Postscript to ‘LGBTs Occupying Occupy’Feature Story Thursday, December 8th, 2011
In follow-up reporting to our coverage of Occupy San Diego, San Diego LGBT Weekly’s Rick Braatz asked Lieutenant Andra Brown, media spokesperson for the San Diego Police Department, to respond to some of the accusations made in the story, “LGBTs Occupying Occupy.” After talking with Brown, Braatz then contacted Michelle “Jersey” Deutsch, one of the activists quoted in the story.
Both Deutsch and Canvas for a Cause (CFAC) volunteer attorney Rachel Scoma, also quoted in the story, responded (Deutsch also works for CFAC).
In the story, Scoma said – as have occupiers – police are denying occupiers their right to protest. Brown disagrees.
“The protestors main complaint seems to be that we won’t let them protest. We do. They’re protected by the First Amendment. We understand that. But part of peaceably protesting is following the law. And there’s a difference between camping out and breaking the law and a peaceful demonstration,” Brown said.
For Scoma, occupying public space as a form of protest, although illegal, is at the heart of what Occupy is about.
“The message of Occupy Wall Street would not be what it is without tents, without occupying public space, without pushing the limits of municipal codes in order to exercise free speech,” Scoma said. “We break the law of encampment to uphold a greater truth: the right to express political dissent in a free society.”
Police allowed tents during the first week of the occupation. Oct. 13, police mandated they (except one) be removed the following day. Brown says the tents were never legal but police allowed them while the occupation had a mediator.
“Its never been legal for them to camp out there, but we understand: They’re making a political statement, and its an international, world wide movement—we understand that,” Brown said.
“During the first week of the occupation, there was [a mediator] that met regularly with the police department. [But after the first week] when there was no longer a designated spokesperson that could speak on behalf of the group, we then had to take action,” Brown said. “We’re not going to go out and negotiate individually with every single person.”
In response, Scoma asked, “why couldn’t they find another mediator?”
“As someone who occupied every day at the Civic Center, this is the first time I’ve heard about this,” Scoma said.
Brown said the tents also had to be taken down because of an event scheduled in the square (Civic Center).
“I think it was the World of Dance or something. And it was a preplanned event. A group had already pulled a permit from the city to use the Civic Center Plaza. So it was no longer the city’s to say, ‘Sure, go ahead, have your demonstration, we’re willing to negotiate with you.’ It wasn’t ours at that time. It belonged to the people that preplanned this event with over 2,000 people coming in. They were putting up a stage. So they had to get the people out of there. So that those who had the permitted right to be there [could be]. And the protestors were preventing them from doing that,” Brown said.
Deutsch said the event took up a very small section of the square, and occupiers, then without tents, were welcoming.
“One occupier got on a bull horn and said, ‘We welcome the beautiful dancers!’ And we did. Many of the dancers came and said, ‘hi’ to us,” Deutsch said.
Brown said when occupiers had tents, they brought sanitation problems.
“It was filth and squalor. There were human and animal feces, trash, illegal lodging and encroachment. Then we had to come in and power wash it at the expense of the city. Plus County Health inspectors went in and found a vermin infestation and ordered the city to eradicate that. So we had to have vector control come in and refill the rat traps. You know the protestors were leaving food around,” Brown said.
Deutsch disagrees with that characterization.
“We literally had a sanitation team taking out the trash over seven times a day. Plus, there is a 24-hour bathroom at Freedom Square, which is open to occupiers, one of the many reasons we decided that the square is a perfect place to occupy,” Deutsch said.
Setting stuff down
Occupiers have said that police are preventing them from temporarily placing their belongings on the ground. Brown says those claims are false.
“People can set things down. If you go down there right now, there is plenty of stuff sitting around on the ground. They’re manned. There’s someone there with them, someone that’s claiming them. And we understand that if you got your hands full of something, and you [can] set it down so you can answer the phone or look at your watch, eat your food or whatever,” Brown said. “People have been told, once they set their stuff down, warnings, along the line of, ‘You can’t leave that there or you’ll be subject to arrest.’”
Scoma said witnesses say the contrary.
“The declarations for witnesses say that placing anything on the ground would subject that person to arrest, not abandoning the property,” Scoma said.
“I was threatened to be arrested for putting a heavy crate full of voter registration forms on the ground. I had to hold the crate in my arms to avoid arrest,” Deutsch said.
Another example is the arrest of congressional candidate and local occupier Ray Lutz. Lutz was arrested at the square on Nov. 29 after trying to set up a voter registration booth at the square. Deutsch said Lutz was setting up his booth at the same location where local political organizations monthly register voters.
Use of force
Brown said occupiers are trying to arouse public reactions against the police by exaggerating their use of force.
“You see the stuff they post on YouTube. You hear someone yelling in the background, ‘Stop beating us. Stop hitting us.’ Its like all your hearing is some anonymous voice in the background talking about beating where there is none,” Brown said. “You know they’re trying to sensationalize.”
That statement “offensive,” Deutsch said.
“We are unarmed and the camera is our defense to the public, the media and our trials to show the truth,” Scoma said. “It’s tricky to see what the police do under the media cameras, below the waste—they twist your arms until you burn and hit you with batons.”
Brown says most of the arrests have been for obstructing officers.
“You know, a tent is set up and an officer goes over and says, ‘You can’t have this tent here.’ They say, ‘its not my tent’ and so the officers ask, ‘Who does this tent belong to?’ Of course, no body wants to take credit for it. So then the officers go to remove this abandoned property. Well then there’s a pushing and a shoving match,” Brown said.
Police have the most discretion to make an arrest when they label it as an obstruction, Deutsch said.
“It could be for something as simple as refusing to move or for pulling your arm away if a cop is trying to arrest you,” Deutsch said.
Scoma took issue with Brown’s suggestion that protestors have pushed and shoved police.
“I’ve never seen any protester ‘push or shove’ an officer. I’ve seen protesters sit, link arms, stand, all of which have been disarmed and have never put their hands on an officer,” Scoma said.
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