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Portland City Council to #OccupyMaine: No dialogue here

It appears time to consider the possibility that the pro-business, anti-public ethos that plagues American politics has also started to infect Portland's city council.

To wit: Most Portland city councilors love to make deals with corporations, but have no interest in finding a way for people to protest overnight in city parks, despite repeated attempts on the part of OccupyMaine members, the city manager, the city attorney, and even a fellow councilor to persuade them to try it.

Perhaps they were swayed by statistics from the police department showing increased activity right outside the police station's back door, at the Lincoln Park encampment. Perhaps they were unpersuaded by an Occupy supporter's mention that comparing police calls at Lincoln Park today to a year ago is like comparing police activity at a stadium on game day as opposed to a midweek afternoon, or from another's that the same activity has happened in Lincoln Park for years but nobody called the cops until Occupy started.

In any case, despite repeated and increasingly clear statements that the petition from OccupyMaine was a starting point for discussion and could be amended to the council's pleasure - the same way all proposals from businesses are - seven councilors and the newly elected mayor, Mike Brennan, voted to reject the application as written, with no dicussion of modifications that would have a better chance of being acceptable in the future.

Here are several interesting statements from the councilors, followed by particularly sharp points from the public comments section, at which 53 people spoke, with just five opposing the Occupation.

IMPORTANT: So far, city officials - including Brennan and Acting Police Chief Mike Sauschuck - have been very clear in their assurances to the Occupy group and to the media that no forcible eviction is planned, and that the group has time to react to the city's decision without fear of violence, as has happened in other cities.

 

The councilors

When councilors spoke, they typically followed a basic pattern, stating their First Amendment support and respect, and then shutting down the most innovative, disruptive form of free speech, expression, and assembly the country has yet seen in its history.

Ed Suslovic appeared stuck for quite a while on technicalities of paperwork, and several times said he wanted city staff's guidance on whether what OccupyMaine had submitted would be considered legally complete.

His major issue, though, was about limiting the numbers in the park, a key request from city staff on public-safety grounds. Suslovic was worried about who would control or enforce that limit. He did not propose a solution, but simply observed that it was a problem for him, calling it "giving one group exclusive license over public property."

He also claimed "we gave ample feedback" at the Public Safety Committee meeting, which he chaired - and which unanimously rejected an earlier version of OccupyMaine's petition, without proposing any specific amendments that might have passed muster.

He specifically said he doesn't want to open parks to the public 24/7.

 

Cheryl Leeman initially claimed that the council was to be voting on the petition as is, and said "there's no negotiating those terms," triggering yet another round of assurances that it, like any other request that comes before the council, could be entirely rewritten by the council if they chose.

She outright admitted she didn't get the message: "I disagree that a permanent encampment is required to support the mission of OccupyMaine."

She objected to the "contradictory" nature of limiting the size of the protest - though the city wanted that, not the occupiers - and called it "exclusionary."

She also admitted that never in her many years on the council has she dealt with anything like this.

And said "from a technical standpoint, it's all wrong" and specified that while she is interested in talking about the issues OccupyMaine is raising, she is not interested in talking about the encampment.

 

John Anton, in heartfelt comments, seemed earnestly to be seeking dialogue with the Occupiers, telling his fellow councilors that "there is a third path" they could take: "there is yes, no, or continue to talk."

He also summarized the disconnect well: "We have two very earnest cultures that are expressing themselves in very different ways" - the council and Occupy.

Inviting a new application with more specifics, he said it was his belief that the "First Amendment trumps municipal ordinances, and the boundaries of that are unclear."

Urging them to continue, he told Occupy: "I feel like we do our best work as a council when we're out of our comfort zone. That's what you're doing."

But then, having said a lot of nice things about dialogue, he didn't take the "third path" he had suggested. He voted no.

 

David Marshall took up the mantle he declined at the public safety committee meeting, and became a voice for continued conversation with Occupy. "I feel we should really continue dialogue," he said. "It would be a great gesture on the part of the city."

