D.C. Occupiers seek new direction after McPherson raid

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DC,Aubrey Whelan

McPherson Square, which had been one of the last major Occupy protest sites still standing nationally, stood nearly empty Monday, its freshly sodded lawn, covered for four months by a sprawling tent city, reduced to mud.

A few dozen tents sagged on the edges of the park. Protesters lit cigarettes inside the information tent and quietly meandered around the square. The prevailing mood was sheer bewilderment -- on Friday night, the Occupy DC camp was firmly ensconced in McPherson Square with nearly 200 tents and scores of people, and less than 24 hours later, it was gone.

Until this weekend, when the U.S. Park Police began to enforce a camping ban in McPherson, Occupy DC had enjoyed a unique position as one of the last major Occupy camps. Now the group faces an uphill battle: deprived of their most recognizable symbol, protesters are scrambling to maintain a presence in D.C.

Unlike most Occupy camps, protesters in D.C. are allowed to keep tents in McPherson -- they just can't sleep in them. Protesters have said they plan to maintain their information tent and library as 24-hour vigil sites, and it's likely that McPherson will still be used to meet and organize actions. But the key now, protesters say, is to begin reaching out to other activist groups in the city.

They're looking into protesting foreclosures, partnering with faith groups and hosting general assembly meetings in District neighborhoods. And Occupiers are planning a protest at this weekend's Conservative Political Action Conference, which is featuring a panel discussion on the Occupy movement and the Tea Party.

"It's not about people who lived in a park anymore -- it's about what everyone is doing," said Occupy media organizer Sam Jewler, whose tent in McPherson was among those taken down on Saturday.

Still, protesters say many are reeling from Saturday's enforcement action, which saw just under a dozen arrests.

"We're all trying to recover a bit," said one protester who asked that his name not be used. "We're starting to kind of rebuild while complying with a heavy police presence."

U.S. Park Police have maintained a presence in McPherson Square -- even taking down an additional four tents on Monday, which they said were not in compliance with the camping ban. Two Park Police cars sat in McPherson as cleanup crews hosed down the sidewalks. Protesters chatted with officers, but there was little tension compared to Saturday's raid.

The park itself was pockmarked with mud holes and debris where tents once stood. With the removal of many Occupy D.C. structures, the destruction of a $400,000 re-sodding by the National Park Service was evident.

Jewler said that while many protesters are angry about Saturday's events -- many said they suffered injuries in an early-evening scuffle on K Street -- the movement is determined to "move on and carry forward." Protesters say they've recieved an influx of donations since the raid.

"We're determined to grow larger and more influential and keep on going," Jewler said. "We all knew this would be a long-term movement with different phases, so we're ready to keep moving."

awhelan@washingtonexaminer.com

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