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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."
When pushed by Gowdy to distinguish between "camping" and "protesting," Jarvis said that the former was defined as "sleeping or preparing to sleep," while the latter was characterized by a 24-hour vigil.
"Well, is there sleeping going on there?" Gowdy pressed. "Are they preparing to sleep or are they all insomniacs?"
There was, Jarvis conceded, "some camping" happening at McPherson Square and that sometime in the near future the NPS would have to issue a warning that camping will not be tolerated, under threat of arrests.
"We are about to enforce the camping regulations, but we are not evicting the occupiers under any circumstances, unless there is an emergency," he said.
Republicans weren't cheered by that news.
"You are turning a blind eye to four months of lawbreaking," Issa said.
The Oversight and Government Reform Committee has a unique jurisdiction in this case, overseeing the workings of a federal agency and District affairs simultaneously. D.C. officials do not have the authority to police McPherson Square because of its status as a federal park, but local officials have weighed in from the standpoint of public safety.
Quander, for instance, cautioned that protesters' tactics could escalate and become more aggressive. Mayor Vincent Gray recently called for Jarvis to evict protesters for a major cleanup of the area, and Akhter said as the cold weather approached, it was "only a matter of time" before outbreaks of "communicable disease, hypothermia or food-borne illness" would occur.
In a rare rebuke of local officials from her position as a nonvoting Member of Congress, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) challenged Quander and Akhtar not to suggest that D.C. is bearing the financial brunt of the Occupy DC activities.
"You are very fortunate that we have been able to get you the funds so this does not cost the city a dime," Norton said.