesday that Metro police have arrested 68 Occupy D.C. protesters since they began camping out at the 1.66-acre park in the middle of the city. A couple dozen others have been arrested by other law enforcement agencies.
Deputy Mayor Paul Quander said overall the protesters have been mild mannered, but on a few occasions, “the practice of the protesters has become very aggressive and dangerous, resulting in injuries and situations resulting in law abiding citizens being unable to exit buildings or travel on our public roadway.”
Occupy protesters have been camping out since October at the historic McPherson Square Park. Police have responded to the site for several violations—including to a report that a toddler had been abandoned there. Neighbors have complained that the campers who have taken the NPS to court remain at the site, and are attracting vermin and stealing from them, according to Fox News.
Timothy Zick, a professor at the William and Mary School of Law, said the Occupy movement is not merely a chance to be heard.
“It’s an opportunity to be seen,” he said, noting that “occupation” is the concept behind the movement.
Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the subcommittee, said that the foundation behind NPS’ decision to allow the protesters to stay in the park for months “is highly fragile.” He added that it’s unfair that the district is assuming all of the costs, including police and cleaning crews.
Issa said it’s not a question of allowing people to protest. He noted that D.C. is the world’s protest capital, and just the day before, March for Life protesters assembled by the thousands on the National Mall.
“Yesterday, we had the March for Life protesters. They came, they protested, and they left. Had they had stayed, they would have been expected to stay in hotel rooms,” he said.
“Freedom is not an absence of uniform rules,” he added.
Jarvis said he was sending one final warning to the group before U.S. Park Police begin enforcing the ban on camping in McPherson Square.
After the hearing, Jarvis clarified that enforcing the camping ban would not lead to a full-scale eviction of the encampment. Protesters, he said, are permitted to exercise their First Amendment rights in McPherson Square 24 hours a day.
Jarvis didn’t address whether the camping ban would be enforced at a second, smaller Occupy-related encampment in nearby Freedom Plaza. Both areas just blocks from the White House.
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