[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.