PORTLAND — At least one city councilor is urging her colleagues on the council to set a deadline for OccupyMaine to leave Lincoln Park.
“For me, that’s it!!,” Councilor Cheryl Leeman said Monday in an email response to a message from acting Police Chief Michael Sauschuck about incidents at the park over the weekend.
“Time to formulate a plan for transitioning folks out of the park with a specific deadline,” Leeman said. “… This has gone way beyond ‘free speech.’ It has become an unauthorized tent city that no longer represents the original mission of the group. … It is now a public safety issue of serious concern.”
Leeman’s comments came after the city gave the group a list of code violations it wants remedied at the park.
Her comments were in direct response to Sauschuck’s message about the arrest of an Occupy member on Friday after he allegedly beat another with a hammer. The group also was linked over the weekend to two runaway teenage girls who police believe stayed at least one night at the camp before being found sleeping in a sewage drain on the Eastern Promenade.
“We’re concerned as well about recent events,” John Branson, the activists’ attorney, said Monday. “We’re meeting with the city and hope to have a productive dialog with them.”
Branson noted members of OccupyMaine were the first to inform police that the runaways had been at the camp, but said he didn’t want to say much for fear of undermining the meeting activists were scheduled to have with the city Monday afternoon about the code violations.
But he did question Leeman’s motives.
“I don’t know if her statement is timed in any certain way in an effort to torpedo this meeting or anything that might come of it,” Branson said.
On Friday, the city issued its list of demands following a site inspection by officials from the Fire and Police departments, Code Enforcement and Parks and Recreation.
In a letter to Branson, city attorney Gary C. Wood said the code violations discovered in the park “expose the residents … to very serious risk of injury.”
The city is demanding the protesters remove blue tarps, hay bales and wooden pallets, which campers have used to insulate and weatherproof their tents. The city also is demanding that occupiers space their nearly 60 tents at least 10 feet apart, enforce a no-smoking policy, place fire extinguishers in each tent and remove gas-powered generators.
“There certainly are some rules they’re seeking to impose that would make it difficult to stay warm,” Branson said in an interview Monday morning. “I don’t think we’ll know until after (the meeting) how much flexibility there is.”
Although Wood said the city hopes both sides can continue “on the path of cooperation,” his letter took a more stern tone with the campers than the city has since the group set up nearly two months ago.
“The code violations … and the increasing demand on the services of the Portland Police Department are stretching the ability and willingness of the City to continue to accommodate and allow your clients’ occupancy in the park,” Wood wrote.
Attached to the letter was a police report referring to six offenses at Lincoln Park that had resulted in arrests or summonses. One police call led to the Nov. 18 arrest of occupier Chris Schisler, who allegedly assaulted another occupier with a hammer that morning.
Schisler had previously been referred to by OccupyMaine as a member of the group’s security team.
Activists have already begun searching for tarps and other gear that meets fire safety standards, which they’ll use to replace the materials found in violation of city codes, Branson said.
He added that occupiers are as concerned, if not more so, than the city about ensuring the group is safe and warm. After all, he said, it’s their health and safety that’s at stake.
He also said he hopes the city and his clients can continue to discuss the matter in good faith.
“This letter, to me, does not spell the end of Occupy,” he said. “The city was forthcoming and diplomatic about its concerns. It simply means there are issues that need to be addressed.”
On Nov. 17, after the city inspection of Lincoln Park, about 30 members of OccupyMaine marched from Monument Square to the Merrill Lynch offices at 350 Fore St., bringing their anti-big bank message with them.
Protesters “mic-checked” the firm, a tactic where one activist reads a speech one line at a time and the rest of the crowd repeats and amplifies each line. They stood on the steps outside the office and held the doors open as they chanted to the employees inside.
Merrill Lynch was one of the recipients of federal bailout funds at the onset of the 2007-2009 housing crisis and recession. Banks and investment firms that received taxpayer money have been targets for Occupy groups around the country, who on Thursday marked the two-month anniversary of Occupy Wall Street.
“While we fear for our future, Merrill Lynch has returned to business as usual,” the demonstrators chanted. Later they broke into a chorus of “Banks got bailed out, we got sold out!”
Police arrived at the scene after a few minutes and told the protesters to clear off the private property. They urged them to return to Lincoln Park, but protesters instead stayed on the sidewalks in front of Merrill Lynch and continued to protest.
At one point, the protesters addressed the police, who remained in place until the activists left after about an hour.
“Thank you to the Portland Police Department for showing the world that we can occupy peacefully,” they chanted.
On the way to Monument Square they briefly protested outside TD Bank.
No arrests were made during the protests or march, although police Lt. William Preis said the protesters were trespassing and committing disorderly conduct while they were at Merrill Lynch.
This report was updated on Monday, Nov.21, 2011.