by Jim Macdonald
When most of us think of the National Park Service, we think of the great national parks like Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, or Glacier. Perhaps, we think of the national monuments and historical parks as well. However, for those of us who live in the District of Columbia, we also think of the National Park Service as the organization that manages our city parks no matter how big or small. Here in the District, we don't think of Park Service employees as rangers; we usually think of them as Park Police. There is little mystique, and the experience is entirely different.
And yet, the same National Park Service that manages my beloved Yellowstone is the same National Park Service that manages tiny circular and square parks scattered across Washington, D.C. I don't think that's a thought that should be lost on people. The National Park Service is a government bureaucracy, nothing more and nothing less. It is not special and is capable of the same abuses that we see in government everywhere.
Let me share something that I noticed this morning on the way to work.
Every morning, I bike to work from my home in the Columbia Heights neighborhood downtown. On the end of my ride, most days I pass through Farragut Square, a short two blocks from the White House. Farragut Square is a small lawn dissected by diagonal sidewalks that meet together in the center where they encircle a statue of Admiral David Farragut, of Civil War "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead" fame. The entire square is unremarkable, a small city block square, with typically short 11- and 12-story office buildings surrounding it- two of which have entrances to the Metro. It is a common crossing ground for tourists going to the White House who have taken the red line trains, though most of the people who pass through work downtown.
Farragut Square typically has had large numbers of bike couriers who have gathered there due to its central location; they have a cultural identity all of their own. Also scattered in the small park have always been a fair number of homeless people, some regularly in the same spots most days. While many of the homeless downtown tend to hang a few blocks down around the larger Franklin Square adjacent to the Franklin Shelter, there have always been some in Farragut Square. One morning, I was with a group that was regularly trying to serve the homeless population, and we talked to a homeless man in Farragut Square. He had told us that during the day the Park Service told them to leave because they didn't want them to upset the tourists who pass through on their way to the White House. However, he said that they generally had left them alone at night. Large numbers of homeless often slept nearby on K Street in front of the Adams National Bank, but not all prefer to sleep on the hard concrete. In many little triangular and circular parks, you will find large numbers of residents. In many places where there is less foot traffic, you will find some who stay there all day sleeping on the grass.
Today, I was biking through Farragut Square, and I saw a sign that upset me that I had not noticed before. I am not always a very observant person when it comes to small details, and so this sign may have been there longer for all I know, but I suspect that it hasn't. The sign says: "Help Us Keep Your Park Clean: Alcohol Prohibited, Camping Prohibited, Cleanup After Pets, Pets Must Be Leashed, No Pets Allowed in Statue Area." I cannot comment much on the pets issue since it is very uncommon to see pets in the Farragut Square area. I also don't have much to say about the alcohol prohibition, though outlawing alcohol in this tiny park smacks of something more pernicious. From my point of view, the real aim of the signs is the "camping" prohibition.
Now, this prohibition existed long before the sign; some of us know about it because there has been a history of repressing political dissent based on the camping regulations in parks like nearby Lafayette Park right in front of the White House. In that case, protesters have had to work through a maze of bewildering rules, arbitrarily applied, in order to be able to maintain their political dissent. All night protests have been squashed at times because of the prohibitions against unpermitted camping. When, how, and why those regulations are sometimes enforced and sometimes not, and the various rules governing what consitutes "camping" would truly be an essay in itself. Those who have kept the Peace Park vigil for more than 25 years created a very telling documentary about the application of these rules during the First Gulf War when protesters banged drums for 40 days and 40 nights. In my case, I have had the opposite experience, joining solidarity vigils in Lafayette Park where no one even said a word to me for sleeping on the grass without a permit. My point is simply that the no camping regulations in the parks is arbitrary; when they are enforced, there is some other purpose in mind than protecting the grass or the benches.
