Evicted from a public space, will Occupy DC kick itself out of a private one?


If things keep going the way they are, Occupy DC is going to lose a good thing.

In May there was a little dust-up because Service Employee International Union (SEIU) generously leased office space for the campless movement in the Institute for Policy Studies building. There were accusations of Occupy DC and the union being a little too cozy. On the contrary, Occupy DC isn’t complying with the only deal it struck with SEIU for the office space: a self-enforced basic code of conduct.

The group is having a hard time holding up its end of the bargain. After months of working out the details, the top priority for the Resource Center, as it’s called, is using the office suite for “getting shit done.” But there are some who use the place to camp out just like they did at McPherson Square.

A lot of shit is getting done there, it’s true. It’s a secure and climate-controlled space for committee meetings and provides desks, computers and wi-fi for anybody wanting to accomplish something for the movement.

While spontaneous, stimulating conversations occur there all the time, it’s not supposed to be a hang-out–or an Occupation like McPherson Park was. The code of conduct forbids sleeping, squatting or storing personal belongings. Unfortunately, after weeks of habitual rule-breaking and desperate solutions like changing the locks, Occupy DC can’t seem to rein in several individuals. Even worse, their behavior reinforces some of the worst stereotypes of Occupiers–the place smells bad, it’s sometimes dirty and full of backpacks, people go shirtless and bathe in the restrooms.

In an office building, that’s not going to fly. Occupy DC seems in danger of losing its Resource Center after October if SEIU decides not to renew the lease–and keep forking over $3,500 a month. Or even sooner.

Occupy DC is responsible for who it lets into its office–or can’t keep out. But there is a wider issue. Most of the squatting is by young people who are homeless. There’s some tolerance at play here simply knowing that someone is pretty desperate for a place to sleep and get out of 100-degree heat. Housing problems don’t have easy solutions.

And the District isn’t doing its part to address housing and homelessness, increasingly instituting more austerity measures and closing shelters. Coincidentally, Occupiers who were arrested in November 2011 protesting the closure of a homeless shelter at the Franklin School in 2008 will go on trial July 9.

As a statement from Free Franklin DC reads,

Three years later the city continues to break its promises to house and shelter DC residents, under-funding housing and shelter programs, including cutting $3 million from services for DC’s 6,500 homeless individuals and $20 million for affordable housing last year alone. The DC government refuses to ensure the most basic human right to housing for everyone in our community.

Pretty ironic that Occupy DC put itself on the line to address homelessness, yet may itself be undone by it.

UPDATE 7/16/12: The executive director of Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), which houses the Occupy DC Resource Center, dropped by the office to hand-deliver a letter detailing complaints. Efforts to get things in hand since have had mixed results. There’s no doubt that the majority is disgusted by the habits, hygiene and behavior of a minority. Yet that minority stubbornly clings to a belief in its right to do whatever it pleases in the office space, consequences be damned.

The office was cleared of personal belongings abandoned there, aired out with fans, and generally cleaned up. Messes large and small still occur and have to be cleaned up, there’s sleeping overnight, loitering, playing video games and surfing the internet. Situation improved but not solved.

There was a follow-up meeting with IPS this week, basically admitting we know we have a problem, we’re trying to fix it. Will that be enough to preserve a valuable resource?

Occupy Caravan joins Occupy DC in day-long protests

Occupy Caravan, stopping by the District on its way to an Occupy gathering in Philadelphia, set up symbolic camp in McPherson Park along with Occupy DC. In a marathon day of protest activities, they demonstrated against Metro fare hikes, turned out in solidarity for hunger striking postal workers, and held a vigil at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial to stop the practice of “stop and frisk.”

Last night they joined the Sleepful Protest at Bank of America and delivered a Notice of Foreclosure to the financial institution Friday morning.

 

State of McPherson

Since all traces of the Occupation were removed from McPherson Park on June 12, the Park Service moved in to fence off the north sections for restoration. The southwest section of the park was reopened.

They also–finally–realized that most of the park’s benches were inaccessible due to the fencing.

Occupy DC plans to restore its presence in the park through art installations, educational materials, mobile libraries, teach-ins and events.

 

 

The Battle of the Barn

A different version of events. Too bad this wasn’t admitted into evidence during the trial of OccuBarn defendants. I think Judge Wingo would have enjoyed it.

OccuBarn trial: Emergency situation

Some facets of the OccuBarn trial go to the heart of First Amendment issues dogging Occupy movement protests. One of those issues is discretionary powers of police–how laws governing them are conceived, and how those powers are used and abused.

Since findings of fact could very likely go against the defendants in the OccuBarn trial, defense counsel Jeff Light has gone for the jugular in attacking the substantive basis of the charges themselves. And, not only is he challenging the constitutionality of the statutes, he’s attacking the situational basis of one charge in particular: “failure to obey order – emergency.” All fourteen defendants face this charge.

