Portland City Council denies Lincoln Park encampment permit, invites OccupyMaine to sue

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PORTLAND — The City Council on Wednesday voted 8-1 to deny OccupyMaine a permit to continue its encampment in Lincoln Park.

The attorney representing the group later said OccupyMaine will probably seek a temporary restraining order to prevent the city from dismantling the encampment that is now in its second month.

Oddly enough, a lawsuit is exactly what councilors said they wanted.

While councilors said they support the group’s First Amendment right to freedom of speech, they said it is up to the courts to decide whether taking up residency in a public park constitutes free speech.

“I think it’s better to go to court sooner rather than later,” Councilor Jill Duson said.

Councilor John Anton, who voted to deny the permit, assured protesters the city would continue to treat them with respect.

“Rejecting the application is not an immediate segue to pepper spray and batons,” Anton said.

But there are signs the group is bracing for a showdown with police. Before Wednesday’s meeting the group announced it is assembling a “police raid support team.”

That team, the group said, would form a barricade between police and the encampment; store personal belongings in vehicles so they’re not destroyed; call-out police brutality, and document raids using bloggers, photographers and videographers.

Mayor Michael Brennan assured protesters that Portland would not be like Oakland and New York, which forcibly removed protesters.

Councilor David Marshall was the only councilor to support the group’s petition – a vote he called a “protest vote.” Marshall, along with Brennan, favored continuing the conversation with OccupyMaine.

“I’m really interested in negoiating this, rather than going straight to court,” Marshall said, noting the encampment originally had the city’s blessing. “I don’t see them as doing anything illegal.”

OccupyMaine began its protest in October in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. The group’s motto, “We are the 99 percent,” speaks to the country’s growing income disparity; protesters also decry corporate influence in politics and government.

City Manager Mark Rees said he agreed not to enforce loitering laws if the group moved its protest from Monument Square to Lincoln Park. But after fire and food safety violations were discovered at the encampment, and 20 arrests were made, the council questioned Rees’ decision.

City officials and protesters ultimately agreed that a permit would be the best way to address safety concerns. It would also allow police to distinguish protesters from people unaffiliated with the movement.

OccupyMaine’s amended petition asked for a 24-hour free-speech zone and a camping area in about two-thirds of the park, which by ordinance closes from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. The group agreed to have no more than 50 tents and agreed to seek a food service permit, $400,000 in liability insurance, to try to raise $2,500 to repair damage to the park, and to help establish a “Friends of Lincoln Park” group to be caretakers.

But councilors did not want to change details of the amended permit on Wednesday night, nor did they want to postpone the vote to address lingering areas of concern. Instead, they wanted a straight, up-or-down vote on the amended petition as presented.

OccupyMaine attorney John Branson said he was frustrated after the five-hour meeting, which ended shortly before midnight. He said the group did everything the city asked in seeking a permit and it was “ridiculous” for the city to ask to be sued.

“They’re forcing us to go to court,” Branson said. “That is the most ridiculous thing I have ever heard. There is no need for us to sue them. They’re putting us in that position and I think it’s very unfortunate.”

Branson said he was not discouraged by court rulings on Wednesday in Boston and Augusta against other Occupy encampments. He said those groups never sought permits from the city, while Portland protesters were invited by the city to stay in Lincoln Park.

“(Boston) was a hostile occupation from the beginning,” he said. “They never had the city’s permission to be in Dewey Square. … (It’s) a completely different situation here.”

More than 50 people addressed the council over the course of a two-hour public hearing. All but a few were either members of OccupyMaine or supported the group’s encampment.

The group on Wednesday also received support from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine and the AFL-CIO labor union. But the Portland Regional Chamber spoke against the encampment on behalf of its 650 business members.

Several protesters mentioned a new set of demands issued on Wednesday, which asked the city to move its money from TD Bank to a local savings bank or credit union; increase support for the homeless; create a 24-hour free speech zone in Monument Square, and to allow the group’s decision-making body, the General Assembly, to meet regularly inside City Hall to develop proposals for council action.

“Although we’re here to talk about fire codes, tarps and hand cleansers, at some point we should be talking about (these other issues),” Brian Leonard told the council.

Speakers used the hearing to extol the message of Occupy movements across the country. Several blamed city officials and the media for dwelling on public safety concerns, rather than the group’s message.

But councilors said their votes against the permit do not reflect an ideological disagreement. They said they support the group’s First Amendment rights and thanked the protesters for spotlighting significant issues and economic injustice.

“But I have a problem with converting a public park into a residential community,” Duson said.

Councilor Edward Suslovic said if the park were a private residence, it would be considered a disorderly house based on the 140 police calls since Oct. 1, and the tenants could be evicted if problems aren’t addressed.

Suslovic also questioned whether the group could enforce its 50-tent limit without infringing on the rights of others to use a public park.

“It troubles me that this council, if we approve this, would in fact give a license to discriminate against others on public property,” he said.

Councilor Cheryl Leeman said the group’s request to obtain building permits for their structures and establish a tenting area and free speech zone essentially amount to rezoning by petition.

After the meeting, Branson railed against the city’s position of not allowing the encampment unless it is constitutionally mandated by the courts.

He said the city regularly grants waivers to large corporations, such as a tax break to the Pierce Atwood law firm for its new waterfront office space. 

Branson criticized the city for not making an exception for residents trying peacefully to improve their society.

“They didn’t base their decision in (the Pierce Atwood) case on what the Constitution required them to do,” he said. “They granted a waiver because they felt it was good for the city. They do it all the time with large development projects when lots of money is at stake.”

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