OccupyMaine says police refused to take stolen signs seriously

Posted Jan. 17, 2012, at 10:26 a.m.
Last modified Jan. 17, 2012, at 4:58 p.m.

PORTLAND, Maine — OccupyMaine demonstrators who say police got a chuckle over the theft of dozens of signs from their encampment hope to get some respect for their movement when they go before a judge next week.

John Branson, the group’s attorney, suggested Tuesday that demonstrators have been disrespected by city officials who don’t see the group’s message as political speech protected by the First Amendment.

“Where others see ordinary people breathing life into their democracy and bravely drawing attention to rampant economic injustice in their midst, the city of Portland sees a ‘junkyard’ and a bunch of freeloading winter campers,” Branson wrote in a legal brief.

Oral arguments and testimony will be presented Jan. 24 in Superior Court, where OccupyMaine is seeking an injunction to prevent the city from removing demonstrators.

Demonstrators felt an injustice was committed by the police department’s response to the removal of up to 40 signs from the encampment at Lincoln Park over the weekend.

Jen Rose, one of the demonstrators, said the signs, including some made by a university art professor and another depicting the Stars and Stripes, were removed either on the bitter-cold Saturday night while 15 to 20 demonstrators snoozed or on Sunday afternoon when demonstrators left to attend some events.

Adding to the indignity was the police response.

Police were too busy to send a cruiser to Lincoln Park, so demonstrators went to the police station, where two officers laughed at them, Rose said.

City officials disputed the accusation that police chuckled or laughed. City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said officials reviewed the videotaped exchange and concluded the officers treated the three demonstrators respectfully. There were giggles, but not from the officers, Clegg said.

The officers told Rose and other demonstrators that no crime was committed because the signs had no monetary value and protesters were in the park illegally. Anything left in the park, Rose said she was told, becomes part of the “public domain.”

Clegg said the discussion centered upon the value of the signs and who owned them. She said police will file a report if an official OccupyMaine representative goes to the Portland Police Department and establishes that the signs belonged to the group.

The OccupyMaine camp at Lincoln Park is the state’s only demonstration allied with the Occupy Wall Street movement that hasn’t dissolved. A group camped out at Augusta’s Capitol Park lost a fight in federal court and a group at Bangor Public Library voluntarily left the grounds.

In Portland, the campers have been in Lincoln Park since October to protest what the group describes as growing economic disparity and corporate greed.

But there were concerns over disturbances at the park as well as sanitation. On Dec. 15, the city issued “Notice to Vacate,” prompting the demonstrators’ lawsuit.

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