The head of the National Park Service says Occupy DC will get one final warning before U.S. Park Police begin enforcing a ban on camping at the group's tent city in McPherson Square. National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis told a House Oversight Committee today the ban will be enforced very soon, but will not lead to a full-scale eviction of the Occupy protesters at McPherson.
Jarvis says protesters have a right to hold a 24-hour vigil on parkland -- which means demonstrators can stay at McPherson -- as long as they are not sleeping. He told committee members that Washington has a long history of accommodating protest movements, including groups that have stayed in D.C. for a while, such as the thousands of farmers who drove tractors to the District in 1979 and stayed on the National Mall for several weeks.
The director came under heavy fire from congressional Republicans at the hearing -- who accuse the Park Service of turning a blind eye to unlawful behavior and picking sides in an ideological fight by not enforcing the rules against the Occupy protesters.
Jarvis says the Park service has taken a cautious approach to the Occupy demonstrators, and after four months, will begin enforcing the no-camping law at McPherson Square: "We are not evicting McPherson, the Occupiers, under any circumstances, unless there is some sort of major health or emergency. You need to make a distinction here; camping is a violation on an individual person's case."
The testimony did little to appease Republicans on the committee. After the hearing, South Carolina Republican Trey Gowdy, who chairs a sub-committee that oversees D.C., questioned the policy decisions of the park service.
"I think its time to enforce the law, no matter who it is, whether it's the NRA or the Right to Life or people who think we have a mulit-tiered credit system," says Gowdy. "It doesn't matter to me. I could care less about the ideology. There's a reason Lady Justice is blind-folded."
But Democrats on the committee, including D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, criticized Republicans for holding the hearing in the first place. Norton defended the Occupy movement and compared it to the civil rights movement.
Caught in the crossfire of this partisan back-and-forth were District officials, who align politically with Norton and other Democrats, but in this case, have sided with the Republicans, at least in terms of concerns about public health risks and costs to the city.