Occupy protesters from around the nation gathered at the Capitol and congressional office buildings in Washington on Jan. 17 to rally and attempt to speak with lawmakers as they resumed the 2012 legislation session and returned from holiday break recess.

The crowd was diverse and composed of hundreds, according to a Jan. 17 Huffington Post article. Known as Occupy Congress, the event was a day of actions against corrupt political institutions and an effort to inspire activists and ordinary Americans to participate in real democracy, according to Occupy Wall Street's website.

Event actions included a multi-occupation General Assembly, teach-ins, marches on all three branches of the government and other efforts to raise awareness about corporate influence in the legislative cycle.

Dennis Trainor, Jr., writer and producer of Acronym TV produced a video documentation of the events.

Rosetta Star, a social entrepreneur runs a compostable packaging firm, a restaurant with her husband and a third business in Asheville, N.C., attended the Washington demonstration. "Our systems are flawed by a for-profit mentality, and therefore the needs of the masses are being ignored for the profits of the few," she said in the Jan. 17 Huffington Post article.

Although the rally was peaceful, four protesters were arrested, with one charged with assaulting a police officer and three others for crossing a police line, according to Washington Post's Jan. 17 live updates of the event.

"We came to inspire others; we came to inspire our children," Star said. "We came because we can't sit still and pretend like nothing is going wrong, when we feel like the collective bus of the country is getting driven off a cliff."
"We came because we can't sit still and pretend like nothing is going wrong, when we feel like the collective bus of the country is getting driven off a cliff." - Rosetta Star, Occupy Congress
The total number of Occupy arrests around the nation is 5,897 protesters, according to @OccupyArrests' twitter feed.

An apparent smoke bomb was thrown over the fence of the White House on Jan. 17, the night of the Occupy Congress events, according to a Jan. 17 Associated Press article . U.S. Secret Service Spokesman George Ogilvie said no arrests were made and that there were about 1,000 to 1,500 protesters present at one point during the night.

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Elsewhere in the nation's capital, the durable and persistent Washington Occupy encampments face opposition from District of Columbia officials over public health issues, according to an email from D.C. Examiner blogger Reginald Johnson.

"Mayor [Vincent] Gray is ready to remove the Occupiers although he still supports their message of change, but mostly for change in Statehood for D.C." he said in a Jan. 14 e-mail.

Gray insisted that the National Park Service remove protesters from one of their encampment sites at McPherson Square due to an increasing rat infestation, according to a Jan. 17 Washington Post article .

According to Johnson's blog, Gray sent a letter to National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis and included a report by the D.C. Department of Health (DOH) regarding the potential for public health threats at McPherson Square. These threats included communicable diseases, hypothermia and food-borne illnesses, all presumably rooted from improper disposal and containment of trash and human waste.

At the very least, Gray insisted that the Occupy D.C. sites at McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza be consolidated into one encampment. He advised the protesters to relocate to Freedom Plaza, although the DOH report cited an increased rat population there as well.

According to Mohammad N. Akhter, director of the District's Department of Health, the rat population surrounding the McPherson Square and Freedom Plaza encampments has exploded.
"The event was a day of actions against corrupt political institutions and an effort to inspire activists and ordinary Americans to participate in real democracy."
"I'm very supportive of their rights and ability to demonstrate, but I have concerns about their personal safety," he said in a Jan. 9 Washington Post article.

According to the Post, health inspectors have pointed out unsanitary conditions at both encampments during informal monitoring visits, such as rat nests under occupiers' beddings.

"Going down to these camps, it's no different than refugee camps," Akhter said in the article. "People are living in very primitive conditions, and they're doing it by choice. They are very brave and thoughtful people, but my concern is that they should also take care of themselves. When the weather goes bad suddenly we're watching a tragedy unfold in the middle of Washington, D.C."

To prevent further increase in the rat population, Occupy protesters at McPherson Square willingly closed down their working kitchens, according to a Jan. 4 Post article . Protesters were eating supporter-donated food after closing their kitchen.

U.S. Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) has set a subcommittee hearing for Jan. 24, 2012, to examine the health and public concerns raised at the McPherson Square encampment, Johnson said in his e-mail. The hearing is titled "McPherson Square: Who Made the Decision to Allow Indefinite Camping in the Park?"

"We haven't had any hypothermia," Sam Jewler, media organizer for the McPherson Square encampment, said in Johnson's Jan. 13 story ."We haven't had any disease problem. We've complied with everything they've asked us to do. There's no reason that wouldn't continue to be the case."

Combining the two encampments at Freedom Plaza would present a challenge, Kevin Zeese said in a Jan. 12 Washington Post article . Among those challenges, he notes increased costs and security needs, as well as the two protest sites' different personalities. Zeese said he and his fellow protesters are looking at how to best proceed if the mayor's demand becomes a reality.

Protesters from both locations have issued letters and statements resisting the Mayor Gray's proposal, according to a Jan. 19 Washington Times article.

"Rats and sanitation are citywide problems, and Occupy D.C. will be happy to resolve them in our camp," organizers said.

According to the article, occupiers at Freedom Plaza have posted a letter on their website stating that they would support McPherson Square protesters if they were evicted.

"As always, individuals committed to the Occupy movement will be welcome in Freedom Plaza with open arms," Freedom Plaza protesters said in a statement.

Diana Petrova can be reached at dianapetrova90@gmail.com.