"We're in this position because of decisions the city has made" and requests the city has made that Occupy has honored. "I don't see that the Occupiers are doing anything illegal."

He said he had expected that the council would go through the petition closely and work on it, making changes and suggestions along the way. But instead, "We have a council that's not willing to negotiate" - even though the city makes exceptions to rules all the time.

He said the First Amendment is "more than just freedom of speech . . . it says that you cannot abridge the freedom of assembly" - and therefore, he supported the Occupiers' right to assemble 24/7 in Lincoln Park.

 

Jill Duson said she supports 24/7 protests "anywhere in the city" but said freedom of speech is not "freedom to convert a public park into a residential community."

"I think it's better for us to get to court as soon as possible," she said, adding: "We ought to just deny it and allow a court to decide whether freedom of speech includes occupation of a public park."

 

Nick Mavodones, like Leeman, admitted he didn't grok the concept of the Occupy movement: "I don't think it has to be a 24-hour protest."

He also said some other confusing things: "taking over and living in the park right across the street is problematic" - thereby admitting that Occupy's existence is a message, and suggesting he didn't want to see it.

Then he got really mixed up. "I have no issue with people protesting in that park whenever they feel it's appropriate," he said, going on to contradict himself by telling the Occupiers that even though they clearly did think it "appropriate" to protest overnight, he had an issue with that.

 

John Coyne, among the most militantly Occupy-opposed councilors from the early days of the protest, suggested that the sum total of "what goes on down there" is crime, and then went so far as to suggest that kicking them out of Lincoln Park would "reduce crime by 30 percent." He appeared to draw that figure from statements by Sauschuck that 30 percent of the arrests in the Old Port area between October 1 and December 5 were in Lincoln Park. He appeared not to assume that several of those arrests, including of a man wanted on a warrant from New York, would have happened elsewhere in the city.

He also drew smirks when he called the Occupy movement a "special-interest group."

 

Kevin Donoghue also seemed to be mixed up about the inclusive nature of the movement, and the reason Occupy proposed limiting protesters' numbers. "We are talking about exclusive use of space," he said, urging the Occupiers to seek redress in court "not as a confrontational venue but as a clarifying venue." In closing, he dismissed much of the evening's work by saying, "I do appreciate the exercise."

 

Mike Brennan acknowledged that both OccupyMaine and the city recognize the current situation isn't working, and said what's been submitted doesn't address the problems yet. He said he wants to work with Occupy on this (and followed that up after the meeting with a request to meet with Occupy attorney John Branson on Thursday afternoon).

"I do believe that the issues here are deep enough, are important enough" to warrant additional work by the city, he said, "to see if in fact there is a permit that can cross the Ts" that other councilors were concerned about.

In the event of no approval, he expressly promised no excessive force in removing the protesters: "We are not interested in being Oakland. We are not interested in being New York."

And even when it was clear that the council would vote no (with Brennan among them) that night, he said, "there's still an opportunity tomorrow to engage in dialogue."

 

The public

OccupyMaine attorney John Branson observed that the protest is against "the corporate takeover of our public spaces and our democratic government," and said the nature of the protest is "a form of speech, assembly, and demonstration that requires by definition the ability to maintain a continued presence in public space."

Former US Senate candidate Bill Slavick reminded the council that during the Great Depression, the government put millions to work in a matter of weeks - and observed that no such action is happening now. "Enough of greed rampant."

Rachel Lyn Rumson read OccupyMaine's statement for redress of grievances, as approved by the December 4 GA: "OccupyMaine seeks initial redress of grievances and hereby requests that the City of Portland take the following actions:

1. Withdraw all City funds from TD Bank and transfer those funds to a locally owned bank or credit union.

2. Develop methods for increased direct democracy and public engagement, including, as a starting point, making the State of Maine Room available for a weekly City of Portland General Assembly that would develop proposals and recommendations for consideration and action by the City Council.

