Occupy Wall Street camps all over the country are putting a strain on city services, including police and fire departments and city code inspectors. However, for the most part, protesters and municipalities have worked together to ensure a peaceful and law-abiding protest.
The Occupy Madison camp is currently located at Reynolds Park, in Madison, Wisconsin’s near east side in the Tenney Lapham neighborhood. Organizers plan on being there until the end of April.
Madison’s camp has been meeting the codes of the city. The city of Madison closely watched the design and setup of the protesters’ structures, which were significantly altered to meet all fire and safety codes and requirements of the city in order to have safe and warm shelter.
In anticipation of the event, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin worked with police, parks, health and other departments to maintain a peaceful protest environment.
Guidelines were established for protesters using the park, including a waiver of the park closing times. Occupiers were allowed to spend the night in the park: However, no tents were allowed and quiet hours were enforced. There was no vending of food or merchandise to the public nor were campfires permitted in the park. Protesters committed to trash pickup.
City officials met with some of the protesters involved, in a continued effort to maintain safety. Madison police and other city officials have had a constant presence in the park.
The Occupy movement has not changed any processes with the city of Madison or its police department.
“We have a long-standing tradition of proactively working with individuals and groups in the expression of free speech, protesting on a variety of issues and during special events. One component of the Occupy movement that has been improved is the interagency interaction on these topics. Our Occupy group has resided at four different locations within the city. Each of these locations had different logistical issues related to the neighborhood, space, usage and ordinances, which required greater interagency collaboration in working with the Occupy group,” explained Carl Gloede, Captain of Police, Central District of the city of Madison Police Department.
“The Occupy movement in Madison has been small,” Gloede continued. “The largest group was the first night of their event, which had maybe 200 people. Since then, the group has numbered about six to 20 persons. As a comparison, last year we dealt with state budget protests, which frequently had crowds ranging from 1,000 to 2,000 up to large events with 30,000 to 70,000 people.”
No new ordinances had to be created or current ordinances amended in relationship to Occupy camps. But early dialogue with the participants of Occupy camps was a must, Gloede said.
“This was challenging with the Occupy group as they profess to be a leaderless organization with all decisions being voted on at general assembly meetings.”
Group members and the city of Madison have met regularly during the occupation of four different sites.
“The group generally agrees to ensure safety standards in ordinance and law. However, due to the lack of an organizational structure and leadership, compliance and timeliness has been an issue. For example, the discussions revolved around camping but the group took it to a different level and began constructing wood-framed structures, which would require a variety of permits and presented safety concerns.”
The Occupy Madison group has been organized since late September. They have occupied four locations: Reynolds Park, 30 on the Square (a small cul-de-sac area near the capitol), Monona Terrace cul-de-sac (near the convention center) and finally, a vacant parking lot at 800 E. Washington Ave. The current permit for the vacant lot expires April 30. At that time the site will be redeveloped and will no longer be available to the group. Gloede said Madison has not worked directly with other cities regarding Occupy issues, but he has monitored activities across the country on the topic.
Occupy Detroit’s uniquely cooperative relationship with city government and the Detroit Police Department also made for a nonviolent expression of citizens’ concerns.
“We had almost an arrest-free movement,” said Todd Brady, with Occupy Detroit’s protest movement. “We had two arrests and that was it.”
Detroit’s Occupy camp was located in Grant Circus Park from Oct. 14 until it closed Nov. 21. Prior to the protest, Brady said, “We did not plan or contact anyone with the city.” The Occupy group worked with the National Lawyers Guild to plan their strategy.
At two city council meetings the Occupy group was issued a permit to stay at the park. The matter of park hours was also discussed. A permit was eventually granted in November, retroactive to the beginning of the protest. An extension was then granted by the mayor.
On average, there was a maximum 80 or 85 people as well as “day walkers.” The group had 250 people at the height of the protest, although 500 people showed up at the first organizational meeting on Oct. 10, said Brady, who is planning on writing a book on the Occupy Detroit movement.
In its Nov. 25 edition, online publication counterpunch.org published a story about Occupy Detroit’s uniquely cooperative relationship with city government and the Detroit Police Department. The article’s author, George Corsetti, a Detroit lawyer, suggests one reason.
“The Detroit Police Department has experience handling past riots. They know the difference between a riot and a peaceful protest,” he wrote.
While police in other cities approached protesters in riot gear, attacked them with pepper spray and made hundreds of arrests, Detroit police did not, noted Corsetti.
Police protected protesters during marches along Woodward Avenue, the city’s main drag. They slid pieces of movable, decorative metal fencing around Detroit’s Grand Circus Park to protect protesters camping downtown. The fencing never blocked protesters from entering or leaving the park.
By PHOEBE MUTHART