Monday, August 27, 2012

OccupyMaine goes to Court to Block Portland Eviction

MPBN OccupyMaine goes to Court to Block Portland Eviction 12/19/2011 Reported By: Josie Huang As Occupy movements elsewhere get evicted, OccupyMaine has bought itself at least a few more weeks to keep its encampment in Portland. OccupyMaine members filed a lawsuit today to stop City Hall from dismantling their tent community at Lincoln Park, and officials have agreed not to take any action pending a court decision. Related Media OccupyMaine goes to Court to Block Portland Evicti Duration: 4:25 The group's lawyer John Branson (right) says that the city violated protesters' constitutional rights on several counts, including the enforcement of a ban on overnight assembly and speech in a public park. "What these brave folks are doing during the coldest months of the year are seeking to remain, and continue to draw the public's attention to issues that are important to the very survival of our democracy and our way of life," Branson said at a news conference today. Palma Ryan (right in photo below, with fellow plaintiff Frederick Deese Hamilton) is one of four Occupy campers named in the suit, along with the larger OccupyMaine group. She says it was important to lend her name to the suit. "Regaining our democracy, our ability to rule our own government, separate from corporations and corporate rule--to me it was the most important action of this era," she says. The city has 21 days to respond to the lawsuit, which was filed in Cumberland County Superior Court, after which Occupy Maine has seven days to answer the city's response. City spokeswoman Nicole Clegg did not have any comment on the lawsuit pending its review by corporation counsel, but indicated that the city would not issue a legal response until after the New Year. "It's a lengthy document with more than 100 pages, so it's going to take us some time--and with the holidays--to file a response," Clegg says. The American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, which filed a brief Monday on behalf of Occupy Maine, agrees with Branson's to fight for protesters' rights under both the state and federal constitutions. "Now the Maine courts have a chance to look at this from the Maine constitution's perspective," says Zach Heiden, the ACLU of Maine. Heiden says other Occupy movements, including the camp in Augusta, have made unsuccessful bids to keep their encampments by focusing on the U.S. Constitution. He says he's not surprised. "For one thing, the federal Constitution's protection of freedom of expression is worded in a negative way: 'Congress shall make no law...,'" he says. "The Maine Constitution has an affirmative grant that says people have the right to speak. We think that's an important distinction." Lawyers for Occupy Boston unsuccessfully argued for its group's rights under the Massachusetts Constitution, as well as the U.S. Constitution, but Heiden maintains that Maine's freedom of expression clause is stronger. The City Council had denied OccupyMaine's petition to seek a permit to stay in Lincoln Park in a vote earlier this month. But officials have continued working with protesters, so the lawsuit filed on Monday was not a surprise to the city, says city spokeswoman Clegg. "We've been trying to maintain an open line of communication," she says. "We've been very forthright and upfront about our actions and thought process. They've been responsive in the same manner." In the meantime, Portland's first publicly-elected mayor, Michael Brennan, says that he wants to set up a task force to address grievances aired by OccupyMaine and develop long-term solutions "to look at issues of income distribution, whether or not we should have a 24-hour free-speech zone, are there ways that we can help some of the people who are there find more permanent housing, the city's investment policy." Brennan's talking about OccupyMaine's demand that the city transfer its funds from TD Bank to a locally-owned bank or credit union. "There's no reason why we shouldn't have a periodic review of where our money's going, and what banks we're using and to see if there is something that we can do that is a little bit better," Brennan says. "The caveat to that: Obviously, we wouldn't want to do anything that would disadvantage Portland taxpayers." Occupy members say they are willing to work with the mayor, whom they group, along with City Councilor David Marshall, as the only elected officials showing any support for protesters. Plaintiff Palma Ryan also credited the police with treating protesters well. That's why Ryan, who works as an energy auditor, says that if the court rules against protesters, she will not try to camp overnight anymore. "I have too much respect for the city of Portland and this police force and this treatment of us to create something that would seem disrepectful to them, because they have been very respectful of us." The OccupyMaine lawyer says it's not clear what legal step the group would take if the courts reject their claims, but that the decision to stay at Lincoln Park will be up to individual protesters. Photos by Josie Huang.

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