National Park Police invaded Occupy DC, McPherson Square in the early hours of Saturday morning with riot police, a dozen horses and a strategic plan to eliminate the encampment.
Then throughout the day, they went section by section with a fully dressed hazardous materials team, cordoning each part of the camp off with heavy wrought iron fencing and inspecting and bagging up protesters' property. Any tent with a semblance of camping materials inside was confiscated along with all belongings inside.
By the late afternoon only a few tents were left standing in the cleared sections. The small number of protesters, which never grew over 200 people, attempted to shout down and fight back police, but they were easily overwhelmed by the large police presence. Most of the time the police matched protesters in numbers.
The clearing of the camp signals a possible end for the rowdy, 128-day-old McPherson camp, which had gained notoriety after a testy protest at an Americans for Prosperity event at the DC Convention Center. The police action proved that even federal police will enforce camping bans at Occupy protests, even if there is doubt about whether it's constitutional under the First Amendment.
The police did not close down the park, or ask protesters to leave. In that way they respected the occupiers' right to a 24-hour vigil while simultaneously enforcing a camping ban, which they notified the camp they would do last Friday.
"They've met us intellectually," said Kelly Mears, a programmer who has helped out the Occupy DC tech team, "They're allowing the 24-hour vigil while enforcing camping regulations. I'm glad they didn't just come in here and beat people."
"You can't fault the cops for doing this, they can't just let them live here forever," said a bystander wearing a peacoat who had come to watch the clearing.
The only times the clearing became violent was when protesters attempted to block police from fencing off sidewalks to clear sections of the camp. Police slowly moved down the sidewalk with their riot shields forcing screaming protesters off to the side while they set up barricades. I saw one man get knocked down by a riot shield and multiple protesters struck with batons as they tried to force police back.
Other than that, it seemed as if police had learned from the clashes at other occupations around the country. They conducted their police operation in full daylight, on a Saturday. They warned protesters they were going to enforce the ban and they had a strategic plan to keep violence and arrests to a minimum. Less than 20 arrests were made by 6 p.m. on Saturday, no ambulances were called.
In many ways, the McPherson clearing symbolized the Occupy movement itself. As occupiers put a focus on camps they lost the message of income inequality and the influence of money in politics that had galvanized support. On Saturday, truckloads of trash were pulled out of a run-down McPherson Square protected by few protesters. Weary, disheveled occupiers looked on, too exhausted to think of a symbolic action to turn the media cameras away from the mess they had created.
"You create a squat and you attract squatters," said a disillusioned protester named Rob, who had helped to start Occupy DC McPherson.
He sees the clearing as a new start. A way to refocus the movement back towards the goals that it had started with. He wants to organize protesters around foreclosure defense and debt resistance in order to enter a phase two.
The problems that came along with a long-standing occupation were present all around McPherson on Saturday. Tents filled with soiled blankets and ad-hoc comfort materials like fiberglass insulation. Trash enveloping the small pockets between crates used to keep tents off the ground. Anarchists swearing and yelling loudly at police. Knee-jerk reactions to enforcement, rather than long-term planning and symbolic optics.
And it's those optics that average Americans, the 99 percent, will see in the papers. They'll see the hazmat suits, the confrontations, the disheveled protesters and the truckloads of trash.
Yes, occupying the park was a symbol in and of itself. Anytime a DC resident or worker drove past the park they may have thought about the reasons it was founded: The gross inequality in this country and the greedy bankaneers that have rigged the economic game to benefit themselves. But, if they looked closely they would have seen cigarette-smoking, mostly male, bandanna wearing protesters covered in anarchy symbols mingling with the homeless.
The protesters will still be able to occupy McPherson Square. They'll be able to hold a 24-hour vigil. But they won't be able to sleep there. Three blocks away the calm and older crowd at Freedom Plaza is still standing strong. They complied with the ban on camping materials and cleaned out their tents when they were instructed to by the police. As a result, they were not bothered on Saturday.
With McPherson's eviction, pressing questions rest on the Occupy movement. Can it succeed promoting a legitimate message targeting real problems in America without getting involved in the messy problems of sustaining an occupation in a park? Or is it time for a rebranding of a movement that will likely take years to come to an equitable solution?