Bob Plain Digital Journalist
Occupy Providence

November 22, 2011

Providence models how to handle Occupy movement

Providence, RI —

There will be no pepper spray here. While cities across the country are using high-profile, sometimes-violent, headline-generating arrests to try to quell Occupy Wall Street encampments and actions, the progressive-leaning mayor of Rhode Island’s capital city has taken a much more understanding and peaceful approach to the city’s occupy protesters.

“We’re looking for a way to resolve this in a way that can distinguish us in a proud way in the Roger Williams tradition,” Mayor Angel Taveras told me earlier this month. Roger Williams, of course, is Rhode Island’s founding colonist, who came here as a religious expatriate from the Massachusetts Bay Colony with visions of a better society.

“We’re also trying to make sure we resolve this in a civil and legal way that distinguishes us from other cities around the country,” he added.

Recent evidence of this commitment comes from Occupy Providence attorney Miriam Weizenbaum, who says her clients and the city will use a Superior Court judge to help mediate the legalities of the downtown camp-in.

“Sometimes, the court will assist in something that has the potential to become a legal action, in an effort to address the parties’ concerns short of legal action,” Weizenbaum told the Providence Journal on Monday.

At issue in Providence is whether or not occupiers are violating a local ordinance by staying overnight. The city has cited safety concerns, both because of and for the protesters, as a reason to respect the curfew.

Constitutionally-speaking, the legal issue is similar to the hundreds of other occupations across the country publicly sleeping in solidarity: whether or not such an ongoing camp-in can be construed as speech protected by the First Amendment and thus trumping whatever local laws are being used to disperse the occupation.

In Providence, it’s unclear if the right to camp as speech trumps the city ordinance. The local chapter of the ACLU has cited the 1984 U.S. Supreme Court case of Clark v. Community for Creative Non-Violence. In that case, the court held that the federal government could prevent people from tenting on the Mall in Washington D.C. who wanted to call attention to the issues of homeless people by camping.

The government, wrote the court, had a “substantial interest in maintaining the parks in the heart of our Capital in an attractive and intact condition, readily available to the millions of people who wish to see and enjoy them by their presence. To permit camping — using these areas as living accommodations — would be totally inimical to these purposes.”

But rather than sending in riot-gear wearing police officers to forcibly send the matter to a judge, Providence promised protesters it would do so proactively and peacefully.

“When someone says they have a legal right to do something and I believe they have a right but it’s not as big as they think it is, I think the way to address it – unless there is an emergency or something pressing – is to go through our courts,” Taveras told me in early November.

He even went so far as to say the occupiers could stay if the scales of justice tipped in their favor. “If we disagree with it, we will appeal it, but we will follow the court orders,” said the lawyer-turned-mayor, who is known for being both progressive and practical.

He has called Occupy “an amazing grassroots movement” that has brought attention to many important issues. “However,” he also said,  “we can’t have them staying in the park indefinitely and I think most reasonable people understand that.”

Local Occupy activists have, in turn, remained simultaneously resolute and respectful. When the city first informed them of its decision to seek their ouster, they marched a letter to the mayor’s office that echoed Taveras’ tenor of understanding.

“We, the people of Occupy Providence, would like to express our gratitude and appreciation for the continued respect shown to our just and legal gathering. We have found the welcome of the City of Providence to be warm and cordial, and the support of the people of Rhode Island to be firmly on the side of justice with regards to our grievances.

We have recently learned that the city seeks to take legal action against our assembly in Burnside Park. We believe that our presence is a legitimate exercise of our Constitutional rights to free speech in protesting the abuses of authority and the failures of inaction that have marked our era. To this end, we respectfully restate our intention to remain in Burnside Park for however long it takes to build a society by, for and of the people.

With this understanding, we welcome a dialogue between city officials and our General Assembly about our continued presence in the park and ways in which we can facilitate the maintenance of a safe and clean public space for all.”

Taveras actually met the protesters in Burnside Park before the action and listened as it was read aloud. He then walked back to City Hall with the protesters as they chanted, “We are the 99 percent.”

“What’s happening in Providence is really unusual,” Weizenbaum told the Journal. “It’s really to everybody’s credit.”

The progressive-leaning mayor of the capital city isn’t the only Rhode Island politician to embrace the Occupy movement. So has the progressive-leaning governor, Linc Chafee.

Chafee, who met with Occupy activists outside the State House, told WPRO,”The squeeze on the middle class is a real issue in this country, and I think that’s what Occupy Providence and the other Occupy movement is all about.  Build a strong middle class and watch out for the growing disparity of wealth.”

In fact, all four members of Rhode Island’s congressional delegation have been supportive of Occupy’s message and only one hasn’t visited the encampment.

Senator Sheldon Whitehouse visited earlier this month. Afterward, he told The Associated Press, “I think Occupy has brought some balance back into the equation. I see it as something pretty powerful.”

A number of state legislators, and at least one local town councilor, have also offered their political support. State Senator James Sheehan told me in October, “I think they have a point to be made and I’m here to listen.”

Meanwhile, the Providence City Council is considering going even farther that Mayor Taveras. Five of the 11 members of the City Council support a non-binding resolution that would express the Council’s desire to lift the curfew (the park is closed between 9 p.m and 7 a.m) and let occupiers stay in the park. The Council is expected to vote on the matter in December.

Councilman Luis Aponte planned to introduce an amendment to the park hours of operation ordinance that would keep Burnside Park, site of the local occupation since October 15, open and available to such protest encampments.

— Bob Plain

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