Portland denies OccupyMaine permit; protesters promise court fight

Matthew Coffey (right) is among those holding signs in acknowledgement of OccupyMaine's two months in Portland recently in Monument Square. The city denied a permit late Wednesday for the group to camp in nearby Lincoln Park.
Matthew Coffey (right) is among those holding signs in acknowledgement of OccupyMaine's two months in Portland recently in Monument Square. The city denied a permit late Wednesday for the group to camp in nearby Lincoln Park.
Posted Dec. 07, 2011, at 11:51 p.m.
Last modified Dec. 08, 2011, at 4:04 p.m.

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John Schreiber holds a sign supporting OccupyMaine recently in Portland's Monument Square.
John Schreiber holds a sign supporting OccupyMaine recently in Portland's Monument Square.

PORTLAND, Maine — Despite overwhelming support for the camp voiced by members of the public during its Wednesday night meeting, the City Council voted 8-1 to deny a request by OccupyMaine to remain in Lincoln Park for at least six more months.

Only David Marshall voted to support the petition, and said he did so because he “doesn’t want to abridge [the protesters’] freedom of assembly.”

Councilors who voted against the group’s petition argued the demonstrators don’t need a 24-hour encampment in order to protest economic and social disparities and said allowing one group to occupy a public park for six months would set a dangerous precedent. But they also called for continued dialogue between Occupiers and city officials in hopes of reaching a compromise.

Many OccupyMaine members long have said they plan to stay in the park with or without the city’s official blessing. Occupier Brian Leonard said Wednesday the group’s overall decision on how to move forward from this point will have to be determined during one of OccupyMaine’s general assembly meetings. But group attorney John Branson told the Bangor Daily News before the meeting a denial of the petition request wouldn’t “leave the group a lot of other options” than to seek legal action protecting the camp.

OccupyMaine set up its tent community in nearby Lincoln Park in the first week of October, gathering in solidarity with the larger Occupy Wall Street and in protest of corporate influence on government, among other social and economic rallying points.

The group offered changes to the terms of its request to stay in the park after the city’s Public Safety Committee, composed of three city councilors, voted unanimously to recommend the larger council not accept the group’s request.

Among the amendments were a cap of overnight occupants at 50, the offer to shut down the encampment’s makeshift kitchen if the city deems it unsafe, a pledge to seek liability insurance coverage worth at least $400,000, and an increase in the number of times portable toilets at the site are emptied — from twice a week to three times weekly.

Councilor Ed Suslovic, who chairs the Public Safety Committee, said during the Wednesday night meeting he was uncomfortable even with the group’s new terms, in part because it didn’t make clear who would decide which 50 people would be allowed as overnight demonstrators.

“I’m stuck on this issue of occupant No. 51,” Councilor Jill Duson agreed. “We ought to just deny it and let a court determine if freedom of speech includes the occupation of a public park.”

Mark Rees told the public and council Wednesday night that city officials initially sought a permit petition from the demonstrators after an uptick in arrests and police incidents at the site.

Acting Police Chief Michael Sauschuck told the City Council on Wednesday night that the department recorded no arrests at Lincoln Park during the two-month periods of October and November in 2009 and 2010, while from Oct. 1 to Dec. 5 of this year, a period in which OccupyMaine was active, the police tallied 20 arrests there.

The chief said calls for service at Lincoln Park during the designated times went from 10 in 2009 and five in 2010 to 140 this year, although Sauschuck acknowledged 56 of those calls for service were “special attention checks” — or instances in which police initiated walk-throughs of the park for monitoring purposes, not because a crime had been reported.

Tammy Munson, director of the city’s inspection services, added concerns about an unsanitary cooking environment and fire hazards, such as open fires and kerosene heaters used while the temperatures have dropped.

Branson argued many of those arrested at Lincoln Park moved to the encampment but weren’t active members of the demonstration. He said many of the calls to police came from group members seeking to help keep the site safe, but now those statistics are “being used against them” to prove the encampment is unruly.

Before the establishment of the tent community, Branson said, perpetrators of street crime in the area likely weren’t calling the police with the same vigilance.

Of the nearly 50 people who spoke during the public comment portion of the meeting Wednesday night, only four spoke against allowing the encampment to stay as requested.

Portland Chamber consultant Christopher O’Neil urged the council to deny the permit on the grounds that the camp is “detrimental to the downtown image,” is plagued by safety problems and harmful to businesses.

Among the supporters were Portland’s first poet laureate Martin Steingesser and Zachary Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which announced its endorsement of OccupyMaine earlier in the week.

Some members of the public clapped in American sign language — wiggling their fingers — to show support for speakers after new Mayor Michael Brennan urged meeting attendees to hold applause between public comments.

Many OccupyMaine members opted to use the meeting forum to put voice to the group’s political goals instead of addressing the permit petition specifically.

Bill Slavick, a longtime peace activist who five years ago ran for the U.S. Senate as an independent, told the council that the Occupy movement is the only way left to battle corporate greed as big businesses buy up media entities and politicians.

“No institution remains with the integrity and will to fight the dragon,” Slavick said. “Only the people remain.”

Jonah Fertig, a Kellogg Street resident, business owner and community organizer, told the council, “our democracy is getting bought out by corporations.”

“We heard the chief of police talk about public safety issues, but what I want to hear is the city council talk about the bankers and corporations committing crimes and committing atrocities to our environment and shipping jobs overseas,” Fertig said.

In the hours leading into the meeting Wednesday, Branson submitted to the city a redress of grievances, a document that included four demands of the municipality:

  • Withdraw all city funds from TD Bank and transfer those funds to a locally owned bank or credit union.
  • Develop methods for increased direct democracy and public engagement, including, as a starting point, making the State of Maine Room [at City Hall] available for a weekly City of Portland General Assembly that would develop proposals and recommendations for consideration and action by the City Council.
  • Increase support for homeless people in Portland including those who have come to live in Lincoln Park. Begin by working with homeless people in Lincoln Park to get them into housing and address other needs that they have.
  • Create a 24-hour free speech and assembly space in Monument Square where people can assemble at any hour to engage in noncommercial First Amendment activity.

As the demands were handed in the day of the meeting, the council did not have them on the agenda and did not officially hold a discussion on them.

But group members talked about them during the public comment portion of the meeting, and some urged the Portland council to join councils in Cleveland and Los Angeles, which recently voted in support of the Occupy movement and against “corporate personhood,” respectively.

OccupyMaine members went into Wednesday night’s meeting ready for anything. The group earlier in the day began seeking volunteers for a police raid support team — including cameramen to document whatever “behavior” police might use in a forceful removal of Occupiers, as well as others to stand between officers and the camp.

Councilor John Anton on Wednesday night said even with a petition denial, the city will not “deploy batons and pepper spray,” but rather will continue a dialogue with the group.

“We’re not Oakland, and we’re not New York,” Mayor Michael Brennan agreed.

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