Occupy Keeps Occupying

by by by Grace Dunham

On Thursday, October 27 at 2 pm, Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare and Police Detective Theodore Michael calmly entered the Occupy Providence campsite in Burnside Park. For one hour, the two men—neither one in uniform—made their way through the campsite’s maze of tents, taping eviction notices to lampposts and personally distributing them to protestors. “All of a sudden,” says Susan Beatty, who handles tactics and logistics with the Direct Action Working Group, “tents were being unzipped and the Police Commissioner was standing there with a letter.”

The letter read, in part, "You are hereby notified that Burnside Park located in Kennedy Plaza, Providence, Rhode Island and every city park in the City of Providence is open 7 days a week, 7:00 am Eastern Standard Time to 9:00 pm Eastern Standard Time. Remaining in the park thereafter is illegal and the City of Providence will seek to enforce this ordinance.” It warned protesters that they had 72 hours to comply.

The following day, in an interview with WPRO Morning News, Commissioner Pare announced that if protesters refused to vacate Burnside Park the City would not forcibly remove them. “We’re going to resolve this peacefully and civilly,” he said. “If they believe they have a legal right to remain there, then we’ll resolve that before a court. That’s how it’s done. Not on the streets.”

On October 29, Mayor Angel Taveras released a statement echoing the Commissioner’s sentiments: “If protestors do not vacate Burnside Park on Sunday, the City will NOT follow the actions of other cities like Atlanta, Chicago or Oakland that have resulted in arrests and violence.” Though the Mayor has expressed his support for many of Occupy’s goals and repeatedly thanked them for peacefully cooperating with the City, he still stands firmly behind the eviction. “Permanent occupation of the park,” he said, “is unsafe and unwise for compelling reasons both practical and legal.”

Both Mayor Taveras and Commissioner Pare have sighted drugs, fighting, and sex offenders as causes for their concern. "We've had Level 3 sex-offenders here," the Providence Journal quoted the Commissioner as saying on October 26th, “The Park is open. You have people coming in and out, and you have people here sleeping ... When you have that mix, you people should be concerned."

According to Susan Beatty and Will Lambek—a member the Media and Outreach Working Group, which manages Occupy Providence’s media and community relations—these concerns are not only unwarranted, but also far from the entire explanation. Two years ago, a tent city called Camp Runamuck sprang up under an abandoned I-95 overpass next to the Providence River. Home to over 80 people, Camp Runamuck was not unlike the Occupy Providence community in Burnside Park.  It, too, was a protest (of conditions for homeless people in Rhode Island) and operated under a five-member leadership council and the manifesto, “No one person shall be greater than the will of the whole.” After a drawn out legal back-and-forth, State Officials succeeded in forcing residents to vacate the Camp. “I think in a sort of odd twist of logic,” says Lambek, “They’re deciding, for consistency’s sake, to do the same thing with us. Our position, of course, is that the tent city should have been allowed to stay. As should we.”

Following the Sunday deadline, the Police  Commissioner was expected to file an injunction: a court order that, if approved, will require a mandatory eviction. Once the injunction is filed, it could take up to three weeks for the Court to reach a decision. Occupy Providence will challenge the injunction on First Amendment grounds, sighting “the right of the people peaceably to assemble” as justification for indefinitely remaining in Burnside Park without a permit. Though the Rhode Island ACLU released a statement acknowledging that there is a Supreme Court precedent which “significantly limits” these First Amendment arguments, Executive Director Steven Brown has announced that it may be “constitutionally problematic” to place a curfew on peaceful First Amendment activity.

On the evening of Sunday October 30, over four hours after the supposed eviction deadline, Occupy Providence showed no signs of vacating. Protestors still gathered at dusk for their nightly General Assembly meeting. Two young women standing at the base of the Ambrose Burnside Statue—a bronze man on horseback, now draped in red fabric—lead the meeting, pausing after every sentence fragment so that the crowd could repeat them in unison, using a “people’s mic” to amplify their words. “Here at Occupy Providence,” one woman said and everyone else echoed, “We strive and struggle…to build a safe space…that means that being here…you are safe from… oppression…   discrimination…and other biases.”

As of Tuesday, city officials had yet to file an injunction with the Superior Court.

GRACE DUNHAM B ’14 will pitch your tent.