WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A federal judge denied a petition on Tuesday that would have allowed anti-Wall Street protesters to keep camping - at least temporarily - in two parks in the nation’s capital where they have lived for months.
The National Park Service had banned protesters with the Occupy DC movement from camping in McPherson Square, a few blocks from the White House, starting at noon on Monday.
Scores of protesters have vowed to remain entrenched at the square and at a second site, Freedom Plaza. The demonstrators have been camped at the parks since October.
U.S. District Judge James Boasberg rejected a motion by Dane Primerano, of Riceboro, Georgia, for a temporary restraining order halting enforcement of the no-camping rule based on constitutional guarantees of free speech.
While similar “Occupy” protests against social and economic inequality in other U.S. cities have been shut down by police, the demonstrations in the capital have survived an unusually warm winter and a permissive approach by federal authorities reluctant to provoke confrontation.
Despite their small numbers, the Washington protesters enjoy outsized media attention because their camps are just blocks from President Barack Obama’s official residence. One is next to K Street, a wide thoroughfare that is home to many lobbyists and is synonymous with corporate influence in the capital.
While Obama has not explicitly backed the protests, he has made economic inequality a central theme of his re-election campaign and called for higher taxes on wealthier Americans, angering his Republican opponents.
The judge, in declining to halt enforcement of the no-camping rule, cited a 1984 Supreme Court ruling that barred demonstrators from camping in Lafayette Park next to the White House to draw attention to the plight of the homeless.
“I see no distinction in this case,” Boasberg said.
The judge agreed, however, to a request by a lawyer for the protesters to order the Park Service to give demonstrators notice if authorities decide to clear McPherson Square.
While they have not started to clear the sites, police on Monday told demonstrators that they had to remove a tarpaulin decorated with stars and moons they had draped over the square’s statue of Civil War General James McPherson.
Demonstrators stayed under the tarpaulin, dubbed the “tent of dreams,” overnight, playing Scrabble and talking. After hours of debate, protesters decided to leave it up to police to remove the tarp but not resist as a group.
A passerby, Paul Ferro, tried to tear down the tarp but was restrained by protesters.
“You’ve just got to keep out there pounding the pavement, there’s money to be made,” Ferro, a 40-year-old elevator mechanic from Maryland, told reporters.
A University of Delaware survey said on Monday that nearly one in five Americans had heard nothing about the “Occupy” movement four months since the protests began.
Among those aware of the movement, one-third could not identify the protesters’ main message, that too few people control most U.S. wealth and power, according to the poll of 901 adults.
Reporting By Ian Simpson; Editing by Paul Thomasch and Cynthia Johnston