Early in the morning on Saturday, Feb. 4, United States Park Police—some in riot gear, some in hazmat suits, some on horseback—raided the McPherson Square Occupy D.C. encampment and arrested eight protesters. Although the purported reason for the raid was to enforce a recent ruling forbidding protesters from sleeping in the park, the preparations and actions of the police were both inappropriate and unwarranted, and were obvious attempts to intimidate those protesters acting within the law into abandoning their efforts.
According to the new ruling, which went into effect in late January, protesters are no longer permitted to sleep in the park, and their tents, which have become fixtures in McPherson Square since the protest began in October, are now only to be used while awake as shelter. On Saturday, police acted on orders to take down any tents that did not meet the qualifications of “vigil tents,” theoretically meaning those that contained bedding or other evidence of encampment. What the police did, however, did not follow these guidelines—officers removed empty tents, and disposed of whichever possessions of the protesters that they deemed “trash.” In removing “vigil tents” and non-banned personal belongings, the police acted against the ruling the National Park Service, cynically going beyond their permission in attempt to strong-arm the protesters out of their camp.
The officers’ display of force was almost comically excessive, with peaceful protesters grossly outnumbered by officers armed with riot gear and pepper spray. In bringing in hazmat suits, barricades, and horses, the Park Police demonstrated either a complete unawareness of the protesters’ peaceful actions—unlikely given the amount of publicity the movement has received—or a clear intention to frighten the protesters and characterize them as dangerous and unsanitary. Both these intentions are unfair to the protesters, who have been largely compliant with police orders, and the tactics represent an utter waste of public resources. It seems Mayor Vincent Gray and his police chiefs wanted to do more than eject the protesters from the square. They instead looked to break the momentum of the movement through overt intimidation.
In the wake of Saturday’s raid, the National Park Service has vowed to “continue to enforce” the no-encampment rule in the coming weeks. But if protesters remained after the first round of enforcement, complete with its unnecessary displays of force and extralegal removal of belongings, then the Park Service should reconsider the effectiveness of its overt, unwarranted antagonism against the Occupiers. The all-too-zealous effort to return law and order to the square only shows the fearsome tactics governments across the country will use if their authority is challenged. If anything, these scare tactics should not break the movement, but renew the vigor of protesters to challenge the rule of the 1 percent.