The National Park Service began actively enforcing regulations against camping in public parks at noon today, sending Occupy D.C. participants scurrying to erect a “tent of dreams” in protest.
Last week, the House Oversight Committee, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., held a hearing regarding NPS’s regulation of camping in parks like McPherson Square, and got officials to promise to apply the rules sooner rather than later. Which turned out to mean today: An NPS flier dated Sunday instructs occupiers to remove all camping material and leave one side of all temporary structures open. “Temporary structures cannot be used for sleeping or preparing to sleep,” the flier reads. Individuals in violation of the anti-camping ordinance are subject to arrest, and their property subject to seizure, reads another flier.
Exactly how the rules will be interpreted remains unclear. At the camp’s General Assembly on Friday, Occupy D.C. lawyer Jeffrey Light told occupiers police will be taking into account the “totality of circumstances” when judging whether or not someone is “camping.” Something like an open flame for cooking would tend to indicate that someone is, in fact, camping. “You can eat if it’s all that you’re doing,” Light explained. “But it would be one of the factors in whether or not you’re living there, which you’re not allowed to do.”
“The best thing is to not be caught sleeping.”
Although U.S. Park Police Sgt. David Schlosser told onlookers that enforcement had begun, so far no arrests had been made by mid-afternoon.
Occupiers have pitched tents in McPherson Square since last October, with only occasional interference from NPS. Enforcement of the regulations against camping prompted occupiers to put a blue tarp decorated with moons and stars over the equestrian statue in the park.
“It represents the people at the center of this movement who need protection,” says Kathleen Sutcliffe, a member of the Occupy D.C. Outreach Committee. “There’s been a lot of discussion since Darrell Issa’s oversight hearing about sleeping, and what is sleeping and what is camping,” she says. “We were inspired. What do you do when you sleep? You dream.”
As occupiers scale the statue to set up the tent, Virginia resident Eric Lotke watches from a bench across the park. “This whole thing is brilliant,” he says. “It’s all fun.” Lotke is a “middle-aged, middle-class guy” with kids and a steady job in health care policy. “These kids are still right. The government isn’t listening to me or any of my PTA friends,” he says.
Antonia Huntenburg, who has been sleeping at McPherson for about three weeks, is a student at Corcoran College of Art and Design, a few blocks away from the park. A full-time student, she, like Lotke, is employed. “That’s why we get so mad when people drive by at 2 a.m. yelling ‘Get a job, hippies,’” she says. “I have a job.”
Others, including homeless people who have taken up space in the encampment, do not have concrete plans once sleeping is banned in the park. One of those people is Robert Grimes, who says he has been part of a “24-hour” vigil since October, recalling the legal distinction that came up during Issa’s hearing. While holding a 24-hour vigil is a valid form of protest under NPS rules, camping is not.
“[There are] still talks of maintaining the location in some manner that we can,” Grimes says, adding that even if they have to relocate, some occupiers will still try to maintain the sense of community.
As Huntenburg put it, “There’s quite a few people who have given up their lives for this movement, and now they have nowhere to go.”
Photo by Darrow Montgomery
Additional reporting by Lydia DePillis