Occupy DC protesters will soon receive civil citations from U.S. Park Police if they continue camping in Washington's McPherson Square, but enforcement of a camping ban will be conducted against individuals and will not lead to a full-scale eviction of demonstrators, a top federal official said Tuesday.
Appearing before a House oversight subcommittee, National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis fielded pointed questions from Republican lawmakers about why camping has been allowed since early October in the small park near the White House.
He conceded that protesters have been sleeping in tents and that no one has been cited for it, reflecting a cautious approach by park police to bringing Occupy DC in compliance with all regulations.
"Each of our First Amendment demonstrations (is) a little bit unique. And this one is, let's say, unprecedented. The core of their First Amendment activity is that they occupy the site," Jarvis said. "We felt that going in right away and enforcing the regulations against camping could potentially incite a reaction on their part that would result in possible injury or property damage."
The park service contends that protesters are allowed to maintain a 24-hour vigil in the park as long as they're not sleeping there, and Jarvis cited several examples over the past few decades of long-running vigils on park service property in the nation's capital.
Lawmakers including House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said they were concerned about selective enforcement of the camping ban. They suggested that the park service was bowing to pressure from the Obama administration by allowing the protesters to remain.
Jarvis said he was not acting on orders from superiors and that he is "ideologically neutral" about the protests, which are intended to draw attention to a variety of issues including income inequality.
The hearing did not address whether the park service would also enforce the camping ban at Freedom Plaza, home to a similar protest. Jarvis said the park service doesn't plan a wholesale eviction of protesters similar to what's occurred in New York and at Occupy camps in other cities.
District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray has suggested that the protests be consolidated in Freedom Plaza to allow for a cleanup of McPherson Square, which sits in the heart of downtown and which city health officials say has become infested with rats. The city does not have jurisdiction over either site.
Occupy DC said in a statement that participants would be happy to work with the park service and other officials to improve the health and safety of the park.
Follow Ben Nuckols on Twitter at http://twitter.com/APBenNuckols.
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