Park Service defends handling of Occupy D.C.

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis on Tuesday defended his agency's decision to delay eviction of Occupy D.C. protesters from their four-month-old tent city at Washington's McPherson Square and denied charges by some Republicans that the Obama administration had ordered a lax police response to the situation.

Jarvis said his approach of "incremental enforcement" of regulations against unauthorized camping on National Park lands will produce a resolution with the protesters "soon."

Two weeks ago, Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House Oversight and Government Affairs Committee, had threatened Interior Secretary Ken Salazar with "compulsory processes," which could mean subpoenas if the department failed to produce by Jan. 24 some 18 specific documents or explanations as to why the Park Service was permitting the Occupy movement to remain in the tents despite damage and complaints from local officials and nearby businesses.

Extra Capitol Police were present at Tuesday's jam-packed hearing of the Oversight Subcommittee on Health Care, District of Columbia, Census and the National Archives, where Chairman Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., alleged someone in the Obama administration had decided that First Amendment rights of expression prevent authorities from evicting the tent-city residents -- and sought to determine who had made this call.

"Free speech and respect for the rule of law are consistent, and have to be," Gowdy said, stressing, "we are not here to discuss the merits of the Occupy movement." But he called the Park Service's position "at best curious and legally fragile."

Jarvis, mentioning his 35 years with the Park Service, did not provide any documents, but testified that "the courts have afforded us discretion" because the Park Police have the "greatest experience" in the complexities of enforcement of protest rights in the nation's capital.

"Some of these protest events have changed the nation," he said, listing examples that included the 1963 civil rights march, marches by Right to Life groups and Promise Keepers, the World Bank protests, farmers who brought tractors for seven weeks, and Vietnam War veterans who since the mid-1980s have been maintaining a vigil on the mall. The impacted businesses must be tolerant because "these protests must be allowed to continue," he said.

He described his agency's approach as "reasonable and measured," noting that it has included the arrests of 80 protesters for such "egregious" actions as public urination. The policy evolved from an original "outreach and education to a framed resolution, Jarvis said. "The Occupy protest is disorganized and has no leader," he added, as members of the movement in the overflow audience upstairs wiggled their hands in the air in silent applause. "If we had gone in immediately," there would have been violence.

Jarvis said the Park Service has been working with District of Columbia officials, three of whom also spoke at the hearing about the Occupy movement's health and safety risks to the public and to the protesters themselves.

Ranking subcommittee member Rep. Danny Davis, D-Ill., read from a statement by Occupy protestors that Issa permitted to be placed in the hearing record. Davis praised the Park Service's "measured" response, saying enforcement decisions can be based on time, place and manner but not on "content," and they "can't be broader than needed to protect government's interest."

He noted that more than 600 activities took place in Washington in fiscal 2011 and that the District of Columbia government gets federal reimbursement for its enforcement expenses. The government's tactics "should not include evicting these patriots from their tents."

Issa said he is concerned about precedent and how future protests will be handled. He accused Jarvis of "turning a blind eye " toward duties in law enforcement and entering into "an ideological fray" with the White House. "So the Obama administration gets to decide based on whether they agree with the protests?" he asked. Jarvis said, "No, what they're protesting is irrelevant."

Rep. Joe Walsh, R-Ill., asked Jarvis whether he was taking direction from higher-ups. "Absolutely not," said Jarvis, adding he regularly briefs the Interior secretary.

Scott Desjarlais, R-Tenn., asked Jarvis whether it was worthwhile to have the hearing. Jarvis said, he had no opinion on that, only that "I respect the three branches of government."

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., blasted Republican leaders for elevating and fast-tracking the subject of McPherson Square's occupation to a hearing while declining to address issues such as the mortgage crisis.

Issa said he expected that the protesters will be forced to find other accommodations and to protest during the day. An Issa spokesman said the chairman will continue to seek the Park Service and Interior documents.

Gowdy did not appear satisfied with Jarvis' explanations of the distinction between illegal camping and First Amendment-protected "24-hour vigils," and he questioned Jarvis' view of the nation's capital as an especially sensitive site for citizen protests.

"The foundations of this republic will unravel if we treat people differently," he said. "You should either enforce the law or do away with it."

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