National Park Service Director: Enforcing Camping Ban Could Incite ‘Reaction’ at Occupy DC Protests

By Melanie Arter | January 24, 2012 | 5:11 PM EST

Occupy DC demonstrators march on K Street in Washington, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2011. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

(CNSNews.com) Rep. Joe Walsh (R-Ill.) asked National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis on Tuesday why the Park Service’s own statute forbidding camping had not been enforced as it applied to Occupy D.C. protesters at MacPherson Square.

“There’s a statute I believe that says camping is illegal. Camping in MacPherson Park is against the law. Is that correct?” Walsh asked Jarvis during a subcommittee hearing of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee that focused on why the Park Service had not removed the Occupy protesters.

“That is correct,” Jarvis said.

“And in fact, you, I believe the Park Service handed out a document early on in the Occupy D.C. process to the folks at MacPherson Park that … spelled out the definition of camping that you and I both agree is not allowed,” said Walsh.

“And it says…that camping is defined as the use of park land for living accommodation purposes, such as sleeping activities or making preparations to sleep, including the laying down of bedding for the purpose of sleeping or storing personal belongings or making any fire or using any tents or shelter or other structure vehicle for sleeping or doing any digging or earth-breaking. Mr. Jarvis, based on your own definition of camping, are they camping at MacPherson Park?” Walsh asked.

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“We believe that there are individuals there that are doing those activities that would result in us seeing that they are camping. Yes,” Jarvis said.

Walsh asked why those individuals had not been removed and why Jarvis’ own statute had not been enforced.

“Because … each of our First Amendment demonstrations are a little bit unique, and this one is, let’s say unprecedented, in part, in that it has been stated that the core of their First Amendment activity is that they occupy the site,” Jarvis answered.

“And so as we have approached this, how we are trying to manage this activity and provide our first goal in the National Park Service in allowing and providing for First Amendment activities is the health and safety of the community and the demonstrators themselves, and 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,” Jarvis added.

“Mr. Jarvis, again I appreciate the candor in the answer. You’ve acknowledged that they’re camping. You’ve acknowledged there are individuals in MacPherson Park breaking the law, and they’ve been there since October. So it’s not like three or four months later now you’ve been too quick to enforce the law. They’ve been there four months,” Walsh said.

“We’re not even yet getting into many of the other issues that the city is having to deal with, and again, nobody up here – Republican or Democrat – I don’t think in this hearing room, questions at all their right to protest. That’s not what this hearing’s about. You’re not enforcing your own statute,” he added.

“Who’s telling you – and I know this isn’t you – who’s telling you not to enforce the statute? It’s not your job to determine which protest group – how to treat protest groups differently. They’re breaking the law. Why aren’t you enforcing that law? It’s been four months,” Walsh said.

“Well, all of our decisions related to the way that this particular protest has been handled has been made on the ground, first and foremost by our U.S. Park Police officers and commanders, in terms of what they, I mean, law enforcement. I served as a law enforcement officer. Law enforcement officers are granted a great deal of discretion in terms of how they enforce and what they enforce and when they enforce,” Jarvis said.

“Are there some political sensitivities at play here that is sort of preventing you all from enforcing the law?” Walsh asked. To which, Jarvis replied: “Absolutely not.”

“Are you getting any, any advice or orders from people above you?” Walsh asked.

“I am regularly briefing the secretary of Interior as would be expected under any issue that faces the National Park Service, but I am not taking direction on this on how the site should be handled,” Jarvis said.

Witnesses on Tuesday’s panel included: D.C. Health Department Director Dr. Mohammad Akhter, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier, D.C. Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander, Jr., and William and Mary Cabell Research Professor of Law Timothy Zick.