Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Occupy Watch: Citizens overwhelmingly support Occupy encampment

Published in the Portland Phoenix

As OccupyMaine's request to stay in Lincoln Park is considered by a Maine judge, it appears the Portland City Council's decisions (which the judge is reviewing) were based more on individual councilors' views and less on constituent complaints than elected officials have let on.

Based on the results of a Freedom of Access request for citizen communications with Portland city officials, as well as testimony in public hearings, far more Portland residents (and people who live in nearby towns) expressed support for the OccupyMaine encampment than opposed it.
The public testimony is well-recorded as having been overwhelmingly lopsided in favor of the encampment; now a review of constituent correspondence shows an even split. That alone suggests councilors were being selective when saying during December's city meetings that they were hearing a lot of opposition from the public.
The Portland Phoenix has reviewed all the emails sent by the public to members of the council, and between councilors and city staff. The Phoenix also requested any notes or other records from phone conversations councilors had with constituents on the subject of OccupyMaine, but received none.
A simple tally of correspondence of those writing to express an opinion either way on the OccupyMaine encampment at Lincoln Park shows an even split: the councilors heard from 22 people or groups in opposition, and 21 in support.
The breakdown is as follows: Opposing the encampment (though frequently saying they support the Occupy movement's message, as well as broad First Amendment rights) were 17 Portland residents; one each from South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, and Westbrook; one person who did not specify a place of residence; and the Portland's Downtown District group.
Supporting the encampment (as well as many of Occupy's larger messages) were 13 Portland residents, five people who did not specify where they live, and three groups (the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, the Social Action Committee of the Allen Avenue Unitarian Universalist Church, and the Maine's Majority/61 Percent group).
• Some messages show thoughts of city staff and councilors on the Occupation.
City attorney Gary Wood on November 10 wrote to councilors, "It seems apparent at this point that my hope for the Russian defense (i.e. winter) is not going to be particularly successful with at least some of these protestors." On December 9, Wood closed another memo to councilors by saying, "I have to say that OccupyME is aptly named in my opinion and that of the many other city staff that have been working on this issue."
On November 21, replying to an email from Acting Police Chief Mike Sauschuck saying that OccupyMaine members had contacted police and assisted them in locating two missing teenagers from Buxton who had visited the encampment, then-councilor Cheryl Leeman wrote: "For me, that's it!! Time to formualte a plan for transitioning folks out of the park with a specific deadline. I believe we have been very patient, but harboring 2 fourteen year olds and drunken fights, numerous calls for service. This has gone way beyond 'free speech', it has become an unauthorized tent city that no longer represents the original mission of the group, 'Occupy Maine'. IT is now a public safety issue of serious concern." Councilor John Anton replied, "I would love to have this discussion with the council in public."
After the council's December 7 decision to refuse to work with OccupyMaine to find a way the encampment-protest could continue, the city's most progressive councilors kept wrestling with the idea. On December 9, Councilor Kevin Donoghue suggested that banning free speech at night on public property collided with the laws allowing people to walk through the city's parks; that is "effectively saying transit [is greater than] speech," Donoghue wrote to Mayor Mike Brennan.
• And there were hints about how an eviction might happen, if and when it comes.
On December 14, councilor David Marshall (the council's lone supporter of working with OccupyMaine) was fatalistic about the outcome. He wrote to Rees, Sauschuck, and city human-services chief Doug Gardner, suggesting a means of carrying out an eviction with less conflict than other cities have seen. "With probably the most humane tactic used so far to evict Occupy protesters, the City of Baltimore offered bus rides to the shelters during the eviction process from the park," Marshall wrote, providing a link to a Baltimore Sun news story on the event. "Hopefully we can borrow this tactic from Baltimore's playbook. Although, I am not sure that riot gear is necessary," he continued
On December 16, Rees responded supportively, specifically saying the city DHHS people should be "present to transition (homeless) people to our shelter system."
Sauschuck was more reserved, writing the same day that "due to the potential safety concerns at the scene I would recommend that officers facilitate the transfer of folks to different locations. The locations in question will depend on the time frame we make contact with the individuals. Just as an example if we are forced to move them out and the decision is made for 8 in the morning on a Sunday then the options would be completely different then another day and time. We're certainly onboard with making this as easy and humanitarian a process as possible."