WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Police removed protesters as they confiscated bedding and most tents on Saturday from an “Occupy” protest site just blocks from the White House, enforcing a no-camping rule for the public McPherson Square they had ignored for months.
Dozens of mounted police and police on foot in riot gear earlier sealed off the square, which is administered by the National Park Service, and moved in before dawn to enforce the no-camping regulation.
Demonstrators have been in the square since early October to target the growing income gap, corporate greed and what they see as an unfair tax structure favoring the richest Americans.
By early evening, police had scuffled with protesters and moved all but one out of the park as they cleared most of the encampment. Police said the move was only an enforcement of park rules but Occupy demonstrators called the action a “full force eviction” and said the police had beaten them with batons and pushed them out so violently that several people were trampled.
Police said there had been eight arrests and one injury to a police officer who was hit in the face with a brick. Protesters said a protester had been beaten unconscious but the police did not confirm the injury.
“They pushed and beat us out.” said Sam Jewler, a protester, 23, from the nation’s capital who has been camping in the square for months.
The National Park Service has repeatedly warned protesters it would start enforcing a ban against camping in the square alongside K Street, home to many of the powerful lobbyists who seek to influence lawmakers, and at the Occupy movement’s site at Freedom Plaza, both a few blocks from the White House.
“They can go back in,” said U.S. Park Police Sergeant David Schlosser, who said the police were just moving protesters out in sections while they implemented the no camping rule. Earlier in the day he told reporters the police action was not an eviction but just “nuisance abatement.”
Guarded by police, sanitation workers cleared away most tents and heaps of bedding, palettes, crates, tarpaulins, full-sized mattresses, books, clothes, straw and other debris that had accumulated over the four months of occupation.
By evening, only a handful of empty tents remained. The police had also taken down one of the group’s most sentimental symbols of resistance, a large blue tarpaulin decorated with moons and stars and the words “Tent of Dreams” in reference to the ban on sleeping in the park.
Many demonstrators had packed up their belongings and left, but a group of about 60 stood in a cold drizzle just feet from police blocking entry into the park and vowed to continue the movement in some form and retake part of the park on Sunday for a meeting to reassess their next move.
Some protesters vowed to sleep on sidewalks in sight of the park and some planned to seek shelter in nearby houses and a local church. While some demonstrators berated the police, others appeared defeated. One woman cried while a nearby protester kept his arm around her.
“The most important thing is to maintain our presence. That is the plan,” said Edward Sahadi, 47, a baker from Key West, Florida, who has been at the site for more than three months.
Others hinted the movement could move on beyond the camp.
“This is not an ending. It’s just an evolution. ... We occupied spaces. We can occupy more than that. We can occupy ideas,” said Sariel Lehyani, 28, of Washington.
The Occupy movement began when protesters set up camp in New York’s Zuccotti Park on September 17, sparking demonstrations across the United States and elsewhere in the world. Its message of economic equality has become a recurrent theme in the U.S. presidential race.
But the eviction of Occupy Wall Street protesters and others in public spaces in other U.S. cities in November and December has made the protests less visible and organizers are now struggling to maintain momentum without the physical camps.
Local media in Austin, Texas, reported that police had cleared an Occupy encampment there, with seven arrests. A spokesman for the Austin Police Department was not immediately available to comment.
Demonstrations in the U.S. capital have survived so long because of an unusually warm winter and a permissive approach by federal authorities reluctant to provoke a confrontation.
But the McPherson Square had encampment has drawn increasing complaints from members of Congress and city officials because of the rising costs of policing, squalor and rats. The protest site has also drawn a number of homeless people.
Despite their small numbers, the Washington protesters have received outsized media attention because their camps are near the White House.
The National Park Service forbids camping on federal land not designated as a campground. Park rules allow tents or temporary structures as part of protests but they cannot have bedding and a tent flap or side of the structure must be open.
There was no sign of police activity at the second protest site, Freedom Plaza. Schlosser said: “We’ll address Freedom Plaza at a later time.”
Jeffrey Light, an attorney advising the Occupy protesters, said police had been removing tents that were in compliance with regulations. The clearing operation “is what has happened in so many other cities and it’s going to happen here,” he said.
Additional reporting by Will Dunham; Editing by Vicki Allen and Todd Eastham