[Washington D.C. – Members of Congress became involved in the Occupy discussion Tuesday as Republican leaders of the House Oversight Committee held a hearing to discover why camping has been allowed at Occupy D.C., McPherson Square.
The hearing room was filled to capacity with a mix of occupiers, media, curious staff members and police officers. The two-hour hearing ranged from Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) calling the whole thing “baffling” to Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.), a self-proclaimed “old country prosecutor” saying “the battle for this republic is going to unravel if the law… is not enforced.”
The law he was referring to is the ban on camping in some national parks. Gowdy grilled Jonathan Jarvis, the director of the National Park Service on the definition of camping.
Jarvis said it was the act of sleeping or preparing to sleep. Given that definition, Gowdy pressed on by asking why the Park Service hadn’t enforced that law.
Jarvis, who has been NPS director since 2009 and was participating in his first Congressional hearing, said they were using discretion with the unique protest. He told the Republican that the protest was a 24-hour-vigil and that absent an emergency or threat to public health or safety “they must be able to continue their vigil.” He did say that the Park Service would begin enforcing camping regulations there “very soon,” meaning that protesters may be given citations or arrested for sleeping in the park.
Timothy Zick, a law professor from William and Mary, agreed with Jarvis. He told the committee that this protest is different in that it seeks to occupy as part of its First Amendment message.
“No permit is required for a demonstration of this size, and no time requirement,” said Zick, “The agency is in compliance with regulations.”
Lurking in the background of the hearing was Rep. Darrell Issa, the Oversight Committee chairman, who fired the first shots in this debate. In December, he ordered a full investigation into Occupy D.C. McPherson after a group of three hunger strikers affiliated with the movement came to his office asking that D.C. representatives be given the right to vote in the federal government.
He was in top form at the hearing, with his hair slicked and his arrogance on full display. At one point, Congressman Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) said “normally I would like to thank the chair for holding this investigation…” but that the tone was on the wrong track and Issa interrupted to say “you’re welcome." Later, he interrupted D.C.’s non-voting representative Eleanor Holmes-Norton as she lamented the fact that no one from Occupy D.C. was invited to speak on their behalf.
“This is not a country where we talk about people and don’t invite them to defend themselves…” said Norton just before Issa cut in to tell her this hearing was intended to be what would happen with the next set of protesters.
Sam Jewler, an Occupy D.C. protester, said the group had tried to contact every member of the Subcommittee on Health and D.C. in order to put forth a witness for the hearing, but no one responded. Instead him and other supporters had to watch silently as they were talked about at one of the highest levels of government.
“We were not allowed to practice our right to free speech at this hearing,” said Jewler.
Elijah Cummings, noticing this disrespect, admonished it.
“I wish we had as much concern about the people that have lost their houses,” said Cummings, “It baffles me. We’ve now had over 118 hearings, 342 witness in this committee and when we ask someone we want bankers to come in to ask about robo-signing and violating the law, the chairman doesn’t want them to come in.
“I guess people who are protesting and are part of Occupy, they look at a hearing like this and say this is why they’re protesting. They see that government; particularly a committee that is supposed to be representing them are not addressing the issues that go to the center of their lives… Maybe the tiny bit of energy we put into this hearing we put in to addressing the things Occupy is worried about and then we don’t have to worry about whether there will be another Occupy.”
Issa walked out of the room each time a dissenting voice spoke and wasn’t even there for the witnesses’ initial statements. He’s currently the second richest member of Congress, with a net worth of $220 million.
Del. Norton used her time to draw links between the Occupy movement and the Civil Rights Movement.
“I came up in a generation of a new tactic too,” said Norton, “No one said during the Civil Rights movement that because of your health we’re going to get you out of this place.”
That last comment, caused the local editor of DCist.com to quip on Twitter, “To congressman who said D.C. is at a breaking point because of Occupy D.C.: it’s not. Thanks for the concern, though.”
A few issues regarding health and safety have dominated media coverage of Occupy D.C. since it began on October 3. In early November protesters blocked supporters of Americans For Prosperity from exiting a Koch-sponsored event at the convention center, in January a city health official said there is a rat problem at the camp and a protester left a baby unattended.
Norton, after the hearing, said she had not received wholesale complaints from D.C. residents or businesses.
“I think the National Park Service has been on the right side,” said Norton, “If they don’t want to go to court.”
Protesters affiliated with Occupy D.C. said the possibility of camping citations will not force them to leave.
“I am maintaining a 24-hour vigil,” said Sara Shaw.
“I wouldn’t leave because of a ticket,” said Nate, “I would go to court and express my first amendment right.”
Jeff Light, the attorney who represents Occupy D.C., said he doesn't expect the Park Service to immediately start enforcing the camping ban due to a court order that requires them to give 24-hour notice to him and the court before they do so. He said they have not notified him as of Tuesday afternoon.
Next Tuesday, Light will be in federal court in order to attempt to extend the injunction preventing the Park Service from enforcing the camping ban until there is a full trial, which could be several months from now.
Video of the full hearing is available here - http://www.c-spanvideo.org/program/CMc