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Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Occupy Raleigh: Welcome at Raleigh City Hall?

Posted by on Wed, Nov 2, 2011 at 12:51 PM

Bo Chagnon (center) and Sidney Harr (right) of Occupy Raleigh talking with passersby at City Hall Tuesday
  • photo by Bob Geary
  • Bo Chagnon (center) and Sidney Harr (right) of Occupy Raleigh talking with passersby at City Hall Tuesday

Occupy Raleigh supporters did their part last night, turning out 100 strong for the 7 p.m. City Council session. Asked by spokesman Joe Huberman to issue a two-week, renewable permit to OR for a 24/7 staging area in the little park space behind City Hall, however, Mayor Charles Meeker hemmed and the Council hawed, bucking the question to its Law & Public Safety Committee, which meets Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the Council chambers.

Q: Will OR get its permit? A: Where there's a will, there's a way.

But the will of the Council last night was far from clear. Huberman, who made a strong case for saying yes, said afterward he was "a little disappointed" that the Council sent the issue to L&PS without first indicating that its intent was to get the permit issued, not denied or entombed in perpetual committee deliberations. (This is the same committee that took a year figuring out how to let food trucks operate in the city.)

On the other hand, Huberman said, it looked to him like the Council was headed in an affirmative direction.

Maybe. Mayor Meeker, who virtually invited OR to apply, seemed to back off last night after City Attorney Tom McCormick did what city attorneys do, which is raise the legal problems that could ensue. Meeker wondered aloud whether OR couldn't just find some private property for its staging grounds — maybe a church?

Meeker's a lame-duck mayor, of course, and his term ends in a month. But Mayor-elect Nancy McFarlane sounded, if anything, even more nervous than Meeker about letting the occupiers use city property. Echoing McCormick's main concern, she worried aloud that welcoming Occupy Raleigh would set a precedent for other groups "that may not be as pleasant."

On the plus side for OR, though, Councilor Russ Stephenson said other cities have apparently figured out a method of letting their Occupy forces occupy public property. It's worth Raleigh's time, Stephenson said, to study how they were able to get to yes.

Also on the plus side, Councilor Mary-Ann Baldwin, who heads the L&PS Committee, didn't hesitate at all about taking the issue into her committee. No fending it off or accepting it reluctantly. This morning, I noticed, she tweeted the world asking what we think the city should do.

***

The question before the committee, it seems, boils down to "What about the Nazis? Or the Ku Klux Klan?" If the Council issues Occupy Raleigh a permit to set up shop on City Hall land, can it say no to the these other, unpleasant groups?

The answer is, yes, of course it can. I'm not a lawyer — though I have played one on ... oh, never mind — but the Council would seem to be well within its prerogatives to let Occupy Raleigh use the little City Hall space (including being able to duck under the portico in front when it rains) while telling the Nazi Party, if and when it should apply, that it can't use City Hall, but it is welcome to make its views known in another city park where its safety can be assured. How about Lake Wheeler Park? (It's w-a-a-y out there in South Raleigh.)

Here's how I'd distinguish the two cases.

Occupy Raleigh is asking to set up what amounts to an encampment in close proximity to the State Capitol, where it has conducted a continuous demonstration for, now, 19 days, and where it plans to continue demonstrating — as Huberman said — until there's economic justice in the United States. That could be awhile.

Now suppose the Nazis made the same request: They're picketing the Capitol, and they'd like the right to encamp at City Hall while they do. What then?

The Nazis have, in fact, been issued at least one permit previously to demonstrate on the Capitol grounds, and a couple dozen of its brotherhood, or whatever they call themselves, showed up. If the Nazis ask again, presumably their request will be granted again, because the Capitol is a public place of great importance to our First Amendment rights to assemble peaceably and and petition the government regarding our grievances — regardless how odious.

But the fact that the Nazis might have a permit to be on the Capitol grounds for a four-hour stint does not equate to what Occupy Raleigh is doing. Occupy Raleigh, over the past month, has turned out crowds of +/-300 in Moore Square twice and a crowd of two or three times that number at the Capitol on October 15. Since October 15, OR has conducted daily General Assemblies with 30-80 people in attendance in addition to its continuous pickets.

In other words, as Occupy Raleigh exercises its First Amendment rights over an extended period of time, it has experienced a problem — or rather, the Capitol is experiencing a problem with crowds on its grounds and sidewalks — that the city is in a position to alleviate using reasonable discretion.

In First Amendment terms, the city is not "preferring" or "endorsing" Occupy Raleigh's message over the Nazis' or KKK's; rather, it is extending its help to any group which seeks to make a political statement at the Capitol, has done so for weeks beforehand, and has demonstrated its ability to bring large crowds to the Capitol which, in the professional opinion of the Capitol police, pose a safety concern for the public.

***

This wasn't Huberman's argument, exactly. He spoke eloquently about the city's regular practice of endorsing commercial speech via sidewalk closings, street closings, banner hangings and the like — the city helps businesses get their message out all the time, Huberman said. Shouldn't it also assist political speech, which has a higher standing under the First Amendment in terms of public importance?

And yes, Occupy Raleigh could turn to a private property owner or church. But the whole point of the Occupy movement is to occupy public space to underscore the importance of the 99% reclaiming government power from the 1% with all the money.

True, Huberman said, letting Occupy Raleigh encamp at City Hall would mark Raleigh as a place where free speech is given wide latitude, even support. Isn't that what we want? he asked. To be known as a vibrant, creative city — an "interesting city?"

Quite right. If City Hall becomes a venue for semi-regular political free speech — akin to Trafalgar Square in London — then great. And if other groups than Occupy Raleigh show an ability to engage in political free speech for extended periods of time, even better.

***

One other point, as the holiday season approaches. I recall that, when a Christian group sought the city's permission to put up a Christmas display in Moore Square (state property, but it's controlled by the city), no one on Council said, gee, what'll we do if other groups bring their competing holiday displays? Rather, they said bring 'em on.

So the Christian display went up, and I think it still goes up every year, doesn't it? And so far, nobody's brought a different display, but when the Wiccans show up with theirs, or the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster, I trust we'll be a vibrant enough place to say, sure, Wiccans have rights too.

***

Here's a question I'd ask of Occupy Raleigh: Are there other, equally effective or more effective ways of taking the Occupy message to the greater Raleigh public beyond picketing the Capitol? If so, what are they?

I took an Occupy Raleigh bumper sticker from Jim Braman last night. He printed them up, he said. "You're starting to see some other things happening," Braman said, including people taking their money out of Big-Bank accounts and moving them to credit unions.

Braman, who's semi-retired (he has a carwash company, he said, and is active with Step-Up Ministry), said he's taken to carrying cash again to avoid using credit cards for purchases — credit cards that kick a fee back to a Big Bank somewhere whenever you buy something.

"I see this movement as awakening the conscience of citizens about the ordinary things they do," he told me.

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The will of Raleigh City Council last night was far from clear.

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