POLITICS

Occupy Congress: Occupy DC camps persist as rally planned next week

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WASHINGTON (AP) - They were let back into Zuccotti Park, but kicked out of a vacant house in Seattle. In other places, Occupy protesters are in courtrooms fighting evictions.

While the movement flickers, the protest in the nation's capital is persisting into the winter, buoyed by demonstrators who camp out on federal land in a city with a tolerant, even celebrated, history of civil disobedience.

Washington even has two Occupy sites within blocks of each other.

"We didn't initiate it - that was with Occupy Wall Street - but we're carrying it on. And you know what? So are they," said Joseph Bieber, who came to Washington after the Occupy site in Philadelphia was shut down.

Demonstrators like Bieber have found a new home in D.C., where organizers expect a protest Tuesday on Capitol Hill - dubbed Occupy Congress - to draw thousands of people and bring renewed attention to the movement in Washington and to their overall opposition to corporate greed and income inequality.

"We can't just protest on Wall Street. We must also protest Congress directly if we want to have real change," said Mario Lozada, a protester from Philadelphia who plans to be in Washington next week for the protest.

Though the D.C. protesters have provoked the ire of a Republican congressman, they have been tolerated - with some growing signs of exasperation - by a mayor who forged his political identity as an activist and by a National Park Service that says it's determined to protect First Amendment rights.

Though they've dwindled considerably in numbers, the demonstrators, and a few homeless people, have remained despite occasionally freezing temperatures, the holidays and, more recently, rat infestations and health department inspections.

It's unclear how long they'll remain or how the situation will end.

Several dozen tents occupy Freedom Plaza and McPherson Square, both just blocks from the White House, though it's hard to tell how many people are there on any given night. The group at McPherson Square was inspired by the protesters in New York, while the Freedom Plaza site - a generally older crowd - had a war protest that morphed into an Occupy encampment.

In New York, protesters have been holding meetings at various indoor spaces after tents and sleeping bags were banned from Zuccotti Park in mid-November. A police raid evicted protesters who had been sleeping there since Sept. 17.

On Tuesday, metal barricades that had surrounded Zuccotti Park were removed, and about 300 demonstrators "re-Occupied" the park. Most left, though, as the night wore on. Ned Merrill was one of a handful of protesters around a day later.

"We need to have a symbolic presence," said Merrill, 52, a blanket draped over his shoulder.

In Seattle, sheriff's deputies evicted seven people early Wednesday from a vacant house that had been taken over as part of the movement. Deputies said they appeared to be squatters who did not have a political motive. However, the house is covered in graffiti, including "no banks, no landlords" and "capitalism is exploitation."

Other encampments remain, including in Portland, Me., and in Pittsburgh, where attorneys for the protesters argued in court Tuesday against eviction.

The D.C. demonstrators have been permitted to stay despite a string of recent clashes that might have triggered eviction in cities less accustomed to large-scale protests.

More than 30 protesters were arrested last month in McPherson Square after refusing to disassemble a makeshift wooden building they had erected in the middle of the night as a shed for the approaching winter. The building was torn down and removed.

Days later, a demonstration shut down K Street - home to the nation's largest lobbying firms - and ended with more than 60 arrests. A U.S. Park Police officer responding to a report of a fight inside a McPherson Square tent was kicked so hard in the crotch last month that he fell to the ground vomiting, court papers said.

And on Wednesday, police found a 13-month-old baby alone in a McPherson Square tent and arrested a man who came forward later claiming to be the child's father.

But unlike other encampments on city or private property, the protesters are in federal parks - and enjoying special First Amendment protections as a result.

The demonstrators at Freedom Plaza have received a permit to stay through the end of next month - some have already moved their demonstration indoors - and under National Park Service regulations, the McPherson Square protestors won't need a permit if the crowd remains under 500 people.

"There's a very strong presumption and deference given to First Amendment free speech and, more specifically, political free speech," said National Park Service spokesman Bill Line.

There are signs of wariness.

District of Columbia Mayor Vincent Gray, who was arrested in April while demonstrating in support of D.C. autonomy, initially supported the protesters, but has asked for federal funds to reimburse the city for Occupy-related costs. He said law-breaking won't be tolerated and that the protesters' cause is appearing muddled.

"It certainly has the patience wearing thin of those in the city and, to the extent that they've been able to express what their cause is, I don't think it helps their cause," Gray said.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa, a California Republican and chairman of the Committee on Government Oversight and Reform, has demanded answers from the Interior Department about why the protesters have been permitted to stay so long. He says they have damaged or destroyed McPherson Square upgrades, including new grass and refurbishments, paid for with stimulus funds.

The National Park Service says Issa's request is under review, but he followed up with a letter this week accusing the agency of being unresponsive.

A growing rat concentration at the sites caused McPherson Square protesters to shut down their kitchen and alarmed health officials, who lack jurisdiction but are consulting with other agencies, said department spokesman Najma Roberts. She said the department had no immediate plans to recommend eviction unless there was an outbreak of an illness or an advancing snowstorm.

Organizers of Tuesday's Occupy Congress event expect thousands of demonstrators.

"Any dwindling that happened over the holidays is reversing," said Lozada, the Philadelphia-based protester. "If we can successfully pull off a massive protest in the middle of January, I just see nothing but further growth happening in the spring."

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