As the last remnants of Occupy DC were finally removed from McPherson Square on Tuesday, a National Park Service, or NPS, spokeswoman said the agency was in the process of "assessing everything that happened and seeing what we did right and what we did wrong and how we can do better."
The Park Service's public admission that it made mistakes in its handling of Occupy DC and is undergoing a needed self-evaluation is encouraging, but it does not erase the fact that it blundered badly in dealing with the anti-Wall Street protest.
The Park Service's first error was failing to enforce its own camping ban for this one particular group of protesters. From October through February, the formerly beautiful McPherson Square -- which had just been refurbished using $400,000 of stimulus funds -- was turned into a muddy, rat-infested shantytown of tents, tarps and junk that ruined the newly planted sod and made the public park unusable for members of the public.
The Park Service's selective nonenforcement of its own rule lasted for four whole months, until members of Congress, D.C. officials, local businesses and law-abiding citizens had had enough. The Park Police then began enforcing the no-camping ban, which they should have been doing in the first place. But the long delay emboldened Occupy DC protesters, who resisted the sudden imposition of a rule that they had previously been allowed to break with impunity.
The First Amendment gives Americans the right to come to Washington to petition the government for redress of their grievances, and tens of thousands exercise that constitutional right every year. But they don't have the right to live in a public park for weeks or months on end while doing so. When NPS officials took it upon themselves to classify the illegal Occupy DC encampment as a "24-hour protest vigil" that was somehow exempt from the no-camping rules, they discriminated against all other protest groups that are not allowed to do likewise.
The only thing the National Park Service did right was four months too late, triggering resistance from Occupiers angered that the ground rules had suddenly changed again. And they had a point. This kind of flip-flopping by a federal agency supposedly governed by regulations that apply equally to everyone was a national disgrace. And it will take a lot more than new grass in McPherson Square to restore its tattered reputation.