3. Increase support for homeless people in Portland including those who have come to live at Lincoln Park. Begin by working with homeless people in Lincoln Park to get them into housing and address other needs that they have.

4. Create a 24-hour free speech and assembly space in Monument Square where people can assemble at any hour to engage in non-commercial First Amendment activity."

 

Local activist and business owner Jonah Fertig said "our democracy is getting bought out by corporations," and specifically said "I want to hear the city council talk about the corporations and the bankers."

Corporate lobbyist Chris O'Neil of the Portland Regional Chamber revealed much of the hypocrisy the Occupiers are decrying, both by saying he wasn't going to talk about constitutional questions and then spending most of his time doing exactly that, and by admitting he represents "the chamber who is often here decrying regulations" but said the ones preventing free speech in public spaces "are there for a reason"

Zachary Heiden, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, said negotiations were possible, and were indeed the right way forward. "There is a way to address these concerns" of safety and health, he said, urging the councilors to "try to find a way to say yes to this group rather than trying to find a way to say no."

Francis Martin, known in camp as "Seamus," said "I have lived in Portland in a tent for years . . . I live in a tent hidden in the woods" but only now that he is living in a tent in Lincoln Park does he feel like he belongs.

Robert Witham Jr. said the city right now provides no place to protest 24/7, but for people who take things very seriously, that's a limit - the law actually prevents people from taking things so seriously that they're willing to protest 24/7.

Martin Steingesser said the city supports corporations all the time, including the Pierce Atwood tax break. He also said that if the encampment must be removed, city councilors should be on site to observe and supervise

John Newcomb of the Maine AFL-CIO and the Southern Maine Labor Council suggested the city spend some money on free speech, pointedly observing, "look at the money some of you have spent just on this election, Mayor Brennan." (Brennan spent $41,075, according to campaign-finance filings.)

Brian Leonard said chief city building inspector Tammy Munson was thorough, but suggested she was overzealous and drew a parallel to the tough conditions earlier patriots endured: "I'm terribly sorry she wasn't there in General Washington's encampment at Valley Forge."

Alan Porter said peace in Lincoln Park is possible. "For five weeks we did enjoy peace . . . "It wasn't until the closing of Milestone that it all fell apart." That happened on November 1, when federal funding problems forced the 41-bed emergency shelter to shut down, which lasted about 10 days. Then, Porter added, "once-traditional camping areas for our city's homeless were broken up."

In a final observation that Lincoln Park has always been home to the homeless, he said, "No matter your decision, there will be people who stay in the park after you tell them to go."


Other speakers, whose names I didn't hear, and who I was unable to track down in the crowd, said several interesting things.

One man decried the encampment as a "magnet" for problems that previously occurred in less visible places in the city, and seemed to suggest those issues should go back into hiding.

Another noted that the city spends massive resources supporting corporations with TIFs and tax incentives, and lamented that it is apparently unwilling to spend even a little bit to support free speech.

Another supporter observed the alternatives to working with the Occupiers, describing the police violence in other cities that led to standoffs, even larger protests, and lawsuits. Suggesting the city could choose, she asked if they wanted a forcible eviction with cartoonishly disproportionate municipal violence, or "do you want to just call us up and say that's not allowed under the permit."

A woman observed that no permit was necessary for the "early patriots" who gathered and sometimes camped, nor for the lunch-counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights Movement.

A senior at UNE who is studying to be a teacher spent his three minutes of talk time lecturing Occupy on how to be effective, suggesting the group work "through the system that we have," apparently without irony, and definitely without observing that they seek to change that system, not perpetuate it by participating in it.

One person said the Occupiers were using toilets belonging to local businesses, but the claim rang hollow with no business owner (nor even any business-group lobbyist) saying there was a problem.

One warning may ring truest of all, from a Marine veteran quoting John F. Kennedy: "Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

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