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Occupy Charlotte struggles with new camping ban 

Police moved in Monday morning, but details of new city ordinances remain unclear

Protesters reacted calmly when police arrived at the Occupy Charlotte campsite on East Trade Street around 7 a.m. Monday, ordering the group to comply with a new city law banning camping on public property. At press time, no violence had erupted and no arrests were made, although it was possible that might change as police continued monitoring the campers' move out of the area. (Update: An afternoon confrontation with police on Monday after CL's print deadline resulted in seven protester arrests. Police returned to the site early Tuesday. Watch the CLog for updates.)

The occupiers had been camping on the Old City Hall grounds since Oct. 8. Things changed on Jan. 23, when the Charlotte City Council enacted new ordinances regarding public protests. After the vote, demonstrators chanted "shame" at the Council and held a rally in the government center lobby. Police chief Rodney Monroe had promised that his department would meet with the protesters to explain the ordinances and assist those needing shelter. By late Friday afternoon, that conversation still had not happened.

In addition to banning camping, the ordinances enable City Manager Curt Walton to declare an event — such as the Democratic convention, Speed Street, Fourth of July or New Year's Eve festivities — to be "extraordinary." Written by city leaders, the ordinances are modeled on those passed in Denver, Colo., before the 2008 Democratic convention. They expand the city manager's powers to limit protests and decide what citizens can and can't possess at such events. They also expand the police department's power, effectively allowing officers to assume people's intent and to search them without warrants.

In a Jan. 23 open letter to Mayor Anthony Foxx and the City Council, the Charlotte chapter of the National Lawyers Guild wrote, "Even mundane everyday activities such as carrying a backpack, wearing a helmet or walking a dog would be considered unlawful based on a police officer's spur-of-the-moment judgment that the action is being done with certain intent. Such overbroad language will surely lead to innocent bystanders being detained." The Charlotte School of Law's Civil Rights Clinic was more succinct in its open letter of Jan. 20: "What this ordinance would do is allow the police to profile."

While Occupy Charlotte and other protesters are no longer allowed to sleep on public property, they may still legally protest on the Old City Hall grounds 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, as long as they do not violate any restrictions, according to the new ordinances.

That's where things get sticky.

From the moment the city began discussing new ordinances, there has been confusion over the language. Laurel Green, a member of Occupy Charlotte's Internet working group, said she tried repeatedly to meet with police to clarify questions the occupiers had. "I left my number with three different people, but no one called and no one came by," Green said. After several days with no word from police, Occupy Charlotte sent an e-mail to other Occupy encampments asking for support.

"We're not going to go in there with batons blazing," CMPD Capt. Jeff Estes, who commands Charlotte's Uptown precinct, said on Friday. Estes said his department never planned to clear out the campsite at the stroke of midnight. "Voluntary compliance is the goal," he said. When Estes eventually got back to Green later on Friday, he delivered the same terminology. "He used the phrase 'voluntary compliance' with me repeatedly, and I repeated, 'dialogue and clarity would help.'"

Estes and several officers finally showed up at the camp two days later, at around 5 p.m. Sunday, soon after protesters had completed a second round of non-violent direct-action training. The police handed out a flyer that stated, "Any temporary shelter located on city property is deemed to be a public nuisance," which is not consistent with the language in the ordinances, which actually allows for tents, so long as they're used as shelters from the weather and not for sleeping.

After police ended their Sunday meeting with the protesters, city trash collectors dropped off 24 garbage cans, which the occupiers immediately filled. The cans were then emptied and left on the curb, which made demonstrator Eric Dow wonder if he should expect the city to toss his tent. The written notice provided by police also stated, "All non-perishable property removed by the city that appears to have value will temporarily be stored at 601 E. Trade St. for 60 days." That's the police department's main office, located across the street from the Occupy Charlotte camp. The notice continued, "Abandoned items determined to be of no value will be discarded." The question remained: Who would determine what is and isn't valuable? The police further stated that failure to comply could lead to arrest.

While the city, the CMPD and protesters have maintained a generally cordial relationship since October, there have been tense undercurrents. When occupiers have gone to the police with legitimate security concerns — reports of runaways, vandalism, etc. — protesters sometimes were told that the officers assumed Occupy Charlotte was handling its own security.

What's more, in mid-October, soon after Occupy Charlotte began camping, the city denied the group's request to install a porta-john at its own expense, and then police began refusing occupiers access to restrooms at the police department and county jail. By late October, the camp's only power source and Internet portal — at a bus stop across the street — was cut off and curb-side parking near Old City Hall was blocked.

Estes told CL that turning off power and Internet access at bus stops is standard procedure outside of special events, and that earlier access on Trade Street had been an oversight. He cited fire hazard as the reason the power was cut off. Estes also has said — both last fall and again on Friday — that the department's costs associated with Occupy Charlotte are currently being tabulated, but that monitoring of the group was not costing the city any more than what would ordinarily be budgeted. (CL has requested a copy of the department's spreadsheet three times but had not received it as of Monday.) Estes said his department has not paid officers overtime for Occupy-campsite watching, even though a squad car has been present on the corner of South Davidson and East Trade streets around the clock.

Historically, Charlotte has not been heavy-handed with protesters, said Tom Hanchett of the Levine Museum of the New South. "Charlotte is a city that's always prided itself on politeness," Hanchett said. "The best-known protests in Charlotte are probably the sit-ins during the Civil Rights movement." During those demonstrations, he said, "Young people sat in at some [lunch] counters for six months in some places and were not met with violence, and they weren't rounded up and arrested, either. Ultimately their message was heard."

Only time will tell if that legacy will continue with Occupy Charlotte and the protesters expected to descend upon the city during the Democratic National Convention in September.

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