By Lily Kuo
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. police officers cleared tents from an "Occupy" protest site in downtown Washington on Sunday, but demonstrators said even without the camp they would continue to fight for economic equality and other issues.
About two dozen protesters in Freedom Plaza, just blocks from the White House, watched calmly as the National Park police and sanitation workers in hazmat suits dismantled protesters' tents, packed bedding and personal belongings into plastic bags and cardboard boxes, citing violations of rules against living in the park. Police cruisers, police officers outfitted with shields and riot gear, and an armored vehicle waited on the outskirts of the plaza.
The National Park Service, which tends the grounds where the protesters have camped, issued a series of warnings to protesters after coming under pressure from U.S. lawmakers and city officials who cited unsanitary conditions and the cost of policing. The Park Service bans camping in Freedom Plaza and at another nearby site cleared by the police on Saturday.
Since October, more than 100 protesters allied with the Occupy Wall Street movement have taken over public grounds near the White House to protest the country's growing income gap, war and what they see as corporate corruption of democracy.
The police crackdown in Washington comes after police moved to disband other Occupy sites in Texas, Florida, and North Carolina. Some see the movement as dwindling since it was first sparked by protests in New York's Zuccotti Park in September.
In Washington, one protester sat cross-legged on the ground, holding a sign painted with the words, "Imagine Peace" while a group of women chanted, "This occupation is not leaving." A man handed out pins in the shape of ivy branches, symbolizing regrowth.
"Fall back, regroup, and fight another day," said Mike Sheffer, 54, who traveled from Vermont to be part of the anti-war demonstration in Freedom Plaza that kicked off the encampment in October. "The reasons why we came here haven't changed."
Protesters who were cleared out from a second Occupy site a few blocks from the White House returned on Sunday to a muddied, empty park.
They debated ways to continue their movement through community organizing and keeping a presence in the park, possibly by sleeping on sidewalks. In a statement issued Sunday, the group said: "This occupation is far from over. They can't evict an idea whose time has come."
On Saturday, dozens of U.S. Park Police cleared that location in a day-long operation, clashing with protesters. Sanitation workers removed tents, urine-soaked bedding and dead rodents from the park, police said.
On Sunday, only a handful of empty tents and a few scattered signs remained.
The police emphasized that the protesters can still demonstrate in the park as part of their constitutional right to free speech. They can maintain 24-hour vigils and use tents as part of their demonstration, but not for accommodation, U.S. Park Police spokesman Sergeant David Schlosser said.
"This is absolutely not an eviction," he said. "This is strictly a compliance issue."
(Reporting By Lily Kuo; Editing by Stacey Joyce)