Park Service defends handling of Occupy D.C. protest

Karen Bleier/Newscom
An ongoing clash over the National Park Service's handling of the hundreds of Occupy D.C. protestors living in tents on McPherson Square has accelerated.

Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, on Tuesday threatened Interior Secretary Ken Salazar with "compulsory processes," which could mean subpoenas, if the Interior Department fails to produce by Jan. 24 some 18 specific documents or explanations that Issa originally requested in a Dec. 12 letter.

Responding to the persistence of a McPherson Square tent city erected this fall as part the worldwide Occupy Wall Street protests, Issa has expressed concern about damage to recently refurbished federal property and accuses the Park Service of failing to enforce the section of the legal code prohibiting camping in nondesignated areas of national parks.

As part of the 2009 Recovery Act, "Interior awarded more than $400,000 to . . . rehabilitate McPherson Square in Northwest Washington," Issa wrote, "that included new grass, concrete curbs, refurbished benches, new light poles, water fountains, new paint, new chain fencing, 12 new trash cans and new light meters. While the merits of this stimulus funding are debatable, we can all agree that once the federal government invested the funds, no government agency should have allowed it to be damaged or destroyed when it legally could have been prevented."

The chairman's 18 demands included written explanations of why the protesters are allowed to camp, all related legal writings, and an explanation of why the Park Service distinguishes between "camping" and the "24-hour vigil" that officials have used to characterize the protestors' overnight activities.

In a Jan. 6 reply to Issa obtained by Government Executive, Peggy O'Dell, the Park Service's deputy director of operations, defended the policy on First Amendment grounds. "Americans expect to be able to exercise their right of freedom of speech in national parks in the nation's capital," she wrote. "Courts too have recognized that 'the right to use public parks for expression of ideas is of special importance to the District of Columbia' where 'the general concepts of First Amendment freedoms are given added impetus as to speech and peaceful demonstration in Washington, D.C., by the clause of the Constitution which assures citizens of their right to assemble peaceably at the seat of government and present grievances.' "

She went on to say the Park Service has been working with the District of Columbia government, police and health department to ensure the demonstrations "are conducted in a safe and lawful manner," exercising "its discretion to take a proactive, reasoned and measured approach to enforcement."

Only $8,000 of the $400,000 in stimulus money was used for replacement of grass, she added, the rest having gone to nonperishable improvements.

O'Dell offered Issa's committee a briefing on the issue. "While I appreciate [the agency's] offer of a staff briefing," Issa said on Tuesday, "the letter specifically requested written answers and documents."

Interior spokesman Adam Fetcher on Wednesday said in a statement, "the department has provided a thorough response to Chairman Issa's letter. That response explained the firm commitment of the National Park Service and its U.S. Park Police to protecting the resources that have been entrusted to their care, as well as ensuring public safety and enforcing our nation's laws, while respecting Americans' First Amendment rights. We will continue to work with the committee to provide information that is responsive to this request."

A Government Executive visit to McPherson Square on Wednesday found relatively little trash around the dozens of tents and the portable toilets that make up Occupy D.C., aside from a few cans of paint, protest signs and some spots denuded of grass.

The fenced-off enclosure of the statue of Gen. James McPherson and a grassy section in front of it are kept clear. Two mounted U.S. Park police officers came by on patrol as occupiers in their tents, booths and their informal kitchen were heard explaining that only the Park Service has authority to enter the Occupy D.C. encampment, while Metropolitan police can enter only if they see a crime in progress.

Singh Khalsa, an occupier from Fresno, Calif., who runs the Occupy D.C. kitchen, said he had read a Park Service flyer distributed a few weeks earlier instructing protesters to keep their numbers under 500 and to build no hard structures on the square. He said any damage to the grass was minimal compared with that at other locations and was normal during the onset of winter.

Khalsa said he is not familiar with Issa, but that an Occupy D.C. committee "that meets every Sunday will determine the procedures" if the Park Service moves to evict them.

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