Light is calling into question whether the scene at McPherson Park on December 4, 2011 warranted a declaration of emergency by the police, and he furthermore asserts that they exercised discretionary powers at odds with First Amendment rights.

In the motion to dismiss, he cites an appellate court ruling (Washington Mobilization Committee v. Cullinane) which struck down the District police lines regulation (of which this emergency statute is a part) for being overly broad:

It is difficult to conceive of a more pernicious prescription. A police officer is given unfettered discretion to issue any order he thinks reasonable and then is allowed to initiate criminal proceedings against a person who disobeys the order.

The Catch-22 here is obvious, especially to seasoned protestors. As the motion to dismiss points out, an unjustified order to disperse, for example, can lead to arrest for loitering. During trial, Light said, “For the protection of persons and property, the circumstances are so broad that there are no limits on a police officer’s discretion and whether he believes that it’s necessary [to declare an emergency].” Without express guidelines, police may have the power to criminalize harmless conduct.

Prosecutor Sean Farrelly countered that there was no more discretion involved in declaring an emergency than for a police officer to determine whether a crime was being committed, but he agreed that police could declare an emergency whenever they wanted to.

He gave specific rationale for the police decision to declare an emergency situation at McPherson Park: the OccuBarn structure was unsafe, there were hundreds of people in the park, and it was necessary to shut down traffic around the park.

Judge Elizabeth Wingo denied the motion to dismiss, saying, “The entirety of the statute is aimed at giving police officers authority to deal with an emergency.”

The judge didn’t find the defense’s direct challenges to the statute based on over breadth and vagueness persuasive, but going forward the defense strategy clearly will be attacking the rationale for the police’s declaration.

(Photo by coolrevolution.net)

OccuBarn trial: Background

Photo by Anne Meador

Thinking back to December 4, 2011 when Occupy DC erected the OccuBarn in McPherson Park, it’s worth remembering that violent police confrontations with the Occupy movement were happening with great frequency. Paramilitarized police of metropolitan areas had the opportunity to try out on Occupy protestors all the techniques they had learned–and many of the toys they had acquired–in their post-9/11 homeland security training. Moreover, iconoclastic events like the eviction of Occupy Wall Street from New York’s Zuccotti Park were still fresh news. That eviction had only just taken place on November 15.

In light of the recent clashes with police forces, it took a lot of chutzpah to raise the Barn–the “temporary structure” intended to shield General Assemblies and other meetings from the winter cold.  And, as trial witness Sara Shaw put it, it also “served as a symbol. We were protesting foreclosures, the rise of homelessness. [With the structure,] we were providing a shelter.” Wooden, rectangular, about 30 feet long and at least 15 feet high, the OccuBarn was a provocation, and there was no question that National Park Police were going to respond.

Moving in early that crisp December morning, Park Police demanded that the structure be disassembled. In spite of a somewhat confused emergency General Assembly, which ultimately decided to comply with the order, 23 people conducted an autonomous action, stationing themselves within the structure or climbing into the rafters. An all-day stand-off ensued.

More than six months later, 14 defendants are on trial for minor offenses–all of them charged with failure to obey in an emergency situation, and one additionally charged with public indecency and urinating in public. The trial is actually being conducted in traffic court by Magistrate Judge Elizabeth Wingo.

It’s speculation, but Judge Wingo may be enjoying defense counsel’s approach–challenging the basis of the statutes on Constitutional grounds. In his motions to dismiss, Occupy DC attorney Jeff Light essentially asked the judge to strike down District laws on obscenity and public indecency, public urination and failure to obey police.

Talk about chutzpah.

A reminder: the recurring theme of the preliminary hearing on May 30 was Judge Wingo’s excoriation of the prosecutor’s office for failing to meet filing deadlines. She opened Day 1 by asking, “Is the government ready for trial?”

Occupation at McPherson Park ends, but Occupy movement in DC continues

The National Park Service moved in Tuesday morning to remove the last vestiges of the Occupy DC protest at McPherson Park. Park Service employees loaded debris into two trucks as several Park Police officers–including the familiar Sgt. Reid–stood watch at the foot of the statue of General McPherson. The last two nights the protest structures, including tents, signs and art, were demolished.

McPherson Park hadn’t served as a full-fledged Occupation since February 4, when Park Police raided it and removed the majority of tents. Subsequently, officers patrolled to enforce a no-sleeping policy.

The last month has seen the further detachment of Occupy DC from the park, as ithe number of tents shrank and the group acquired office space nearby, sponsored by union SEIU.

Some Occupiers no longer took pride in what remained of the often messy camp and wanted to clear it themselves. One of the witnesses to the Park Services’s clean-up operation, a homeless man named RB, said Occupy DC lacked control over who was hanging out in their protest space.

“When you start a revolution of sorts you don’t put out an application,” he said. “There could be hangers on the fringe who are not part of the movement.” He complained of heavy drug use.

Several of those affiliated with Occupy DC have contended that the McPherson camp was a tactic and that its termination doesn’t represent the health of the movement itself.