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Invited to dance by city staff, #OccupyMaine is spurned by councilors

Portland's Public Safety Committee, a subcommittee of the City Council, has refused to enter into ongoing negotiations with OccupyMaine over conditions in Lincoln Park, with two of the committee's three members suggesting there are no provisions under which they would support First Amendment protests to last overnight in public spaces.

With that decision made, it is more likely that the full City Council will do the same in a meeting slated for Wednesday, December 7, at 7 pm at City Hall. Last night, councilors on the committee expressed serious concerns about public safety and health relating to the Occupation.

This latest development in the two-month saga of OccupyMaine is an ironic twist, because it was a city staff idea spawned in a meeting with Occupiers, and was specifically designed to address the public-safety concerns arising for both parties.

Following a November 17 inspection of the encampment by city fire, building, and public-services staff, the Occupiers were summoned to a meeting at City Hall, where the groups decided that it was necessary to create a legal framework for the camp, to allow the city and the Occupiers to address the various issues that have arisen, including several arrests and disturbances, as well as violations of the city's fire code.

With Occupy members split on whether they should even engage with the city by asking for a permit or petitioning to stay, the faction urging that the city's offer should be taken "in good faith" won out. OccupyMaine petitioned the City Council to create a permanent 'round-the-clock free-speech zone in just over half of Lincoln Park, and asked permission to be the first group to occupy it.

The "good faith" faction also expressed hope that the council would engage in real discussions and dialogue to find a way to allow the Occupation to continue, subject to - as Occupiers expected - significant changes in the encampment to address fire-protection, health, and food-service issues.

Those changes, according to OccupyMaine's petition, included meeting city requirements for temporary-building permits for major structures in the park, completely rearranging the tents' locations to provide as much as 10 feet between sets of tent stakes, and replacing all tarps and other weatherization materials with fire-retardant materials.

It was very clear going into last night's Public Safety Committee meeting that the Occupy group was expecting to receive more direction from the committee on exactly what would be required if they were to be allowed to stay. And it was also very clear to the committee members that if the existing proposals from OccupyMaine did not fully address their concerns, that they could make additions and modifications to suit their comfort levels.

But that's not at all what happened.

Instead, after five hours of discussion - with input from city staff and 35 members of the public - councilors Ed Suslovic and John Coyne refused to brook even the slightest idea that the Occupation should be allowed to stay under any circumstances, and the committee's third member, councilor Dave Marshall, expressed significant reluctance to let it remain.

Suslovic called the situation "a public-safety disaster, or at the very least a near disaster about to turn into a disaster," and said "we cannot allow this to continue." He asked the protesters to "reset the clock, vacate the park" - but that's extremely unlikely, given that OccupyMaine attorney John Branson says the group's legal position is stronger while the Occupation continues.

"Free speech is covered, yes, but this is an Occupation," Coyne said during committee discussion on the matter. "We've got staff tied up on a daily basis . . . it's gotten too much."

Only councilor Dave Marshall offered any light of hope, and that was but a dim glimmer, given his comment that "the number of tents should be really limited if not all removed." The lack of shelter would make it nearly impossible for the Occupation to continue through the winter. Logistics aside, Marshall had another concern: "The question for me is whether sleeping is still free speech."

The full council will take up the issue next week, but if they follow the lead of the Public Safety Committee, as is likely, the legal wrangling will only continue.

A federal judge in Bangor is slated to rule Monday on efforts by the Capitol Police to evict an Occupation on the State House grounds in Augusta; courts around the country are taking up issues related to Occupations. Branson says the Occupy group would consider court action as one of its options, depending on what happens at the council meeting.

If Portland denies permission for the Occupation to stay, some protesters have said they will leave voluntarily. But others have said publicly that they will stay and practice nonviolent civil disobedience.

The degree of violence Portland police might use to forcibly evict them remains to be seen, but the three councilors on the Public Safety Committee seemed uninterested in seeing scenes like those that have happened at evictions around the country, including police in riot gear and wielding chemical weapons against unarmed peaceful protesters in New York and Oakland, California.

"The way I'm seeing it handled in other parts of the country is pretty disturbing," said councilor Marshall Monday night.

"I hope that if this doesn't pass the Occupation ends peacefully," said councilor Coyne, decrying the violent tactics used elsewhere.

Suslovic, too, praised the professionalism of the police department so far.

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