National Park Service Might Start Removing D.C. Occupiers

Occupy protesters can hold vigil but are not allowed to camp.

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Occupy D.C. has been a fixture on K Street since October, but the occupation of McPherson Square may be coming to an end very shortly.

Today, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee convened along with district officials and the National Park Service in a hearing titled: "McPherson Square: Who Made the Decision to Allow Indefinite Camping in the Park?"

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The current debate surrounding the encampment pits the First Amendment rights to peaceably assemble against rules regarding camping on public land.

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, whose organization has been in charge of policing the encampment, said that protesters would be allowed to continue to hold a 24-hour vigil in the park, but sleeping in the camp would no longer be allowed.

"We are about to enforce the camping regulations, but we are not evicting the Occupiers under any circumstances, unless there is an emergency," Jarvis said today.

The committee pressed Jarvis to enforce statutes prohibiting camping in federal parks. In his invitation to Jarvis, the subcommittee's chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy, a Republican from South Carolina, expressed concerns over the continued occupation of the park, saying, "As you are aware, Section 7.96 of Title 36 Code of Federal Regulations prohibits camping in parks unless it occurs in designated camping areas or is specifically allowed by the National Park Service."

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During the hearing today, Gowdy returned to this line of argument, consistently pressing Jarvis on the difference between "camping" and what the occupiers are doing on K Street. "Is there sleeping going on in McPherson Square?" he asked. "Are they preparing to sleep or are they insomniacs?"

Darrell Issa, a Republican from California and chair of the full Oversight Committee, also argued that the protesters are camping and need to be removed. "I believe the National Park Service has allowed the protesters to camp indefinitely for ideological reasons," Issa said.

Other members of the committee, including Rep. Joe Walsh of Illinois, expressed concerns about health hazards in the park. Sanitary conditions there have steadily worsened, and the director of the D.C. Department of Health, Mohammad Akhter, told the Washington Post earlier this month that the McPherson Square camp's rat population has "exploded." He likened the conditions in the K Street encampment to refugee camps he's seen in the Middle East.

"People are living in very primitive conditions and they're doing it by choice. They are very brave and thoughtful people, but my concern is that they should also take care of themselves,"  Akhter said.

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If the National Park Service does start evicting campers in the park, the occupiers will benefit from a December ruling that protesters must be given a 24-hour notice if the Park Service "intends to enforce its regulations prohibiting camping or sleeping in McPherson Square."