Occupy DC Protests On Brink Of Eviction? New Park Service Memo Raises Concern
WASHINGTON -- Are Occupy protesters in the nation's capital on the brink of eviction? Some say a notice from the National Park Service, which has jurisdiction over encampments in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza, suggests yes. But the agency says no.
On Nov. 23, the National Park Service sent the District of Columbia's dual downtown Occupy camps a memo stating that U.S. Park Police officers will be increasing patrol activities in the two federal parks "due to increasing problems of public urination and defecation, illegal drug and alcohol use, and assaults."
The memo goes on to remind protesters that camping is prohibited in both parks and that "National Park Service rangers and United States Park Police officers will continue to monitor the activities within the park, to ensure compliance with health and safety issues and to answer questions. Your cooperation is appreciated."
So is the Park Service threatening the protesters with eviction? Members of the Freedom Plaza protest think so, according to an unsigned response issued on Monday. The memo "is viewed as a first step to eviction and arrest," write Freedom Plaza demonstrators in their group's response. The response also denies "serious accusations of assaults, violence, drug and alcohol abuse, lack of sanitation and other issues."
National Park Service spokeswoman Carol Johnson told The Huffington Post that she does not have specific data about the sanitary or drug and alcohol problems, but that she has heard anecdotal reports that these problems are more serious in McPherson Square than they are in Freedom Plaza.
Jeffrey Light, a lawyer advising the McPherson Square protesters, told HuffPost that there does not appear to be any organized response to the memo so far, but that the issue may come up during a meeting on Wednesday.
Johnson said she is not aware of any assaults in either encampment, other than the alleged sexual assault last week that resulted in a protester being removed from McPherson Square.
Johnson also told HuffPost that the notice does not suggest the Park Service is on the brink of evicting either group of protesters from the sites they have occupied since the beginning of October.
"I'm not sure I would read anything into it except exactly what it says," Johnson said. "We are trying to communicate with people at Freedom and at McPherson so that they can exercise their First Amendment rights within the guidelines that we have. We just want to let them know what we're seeing so they can help remedy it."
The boundaries of those rights may yet be tested another day.
Johnson previously told HuffPost that the National Park Service is using its ample discretion in allowing protesters to occupy McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza with tents and other structures that at least appear to be prohibited under applicable law. The protesters maintain that the agency's beneficence isn't necessary and argue that their Occupy activities, including camping in the parks, are all protected by the First Amendment.
Flickr photo by tedeytan, used under a Creative Commons license.
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