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 the grounds of tents that 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 once the enforcement was over.
Still, police said they were not evicting the protesters. Those whose tents conformed to regulations were allowed to stay, and protesters remain able to demonstrate at the site at all hours provided they don't camp there.
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.
Police by mid-day had arrested six people, including four protesters who refused to move from beneath a statute and two others for crossing a police line.
The National Park Service, which has tolerated the protesters for months and protected their First Amendment rights, 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 the protesters or closing the park, but were instead stepping up enforcement of an existing ban on camping.
Regulations allow protesters to remain onsite at all hours with tents, though they are not allowed to camp out on blankets or other bedding materials. Police said tents that broke the rules would be seized and their owners threatened with arrest.
The park service had said it would start enforcing the ban last Monday, and though protesters had then braced for a confrontation, it wasn't until Saturday that police cracked down.
Some protesters said Saturday's enforcement amounted to eviction even if the police wouldn't admit it.
"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 McPherson statue.
The mood turned more tense, with occasional shoving, in the afternoon as protesters complained that police were indiscriminately seizing tents.
The Washington demonstration is among the last remaining Occupy sites, enjoying special First Amendment protections by virtue of its location on park service property.
Dozens have been camped since Oct. 1 in McPherson Square, just blocks from the White House. 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.
The relationship with police has been generally peaceful, though a daylong standoff in early December over a makeshift wooden building led to more than 30 arrests. About five dozen protesters were later arrested during a mass demonstration that shut down K Street.
Democratic Mayor Vincent Gray initially appeared to support the protesters. But any enthusiasm by city officials waned amid reports of violent incidents and, more recently, a rat infestation.