Dozens of U.S. Park Police officers in riot gear and on horseback converged before dawn Saturday on one of the nation's last remaining Occupy sites, with police clearing away tents they said were banned under park rules.
At least seven people were arrested. Officials said it was relatively peaceful but got tense late in the day when an officer was struck in the face with a brick as police pushed protesters out of the last section of the park. The officer was taken to a hospital for treatment.
Protesters held a general assembly Saturday evening and vowed to continue the movement. One of the speakers acknowledged the injured officer and urged everyone to practice nonviolence.
Police insisted they were not evicting the protesters. Those whose tents conformed to regulations were allowed to stay, and protesters can stay 24 hours a day as long as they don't camp there with blankets or other bedding. Police threatened to seize tents that broke the rules and arrest the owners.
The police used barricades to cordon off sections of McPherson Square, a park under federal jurisdiction near the White House, and checked tents for mattresses and sleeping bags and sifted through piles of garbage and other belongings. Some wore yellow biohazard suits to guard against diseases identified at the site in recent weeks. Officials also have raised concerns about a rat infestation.
Eventually most of the protesters had been pushed into the surrounding streets, which were closed to traffic.
By Saturday afternoon, seven were arrested, including four who refused to move from beneath a statute and three who crossed a police line.
Despite what police said, some protesters said the crackdown amounted to eviction.
“This is a slow, media-friendly eviction,” protester Melissa Byrne said. “We're on federal property, so they have to make it look good.”
The officers poured into McPherson Square just before 6 a.m., some on horseback and others wearing routine riot gear. As a helicopter hovered overhead, they shut down surrounding streets and formed neat, uniform lines inside the park.
The police initially turned their focus to dragging out wood, metal and other items stored beneath a massive blue tarp — which protesters call the “Tent of Dreams” — that had been draped around a statue of Maj. Gen. James McPherson, a Union general in the Civil War. Protesters agreed to remove the tent.
Later, in a lighter moment, Park Police used a cherry-picker to remove a mask of 17th-century English revolutionary Guy Fawkes that had been placed on the statue.
Jeff Light, a lawyer who represents a couple of Occupy protesters and who was at McPherson Square, said he expected to challenge the police actions in court. He said he was frustrated because a lawyer for the government had said there were no plans to seize tents that complied with the regulations.
“Here they are,” Light said, “doing something different than what they said in court.”
The Washington demonstration is among the last remaining Occupy sites, enjoying First Amendment protections by virtue of its location on federal park service property.