WASHINGTON – The head of the National Park Service on Tuesday defended his decision to allow Occupy D.C. protesters to remain in a park near the White House, where they have camped out for nearly four months, in the face of congressional Republican criticism that he was “turning a blind eye” to lawbreakers.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., chairman of the House oversight committee, assailed Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis for permitting the tent city at McPherson Square in spite of a ban on camping at the park.
“I find it curious that tourists cannot come and pitch a tent in McPherson Square if they’re camping for fun, but if they’re camping in protest of fun, the National Park Service would welcome them,” Rep. Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., added during a Capitol Hill hearing.
Park service officials have said the protest is more akin to a 24-hour vigil, allowed under park rules.
Jarvis acknowledged that some protesters were sleeping in the park, but said their protest was an example of a tradition of demonstrations in the nation’s capital – more than 600 on the National Mall last year – protected by the First Amendment.
“I could care less what their cause is,” Jarvis told lawmakers. “My job, as a 35-year veteran of the National Park Service, is to protect the individuals’ rights under the First Amendment.”
But he also indicated that the park service would be moving soon to enforce the camping prohibition. “We’ve given them plenty of warning,” he said.
While Occupy D.C. protesters were not invited to testify, Rep. Danny K. Davis, D-Ill., read a statement from the demonstrators: “That we have to ask a member of Congress to speak for us here is symbolic of the disenfranchising, top-down nature of the government that we’re fighting to democratize.”
The top Democratic on the oversight committee, Rep. Elijah Cummings of Maryland, observed: “I find it curious that this particular demonstration has risen to the level of a congressional hearing.”
Washington officials have become increasingly concerned about the encampment at McPherson Square because of a rat infestation, colder weather and the expense to the city of more than $1.6 million.