PORTLAND — Supporters of the Occupy Maine movement hammered home their message to the city of Portland’s elected officials tonight – let the protesters who have been living at Lincoln Park remain and continue their free speech debate about corporate greed and wage inequality in America.
Portland city councilors listened to nearly three hours of public testimony from Occupy Maine supporters.
Councilors were expected at some point tonight to make a decision about whether they should approve a permit that would allow Occupy Maine to remain at Lincoln Park through the winter months.
Supporters urged the council to work with the group and not use force to evict the protesters.
A few protesters said if the city resorted to force to move them out of the park, they would simply return to the park or some other location.
“This is history. This is a movement that has taken the country by storm in some ways,” said Steve Demetriou. “We are not going away.”
Several key public safety officials, including the fire and police chiefs, expressed concerns.
Police Chief Mike Sauschuck told the council that calls for service at Lincoln Park had nearly doubled in the short time the encampment has been in the park.
Sauschuck said police officers responded to 140 calls at the park between Oct. 1 and Dec. 5. That number compares to 70 calls for service at Lincoln Park for all of 2010. Arrests have also gone up from 20 arrests in the park this fall from five for all of 2010.
But Portland resident Seth Berner criticized those figures, noting it was like saying more people were in a football stadium on Sunday than say on a Wednesday. He said prior to the Occupy movement, the park was known more for being unwelcoming to the public.
“I’m proud when I walk by the camp,” said Randee Bucknell of Portland. “I feel safe when I walk through Lincoln Park at night, and I’ve never used to walk through that park at night.”
Jonah Fertig of Portland also chided the police department statistics. He said the department and city should be looking more closely at white collar crimes than focusing on the park’s campers.
“I’d rather hear the City Council talk about the bankers, who are committing crimes on a daily basis … let’s start prosecuting them,” Fertig said.
Michael Shaughnessy of Portland said the encampment and its residents should be allowed to exercise their right to free speech.
“Democracy is never a neat and tidy thing,” he said. “What we have here is one of the proudest moments of exercising Democracy that I have ever seen.”
The Maine chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union also came out in support of the encampment. Its legal director, Zachary Heiden, noted that the camp has been called an eyesore by some.
“If Occupy Maine had a pleasant appearance, that would not be a particularly effective way of communicating its message. The Occupy Maine group, as we understand it, wants to make the people of Portland confront the growing gap between rich and poor in our society and the comparative political powerlessness of individuals as compared with with corporations. Those are truths that should make people uncomfortable,” Heiden wrote in a letter to the Mayor Michael Brennan and the council.