Occupy Boston protesters were allowed by a state court judge to remain in the city’s Dewey Square while she considers whether to lift an order that bars their eviction.
Suffolk Superior Court Judge Frances McIntyre in Boston yesterday said the order will remain in place until she issues her decision on or before Dec. 15. The judge heard testimony from the city’s fire marshal warning that the square is a firetrap plagued by cigarette smoking, close quarters and flammable materials.
“People need to be removed from that site immediately if the court allows,” Boston Fire Marshal Bart Shea testified. “Every day that place is occupied, I fear for the life and safety of everyone on that property.”
The Occupy Wall Street movement began in New York as a protest against income inequality and has spread to cities around the world. Police in New York drove the demonstrators from their encampment in a Lower Manhattan park last month.
In San Francisco, protesters said they expected to be evicted from Justin Herman Plaza after they refused to move to a new location selected by the city.
About 200 people in 100 tents and tarps are camped in the plaza between the waterfront and the financial district. Mohammed Nuru, the interim director of the San Francisco Department of Public Works, visited the site on Nov. 30 and, according to the San Francisco Examiner, told protesters the city wanted them to leave by noon yesterday.
Derek Whaler, a protester at the camp’s information desk, said that when Nuru visited, he didn’t give a deadline for leaving.
“The vast majority of the Occupy San Francisco members believe there will be a raid,” Whaler said.
A San Francisco police spokesman said yesterday there wasn’t police deadline to evict the protesters.
“To my knowledge, we didn’t establish a deadline,” Gloria Chan, a spokeswoman for the public works department, said in a phone interview.
“Right now we are waiting for Occupy SF to come up with a unified message and tell us what they want to do,” Chan said.
Los Angeles prosecutors charged 19 people who were arrested Nov. 30 when police cleared the Occupy LA camp on the city hall lawn. Eighteen protesters were charged with failing to disperse, according to a statement by City Attorney Carmen Trutanich. One man was charged with resisting arrest, battery and assault on a peace officer.
A total of 291 people were arrested during the nighttime operation in downtown Los Angeles, mostly for failing to disperse. So far, the Los Angeles Police Department has submitted 150 arrest reports for review by the city attorney. The remaining reports are expected to be filed today, according to the statement.
Shea, the fire marshal, said he visited the Boston camp several times and saw cigarette butts littering the ground and flammable tarps he compared to “napalm.” He predicted people would be trampled and burned in the tight camp if they tried to evacuate.
Shea described confronting a man at the camp who was lighting sage on fire.
“When I tried to stop him, he got argumentative with me. He continued to walk about the property, anointing it with his sage and dropping his embers,” Shea testified.
The fire department has never officially notified their clients of any fire-safety concerns, lawyers for Occupy Boston said. The camp is home to 100 to 150 people.
The fire marshal said his department mailed two orders seeking abatement of fire hazards to Occupy Boston at their Dewey Square camp. Under cross-examination, he said the orders weren’t sent by certified mail. He said he has no official address for the group.
Howard Cooper, an Occupy Boston attorney, said First Amendment rights should outweigh concerns about potential fire hazards. The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right to free speech and peaceful assembly. He said members are willing to work with the fire department to make the camp safer.
He said the fire marshal has refused to work with Occupy Boston because of its structure as a “horizontal democracy” governed by consensus through a General Assembly. It has no named leader.
“The primary value to be balanced here is free speech,” Cooper told the judge. “The question is whether you just take the First Amendment considerations that are unique response to a unique set of issues we all face yesterday and throw it out without letting them address any of these issues.”
Michael Riciutti, a lawyer for the city, said Occupy Boston has gone from being a political protest to an unsafe housing development.
“The plaintiffs do not have the right to take a piece of public property in perpetuity and establish their own society,” he told the judge. “They cannot choose to use a limited portion of basically public park space forever.”
Occupy Boston won a temporary restraining order on Nov. 16 blocking the city from kicking out the protesters and wants a permanent injunction. The city, while saying it has no plans to remove protesters, said it must retain the power to evict them at will.
Lawyers for the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy, which oversees the park, also asked the judge not to approve an injunction.
Boston police have spent $750,000 in overtime policing the camp and responding 87 times various matters, according to an affidavit.
Occupy Boston member Kristopher Martin, 25, testified that the camp needs to remain in Dewey Square between the city’s financial district and the Federal Bank of Reserve because the location helps Occupy highlight economic and political inequality.
“We are living in an egalitarian society where everyone is equal,” he said. “We wish our country operated more like that and we want to continue spreading that message.”
The case is Occupy Boston v. City of Boston, 2011-11-4152, Suffolk Superior Court (Boston).
To contact the reporters on this story: Janelle Lawrence in Boston at firstname.lastname@example.org; Karen Gullo in San Francisco at email@example.com
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