Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Occupy Watch: Court looms; camp signs missing

Published in the Portland Phoenix

OccupyMaine has filed its comments on the city's reality-detached answer to Occupy's lawsuit (see "10 Fun Things in the OccupyMaine-Portland Lawsuit," by Jeff Inglis, January 13), and a hearing on the Occupiers' request for court protection from city eviction is scheduled for next week.

The outcome of the hearing will shift the Occupation into a new phase. Either it will become a rare Occupation that has received court shielding, or it will turn into an unauthorized encampment that the city may attempt to clear out. Some Occupiers have said they will leave if a judge rules against them; others have said they will not leave, even if staying means defying a court order.
Portland officials have been peaceful, though bureaucratically aggressive, in attempting to remove the encampment; if the city wins the case and some Occupiers defy an order to leave, what happens next will be of great interest to all concerned about free speech and use of public spaces.
The police attitude toward the protest is in some question, following a mysterious situation over the weekend, summarized in a Facebook post at 8:34 pm Sunday that begins "Every single sign from Lincoln Park was taken." All the signs along the park's fences were removed. It wasn't just handmade signs; wooden signs, professionally made banners, including one for Maine Veterans For Peace, and an American flag were taken down.
"The only thing that was left behind was the exit signs that we had put up at the city's request," says Occupier Jennifer Rose.
It's unclear when it happened, since nobody was caught in the act, but Occupiers who were in the encampment say it likely happened in the midafternoon on Sunday, just before the 3 pm General Assembly, which happened at the Meg Perry Center. (Because most of the stolen signs were on the fence along Congress Street, they are apparently not visible on surveillance cameras at the county and federal courthouses; the Occupiers moved nearer those cameras in October following a bomb attack on the camp, specifically in hopes of catching or deterring future troublemakers.)
Rose, who discovered the theft, says she called the police when she noticed the signs were missing. She was told that the city had not taken them down (this position was repeated by city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg on Tuesday), and that officers would come to the park to take a report.
Some time later, when officers had not yet been by, Rose called the police again, and was asked to come to the station. Between 8 and 9 pm Sunday, she did that, and spoke to two officers, including a lieutenant, whose name she did not record.
The lieutenant "told us first that anything left in a park becomes public domain, so the signs can't be stolen," Rose says, noting that when people lose their wallets or phones, or leave picnic baskets unattended to play elsewhere in a park, they don't give up their ownership of those items.
The officer also told her the encampment was "in the park illegally without a permit" — a conclusion that is undecided, pending next week's court hearing — and suggested that "some citizen took it upon himself to take everything down."
Noting that it is considered theft if campaign signs are removed from public parks, Rose says the political nature of Occupiers' signs should afford them the same protection. But "We were not even allowed to do a police report on it," she says.
Clegg, the city's spokeswoman, said Tuesday that the encounter at the police station was "a respectful conversation" that included a section about whether the signs were abandoned property, but mostly involved the officers' attempts to determine who owned the signs and how much they might be worth.
OccupyMaine's lack of an official leader "made it awkward for the police" to take a report from someone they weren't certain was the owner of the signs, Clegg said. Nevertheless, it appears that the city is acknowledging things should have been handled differently: Clegg said that Acting Police Chief Mike Sauschuck will be contacting John Branson, the attorney representing OccupyMaine, to offer to take a report from a representative of the group.