Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images file
A view showing the Occupy DC encampment in McPherson Square in Washington, DC, on January 22, 2012.
Federal park authorities in the nation's capital told Occupy protesters at two sites on Friday that they will begin enforcing park rules that prohibit camping -- a move seen by the activists as a "slow creep" aimed at whittling down their demonstration in Washington, DC.
The National Park Service said in a flier that starting Monday at noon it will begin to enforce regulations prohibiting camping and the use of temporary structures for camping. Individual violators may be subject to arrest and their property subject to seizure as evidence, the flier said.
Three officers will be on hand to monitor the situation, try to get protesters to comply and make arrests or seizures as needed, Carol Johnson, a NPS spokeswoman, told msnbc.com. Compliance entails removing all camping materials and leaving one side of all temporary structures open.
“People can be there 24 hours a day, but they can’t live there, they can’t sleep there,” Johnson said. “This has been something in the works for some time. I mean what we’ve been trying to do is use measured and progressive means to get people into compliance.”
“We still do back the First Amendment, and it is their right. It is not their right to camp. And ... we would, you know, support them if they came into compliance and they had a vigil and they had tents that were there for logistical or symbolic purposes,” she added. "They can occupy as a vigil but not camping."
More than 80 arrests have occurred at the two sites, including for public urination, drunkenness, assault and drug use, she noted.
Many of the Occupy camps were closed across the country last fall and early winter, and the sites in the nation's capital were two of the bigger outfits remaining. Occupy Wall Street, which was evicted in mid-November, holds its general assemblies in their former camp site, while other group meetings are held elsewhere.
Justin Jacoby Smith, a 25-year-old activist with OccupyKSt, said that the protesters were conducting a 24-hour vigil in line with the NPS use guidelines for the site and that he thought people were "incorrectly" reading the NPS moves as an eviction notice.
"I don’t think that’s what we’re dealing with here. I think what we’re seeing from the park police is a sort of very slow creep of their enforcement of this so-called no-camping rule," he said, adding that he thought the enforcement was also “just another part of that broader strategy of trying to whittle down the (protester) numbers slowly.”
The Park Service noted that two "compliant" 24-hour First Amendment vigils have been running in Lafayette Park and near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial since the early 1980s. Johnson said they were "very small" vigils.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Subcommittee held a hearing on Tuesday about the McPherson Square encampment.
"Late is better than never," Trey Gowdy, R-S.C., chairman of the subcommittee on the District of Columbia, said in a statement after learning of the park service notice. "Lady Justice is blindfolded for a reason: so as not to see who is in front of her. I continue to wonder whether others who are 'camping' in national parks would have been afforded a 100-day grace period before the law was enforced."
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