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Public safety committee denies Occupy Raleigh request to camp near City Hall

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The Raleigh City Council's Law and Public Safety Committee voted 3-0 Tuesday morning against allowing Occupy Raleigh to camp at any part of the City Hall/ police department block. Mary-Ann Baldwin, Eugene Weeks and John Odom were the three votes. The issue now goes back to the full Council, which meets next Tuesday.

In its permit request, Occupy Raleigh had suggested two sites:

  • A small, grassy plaza behind City Hall at the corner of Morgan and Dawson streets, two blocks from the Capitol along the Morgan Street sidewalk.

  • A paved plaza located below street level at Hargett and McDowell streets. It's at the entrance to the basement of the old police department building, which is now empty, right next to City Hall.

Joe Huberman of Occupy Raleigh said he was disappointed in the committee's vote, but not surprised. He expressed some optimism, however, at the news he heard Tuesday morning that Mayor-elect Nancy McFarlane—who didn't attend the meeting—is actively looking for private property close to the Capitol where (with the owner's consent) the Occupy group could encamp. Huberman said he's heard talk about the triangle of private land where Edenton Street meets Hillsborough Street.

Occupy Raleigh's permit request had been sent to the Law and Public Safety Committee after City Attorney Tom McCormick raised legal concerns at last week's City Council session about overnight encampment at City Hall.

"There is essentially a $700 million corporation at this building," McCormick said at Tuesday's meeting. "It needs to be treated as a business location."

Assistant City Manager Dan Howe echoed McCormick's concerns about protecting assets at the municipal building, citing the presence of private offices and equipment. "The municipal complex is public, but there is no such thing as unlimited access."

Howe went on to express concerns about the liability and costs to the city of housing protesters on public property. So far, Raleigh has spent about $61,000 on round-the-clock security during the 25-day protest, and it would have spent approximately $400–$800 each additional day if the permit had been granted.

Citizens also expressed safety concerns at the committee meeting. One woman said she was eating at a restaurant in Washington, D.C., when protesters beat on the windows. "I'm sure they also started out saying they were going to be peaceful," the woman told the committee.

She said she is worried that protesters would block the city's Christmas Parade "if they wanted to."

"My greatest disappointment of the day is that there are people in the city who are afraid of us," Huberman told the committee. "We've been here 25 days and shown no tendencies of violence or destruction." Members of Occupy Raleigh vowed to the committee that they would work with the city to maintain peace and order.

Still, the committee ultimately was afraid of setting a precedent. Raleigh policies already prohibit overnight stays on public property. "We have plenty of other opportunities for people to exercise their First Amendment rights," Howe said. They can picket on sidewalks, he suggested, or start a parade if they want to.

But committee chair Mary-Ann Baldwin touched upon a larger and thornier issue: If the Occupy Raleigh group had been granted permission to indefinitely camp out downtown on City Hall property, then other groups—possibly more controversial—would have the same rights in the future. An example? "Neo-Nazis," she offered. "This precedent could be damaging."

If private property is offered, Huberman said, Occupy Raleigh would consider it at a General Assembly session. To this point, Huberman said, the General Assembly meetings have focused on occupying public spaces, not private property, since people want to make the point "that government is not functioning properly—and maybe you (the government) should do something about it."

A version of this story was originally published on Bob Geary's Citizen blog.

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