OccupyMaine, Portland brace for legal battle

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PORTLAND — As the city and OccupyMaine try to reach an agreement about the protesters’ plans to continue occupying Lincoln Park, both sides are anticipating the legal battle that may follow if an accord isn’t reached.

Members of OccupyMaine said the group is exploring options for what to do if their permit application is denied at a special City Council meeting Wednesday night. One possibility is seeking a temporary restraining order to prevent enforcement of the city’s no-camping ordinance.

Another group, Occupy Augusta, took that approach in the state Capitol and have so far kept police and eviction at bay, according to news reports.

City Hall spokeswoman Nicole Clegg said the city expects the occupiers to take the same course of action if councilors reject their bid to maintain their 24/7 presence in the park.

“I would expect OccupyMaine to pursue legal action” if the city begins eviction, Clegg said. “Then we would have to wait until that played itself out, much like what has happened in other communities.”

Clegg, however, said she doesn’t expect the council to suddenly take an even harder line against the group.

“I don’t forsee that … there would be an instruction to go down to OccupyMaine and dismantle the encampment right then and there,” she said. “Everything has been respectful up to now.”

Members of OccupyMaine – who are protesting income inequality and the influence of corporations and money in politics and government – have been camping at Lincoln Park for two months.

The city initially ignored the occupiers’ violation of an ordinance prohibiting camping. In recent weeks, after a series of arrests and outbursts of violence in and around the park, City Hall has placed more demands on the group to meet health and safety codes and has required the occupiers to obtain a permit to stay in the park.

Mayor Michael Brennan mentioned the “situation” with OccupyMaine in his inaugural address Monday night at Ocean Gateway. Although he didn’t discuss the encampment tactics, he expressed sympathy for the group’s message.

“We cannot forget the message of Occupy Portland, which is we live in a country that has significant and tremendous income disparity … and poverty,” Brennan said to loud applause. “We as adults cannot leave to the next generation that poverty or income disparity.”

Last week, the council’s Public Safety Committee voted 3-0 against granting the group’s petition for a permit.

At that meeting, Acting Police Chief Michael Sauschuck said police had made 16 arrests, mostly for assault, at the park since the encampment began. Another arrest was made last weekend.

One arrest involved a man who was out on bail for the alleged beating death of another man in 2010. Police said Ernest Weidul allegedly threatened to “stab someone” at the encampment. He was arrested on charges of criminal threatening and violation of bail.

Sauschuck said police have responded to 112 calls for service, including 49 special attention checks, at the park from Oct. 1 to Nov. 29. That two-month total is substantially larger than previous year-end totals, he said; police responded to 70 calls in all of 2010.

The city also raised concerns about food safety and the integrity of tents and other structures in the park.

John Branson, OccupyMaine’s lawyer, submitted an amended petition to the city on Monday for permission to stay in the park. In it, the group outlines in more detail its plans and requests.

The activists plan to limit the area of their camp in Lincoln Park and limit the maximum number of overnight occupants to 50. But Brennan said in an interview Tuesday that limiting overnight camping itself, not just the number of campers, seems to be the biggest point of contention.

The group also agreed to stop operating a kitchen if the city refuses a temporary food service license, and asked the city for 30 days to obtain liability insurance coverage of at least $400,000. Protesters spelled out plans for the group to keep the park clean, and said they hope to establish a “Friends of Lincoln Park” group.

Although both sides praised the other’s willingness to negotiate and agreed the current situation is untenable, some protesters are still pessimistic.

“Most likely it’s going to be a down vote (by the council),” said Heather Curtis, a Portland small business owner who has been occupying Lincoln Park. Curtis is the signatory to the group’s permit application.

“I hope not, though,” she said. “I hope Portland wants to keep being a model for the rest of the country.”

Curtis said she planned to stay at the camp regardless of whether the group sought a permit. She said the First Amendment gives her the right to assemble at the park, even if the city’s ordinance says otherwise.

Branson agreed, and said he is frustrated by how much media attention has been paid to the issue of free speech, but not the freedom of assembly. He said the “sustained assembly” at camp is critical to the movement, and is the reason it has stayed in the public dialog.

“It’s had an impact that traditional First-Amendment, picket-type protests haven’t had,” he said. “We’ve come up with something around the country and the world that forces the media and the politicians to keep paying attention.”

Other protesters also indicated they’d stay even if the police try to evict them. But Sauschuck said he doesn’t expect police will be asked to forcibly remove the protesters.

OccupyMaine has publicly complimented the police on their professionalism, and the acting chief said he expects that relationship will continue – even if the council denies the permit.

But what police do next is a policy decision for the council.

“From my standpoint,” Sauschuck said, “we’re just in a holding pattern.”

Still, OccupyMaine has been branching out beyond the park.

Semi-regular meetings are held at the Meg Perry Center on Congress Street, where the group is planning events to continue proliferating their message outside Lincoln Park.

Branson, the group’s attorney, said the actions, events and meetings outside camp have been going on all along, but that not as many people are paying attention.

“I disagree with anyone who says OccupyMaine isn’t doing a lot outside the camps,” he said. “They’re just not getting the attention because the media wants to focus on a fight.”

On Tuesday, the group launched a “Week of Action,” which includes protests against home foreclosures; a local arts and craft party to coincide with the grand opening of Urban Outfitters in the Old Port; an International Human Rights Day celebration, and an open community discussion where the group hopes to interact with and build bonds with the non-Occupy population.

All this is expected to draw some attention away from Lincoln Park.

“Part of what’s happened is the movement has been reduced to this one tactic, the occupation,” said Patrick O’Connor, a University of Southern Maine student who has been part of OccupyMaine since the beginning. “And there is a message there, about autonomy and collective power. We’ve really built a community there. But I think if we move away from that tactic, and explore others as well, our message might get through better.”

Regardless of what happens at City Hall or Lincoln Park, O’Connor said he’s hopeful for OccupyMaine.

“This is still just the beginning,” he said.

Randy Billings contributed to this report. Mario Moretto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or mmoretto@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @riocarmine.