PORTLAND — OccupyMaine will sue the city to keep its round-the-clock protest and encampment at Lincoln Park.
In the meantime, some protesters are preparing for civil disobedience if the city moves to clear out campers.
The group claims the city has violated its First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly by denying a permit to continue occupying the park. The group gave its attorney, John Branson, the go-ahead to sue at its General Assembly meeting Sunday evening.
When the decision was made, the 50 or so protesters erupted in cheers and applause.
“Sue the bastards!” one cried out.
The decision comes on the heels of an 8-1 City Council decision last week that denied a permit to the protesters who have camped in Lincoln Park for two months as part of an international protest spurred by Occupy Wall Street in New York City.
The group is protesting against wealth inequality, corporate greed and disenfranchisement from what they see as a political process that abandons those who can’t afford to buy in.
The council’s decision means an eviction must come, but on Saturday, Dec. 10, City Manager Mark Rees told the group it had a seven-day grace period to decide what to do next. He also promised the city would provide 48-hour notice of an eviction.
At the Sunday meeting, many protesters said they felt the permit process was a charade.
“They asked us to file the petition and we did,” said Matt Coffey, an occupier who camps at Lincoln Park. “They flat-out denied it. It’s clear they never intended to let us stay.”
Branson also railed against the perceived hypocrisy of councilors telling protesters their hands are tied by city ordinance.
“The city said they wouldn’t even consider granting us a permit without a court order because it would violate the city’s ordinances” he said. “But they do it all the time for businesses. This is discriminatory treatment, treating First Amendment uses differently from commercial groups.”
Occupiers praised City Councilor David Marshall, who voted to allow the group to stay in the park. Branson also called Mayor Michael Brennan and Rees, the city manager, “rock stars” for their support of the group.
Branson said the group would seek an injunction barring the city from evicting the protesters. In the short term, OccupyMaine will seek a temporary restraining order, which would allow the protesters to remain in Lincoln Park until a decision is reached on the injunction.
Activists at the meeting Sunday said that while First Amendment questions are at the center of the lawsuit, the right to continue camping at Lincoln Park is also critical.
Michael Shaughnessy – an art professor at the University of Southern Maine and a member of OccupyMaine, but not a camper – said unemployment, the gap between the wealthy and the working class and the increasing feeling of powerlessness are all personified in the camp.
“The movement isn’t about the camp, but the camp is a big symbol for our concerns,” he said. “It’s a political statement in and of itself.”
With the threat of eviction looming, the group last week put out a call to its supporters, urging them to come to Lincoln Park to show solidarity with the protesters.
The group also initiated plans for a “Police Raid Support Team” last week, asking supporters to “document police behavior” during an eviction, provide storage for personal belongings, stand between police and the encampment and shout “Shame!” at officers who carry out an eviction order.
On Sunday, the group started to discuss plans for civil disobedience, but stopped those talks until after members of the press had left. A working group was scheduled to meet at 4:30 p.m. Monday to discuss options.
“I say we sue them,” said John Schreiber, a Portland baker who lives at the camp. “If that doesn’t work, civil disobedience.”
Branson said he volunteered to represent any individual member of OccupyMaine who is arrested, as long as they behave nonviolently.
After meeting for three hours in Lincoln Park on Sunday, Dec. 11, members of OccupyMaine decided to sue the city on First Amendment grounds. The City Council last week voted 8-1 to deny the protesters a permit to continue their round-the-clock protest and encampment.