National Park Police will have a much harder time forcing out protesters camped in McPherson Square now that activists attracted by Tuesday's big rally have swelled the encampment's ranks. The Park Service itself has no plans to attempt such an eviction just yet, though a spokesman said director Jon Jarvis was planning to meet with Washington D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray this week. It will be the first communication between the Park Service and the mayor's office since Gray last week requested that park police evict the encampment on the grounds that it was unsanitary.
While increasingly annoyed politicians (mostly California Rep. Darrell Issa) pressure President Barack Obama to order the service to crack down on the protesters, Occupy has attracted many new campers who plan to stay long-term, meaning police will have a much bigger job evicting the camp now than they would have last week.
"I'm told that as of this morning, we’re approaching 200 tents in McPherson Square," said Justin Smith, a 25-year-old McPherson Square protester who has been at the camp since its twelfth day. "The south lawn of McPherson, where we have our general assembly, stays empty by design so that we can have our meetings there. But the rest of the park is filling to the brim ... We do expect that a large number of folks coming for this action are going to be staying with us for the long haul." The city's other encampment, at Freedom Plaza, is also adding members, he said. Last week, Occupy D.C.'s Sam Jeweler told us each park has a capacity of 500 people.
Smith stopped short of promising all those people would join in resisting any police effort to evict the protesters. But he said, quite diplomatically, "I know we will have people who are prepared to peacefully defend our space." The occupiers released a statement last week saying they would refuse to leave and calling Gray's request of the park service "more dangerous than the problems it would purportedly solve." Back in December, park police arrested 31 protesters in a day-long standoff over a prohibited wooden structure the occupiers tried to build. At the time, an Occupy D.C. spokesman we talked to estimated there were about 100 tents in McPherson Square. Now that the number has doubled, any eviction attempt is going to be much messier.
The park service has been taking its time getting involved, and if the protesters get the feeling the service is on their side, as Smith told us on the phone, some of its public statements appear to support that." Last week, Government Executive reported on a letter the service sent Issa in response to his complaints about its handling of the encampment:
In a Jan. 6 reply to Issa obtained by Government Executive, Peggy O'Dell, the Park Service's deputy director of operations, defended the policy on First Amendment grounds. "Americans expect to be able to exercise their right of freedom of speech in national parks in the nation's capital," she wrote. "Courts too have recognized that 'the right to use public parks for expression of ideas is of special importance to the District of Columbia' where 'the general concepts of First Amendment freedoms are given added impetus as to speech and peaceful demonstration in Washington, D.C., by the clause of the Constitution which assures citizens of their right to assemble peaceably at the seat of government and present grievances.' "
Spokesman Bill Line said on Tuesday the service's stance on the encampment was "status quo" for now, at least until Gray and Jarvis meet. Last week he told Washington, D.C. news station WTOP "First Amendment rights and political free speech rights are what are at issue here, and we have rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court here that apply specifically to the District of Columbia ... We, as any other federal agency, have to abide by what the Supreme Court tells us." Line said the service was keeping Issa updated on the situation, but other than that currently had no plan to act against the protesters.