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Republicans and Democrats sparred Tuesday over broad themes related to freedom of expression and how federal land should be policed during the first Congressional hearing on the Occupy DC movement.
At the heart of the matter, though, was whether to evict dozens of protesters who have made McPherson Square their home during the past four months.
The Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census and the National Archives hearing aimed to determine the legal status of the Occupy DC protesters at McPherson Square and establish precedent for future protests.
Panel Republicans, led by committee Chairman Darrell Issa (Calif.) and subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy (S.C.), charge that the Occupy DC presence at McPherson Square constitutes unlawful "camping" in a federal park and accuse the National Park Service of allowing support for the protesters' cause to cloud its implementation of the law.
"At the bottom of it all is the issue of fair and equal application of the law," Gowdy said in opening remarks. "From this vantage point, it appears there are at least two different sets of rules."
Republicans also cited reports that McPherson Square has become a health and safety hazard, with a notable rat infestation and one alarming instance of an infant being left unattended in a tent.
Democrats backed the NPS' decision to allow the protesters to stay, protected by the First Amendment right to assemble, and say officials are doing a fine job making sure McPherson Square is safe.
"Our country has become a more inclusive and enlightened nation because people spoke truth to power," said Rep. Danny Davis (Ill.), the subcommittee's top Democrat. "This subcommittee should defer to the discretion of the National Park Service and err on the side of the First Amendment."
Washington, D.C., officials were on hand to testify — including Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier, Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander and Health Department Director Mohammad Akhter — but the main target was NPS Director Jonathan Jarvis.
Jarvis laid out a history of the NPS' sensitivity to protest groups that have come to the District to make their voices heard at the "seat of government." He said NPS regulations do not require a permit for the use of McPherson Square for fewer than 500 people. Officials cite a number of occupants far below that threshold.
He continued that even though NPS "regulations do not allow for camping within McPherson Square ... temporary structures, including tents, are permissible as part of a demonstration to further their symbolic message or to meet logistical needs. Constant, round-the-clock demonstration vigils have been a regular occurrence in some National Park areas."