OccupyMaine faces headwinds at Portland City Hall

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PORTLAND — Members of OccupyMaine are petitioning the City Council to remain in Lincoln Park throughout the winter.

But the group may be heading toward a showdown with City Hall.

The Public Safety Committee meets Thursday at 5 p.m. to discuss the encampment and issue a recommendation to the full council on the group’s request. The full council will take up the issue on Dec. 7.

This week, two of the three councilors on that committee were skeptical that public safety issues at the park can be adequately addressed. And one protest leader said OccupyMaine will remain at the park, regardless of whether the group gets a permit.

Thursday’s committee meeting comes after increased police calls to the Lincoln Park area, including one for an acid bomb that was lobbed at the protesters by a passing vehicle in October. Police also reported 10 other incidents, mostly assaults, over the last two weeks. Four of those assaults occurred over the long Thanksgiving weekend, police said. 

City officials also inspected the camp and cited several code violations.

For the encampment to continue, city attorney Gary Wood told the group last week, it must file a petition by Tuesday afternoon. Members of OccupyMaine agreed to seek a permit Sunday night during their General Assembly meeting.

In addition to addressing city code violations and getting permits, the group is also being asked to show proof of at least $400,000 in liability insurance and to provide a bond to repair damage to the park.

Councilor Edward Suslovic, the Public Safety Committee chairman, said he has an open mind about the encampment. But the recent incidents have him and other city officials concerned about public health and safety.

“It appears to me that the very nature of the OccupyMaine movement makes it difficult for them to manage the environment at Lincoln Park,” Suslovic said.

OccupyMaine, which tries to police itself, is also concerned about the violence.

The group’s attorney, John Branson, said the violence is being caused by people who are not associated with the protest. Members, however, cannot remove non-protesters from the park because it is a public area, he said.

The group acknowledged, and at one time celebrated, the fact that many of the campers in Lincoln Park are homeless people, who have found food, shelter and purpose with the movement.

That view, however, seemed to change after the recent violence, with protesters complaining about campers who are not part of the movement.

The group is petitioning the City Council for a permit that would allow a specific number of tents and people to remain at the encampment. That way, police will be able to take action against those without permission to be there.

But Suslovic said he is concerned that arrangement will place a burden on police officers, who would have to determine who is a legitimate protester and who isn’t.

“Without them hiring private security guards to control that, my fear is it will be the police that will be thrust into that unenviable job,” he said. “Now, you’re talking about probably having to have police presence at the park 24/7.”

OccupyMaine has been allowed to remain in the park for two months, despite a city code that bans camping in parks. Members cite their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech, and have been willing to work with city officials.

But the encampment has now become a policy issue that needs to be addressed by the City Council, Suslovic said.

Councilor John Coyne, a Public Safety Committee member, said he does not want to change the rules to accommodate one group, because that would set a bad precedent. 

“I’m worried about the can this would open,” he said. “We could be victim of our own policy in the future.”

But the third member of the committee, Councilor David Marshall, said he is withholding judgment until he sees the group’s request and the official response from the administration.

Marshall spoke to the group Sunday, telling them the importance of engaging the political process and formulating specific demands. 

“I’ve been encouraging OccupyMaine to look at the broader policy aspects, rather than just having the whole discussion about about the park,” he said. “From what I’ve seen, it’s much bigger than if you can stay in a park. It’s a political movement.”

Marshall told protesters that the city currently keeps $3.5 million in TD Bank, which the group decried in a recent protest. But he noted the account was established when the bank was locally owned.

“I think everything is negotiable,” he said. “When you’re looking at the broad landscape of possible solutions, (where the city invests its money is) one we’d have the decision-making power over.”

Councilor Kevin Donoghue said he, too, is withholding judgment about the encampment. Other councilors did not respond to an email Monday requesting comment.

The decision to apply for permission to remain in the park came after much discussion by OccupyMaine on Sunday night. Ultimately, the group voted to work with the city, but according to minutes that are posted online, some members felt it was a futile exercise and that the city had already decided that the group has to go.

“I don’t think we should be asking the city for permission to camp here,” said occupier Tim Sullivan, a writer from Rockland. “They’ve already said we can be here, in exchange for not forcing a confrontation or arrests at Monument Square.”

Sullivan, who heads OccupyMaine’s Direct Action Committee, said being kicked out of the park wouldn’t spell the end of the group. He said assemblies would continue and the group would evolve.

Still, he said there were members of the group who are willing to put up a fight if the city ultimately tries to remove them from the park.

“If the city decides to go forward with the permit, that’s great,” Sullivan said. “If not, oh well. Those of us who were against asking for the permit will be ready for the police to come in. We have a right to be here.”

Branson, the protesters’ attorney, took a more optimistic approach. He said there are members of the group who share Sullivan’s view, but emphasized that the group as a whole voted to work within the city’s guidelines. Disagreement is the nature of the General Assembly, he said; people disagree, as they do on the City Council.

He said he believes the two bodies – OccupyMaine and the City Council – can continue the “good-faith work” that’s gone on for nearly two months.

“We’ve got a Democratic assembly on each side making the decisions and facilitating what has thus far been a productive discussion,” Branson said.

He also said the protesters are aware that Portland has been more willing to talk with OccupyMaine than some other cities have been with their Occupy groups.

“The city has set itself apart by not speaking with batons and pepper spray,” Branson said. “They invited us into City Hall. They are not doing that in other cities.”

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or rbillings@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @randybillings.

Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.

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