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.

McPherson laid waste

Early Monday morning the remaining Occupy DC tents were demolished, debris scattered throughout the park. First reports blame six intoxicated men with laying waste to the park.

At 8:30am, John Zangas tweeted that several people “became rambunctious” and tore down every structure in the park.

The four remaining tents consisted of the library, the former information tent, a personal tent and a storage tent containing art and supplies. The majority of the books had already been removed from the library. At first glance, the only things missing were the finely lettered signs recently installed by Barry Knight.

At 11am, only one person was trying to clean up. Sweet, originally from Occupy Eugene and lately of Occupy DC, was trying to “consolidate” the mess.

As people mingled after Occupy DC’s People’s Summit on Sunday evening, one person proposed removing the tents and invited someone to block the proposal. The gathering was not a general assembly.

UPDATE: The tornado-like damage inflicted on McPherson last night seems to be only one part of a larger narrative unfolding within Occupy DC. While it is unconfirmed exactly who demolished what remained of the Occupy DC camp at the park, what is clear is that attitudes of Occupiers toward their Occupation site have dramatically changed.

The Sleepful Protest at Bank of America on Vermont and L was reportedly notified of the damage between 4 and 5am, yet only one person (again reportedly) went to check it out.

The news went out on Twitter early in the morning, yet by 11am only one person was in the park cleaning up debris.

Compare this response to late January, when the Tent of Dreams served as a clarion call of defiance directed toward the National Park Service, who seemed poised to evict Occupy DC from the park at any moment. Hundreds flocked to McPherson when summoned.

This is also a dramatic difference from late March, when Park Police tore down the information tent. The anger and defiance was so great, DC Occupiers took to the streets that very evening in protest.

There has been significant debate lately within Occupy DC whether to continue its presence at McPherson. Cleanliness has been a problem, and many people drink alcohol at night, leading to arrests. This appearance and behavior reflect poorly on Occupy DC.

Still, many people strongly support the tactic of Occupation. “Occupying a public space is important no matter what any body says,” Feriha Kaya said, responding to the destruction. “Have you heard of any Occupation that has taken down its own tents?”

[Note: On April 18, Occupy New Haven decided to disassemble tents after a court ruling against them. The decision sparked internal dissent, and twelve New Haven Occupiers were arrested resisting the dismantlement of their camp. (hat tip: @msamricth)]

UPDATE: Livestreamers Carlisle and Austin Dalton erect what they call the “McPherson Fortress.”

“They [the people who wanted the park destroyed] can kiss my ass,” Austin says.

Judge issues scathing rebuke to prosecution at OccuBarn hearing

In a hearing of a case related to the structure erected by Occupy DC known as the “OccuBarn,” a DC Superior Court Judge dealt scathing criticism to the prosecution for failing to meet deadlines for filing motions. Calling their behavior “a gross dereliction of duty” and “lame,” Judge Elizabeth Wingo considered dismissing the case and even the unusual measure of conceding the case on Constitutional grounds. She’s now weighing whether to levy sanctions against them.

Even before addressing the preliminary issue of potential conflicts of interest arising from counsel Jeff Light’s representation of all defendants in the case, Judge Wingo immediately took the opportunity to announce her displeasure with the prosecution’s lapse. To Peter Saba, the attorney standing in for Assistant Attorney General Sean Farrelly, she said, “I realize this is not your case, so you’re somewhat a lamb to the slaughter.”

The OccuBarn was a 15-foot high modular wooden structure erected by Occupy DC at McPherson Park on December 4, 2011. While an emergency General Assembly debated whether to comply with the Park Police order to disassemble the OccuBarn, police went ahead and cordoned off the structure. Several individuals engaged in autonomous action, stationing themselves inside it, while six climbed into the rafters, remaining there for a day-long stand-off with police until the final hold-out was plucked from the roof by a cherry-picker ten hours later.

Occupy DC attorney Jeff Light, who is representing the 14 defendants charged with low-level criminal offenses, filed a motion to dismiss on March 26 and a motion to concede on May 22. The prosecution’s deadline to respond to the motion to dismiss was April 9, which it missed. After the judge inquired twice, they indicated their intention to file in two weeks, a response which Judge Wingo described as “woefully inadequate.” She then issued an order requiring the government to file a motion by May 18, but, she noted, they didn’t even file a motion to “late file.”

As of Tuesday’s hearing, the prosecution still had not complied with the judge’s order, only two weeks before the trial scheduled for June 13. Judge Wingo said it was “the first time she had considered treating a motion as conceded.”

Without raising her voice but in an indignant tone, she proceeded to dress down the prosecution. “Was [Assistant Attorney General] Mr. Farrelly on bedrest for six weeks? What’s the explanation here?” she asked. She also reminded them, “This is not a run-of-the-mill case, [and] it’s going to take extreme organization.” In the most telling moment of exasperation, she said, “It appears to me that the government’s conduct here is so…lame.”

In contrast, she praised the defense, calling Jeff Light’s motion “clearly and concisely argued,” “nicely laid out,” and “very nicely written on a complex issue.” In considering sanctions on the prosecution, she consulted Light, asking him if he knew what measures would be appropriate in these cases.

Peter Saba, the prosecuting attorney, lobbied for a continuance as a sanction, but the judge thought that postponing trial would only penalize the defendants. “You’re saying, ‘our bad,'” she said to him. As he took the tongue-lashing, Saba sometimes revealed a lack of preparation for the proceedings, unaware of the contents of the motions and unwilling to commit to deadlines. He texted his office as the judge spoke to see if they could meet the Wednesday deadline she imposed. “Let me be clear,” she said. “It needs to be filed tomorrow at the latest.”

Still, she voiced her reluctance to concede the case on Constitutional grounds and declined to dismiss the case.

Jubilant defendants greeted counsel Jeff Light outside the courtroom with twinkle fingers, an Occupy signal of approval. Kelly Mears said, “I hope to see more of this… One side of this case cares more about this. This is not just a rote defense, but it is a rote prosecution.”

Caty McClure said she was “glad the judge is calling them out. It’s respect for the process.” But at the same time she said she felt “super disrespected” by the prosecution. Sophie Vick agreed. “My time was wasted,” she said. “I wanted to throw up my hands and storm out.”

Jeff Light however had a positive reaction. “Ignoring deadlines isn’t unusual,” he said. “I deal with this situation all the time. Government entities often don’t follow the rules.” And, he added, “Some judges are more tolerant than others. Judge Wingo took the appropriate tone.”

The prosecution is required to file a response to the motion to dismiss by May 30 and a response to the Bill of Particulars by June 5. It also must turn over additional information to the defense by June 1. The trial is scheduled for June 13-14 at DC Superior Court.

(Photo by cool revolution.net)

UPDATE: All the defendants are charged with “Failure to Obey – Emergency.” One defendant, David Givens, has two additional charges: “lewd, indecent or obscene acts” and disorderly conduct.

UPDATE 5/30/12: Ted Gest, Public Information Officer of the DC Attorney General’s Office, says that Assistant Attorney General Sean Farrelly has filed a response to the motion to dismiss in the case, meeting today’s deadline.