Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Occupy Watch: Maine encampments face decision time

Published in the Portland Phoenix

With OccupyBangor under near-constant threat of eviction, and Portland city officials pressing the Lincoln Park campers to scale back their encampment to a degree that will make winter survival difficult if not impossible, the Maine branch of the Occupy movement — like those elsewhere in the country — is at a crossroads.

Will the Occupiers get bogged down in real-estate disputes, digging deep into the legal quagmires associated with building codes, park hours, and small-time municipal regulations that only affect the actual encampments? Will they keep their focus on the issues that truly affect the 99 percent of Americans the Occupy movement was created to empower? Or will they do both, finding a way to "walk and chew gum at the same time," as OccupyMainer Alan Porter put it at Portland's Monday night general assembly?
"We're not fighting for the right to occupy a park here or there. We are fighting for justice. Justice, not just for the people of the US, but for everybody," bestselling author Arundhati Roy said in New York on November 16, in a speech to the People's University (the educational arm of Occupy Wall Street). Occupiers here and elsewhere are struggling with how to do that, while also deciding whether — and how — to best protect their encampments, which are leading symbols of the movement.
While Occupy Augusta has been largely untroubled by local regulations — in part because they are encamped on state land, not in a municipal park — the other two major Occupations in Maine are wrestling with peaceful versions of the conflicts that have erupted elsewhere into violence, with armed police attempting to forcibly dislodge nonviolent protestors from public spaces, often claiming concerns over public health or safety. (See Chris Faraone's report from the West Coast for just some examples of these clashes, plus David S. Bernstein's reporting on the crossroads facing Occupy Boston, as well as Occupy updates from around the country.)
In Bangor, the group has engaged in a week-long squabble with city officials over whether their presence in Peirce Park is an "event" or an "assembly." Under city code, "events" can be limited to three days' duration, while there is no city rule governing "assemblies," which the Occupy group says leaves them governed solely by the First Amendment — so they can stay indefinitely, as they would like.
On Monday, the Portland group won what some called a major victory, an acknowledgment that the General Assembly is a legitimate decision-making body that can negotiate with the City Council. But that came as a result of several days' time and energy spent addressing city concerns about public safety. The effort was initially prompted by the city's inspection of the camp on November 17, and a letter from city attorney Gary Wood the following day saying that "the code violations . . . and the increasing demand on the services of the Portland Police Department are stretching the ability and willingness of the City to continue to accommodate and allow [the Occupation] in the park."
Code issues were not substantially addressed during Monday afternoon's meeting between OccupyMaine representatives and city officials. (A meeting later this week will address those problems, and the city's requested solutions, such as removal of larger structures, which may make camping in Lincoln Park very difficult over the winter.) Rather, safety concerns were the topic of the day, in the wake of four recent arrests, and the discovery that two teenage runaways had visited the Occupy camp during some of their four-day disappearance.
The arrests were of an Occupier allegedly assaulting a visitor who came to criticize the movement, of two people who allegedly assaulted camp organizer Porter (one person allegedly choked him with bare hands, while another is said by police and protestors alike to have hit Porter in the head with a hammer; Porter was treated and released from Maine Medical Center); and of a man allegedly carrying a concealed knife. The runaway girls were located over the weekend on the Eastern Prom; Occupy attorney and spokesman John Branson says they fled Lincoln Park when they learned that Occupiers were assisting the police search for them.
After the Porter incident, the Occupiers issued a statement reaffirming their commitment to nonviolence. It is a statement that might form part of what Branson calls a "social compact" that the group may develop for members to subscribe to if they wish to continue participating in the effort.
Such an agreement, Branson says, is likely key to a process by which the Occupation could apply for a permit from the city that, if granted, could create a legal structure under which Occupiers and city officials alike would be confident in orderly management of the encampment.
But what's in such a permit request, what's agreed to by the City Council over the next few weeks, and even whether the group is going to apply in the first place are unclear at the moment. Branson says that the First Amendment nature of the protest does not require a permit, but says such an agreement with the city could help address public-safety concerns that might trump the Occupiers' constitutional rights if the case ended up in court.
The very suggestion of a requirement that Occupiers agree to a certain set of rules — as well as what Branson characterizes as a city intention of "compressing the number of tents and people in Lincoln Park" — already conflict with the all-inclusive, all-welcoming principle that has helped define a movement that stands for "the 99 percent."
And all such discussions, which (like the Monday night General Assembly) can result in drawn-out meetings with often circular conversations, shift away from the wider issues concerning the 99 percent. (The Portland group has not been totally diverted; they organized a couple of small protests over the past few days.)
"We get distracted by what authorities throw at us," Jonah Fertig told the group Monday evening. Porter put it more plainly: "We're bogged down" by smaller issues, he said. "We have not addressed the issues that we are actually here for."
Porter suggested making a backup plan for what could happen if the city does not approve a permit, or if the Occupiers don't decide to ask for one. He proposed seeking a parcel of private property where the Occupation could continue without so much interference from local government, and return to its core messages of concern about financial inequality and corporate interference in politics.
It's only a short step from that idea to leaving the encampments behind entirely and making reality out of what has until now been just a popular slogan: Occupy Everywhere.