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Wednesday, June 13,2012

'Civil obedience'

Is Occupy Lansing losing sight of what it means to protest? “Get a damn office!” the mayor says.

by Sam Inglot

On Saturday, five members of Occupy Lansing attempted to “reoccupy” Reutter Park past what they called the “unconstitutional” 10 p.m. curfew. One person was ticketed for taking down the sole tent in the park too slowly. The group disbanded by 11.

“In my opinion, civil disobedience is civil disobedience, and you’ve gotta prove your point,” Norma Bauer of Occupy Lansing said after the citation was given to fellow occupier Raphael Adley. It was Adley’s second Occupy-related citation in a month for being in the park past curfew. Violating such a city ordinance is a misdemeanor. At the Lansing Police Department’s discretion, they could haul you to jail, rather than issue a ticket. LPD Capt. Mike Yankowski said Adley pleaded not guilty to his May 13 citation and requested a trial by jury. A trial date has not been set.

Bauer said she has to keep a clean record for her job so she can’t risk arrest. She wasn’t alone.

“I can’t afford to get arrested,” added Chris Lamere. “I feel like if we at least make the effort, we’re at least making the effort. No one in Occupy Lansing thinks we shouldn´t be here.”

Last year, Mayor Virg Bernero waived the city’s overnight camping in parks ordinance from October to December before Occupy Lansing went online for the winter due to the cold. He’s not granting such a waiver this year, citing costs to the city. 

But since the winter hiatus from the park, Occupy Lansing has had regular showings of five to eight people at events, meaning its core numbers are dwindling. They are requesting the City Council go to bat for them on the overnight camping, but it’s unclear what will amount from that. Only the mayor can grant an ordinance waiver, said City Clerk Chris Swope. Council has the power to amend the city’s overnight camping ordinance, but the chances of that happening appear slim.

A larger view suggests Occupy Lansing may be losing sight of what it’s protesting. A former occupier and even Bernero, a vocal supporter of the Occupy movement, say the movement is not about staying in parks, which seems to be the group’s focus. It’s led to frustration for the mayor, who now says they should take organizing efforts more seriously if they plan on influencing any change.

 “Get a damn office!” Bernero shouted during a recent phone interview. “It doesn’t make you a corporation to have an office. We’re dealing with big, big issues. Get real. You’re battling huge corporate interests.”

The Occupy movement was supposed to develop locally and tackle issues unique to each community, said Steve Hudson, a retired city worker who was active in the original Occupy Lansing. For instance, Occupy Detroit might have different goals and actions than Occupy Lansing. The early energy of Occupy Lansing revolved around the establishment of the Reutter Park camp where people “basically hung out, slept and talked to people,” he said. That focus continued to dominate the organizing efforts of the group. This frustrated people who wanted to tackle problems facing Lansing via direct action and community organizing, causing many of them to walk away from the group. Lamere accused them of being “co-opted by the Democratic Party.”

The park occupation is necessary to bolster the group’s numbers by engaging the community, organizers say. Over the past two months several members have been given citations for two attempts to reoccupy the park. 

“No one can usurp my constitutional right to assemble,” Occupy Lansing member Linda Zarebski told the City Council recently. She argued that occupying the park is a “nonverbal” form of protest well within their First Amendment rights. 

But City Attorney Brig Smith told MLive.com recently that the park curfew in no way infringes upon anyone’s First Amendment rights. Because the law doesn’t unfairly target one group or activity, it’s not unconstitutional, he said.

Occupiers hold steady to the idea that a constant presence in the park “is not camping, it is an occupation,” Zarebski said. She compared it to other forms of civil disobedience, like hunger strikes and sit-ins.

Hunger strikes have been used by political prisoners to continue protesting while incarcerated. Sit-ins were used to fight for civil rights and fair use of public transportation. Both were forms of what’s called direct action. 

Hudson said that in order to tackle the issues highlighted by the Occupy movement — corporate influence over government, wealth disparity and predatory mortgage and foreclosure practices — it will take more than standing in a park, waving signs and chanting, “We are the 99 percent!”

Hudson believes that there has never been anything civilly disobedient about Occupy Lansing, and the fact that the mayor gave permission to stay in the first place — and that the group is actively requesting waivers from City Council — speaks to that fact.

What Occupy Lansing is involved in is “civil obedience,” Hudson said. “Not civil disobedience.”

The most recent events coordinated by the group include three “picnics” in the park and a protest sing-along session in front of the Capitol. “We’re a lot more involved with the community if we’re there all the time, not just during the day,” Lamere said during the “Laugh Riot” in front of the Capitol, during which eight people sang folk songs modified with protest lyrics.

“The problem with the camp is that it’s stagnant, it’s only in one part of the city,” Hudson said. “People not on that end of town may have never even heard of Occupy Lansing. How would they unless they had a reason to go down there? You need to involve the entire city and make an active effort to go to the people, not make them come to you.” 



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