PORTLAND — Standing in a chill drizzle, Angelique Banks yelled through the flap of the blue medical tent that another of the Occupy Maine protesters camped out in Lincoln Park needed hand warmers.

A man in charge of medical services rummaged through a case of donated disposable hand warmers and handed out a package, something he said he’s been doing on a case-by-case basis, as needed.

The protesters expect the needs will grow as rain turns to snow, and mud to ice.

“We can see our breath and temperatures are going to drop to freezing,” said Banks, who worries that some in the group may suffer from exposure as conditions worsen in the coming weeks. “I think it’s going to be a hard winter, but I think there’s some determined minds behind Occupy.”

The Occupy Maine protest started about a month ago in Portland and now has protesters camping in Bangor and Augusta. They are spinoffs of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration, protesting a system they say favors the rich and corporations at the expense of everyone else.

On Thursday, the state’s largest nurses union announced its solidarity with the Maine protesters and distributed plastic bags with blankets, long johns, hats and mittens, along with basic first aid advice for dealing with the elements.

Cokie Giles, president of the Maine State Nurses Association, said the union and the protesters advocate for similar goals: livable wages and universal health care and education.

Giles, a nurse at Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, said she worries about how the demonstrators will handle the impending winter.

“It’s very important for these people to stay safe.… We want people to get out of the elements,” Giles said, suggesting that protesters alternate between staying outdoors and getting indoors to get warm and dry.

She urged them to seek immediate medical attention at the first signs of frostbite, which can have lifelong consequences.

Portland officials agreed to let protesters stay overnight in Lincoln Park to avoid any confrontation in Monument Square, which the protesters initially targeted. The level of protests in the busy central square has ebbed and flowed.

No protesters were on hand initially when the nurses held their news conference Thursday in the square, though a “zombie march” planned for tonight may get more participation.

It’s unclear whether the protesters’ arrangement with the city will continue indefinitely.

“We talked about letting them stay in Lincoln Park because we prohibit overnight stays in the city’s open spaces but we respect their desire to exercise their First Amendment rights,” said city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg.

The rapport between the city and the protesters has prevented the kind of confrontations that have occurred in other U.S. cities, including Oakland, Calif., where police in riot gear used tear gas to roust protesters this week.

In Portland, the first weeks of the protest were dogged by rain, but enthusiastic participants stuck it out.
Some observers said cynically that the group would abandon the cause when severe weather hit.

But protesters said Thursday that they are hunkering down and won’t give in, even as the scale of the protest fluctuates. The number of tents in Lincoln Park has grown to more than 30, though only about 10 people were milling about the park in Thursday’s cold rain.

The protesters got a portable toilet delivered this week and have made arrangements to have it emptied twice a week, said John Branson, the group’s lawyer. The need for toilet facilities was acute – some protesters were using City Hall bathrooms when the building was open – and the city worked with protesters to secure a portable toilet from the city’s vendor at the city’s price.

The cold weather brings its own challenges.

“The first night I slept here was 31 degrees,” said Jennifer Rose, who insisted that she was warmer in her tent, cuddling with her dog, than she is at home when she turns down the heat to save money.

Rose said protesters in Augusta have put tents on pallets insulated with bags of hay, and have permission to have bonfires.

Portland doesn’t allow open flames in the park, for safety reasons, Clegg said.

The protesters’ whiteboard, which lists upcoming activities, also lists needed items: socks, gloves, space heaters and coffee.

Ed Needham, who grew up in Maine and is now volunteering as a communications consultant with Occupy Wall Street, said the movement is akin to the civil rights movement. There is no single event that will meet the protesters’ demands, but their presence has triggered conversations, among policy makers and around kitchen tables.

Even if the number of people camping dwindles with cold weather, Needham said, support for the cause is growing, especially as recent economic statistics show a lopsided concentration of wealth among the country’s highest earners.

Needham said the protests will persist, despite Maine’s legendary winters, even if people seek shelter in homes at night and return in the morning.

“We say in Maine there’s no such thing as bad weather,” Needham said, “just poor clothing choices.”

Staff Writer David Hench can be contacted at 791-6327 or at:

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