Occupy protests’ ironic legacy: more restrictions on protesters
Life was upended briefly in affluent San Marino last year when a hundred or so Occupy-style protesters staged a demonstration on the lawn of a resident Wells Fargo executive.
The police chief declared the city’s 28-member force “overwhelmed.” So city leaders passed an ordinance that required protesters to stay 75 feet from the curb of targeted residences. Then they tightened parade permit requirements and added a measure to allow police to move obstructing protesters off sidewalks.
By the time they were finished, the only place left in San Marino where protesters could demonstrate without a permit was the median of Huntington Drive, a 60-foot-wide grassy space that runs through the center of the city.
San Marino isn’t alone. Across California and the nation, Occupy protests have prompted cities to tighten restrictions on protesters and behavior in public space in ways that opponents say threaten free speech and worsen conditions for homeless people.
Governments now regulate with new vigor where protesters may stand and walk and what they can carry. Protest permits are harder to get and penalties are steeper. Camping is banned from Los Angeles parks by a new, tougher ordinance. Philadelphia and Houston tightened restrictions on feeding people in public.
It’s an ironic legacy for a movement conceived as a voice for the downtrodden.
When Occupy protests first fanned across the country last year, the movement enjoyed widespread popularity, and politicians responded with resolutions of support. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa even had ponchos delivered to Occupy Los Angeles when it rained.
But as demonstrations wore on and public sentiment shifted, cities got tougher with protesters.
As Occupy protests threatened to disrupt the May G-8 and NATO summits in Chicago, for example, lawmakers reduced park hours, installed more surveillance cameras, raised fees for protest permits and increased fines for violations. Large protest groups must now submit to a variety of conditions to get permission to demonstrate, including spelling out the dimensions of their placards and banners, and meeting insurance requirements.
About three weeks into Occupy Nashville’s encampment in Legislative Plaza, Tennessee state authorities established a curfew, imposed new permit and insurance requirements, and promptly cleared the camp. In Sacramento, highly specific measures passed, making it illegal to wash dishes on the City Hall grounds and restricting use of tape and chalk.
In some cases, police “made up their own laws in the street,” said Sarah Knuckey, a New York University Law Professor who worked with Occupy Wall Street.
After Occupy Wall Street was evicted from Zucotti Park, protesters were allowed to return only to face a long list of park rules that changed daily, Knuckey said. New York City police and park security refused entry to the park based on violations such as possessing food, musical instruments and yoga mats, Knuckey said.
In July, Los Angeles police arrested Occupy protesters drawing on the street with chalk during an Art Walk event on suspicion of vandalism — though the drawings were about as permanent as sand castles on a beach.
Free speech advocates say the trend is dismaying. “It reflects a hostility to protest,” said Linda Lye, attorney for ACLU in Northern California. “What we’ve seen is a response not different from Bull Connor.”
Mara Verheyden Hilliard, an attorney with the National Lawyer’s Guild, said although city officials often deny any connection to Occupy in defending the new measures, she believes Occupy is their real target.
City officials defended the restrictions as legitimate attempts to protect public spaces, which they say were subjected to unprecedented new uses during the protests. Free speech, in Occupy’s case, took the form of tent cities that required constant police attention and expensive cleanup. In Los Angeles, costs for police overtime and cleanup exceeded $4.7 million.
“The movement has a right to exercise speech, but the city has a right to regulate its public spaces,” Los Angeles Deputy City Atty. William Carter said.
Homeless advocates say people living on the streets will suffer long after the last Occupy tent comes down.
“There are unhoused individuals that are the daily victims of these laws,” said Neil Donovan, executive director for the National Coalition for the Homeless in Washington.
Though bans on camping in public spaces have existed for decades in many cities, dozens of new ordinances have come with “lightning speed,” Donovan said. Since November 2011, camping bans have been adopted in Washington, D.C.; Charlotte, N.C., and Denver, and the states of Tennessee and Idaho, among many others, according the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
In Los Angeles, camping in parks was already banned. City leaders made an exception for Occupy Los Angeles, which lasted eight weeks. Citing health and safety concerns, the city evicted the protesters and passed a new, amended ordinance that specifically banned tents and sleeping bags after parks closed.
Western Regional Advocacy Project, a homeless outreach organization, has surveyed more than 800 homeless people in nine major cities across the nation in the last two years and found that 45% of those surveyed had been cited for sleeping.
Cheryl Aichele, an early member of Occupy Los Angeles, said it was never the movement’s intention to prompt stiffer laws. “If Occupy made those things tougher, it was only because there was a pre-existing push against these things,” Aichele said.
Not all the efforts have been successful: In Oakland, after repeated violent confrontations between police and Occupy Oakland, the city considered a protest ordinance that would have criminalized a long list of items, including sticks more than quarter of an inch thick. The measure never made it out of committee.
In Fresno County, police dismantled an Occupy camp by invoking seldom-used prohibitions on the distribution of literature and on gatherings without a permit. A federal judge found the codes unconstitutional.
But there are enough new restrictions to hobble the Occupy movement, said Todd Gitlin, a journalism professor at Columbia University and author of the book “Occupy Nation.” Membership is declining and protests rarely make headlines now, Gitlin said.
When the San Marino City Council voted to confine protests to a city median in October, they made their arguments to an empty room. None of the groups who prompted the law could spare a member to speak against it.
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