Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Occupy Watch: Portland group asks city to create free-speech zone

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As officials continue to pressure Maine's Occupy campsites in Portland, Augusta, and Bangor, the Portland Occupation is pushing back, asking the city to create "a permanent 24/7 speech, assembly and community building zone" in about half of Lincoln Park, and proposing that the OccupyMaine group be allowed to remain in that area — which would be a smaller area than the present Occupation — for at least the next six months, with possible extensions in the future.

The decision to ask the city for formal approval was hotly debated on Sunday, with many speakers saying the First Amendment is the only permission they need to camp; others, whose position held sway, wanted to keep a good relationship with city officials, add a legal framework that could help the Occupiers to keep order on public land (at present they have no grounds to ask anyone to leave), and address the city's safety concerns about the encampment, which a court might find override the protesters' free-speech rights.

The petition, filed just before city offices closed at 4:30 pm Tuesday, asks for the Occupation to be allowed to stay in the to-be-designated free-speech zone for 179 days, which is one day less than the 180-day limit the city imposes on temporary structures; protesters expect that duration to aid their application, though it is unclear how many renewals "temporary structures" might be allowed.

The proposal also asks the city to install holiday lights in Lincoln Park, which is one of the only city parks without them — in part because the park presently lacks an electricity supply. The Occupy group may ask to use city power (which they would have to pay for) to assist with heating and light during the winter. Group members also suggested the lights would improve security and make the space more welcoming for the public.

City officials had asked for a specific number of tents and overnight campers; the group's proposal says the group will erect as many tents as possible within that area, subject to fire regulations about distances between tents. As far as numbers of people, the application says the group will accommodate as many people as can be safely lodged in the tents that are erected.

The group also says it is willing, if the city requires it, to seek separate permits for several major structures on the site: the kitchen, library, donations tent, medical tent, the spiritual dome, and a communal warming tent that will be erected if approved. Other weatherization to camp — including tarps and hay bales protecting tents — will be certified as complying with fire codes, or will be removed, according to the proposal.

The petition will first be considered in a December 1 special meeting of the council's Public Safety Committee, which is chaired by councilor Ed Suslovic, who has been quoted in local media reports as wanting the encampment dismantled.

Also on the committee is councilor and Occupy supporter David Marshall, who attended Sunday's GA and mentioned that the group could make requests of the city, such as moving its money from TD Bank to a locally owned financial institution. (That provision was not included in the Occupy group's petition, but may come up in the future.) The committee's third member is councilor John Coyne, who did not return calls seeking comment, but has expressed concern about Occupy to other media outlets.

Those three councilors will make a recommendation — which could be fully approving, completely rejecting, or requesting changes to the permit application — to the full City Council for a decision in a special meeting to be held on Wednesday, December 7. No matter the outcome, negotiations with the Occupy group are likely to continue: As a message relayed from Occupy attorney John Branson to the Sunday GA said, the permitting process has a lot of opportunity for amendments and appeals in an attempt to forestall an outright denial.

Another time-buying tactic is in use in Augusta, where protesters have received temporary protection from a federal judge, preventing the Capitol Police from evicting the Occupation's campground on the grounds of the State House until a court hearing next week. (See Lance Tapley's report for more details on this and other Augusta developments.)
In Bangor, according to that city's Daily News, the protesters' overnight use of the city-owned portion of Peirce Park remains the subject of discussions; their camping and tents on adjoining land owned by the Bangor Public Library has been specifically allowed by the library's board of trustees.