The sign I saw, seemingly new, in the case of Farragut Square, is meant to keep the District's homeless population out of Farragut Square and funneled somewhere else. This morning, when I biked through the square, the same homeless residents that I normally see were not there. On many mornings, one homeless man is on a bench near the statue; I often see a Park Service employee at the same time cleaning up litter along the grass. Nobody was bothering anyone; I never even saw so much as panhandling, which in itself isn't a crime. The crime is camping, and here apparently it is a crime to lay on a bench because protecting a statue of David Farragut from everything except the pigeon shit is more important to our national heritage than are the poorest residents of our city who have no roofs over their heads. Protecting grass planted by that same National Park Service is also more important. As you know, I don't take value judgments lightly, and I am not going to assume that human values are more important than "statue values," "heritage values," or "grass values," but I am going to say with plenty of vitriol that the enforcement of those values under the rule of law is dispicable.
Those who manage the parks have been criticized for "playing God" with nature (or not playing God enough); they even play God over the minutiae that is Farragut Square. In Yellowstone, they are roundly and rightly criticized for their wildlife management policies, whether we are talking about hazing bison, culling elk herds, eliminating and then reintroducing wolves, feeding and then not feeding bears. Some of these decisions may have been the right ones, but that we should assume that the National Park Service knows what it's doing because it has created this mythological altruistic self image around its ranger corps is obvously wrong. Some might say that forcing the homeless off of the benches of a traffic circle in Washington, D.C., is simply a management mission run amok, but it's the management system itself that is the problem. You cannot rightfully enforce a value-laden policy with severe and usually unknown consequences. The wonder of Yellowstone these days is that it's still around, and still amazing, in spite of the willful ignorance of policy makers. And, even so, what does the future hold? In Farragut Square, the future seems to hold no sleeping ground for the homeless; it will be interesting to see the effect of the signs in enforcing the arbitrary regulations against camping. One hopes that the Park Police on the ground ignore the regulations like they have so many times in the past. One hopes, but that hope is not promising. In Yellowstone, what will happen when the next set of in vogue ideologies compete for a consensus among policy makers? Maybe, next time, things won't work out so well (and some would argue - though I don't - that things went hopelessly to pot ages ago; I cannot say that because I cannot deny the beauty and wonder of my recent experiences). And, what is "working out so well" anyhow? It's not clear that anyone dares to have an idea, or those ideas are hopelessly in conflict with one another. Perhaps, they will always be hopelessly in conflict, but that makes it even more ridiculous that there's a management arm enforcing one incoherent vision of what the place should be.
I believe that what happens to the homeless in Farragut Square under the National Park Service is not really that dissimilar to what happens in Yellowstone National Park. I could make the obvious point that both seem to be for people of higher rather than lower classes, but that is not even the full extent of it. Whether we are talking about people, animals, or the land, the same arrogance rules. That is the nature of political hierarchy. For so long, those who love the environment and love the parks have called on fully funding the National Park Service. When the other option is the multinational corporate monster, one cannot blame them. Yet, ultimately, the problem is hierarchy of power in all its forms, and it will take us to stop them.
I have not said much of the bike couriers in Farragut Square, who are actually the dominant cultural feature. They usually describe themselves as a close knit community, something of a collective all to themselves. Though they often face repression, their ability to organize as a community has often empowered them to stand up against the same kinds of troubles that many of the homeless on the streets face. Challenging the hierarchies of power requires that we build communities who can organize and resist injustice. The communities of resistance as they currently exist among workers, among anarchists, and among others are not very strong, often focused on the next fight or the next protest or event. Ultimately, those fights will depend on building those communities like we see among the bike couriers here and in other places. That sort of organizing - like the kind we see with Buffalo Field Campaign - has made a difference, however incomplete, for bison in Yellowstone. However, we need far more of it here and there.
Anyhow, that's a side of the Park Service that some of you outside of Washington don't see and perhaps connections that some of you inside of it don't often make. There is a lot more evidence of these connections that I can make from my own experience, but even just this taste of it I think is enough that we should consider it more. I'd like to invite that discussion.