Occupy camp could see eviction

Occupy camp could see eviction

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by Charlotte Observer

WCNC.com

Posted on January 29, 2012 at 12:37 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 25 at 9:56 AM

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Starting Monday, Charlotte-Mecklenburg police will be able to evict or arrest people camping, living or sleeping on the muddy lawn at old City Hall, which has been used by Occupy Charlotte since the fall.

But the new police powers may not end the local protest movement, which has targeted its anger at the "top 1 percent," who the group believes hold too much wealth and political power.

Some protesters and attorneys say a small change in the anti-camping ordinance gives Occupy Charlotte an opportunity to keep their multicolored tents, which have vexed city officials.

An early draft of the anti-camping ordinance prohibited placing any tents or temporary structure on city property. But in response to a local conservative activist, who said tea party protesters needed sun shades during rallies in 2009, the city changed the ordinance. It now only prohibits tents or temporary structures if they are used for "living accommodation purposes."

One Occupy Charlotte member said some protesters plan to remove all personal belongings from their tents so the police couldn't construe them as being used for "living accommodations."

The tents would then be used as shelter from the elements, whether it's cold, wind, rain or sun, the protester said.

"We have to get our stuff out, and we have to keep it clean," said Ben Schooly, who has been with Occupy Charlotte for a few weeks. "We will try and keep the tents."

Some Occupy protesters have moved their tents to the plaza at the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Government Center, but a camp at old City Hall remains.

Across the country, cities have been enforcing existing ordinances, or passing new anti-camping rules, to clear out Occupy protesters.

The possible removal of Occupy Charlotte would be the first example of the city's new efforts to give police more power in preparation for the Democratic National Convention in September. In addition to the anti-camping ordinance, the City Council recently passed new ordinances that give police more power during the convention.

Police will have greater power to search backpacks and satchels near the convention if officers suspect they are being used to conceal weapons.

The debate over what is and isn't allowed at Occupy Charlotte will likely be magnified during the DNC, as protesters seek to maximize their ability to promote their message.

Questions over enforcement

What's undisputed is that the anti-camping ordinance doesn't require anyone to leave city property. Protesters can remain on the old City Hall lawn, or any other city-owned public space, 24 hours a day.

Katy Parker of the American Civil Liberties Union of North Carolina said a tent used to protect someone from the weather - and not for living or sleeping - could be allowed under the revised ordinance.

Parker said the ordinance would likely allow police to remove a tent filled with a sleeping bag, clothes and other personal items. But an empty tent being used by someone for non-living accommodations would be OK, she said.

"When you have the provision that allows the tents, I don't know how they are going to enforce this," Parker said.

Charlotte attorney Ken Davies, who has been consulting with Occupy protesters, said the wording of the ordinance could present the city and police with a "quandary."

He said it will be difficult for police to determine whether a person is sleeping inside a closed tent. Once they open the tent's doors, or request that someone open the tent, anyone who is sleeping inside will be awake, he said.

In addition, Davies said someone could be lying down and meditating in a tent, which is allowed.

"When you deal with First Amendment rights, you can't have the police making judgment calls," Davies said. "It's unfair to the police."

Charlotte City Attorney Bob Hagemann has said the change was implemented after tea party activist and former council candidate Matthew Ridenhour noted during a public hearing that conservative protesters had used sun shades or canopies and that the ordinance needed flexibility.

Hagemann has said he couldn't speculate on how police may interpret the new anti-camping ordinance.

"I don't how the police will approach it," Hagemann said. "If I speculate, it could reveal law enforcement tactics."

He added he doesn't want to get into a public discussion of how "people might play games" to continue camping on the site.

CMPD, in a statement to the Observer Thursday, said, "Each tent or temporary structure will be reviewed to determine if it is in violation of the ordinance. We will take into consideration the totality of the circumstances which includes the statements made by the occupiers and the how the tents have been used during their occupation."

Council members have been confused about what the anti-camping ordinance does. During the debate, some mistakenly thought there would be a curfew, for instance.
James Mitchell, a Democrat, said he didn't focus in-depth on what the camping ordinance said. His impression is that people could use tents for informational booths.

"The only way I can see tents being permitted is for parades and shows," Mitchell said.
John Autry, a Democrat who was the only council member to vote against the ordinances, said he believes the tents can stay "so long as you aren't sleeping in it."

"You can sit in the tent all day," Autry said. "As soon as you roll out a sleeping bag, that's a different issue."

Other cities

In New York City, where the Occupy movement started, the private owner of Zuccotti Park prohibited tents and sleeping bags. The police then cleared the park, in keeping with the property owner's wishes.

In South Carolina, Occupy Columbia lost its bid to camp on the public State House grounds. In November, a lower court judge approved an injunction allowing them to resume full-time protests and approved them having sleeping bags and tents. In December, the state's Budget and Control Board, which Republican Gov. Nikki Haley leads as chairwoman, approved emergency regulations that banned camping and sleeping on State House grounds.

Reynolds Blankenship, a Columbia attorney who is advising the Occupy protesters, said the emergency rules specifically prohibited all camping tents from State House grounds. The protesters have since left, he said.

New ordinance

The Charlotte City Council passed its anti-camping ordinance Jan. 23, along with other measures to give police more power during the Democratic National Convention. Council members delayed putting the anti-camping ordinance into effect until Jan. 30, giving police and Occupy members time to talk and make plans to clear the space.

CMPD chief Rodney Monroe told council members on Monday that police would meet with protesters and discuss the new city rules.

Michael Zytkow, an Occupy member, said his group is hoping to meet with police over the weekend to determine what's permissible. "Right now it's a work in progress," Zytkow said. "We're trying to be unified. It would be great if we could maintain the symbolic nature of the camp with tents."

Schooly said he anticipates some people will go home and some people will fight for what they believe is their right to camp on the lawn. Others, he said, will try to stay and keep their tents - and show the police they aren't being used for living accommodations.

Said Don Faix of Occupy Charlotte: "The intent is to stay there. We want to fight this."

 

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