PORTLAND — Members of Occupy Maine appear likely to seek a permit for their encampment at Lincoln Park after meeting with city officials Monday to discuss violence and other illegal activity at the park.

The permit, which would be subject to council approval, would specify the number of tents, their location and the number of people that could be part of the encampment.

Deese Hamilton, a protester who participated in the meeting, said a permit would allow the group to have a structure that could limit some of the disruptions that have taken away from the group’s message.

“It’s a good thing. I think it’s very positive,” he said after the meeting with the city manager, city attorney and the acting police chief.

The permit would ensure that the people at the encampment are there to advance the protest’s goals, which include reducing the power of corporations in the political process, according to John Branson, a lawyer who accompanied about a half-dozen Occupy Maine members to Monday’s meeting,

The issue was to be voted on at the group’s general assembly Monday night. By 9 p.m., there was no word on whether the group had decided to go along with the permit process.

Reports of violence and drug abuse at other Occupy encampments have led local officials to crack down and, in some cases, forcibly remove structures and protesters.

City Manager Mark Rees said he will work with Mayor-elect Michael Brennan, who takes office early next month, to get the issue on the council agenda in the next two to three weeks.

“The city has been very concerned about violence and other illegal activities that have been happening in Lincoln Park,” Rees said after the meeting. “Most of these activities are the result of people not directly involved with Occupy Maine.”

On Friday, a camper hit an Occupy Maine protester on the head with the blunt end of a hatchet because the person was banging a drum to wake up the camp. That camper, Christopher Schisler, had an initial court appearance Monday on charges of aggravated assault and is being held on $5,000 bail.

On Saturday night, police responded to the park to deal with reports of confrontations between Occupy Maine people and a group of people who had entered the park and started smoking marijuana, a violation of the group’s rules. Police returned two hours later for another confrontation between the same groups.

It’s uncertain what reception the protesters will receive at the council.

District 5 Councilor John Coyne said he has received calls from constituents complaining about the protesters and the city’s willingness to let them stay in the park.

“I think we’ve got to do something,” Coyne said. “The events we have going on right now need to be addressed.”

If the permitting process doesn’t give the city more control over the situation, “it might be time for (the protesters) to go,” he said.

District 4 Councilor Cheryl Leeman sent an email to fellow councilors and Acting Police Chief Michael Sauschuck that states that she wants the demonstrators to leave.

“For me, that’s it!! Time to formulate a plan for transitioning folks out of the park with a specific deadline,” she said. “This has gone way beyond ‘free speech,’ it has become an unauthorized tent city … “

Leeman was responding to an update by Sauschuck on the discovery of two teenage runaways from Buxton who were found over the weekend. The 14-year-old girls were found on the Eastern Promenade, where they had been staying in a sewer pipe for two nights.

Police determined that the girls had spent the first two nights in Lincoln Park, but with police and their parents looking for them there regularly, they moved to the Eastern Prom.

The summary says the girls were “cold, tired and hungry,” but unhurt and were reunited with their families. Sauschuck said the case is still under investigation.

Branson said Leeman may have misunderstood Saus-chuck’s summary, since it clearly said the teenagers were not found at Occupy Maine and that the group tried to help find them. Branson said he was upset that news reports suggested that the girls were found in Lincoln Park.

“These girls found out those at Occupy Maine were leading the effort to find these girls,” he said. “It was an Occupy Maine person who first alerted the police these girls were hanging around camp. They left when they knew we would contact police.”

The incidents illustrate the limitations on Occupy Maine, which seeks to allow anyone to join them while trying to reduce friction with city officials.

“We are on city property. We don’t have the right on our own to tell people they must leave,” Branson said.

Rees said police enforcement would be easier with a permit in place.

Branson said that he agreed, “not necessarily because my clients feel they need permission, but more to create a legal environment to preserve public safety and peace.”

Sauschuck, when asked why the city didn’t just order the protesters to leave, noted that such demands have met with extreme conflict and violence in other cities, something the city wants to avoid. He said the city would need to reassess the situation if there is another serious incident at the camp.

City officials have said they are trying to accommodate the group’s First Amendment rights to assemble and protest.

Protester Heather Curtis said the group has a strict code against violence, drinking and drug use and does not want to serve as a haven for people who are not part of the protest.

“Anyone who wants to hide from the light of day is not in line with the principles of Occupy Maine,” she said.

In upcoming days, Occupy Maine representatives and city code enforcement staff will meet to address lingering fire safety and building code issues, such as the presence of gas-fired heaters and “tents” that are approaching the definition of semi-permanent structures.

 

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at: [email protected]