Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Occupy Watch: Portland’s Occupation preps for winter

Published in the Portland Phoenix

OccupyMaine's Portland branch has a plan for winter survival and overall camp safety that includes using the people's mic for emergency warnings, round-the-clock warming huts, and shifting to hotels or other dwellings in times of extreme cold.
City officials will review the plans, as well as possibly tour the camp to identify potential safety hazards, according to city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg, and will work with the Occupy residents to address any remaining problems.
On November 1 the city had sent the Occupation a letter asking about the group's plans for dealing with the increasing numbers of campers in the park (some nights it's over 50 people there), congestion where tents are erected close to each other, and the soon-arriving winter weather.
"The (October 29-30) snowstorm was a good reminder that weather can be severe and we want to make sure everyone's safe," Clegg says.
The Occupy group had promised a response by Tuesday, November 15; that response was delivered on time, and a city reply is forthcoming. In the correspondence is mention that the Occupy group may at some later point ask for permission to have an enclosed wood-burning stove on the site, but at the moment the group is abiding by the city's ban on open fires and burning wood or wood pellets.
The group has also established an on-site medical team, received training in outdoor survival and treatment of cold-weather injuries, equipped itself with fire extinguishers (and is working on getting carbon-monoxide detectors), posted several key areas as non-smoking locations, and is working on insulating and weatherizing tents and other structures in the park. As far as park stewardship, the group is keeping the place clean and putting down straw on muddy areas, as well as promising to shovel all walkways within the park as needed to keep them clear to all passersby.
Denny Junkins, a member of the OccupyMaine media team, says he expects relations with the city to continue to be productive and peaceful, in stark contrast to the Monday-night eviction of the original Occupy Wall Street camp in New York City, which involved more than 70 arrests, police in riot gear, demonstrators being targeted by ear-splitting sound cannons, officers slicing open tents with knives, and many protestors' belongings — including thousands of books — being destroyed or thrown away.
The concerns expressed in New York and Portland, though, are similar: sanitation and safety. When asked if those concerns might reach a point where they could trigger a forcible eviction in Portland, Clegg audibly bristled, saying the city and the Occupy group have been working well together and expect to continue to do so. When the city has concerns, officials will "give them a chance to address it" before determining what, if any, further action is needed, she says.
The Portland group is indeed addressing safety and sanitation issues on their own, talking in recent general assemblies about ways to ensure people feel safe in camp, as well as the high demand for the two porta-potties that have been on site at the park for a few weeks now.
Their efforts appear to be falling on sympathetic ears here. Clegg says the Occupy group was originally given permission to stay in Lincoln Park, including overnight, so long as they abide by city ordinances and act as stewards of the 2.5-acre park.
Clegg notes that the city has brought concerns to the attention of the group several times since the Occupation began on October 1, and that the group has been responsive and cooperative in addressing those issues and in maintaining open communications with the city.
"Our respectful approach and their respectful approach is part of the reason we've been able to work well together," Clegg says.
She adds that the city has offered to have building and fire inspectors visit the encampment to make sure everything is arranged properly, and to help the group make any fixes that might be needed. That seems a likely next step; for its part, the Occupy group has invited city officials "to come to the OccupyMaine encampment at any time to see our operations and talk to folks who are part of that community of self-governance, sustainability and mutual respect and concern for one another."