March 26, 2019
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May we Occupy, please? Bangor dispute highlights problems other camps might encounter

BANGOR, Maine — Occupy protesters in Bangor, Aroostook County, Portland and Augusta all are readying themselves for a long winter’s stay as the municipal rules governing their occupations — and cold temperatures — increase.

They’re also brushing up on their knowledge of municipal regulations, and so are community officials.

One of the prime points of contention is whether Occupy demonstrations and encampments constitute an event or an assembly.

City officials in Bangor say Occupy Bangor and its demonstrations, which have been held daily since Oct. 29, are an event and as such require a city event permit, which can be issued for no more than three days.

“The big point for us is we’re an assembly,” said Occupy Bangor spokesman Lawrence Reichard. “We think if we did take out an event permit, we would be conceding our position that we’re an assembly, not an event.

“We also think the structures and tents are part and parcel of our free speech assembly. So they’re necessary because we have winter bearing down on us and have people camping there who need supplies.”

In Portland, City staff members from the inspection, parks and recreation, and fire offices conducted safety and health inspections of OccupyMaine’s permanent camp in Lincoln Park. Occupy members have responded to city officials’ concerns about health and safety during cold weather by instituting nine steps, including providing fire extinguishers at the site, putting identification numbers on tents, and prohibiting open pit and wood fires along with smoking in common areas. They also moved their original base of operations from Monument Square at the city’s request.

Now, members of the Portland camp are considering seeking a permit, which would be subject to council approval, that would specify the number of tents, their location and the number of people that could be part of the encampment.

Deese Hamilton, a protester who participated in Monday’s meeting, told The Portland Press Herald a permit would help limit disruptions, such as drug use and violence, that have deflected attention from the group’s main goal of highlighting economic inequality and corporate influence in politics.

Occupy Augusta organizers have been camping out in Capitol Park for a month.

In all three city encampments, local officials have opted not to strictly enforce ordinances barring camping on the grounds to strike a balance between enforcing local laws and respecting the public right to protest and assemble.

Occupy Aroostook members, numbering 10 to 20, are going with the mobile approach. The Presque Isle-based movement has held four events since organizing on Nov. 4.

“We may try to do something more substantial at some point, but for now we are only occupying the streets for limited amounts of time,” said Alice Bolstridge, Occupy Aroostook spokeswoman. “Saturday afternoon we marched down Main Street in view of the issues that came up over the week with Occupy movements and police activity, and concentrating on free speech and peaceful assembly. We’ll meet again Saturday and our general topic will be education — for example, the governor pitting education against welfare benefits.”

The rally will start at 2 p.m. in the North Street parking lot in. Participants will march down Main Street and hold a general assembly around 3 p.m. at the University of Maine in Presque Isle.

Bangor City Hall will be the site of a workshop at 5 p.m. Tuesday for city councilors and staff members alike to address legal issues, terminology and public policy as confusion continues on the status and legal standing of the Occupy Bangor encampment at Peirce Park.

“It’s not issue-specific or a public hearing of any sort,” said Bangor City Councilor and Mayor Cary Weston. “It’s just a workshop for council and staff to get up to speed on terms and phrases used in relation to use of public parks and spaces in general, regardless of the user and consistent for all uses.“

City officials say they thought they had an agreement after meeting with Reichard and fellow Occupy representatives Sunny Skye Hughes and Valerie Carter late Thursday morning. Hughes and Reichard said they were encouraged and credited city officials for a willingness to negotiate in good faith, but members attending a general assembly Thursday evening were unable to come to a consensus agreement to approve the deal.

The compromise included allowing Occupy members to remain at the park — from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. daily — as long as they apply for event permits, which would be renewed by the city every three days as long as the permit’s terms weren’t violated.

Also, Occupy members were to remove two large canopy-type tents used for storage of supplies and firewood. They were removed late Sunday, but a smaller blue canopy topped with an American flag was erected in their place as a symbolic gesture.

“It’s our understanding that is the case and we’ve asked them to remove it as well,” said Tracy Willette, Bangor Parks and Recreation director. “We’re addressing things on a day-to-day basis. We have yet to see an event permit, so we’ll once again reach out to them to determine who the primary organizers are and get a permit.”

Reichard says his group is uncomfortable with having to get any kind of permit.

“We think we have a right to be there 24/7 if we choose,” he said Monday. “Some may be camping out in the park tonight overnight. I don’t know. What’s in the future depends on the city. If they had an assembly ordinance, we would probably observe that, but they don’t.”

Reichard was asked about possible locations for demonstrations other than Peirce Park.

“We have discussed various locations around Bangor, but in our view, there is no other location that allows us to conduct a free speech assembly as effectively,” he said. “It allows us a lot of opportunity to engage the people we want to engage.

“The city suggested Pickering Square, but it’s too small,” he said. “It’s all brick and concrete so we couldn’t put down tent stakes, and it’s populated by youths.”

Occupy Bangor member Jim Frye, a 24-year-old Bangor resident originally from Jonesport, said he and three others camped out overnight Sunday in a green tent on Peirce Park property, which is against city ordinances.

“My being here is an autonomous decision,” Frye said. “I don’t necessarily represent the group, but this is how I feel.”

City Manager Cathy Conlow said she had received no reports or complaints regarding overnight camping at the park.

“They can’t camp overnight on park property,” said Conlow. “Anyone is welcome to use our parks from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. with signs or without.

“They can march on the sidewalk all night long if they like, and the library has given permission to camp on their property, so they can certainly carry their message 24/7 if they like.

“This is a use-of-the-parks issue for me. Nothing more. I don’t understand their argument.”

BDN photographer John Clarke Russ and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the middle name of one of the Occupy Bangor spokesmen. It is Sunny Skye Hughes, not Sunny Daye Hughes.

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