The House Committee for Oversight & Reform, chaired by Rep. Darrell Issa, held a hearing on the presence of Occupy DC in McPherson Square.
The hearing was titled “Who Made the Decision to Allow Indefinite Camping?” and called into question the National Park Service’s role in allowing occupiers to have tents and engage in what Issa and other members of Congress expressly believe to be camping. Representatives from departments and agencies were at the hearing to testify, but no members of Occupy DC were present to defend themselves against the charges being made against them during the committee hearing.
Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC)’s exchange with National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis best exemplified the perceived problem. He was convinced that what applies in McPherson would have to be applied throughout the country and said they are no more First Amendment rights there then in other cities, towns, or hamlets in the country and asked Jarvis directly, “What is camping?”
Jarvis replied the National Park Police handle more protests than in any place in the country and they take a “measured” and “reasoned approach.” He called Occupy DC “unique” and noted they have “no unit leader we can go to and negotiate for compliance.
Gowdy demanded a definition of camping from Jarvis. Jarvis answered a “24-hour vigil” means “they are awake at all times providing information or signs.” And, “camping is sleeping or preparing to sleep at the site.”
This was followed up with a question about whether there was sleeping or if all the occupiers are “insomniacs.” Jarvis told Gowdy that those there presently have a right to be there 24 hours a day. Gowdy next asked if one is awake does that give “constitutional cover for the rest to sleep.” He then pressed Jarvis on whether any had been cited for camping. And Jarvis indicated they are in the process of “gaining compliance with the occupiers through a series of ramping up enforcement.” It was one of the most dumbfounding exchanges during what was primarily a grossly inane hearing.
At the end of the exchange, Jarvis noted that the Supreme Court has afforded the National Park Service a great deal of discretion as to how to enforce this rule on camping.
DC Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton fiercely defended the right of Occupy DC to be in McPherson. She praised how Jarvis and the National Park Service have handled the movement’s presence. She called out the committee for not having someone from Occupy DC present to speak and defend the group’s conduct and actions. (This was a concern that Issa downplayed by saying this hearing was about “next groups after” and “protecting DC” in the future.)
Norton pointed out that there is money that can be used to pay for the cost law enforcement is incurring from monitoring the occupiers. It is in an annual appropriations bill for federal government and has been for the past ten years.
She pressed Deputy Mayor for Public Safety and Justice Paul Quander on whether occupiers had been escalating tactics as he suggested they could do. Quander could give no examples of escalation, outside of maybe the construction of the wooden structure that the Park Police had removed. To this, Norton suggested the occupiers be commended for “self-policing.”
During the hearing, Jarvis remarked there had been two previous instances where there had been long-term protests in DC. In 1979, six thousand family farmers drove to DC to protest farm policy and were on the National Mall for seven weeks. In 1968, the Poor People’s Campaign set up a shantytown for a month called “Resurrection City.”
Norton spoke about how “Resurrection City” had been a “new tactic.” Addressing health concerns that departments have expressed, she noted “no one said because of your health we are going to get you out of this place. “ She said it is very important to her to protect First Amendment rights, because she had worked as a constitutional lawyer, even defending the rights of racists.
Rep. Joe Walsh (R-IL), who likely loathes the Occupy movement and was videoed as he ran away from constituent “occupiers” who tried to meet with him in December, established while questioning Jarvis that “camping is illegal.” He read the definition of camping and Jarvis admitted “individuals” are engaged in activities in the definition of camping. But, Jarvis also was hesitant to say that the act Occupy DC was engaged in, which members of Congress might call camping, is in fact something that can just be prohibited by the Park Service.
The speech is “unique,” Jarvis said. It is “unprecedented in that the core of their First Amendment activity is that they occupy the site.” This is important because the tents are part of the protest. The temporary seizure of the public space for assembly and protest is a tactic that is a cornerstone of this movement. To prohibit or criminalize would invite challenges to the prohibition in court because the tents are a known symbol of the Occupy movement.
Walsh attempted to gain information on the suspected corruption that the committee was called to get at the root of today. He asked if anyone was telling him not to enforce the statute against “camping” because no person has been cited for “camping” yet. Jarvis said, under oath, that no person is ordering him to not crack down on the “camping.” There is no Obama Administration policy to permit the occupiers to engage in lawless behavior, which GOP congressmen believe.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) condemned the “tone and tenure of this hearing” and called it “rather disturbing.” He said he visited an Occupy camp in St. Louis in Kiener Plaza and had found it to be “orderly, organized and sanitary.” He said he was in a tent and saw there were computers inside. And he added that when he thinks about “peaceful assemblage” in America he thinks about those who assembled in the summer of 1963 against Bull Connor and how Connor was wrong. Now the congress people using this hearing to come down on the Occupy movement are wrong too.
The Occupy movement is trying to “peacefully” voice concerns about issues in the country, he said. “We should not try to tamp that down and distinguish between one form of assemblage to the other.” He mentioned that former labor secretary Robert Reich, a supporter of the Occupy movement, has said the single core message of the movement is that the increasing concentration of income and wealth at the top endangers democracy.
Cummings established there is nothing new in the “jurisprudence,” which is being utilized to handle Occupy. What happens to be new is “the use of public space” which is unprecedented. “This is a large outdoor sit-in activity.” He thanked Jarvis for using discretion and understanding the “delicate balance” between giving frustrated people a chance to gather and protecting health and safety. Law enforcement, the Park Service and government officials are on the ground and, while it is easy to “second guess,” they deal with this on a “day-to-day basis” and know best what to do.
Finally, Cummings cut through the absurd and spiteful nature of the hearing saying, “I wish we had as much concern about the people who have lost their houses,” and that there had now been 118 hearings with 342 witnesses and when a banker is asked to come testify on robo-signing the committee cannot get them because Chairman Issa doesn’t want them to “come in to explain why they have illegally put people out of their houses.”
“I guess people who are protesting and are part of Occupy—They look at a hearing like this and say this is why they are protesting,” declared Cummings. “Because they see their government, particularly a committee that is supposed to be standing up for them, not addressing the issues that go to the center of their lives.”
One can sit here and debate the finer details of the law and what is permitted and what isn’t permitted in a public square, but that really is not what matters. What matters is the fact that members of Congress fixate on the business and well being of those who are committing crimes and injustice against Americans, a concern that grossly benefits the 1%. This ensures their campaigns and status in the political class of America are properly funded and maintained. And, as a result, it means efforts to make certain Americans have equal protection under the law from the corporations or special interest groups perpetrating crimes or injustices are stymied.
Government does not work for the people. It spends time deliberating over the regulation of people power. It expends resources because the interests endangered by this people power are afraid the people power might grow and have some impact on their ability to continue to get richer and richer and richer.
Politicians pledge to crack down on the illicit act of “camping” and to go after protesters who are actually “campers,” while greater crimes or infractions, which cost people jobs, homes, opportunities for education, impact their health and possibly even result in death, persist and remain uncharged and not prosecuted.
Both Cumming and Norton had a history of participation in the civil rights protests and thus had respect for Occupy. Gowdy, Issa and Walsh each had contempt for Occupy and one can presume they had little involvement in actively organizing civil rights demonstrations. It is also likely they have never participated in First Amendment activities to advance a cause in their lives. And so they have nothing but contempt and scorn for what people are doing in public spaces across the country to transform America into a more equitable and just society.