OccupyMaine to drop lawsuit against Portland, continue activism

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PORTLAND — OccupyMaine on Monday announced it will drop its lawsuit against the city in order to spend more time and energy engaging with the community.

In a press release, the group also announced it has spun off a Friends of Lincoln Park organization, the goal of which is stewardship and making Lincoln Park into a place that meets the civic goals outlined in its 1909 dedication.

In October, OccupyMaine set up camp in Lincoln Park in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street. The groups oppose income inequality and corporate influence in politics and government. They have rallied behind the pluralist slogan “We are the 99 percent.”

The group sued the city in December after city councilors voted 8-1 to deny protesters a permit to continue their round-the-clock occupation of the park.

In its Maine Superior Court filing, the group claimed its constant occupation was integral to its message, and that eviction would be an unconstitutional stifling of free speech. It also challenged the constitutionality of city ordinances, including a “blanket prohibition on speech and assembly in an public park during certain hours.”

After losing a preliminary court battle, the occupiers were evicted without incident on Feb. 10

“While I don’t agree with that (ruling), seeing how the First Amendment clearly says unabridged protection of freedom of speech, there is a precedent for that kind of ruling that’s not in our favor,” Katherine Hulit, a University of Southern Maine student and member of OccupyMaine, said. 

“The amount of court costs and time required to pursue this issue further is not an investment we are in the position to make right now,” she said.

Heather Curtis, another member of OccupyMaine, said that withdrawing the lawsuit doesn’t mean the protesters are backing down.

“We’re not sayings it’s not worth a fight anymore. We’re just saying we don’t see litigation as the best use of our energy. We’re not taking anything back at all,” Curtis said Monday.

Mark Dunlap, the attorney defending the city in the OccupyMaine lawsuit, said abandoning the lawsuit may have been the only option available to the protesters, since being in the park was central to the activists’ claim against the city.

Since leaving Lincoln Park, OccupyMaine has channeled its energies into other endeavors. Some occupiers started a public-access TV show in Portland. Hulit and other college students are starting a splinter group, OccupyUSM, and plan to stage a student walk-out on May 1.

Now others have formed the Friends of Lincoln Park, which Curtis said is independent of OccupyMaine. 

“OccupyMaine birthed it, but it’s a separate entity,” she said.

Curtis said that new group will be similar to other “Friends” groups – like the Friends of the Eastern Promenade or Friends of the Capisic Park Pond – in that they’ll operate with an eye toward stewardship of Lincoln Park. But the similarities end there, she said. 

“We won’t necessarily be so shiny and respectable,” she said.

The main goal of the Friends of Lincoln Park is to realize the vision of the park set forth by Clarence W. Peabody, as interpreted by OccupyMaine. Peabody was chairman of the City Council when he spoke at the park’s 1909 dedication.

Peabody said it was for future generations to “make this Civic Center a still more adequate expression to the world of the beauty and the power which can spring from government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

Curtis said the efforts of OccupyMaine were always in keeping with the goals for Lincoln Park outlined by Peabody. Now that the encampment is gone, she said the Friends of Lincoln Park will continue their efforts to make the park a center of public discourse.

“We want to bring what happens in Lincoln Park into alignment with that, and make it into a place where people can come together,” Curtis said.

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