Park Service enforcing camping ban against Occupy

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Local,DC,Aubrey Whelan

The National Park Service will begin enforcing a camping ban against Occupy DC protesters in McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza Monday, but it's still not clear what that could mean for the demonstrators who have been camped there since October.

A Park Service notice posted at both camps Friday warned protesters that anyone caught sleeping or preparing to sleep in the parks could face arrest starting at noon Monday. It instructs protesters to remove all camping material -- like sleeping bags and air mattresses -- from their tents to comply with the camping ban.

But the tents themselves will still be allowed in the park as "symbolic temporary structures" as long as Occupiers leave them open and don't sleep in them.

The Park Service said Monday's deadline isn't an eviction notice. The goal is to get protesters to comply with the camping ban, not kick them out of the park entirely, spokeswoman Carol Johnson said.

Occupy DC is one of the last remaining camps affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street movement. Other major protests in Oakland, Calif., New York and elsewhere were all evicted by police. But the Park Service, which controls McPherson Square, has allowed the Occupiers to remain as a "24-hour vigil" despite rules against camping on federal land. Even now, officials said, there are no plans for a mass eviction of Occupy DC.

The Park Service's announced that it was enforcing the camping ban just days after a heated congressional hearing in which members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee grilled Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis on his handling of the situation in McPherson Square and urged him to begin enforcing the camping ban.

"The Park Service's decision to begin enforcing the law is appropriate and overdue. I'm pleased that concerns of D.C. officials, who have warned against waiting for a health or safety 'emergency,' are finally being heeded," committee chairman Darrell Issa, R.-Calif., said.

District officials, too, are pushing the Park Service to evict the Occupiers because of a rat infestation and other health and safety concerns at McPherson. Mayor Vincent Gray asked Jarvis three weeks ago to remove all tents from McPherson Square and relocate protesters to Freedom Plaza so McPherson could be cleaned and restored, but there's no indication the Park Service will do that.

Many protesters say they're planning to stay in the park despite threats of arrest, arguing that their occupation of McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza is an act of free speech. Some said they're ready to actively resist arrest if Park Police move in Monday. Others are considering simply moving their possessions out, leaving their tents empty.

"Physically occupying a space is just a tactic that's just worked out really well," said protester Ricky Lehner, 23. "Clearing out a camp is not the end of Occupy."

awhelan@washingtonexaminer.com

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