It looked like — and still may be — a big loss for Occupy Maine.
Late Wednesday evening, after 50-plus people paraded to the podium to plead for their ragtag encampment in Lincoln Park, the Portland City Council voted 8-1 against granting the protesters a permit to stay put for the next six months.
A no-brainer? Perhaps.
The end of this sometimes compelling, sometimes worrisome and occasionally entertaining political drama?
Not even close.
“I am incredibly impressed by this whole process tonight,” said newly inaugurated Mayor Michael Brennan as the clocked ticked toward midnight.
He had good reason.
Undoubtedly, some citizens showed up at (or tuned in to) the council’s long-awaited discussion of Occupy Maine expecting a freak show of rain-soaked, bedraggled squatters with no apparent leaders who signal their approval by wiggling their fingers high above their heads.
The wiggling fingers, to be sure, were everywhere. But so, lo and behold, was a cogent message.
“Our encampment continues to be an essential part of our protest,” said Rachel Lyn Rumson of Portland. “It is a place where Maine people can come together and share our concerns and learn to respect each other through our differences until we come up with a right way forward. This takes time. This takes dedicated public space — and I believe that’s why our Founding Fathers suggested that public space be provided for the airing of grievances.”
Then, at long last, they presented those grievances: transfer all city funds from TD Bank to a locally owned bank or credit union, allow the use of City Hall’s State of Maine Room for a weekly “general assembly” to develop proposals and recommendations for the City Council, provide more help for the homeless (including those who have gravitated to Lincoln Park) and create a 24-hour “free speech and assembly space” in Monument Square for “non-commercial, First Amendment activities.”
Rumson’s remarks were just the beginning. While a handful of speakers decried Occupy Maine as nothing more than blatant lawbreaking, the vast majority spoke clearly and often eloquently about the Great Economic Divide that has spawned similar Occupy protests in hundreds of communities across the United States.
They also praised Portland officials for their tolerance of Occupy Maine thus far — especially in view of the code violations and 20 arrests that marred the protest in recent weeks as it became a magnet for campers whose problems go far beyond the economy.
The protesters’ quotes ranged from John F. Kennedy to Jack Kerouac. Martin Steingesser, Portland’s poet laureate, presented the councilors with a poem he wrote for the occasion, then thanked them and the city’s police for making Portland “one of the models in this whole country” for the Occupy movement.
“If there’s anything wrong with Occupy Maine,” Steingesser said, “it’s that there aren’t enough of all of us imaginatively and energetically involved in this enormous problem that’s being addressed by this group.”
As impressive as the protesters were in respecting the council’s protocol and decorum, so was the council in looking beyond the code violations and law enforcement issues that, if it so chose, could end Occupy Maine overnight.
“We’re the bourgeoisie, we’re the burghers,” Councilor John Anton told the protesters. “To expect us to do anything other than reflect the values of the bourgeoisie is … optimistic.”
The entire audience got a chuckle out of that one. But you could hear a pin drop when Anton, caught between Occupy Maine’s right to free speech and the council’s obligation to uphold local ordinances, told Occupy Maine, “I believe we do our best work as a council when we’re challenged out of our comfort zone. That’s what you’re doing (and) I’m willing to take that challenge.”
Councilor Jill Duson worried not so much about the maximum 50 protesters who would be allowed in Lincoln Park under the proposal put forth by Occupy Maine, but rather the 51st person, who inevitably would be turned away.
“I’ve really put a lot of thought into this — it’s not a conclusion I come to easily,” Duson said. “But I’m stuck on occupant number 51, tent number 51. That’s what troubles me.”
Councilor Cheryl Leeman made no bones about her doubts that “a permanent encampment is required to support the mission of Occupy Maine.”
But that didn’t stop Leeman from praising the movement.
“I truly, and I mean this very sincerely, want to commend the protesters,” Leeman told the overflow audience. “I want to commend you for making your voices heard on what are very, very important issues.”
Then there was Councilor David Marshall, who cast what he conceded was a “protest vote” in favor of a permit for Occupy Maine.
Marshall took issue with those who call the occupation of Lincoln Park “illegal,” noting that it was City Hall that invited protesters to pitch their tents there in the first place. He also noted that the First Amendment, in addition to protecting the right to speak, safeguards the right to freely assemble.
“I respect the opinions of my colleagues in wanting to uphold the ordinances of the city,” Marshall said. “But I’m going to uphold the rights to peacefully assemble.”
And so it went. An overwhelming vote against the permit on the one hand, but on the other an apparently unanimous reluctance to call in the riot squads that have led the national news in places like New York City and Oakland, Calif.
Brennan, whose first meeting as mayor was a trial by fire if ever there was one, perhaps put it best when he said, “The issues here are deep enough … that we should continue to go the extra mile.”
To his credit, Hizzoner spent much of Thursday afternoon doing just that with City Manager Mark Rees, Corporation Counsel Gary Wood and John Branson, Occupy Maine’s attorney.
“We are not interested in being Oakland. We are not interested in being New York,” Brennan said. “We are interested in respecting the citizens in this city who are trying to articulate legitimate concerns about our economic situation.”
Spoken like a true mayor.
Columnist Bill Nemitz can be contacted at 791-6323 or at: