PORTLAND – Deciding they had no other choice left, members of the Occupy Maine movement in Portland on Sunday authorized their attorney to sue the city of Portland, claiming it violated their constitutional right to free speech.

The group also directed John Branson, who is working for Occupy Maine on a pro bono basis, to seek a temporary court injunction that would block the city from evicting the protesters from Lincoln Park. Branson said the suit would be filed in federal or county courts, most likely by the end of this week.

Sunday night’s decision by the encampment’s general assembly — a mix of hard-core campers and others who support the movement but don’t sleep there — came after a bitterly cold meeting that dragged on for nearly three hours on the plaza near the fountain in Lincoln Park.

In addition to authorizing legal action against the city, several protesters for the first time openly broached the subject of civil disobedience. A working group or subcommittee of the encampment will meet today to discuss what kinds of actions they could take if city police try to evict them.

City Manager Mark Rees has agreed to give Occupy Maine until 12:30 p.m. Thursday to respond to the City Council’s denial of a permit to allow the protesters the right to continue camping out in the park. Rees also told Branson the city would give the group a 48-hour written notice of any order to remove their tents and other structures.

Last week’s 8-1 vote by the City Council to deny Occupy Maine’s permit means overnight camping in the park will no longer be permitted.

“I say we sue them to protect our rights, and if that doesn’t work — civil disobedience,” said John Schreiber, a protester who works as a baker when he is not at the encampment.

Schreiber said he and others should expect to go to jail once they have been evicted by police.

“Eviction could be the greatest thing to happen for our movement,” added Branson, referring to the media attention that a mass arrest of protesters would bring to the movement’s message.

Most protesters said any civil disobedience should be handled in a nonviolent way, though one protester suggested it be done with some degree of dramatic flair, with protesters possibly sitting in the middle of the encampment with their arms locked together.

Protesters agreed that once they’ve been bailed out of jail, they should gather for another demonstration in Monument Square.

Sunday’s general assembly got under way at 3 p.m., but the sun had set and temperatures had started to plummet by the time protesters got around to voting on pursuing legal action.

The group took up a number of issues unrelated to the lawsuit, including holding general assembly meetings three times a week rather than on a daily basis, hanging Christmas lights in the park to make the environment more festive and welcoming, and serving as volunteers at the Preble Street Resource Center’s soup kitchen.

One of the group’s grievances, which were submitted to the city last week, asks that Portland increase its support for homeless people, including those who are currently living at Lincoln Park. The city recently formed a task force to study ways to reduce homelessness.

Sunday’s assembly was conducted in typical Occupier fashion with terms like “on stack” (being on deck to speak) and “temperature check” being used throughout. During a temperature check and whenever participants want to show support for a speaker’s idea, they hold up their hands and wiggle their fingers.

It was nearly pitch dark by the time the meeting’s facilitator, Jonah Fertig, called for a vote. When Fertig commented that it was becoming difficult to see everyone’s hands, protester Alan Porter said, “You don’t have to see very well. Everyone’s hands are up.”

Branson said the lawsuit has two objectives. It would first seek approval from a judge to prevent the city from evicting the protesters through a temporary restraining order.

Branson said a judge’s decision on a restraining order could be made fairly quickly after it has been filed.

The lawsuit, which could take longer to resolve, would also seek to establish that the city violated the protesters’ civil rights when the council voted 8-1 last week to deny the group’s request for a permit to stay in the park and to designate Lincoln Park as a 24-hour free speech zone.

Early Saturday, Boston police swept through Dewey Square, tearing down tents at Occupy Boston’s encampment and arresting dozens of protesters. As police moved in around 5 a.m., two dozen demonstrators linked arms and sat down in a nonviolent protest.

The police action brought an end to what had turned out to be a 10-week demonstration.

In Rees’ letter to Occupy Maine, dated Dec. 9, he reiterates that city ordinances do not allow camping in any city park. Rees also contends there are a number of “ongoing violations of city codes and ordinances” at the encampment that the City Council has ordered him to enforce.

Occupy Maine demonstrators made it clear Sunday that no matter what happens to their Lincoln Park encampment, their demonstration against corporate greed and the unequal distribution of wealth in America will continue in other venues.

Jim Freeman, who has been an active participant in the Augusta-based Occupy movement, invited Portland to join his group Jan. 4 — the opening day of the legislative session.

Freeman said demonstrators plan to stage a protest inside the State House, as well as attend legislative sessions.

“If I am evicted, I am putting my tent up somewhere else,” vowed Harry Brown, who has been sleeping at the Lincoln Park encampment.

Branson was especially critical of the majority of the City Council — David Marshall was the only councilor who voted against denying the permit — who he claims felt that enforcement of the 10 p.m. park curfew was more important than supporting the Occupy movement.

“That, to them, was pursuing the higher good,” Branson said of the vote. “The Chamber of Commerce doesn’t have to pitch their tents in Lincoln Park to have their voice heard.”

Staff Writer Dennis Hoey can be contacted at 791-6365 or at:

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