June 25, 2018
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OccupyMaine at two months: ‘We’re not going to ‘kumbaya’ our way to change’

By Seth Koenig, BDN Staff

PORTLAND, Maine — As the group reached two months of occupation in Portland on Thursday, some OccupyMaine members expressed frustration about the direction of the group and others worried a conflict with police is inevitable.

“I think it’s getting less and less organized here,” Dawn Priest told the Bangor Daily News Thursday afternoon at Lincoln Park, where OccupyMaine’s tent community has been set up since the first week of October. “We can’t even get together on where we’re going to protest. If we can’t get organized, how are we going to bring new people in? The message has been lost over the last two months. There’s got to be a way to get back on track.”

A small group of sign holders walked a few blocks down Congress Street from Lincoln Park Thursday afternoon in commemoration of the local occupation’s beginnings on Oct. 1 in Monument Square.

At a Thursday night meeting, all three members of the Public Safety Committee voted against recommending a permit for OccupyMaine, which attempted to address safety concerns and sought to allow the encampment to remain for six months. The committee also recommended against changing any city ordinances involving the use of public parks.

The committee’s recommendation will be forwarded to the larger City Council for consideration at a special meeting next Wednesday.

Robert LaGrange, who came to the Occupy encampment in his hometown of Portland on Thanksgiving after staying previously in Occupy camps in Burlington, Vt., and Boston, said he feels the city will seek any reason it can find to ultimately disperse the group.

“At least in Maine they’re not coming in with clubs and mace, but they’re trying to make it difficult with the pencil and pen,” he said of the city’s requests for winterization plans and safety strategies.

LaGrange said many OccupyMaine members have no intention to move regardless of how city officials act on their permit application.

“I’m willing to put my body on the line,” he said. “I’m going to stand up for my First Amendment right to nonviolently express my opposition to the government.”

Now two months into the Portland occupation, originally started in support of the larger Occupy Wall Street and in protest of corporate influence on government, members of the local settlement wavered on the level of impact the movement is having.

“The media hasn’t been painting us in a good light,” Priest said. “But how people perceive us? I don’t know. I think we still have a lot of support. We see new faces in here every day.”

LaGrange pointed out the homemade soup and macaroni and cheese dropped off by supporters Thursday, despite increasing reports of arrests made at the site in recent weeks.

“People come in and say, ‘Thank you for being here — we can’t be here, but you have our hearts and you have our support,’” LaGrange said. “I think the media likes to sensationalize things. We get a bad rap because of the crimes, but we’ve got huge public support.”

John Schreiber, who carried an armload of signs to Monument Square, expressed frustration that stories about drunkenness and violence at the encampment, perpetrated by individuals he described as largely outside the movement, have taken a toll on the group’s reputation.

“If people come in and do something we don’t agree with, we don’t have the authority to kick them out of the park,” he said.

“We call the cops when we see people acting inappropriately, but then it still comes back and makes us look bad, because those people get arrested ‘at OccupyMaine,’” added Matthew Coffey in Monument Square.

Lloyd Willey, back at Lincoln Park, said he believes the city — which he said “has been subversive from the get-go” — will shut down OccupyMaine sooner or later, either through its permitting processes or by ratcheting up police pressure on the site.

Like LaGrange, Willey said it may take an altercation with police to return attention to OccupyMaine’s political agenda.

“I don’t think we’re going to ‘kumbaya’ our way to change,” he said.

Freelance writer Paul Koenig contributed to this report.

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