Protesters occupying two downtown Washington, D.C., locations are being told to pack up and leave, and are being forcibly removed—even arrested—if they don’t leave voluntarily. After months of tolerance and inaction, U.S. Park Police have started enforcing the law on no overnight camping in parks.
Respecting people’s First Amendment right to freedom of expression from government interference and the concomitant right to peaceful assembly have underpinned acceptance of the occupiers in the two parks at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza. However, District sanitation officials have been concerned for weeks about deteriorating sanitary conditions, especially at the McPherson camp, with rat sightings becoming commonplace, even during daylight. A congressional committee also started investigating the violation of no nightly camping on federal land. Park police had also been asking occupiers to remove an enormous tarpaulin—the “Tent of Dreams”—that they had erected around the statue of General McPherson, a Civil War hero, in the center of the Square.
Police cleared most of the tent community at McPherson Square yesterday at dawn. As of this afternoon, the remaining stragglers on the one side of the square defiantly maintained they would never leave. At Freedom Plaza, from the volume of police on the plaza and in the immediate area this afternoon, it is appears similar clearing procedures are imminent. The number of tents at Freedom Plaza has certainly decreased in the last days, with campers evidently heeding warnings to pack up and leave. Churches in the District have apparently been offering temporary shelter.
A couple of visits to the two sites in recent days left me with some impressions. The physical squalor of the McPherson camp was impossible to ignore. Nonstop human traffic since the occupation started in early October, coupled with rain, sleet and a little snow, have ensured that the formerly grassy square has become a mushy, gooey mud bath (no wonder occupiers resorted to sleeping on pallets). Paving at the Freedom Plaza site facilitated a less unsanitary environment.
But more than the deterioration of the physical environment, what struck me was how the nature of those now occupying the camps, especially McPherson, changed. The median age of the occupiers definitely increased. Gone are the younger, idealistic, perhaps naïve occupiers of autumn. Those remaining are older, more seasoned activists; some are anarchists and others nihilists. The gentle bearded young man from California with whom I chatted last November as he munched his breakfast in his “tent” of draped clear plastic with its sign proclaiming “Occupy DC is transparent and participatory” seems long gone.
Despite admonitions such as “Cops: Don’t Be Tools of the 1%” seen earlier at McPherson, one could argue that police are doing “Occupy D.C.” a favour by clearing out the camps. This phase of the Occupy movement here in D.C. had run its course. But the occupiers couldn’t back down without losing face. Park police have now given them the way out. It was time anyway for the occupiers to retreat, regroup, consolidate, reassess, and plan new strategies for spring. And now they can do so.
The Occupy movement has unquestionably influenced the national debate. The discussion it provoked on income and social inequality, corporate greed, indebtedness, and unemployment is ongoing. Indeed, its focus on social inequity in the United States and how economic policies benefit the already haves is central in current discourse. President Barack Obama is urging tax reform so that the wealthiest pay more than they have been. He highlights the issue that Warren Buffett brought to the fore—that Buffett’s secretary pays taxes at a higher rate than Buffett himself does. The tax returns of likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, one of the wealthiest men ever to be running for president, with a net worth estimated to be around $250 million, further underscore this point. Romney is shown to have paid a tax rate of 13,9% in 2010 on capital gains from $20 million in income. Revelations such as this and Romney’s general awkwardness in discussing money, wealth, and poverty should surely galvanize the Occupy movement as its followers deliberate the way forward.
As the Occupy movement in D.C. ends its current phase, perhaps the miracle is that the D.C. camps lasted as long as they did. An unusually mild winter certainly helped. While those in the ski industry have cursed the relative lack of snow, those in Occupy D.C. were grateful.
Update on February 13, 2012: As of this afternoon, McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza still house a few token Occupy D.C. tents. No sleeping or camping is permitted in these tents. Compliance with Park Police also requires tent flaps always to be open so police can confirm no bedding or personal effects are being kept there. Occupiers are apparently maintaining a constant presence in the parks. I was told that people are sleeping in shifts elsewhere—such as in churches and shelters—and then taking turns keeping vigil 24/7 in the parks. The library tent at McPherson Square still stands, packed tight with books and magazines, but the “OccuTeaHouse” is gone.
Update on February 20, 2012: The Washington Post complements the Park Police for the way they handled the Occupy D.C. protests.