WASHINGTON — 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.
That move left large swaths of open space and raised questions about exactly what would remain of the encampment.
Still, police said 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 and white biohazard suits to guard against diseases identified at the site in recent weeks. Officials also have raised concerns about a rat infestation.
Police by mid-day had arrested four people who refused to move from beneath a statute and two others who crossed a police line.
The National Park Service, which has allowed the protesters to remain in the park for months, has said it will give protesters notice if police decide to clear the park. Police on Saturday were careful to say they were not evicting anyone or closing the park, but were instead stepping up enforcement of an existing ban on camping.
Protesters had braced for a confrontation when the park service said it would start enforcing the ban Monday, though no crackdown happened until Saturday.
Despite what police said, some protesters said the crackdown amounted to eviction.
"This is a slow, media-friendly eviction," said protester Melissa Byrne. "We're on federal property, so they have to make it look good."
The officers poured into McPherson Square before 5:45 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.
The mood turned more tense, with occasional shoving, in the afternoon as protesters complained police were indiscriminately seizing tents.
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.
Similar to the New York protesters, who strategically occupied a park near Wall Street to highlight their campaign against economic inequalities, the District of Columbia group selected a space along Washington's K Street. The street is home to some of the nation's most powerful lobbying firms.