CAP TIMES: Occupy Madison works to overcome legal and weather related obstacles

December 6, 2011
Pat Schneider

With the mother of all Occupy protest sites being swept clean by police in New York, camps being dismantled in several other cities, and the shocking pepper-spraying of protesters at the University of California-Davis, I got to wondering what was up with Occupy Madison.

I found protesters at the encampment on East Washington Avenue hard at work upgrading their tents for the coming cold weather Wednesday, as officials hand delivered a letter warning they may be cited — or evicted — if they persist in refusing to apply for a permit.

It doesn't sound like push is going to come to an ugly shove in Madison any time soon, but the letter serves as a second notice to protesters that they need to apply for what's called a "special event campground permit" under state law.

"Failure to obtain the required permit may result in citations and/or fines. Failure to obtain the required permit may also lead to eviction from the site," reads the letter signed by Doug Voegeli, director of environmental health for Public Health Madison and Dane County. Eviction from the former auto dealership parking lot in the 700 block of East Washington that the city purchased last summer for redevelopment "would be a consideration long-term if we can't get a permit application," Voegeli told me in a phone interview.

The letter asks that the group apply by Tuesday, Nov. 29.

The Occupy Madison movement has had difficulty attracting large numbers of participants in a state where many prospective activist critics of the political status quo are wrapped up in a campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker. Protesters report that a dozen or more are living at the Occupy Madison site, with many more supporters visiting during the day and up to 50 participating in the nightly General Assemblies, where they try to reach consensus on group actions.

The protesters hadn't had a chance to discuss the second warning about a permit application when I spoke with them Wednesday, but at a General Assembly on Nov. 1 when they were first told they needed a permit, they voted unanimously not to apply for it. Many asserted that their constitutional right to free speech meant they didn't need to apply for a permit. Their tents, as part of the Occupy movement, are a form of speech, they argued.

"It's written in the Constitution that we can peacefully assemble and voice our grievances," Michael from New Glarus (who would not reveal his last name) tells me Wednesday at the Occupy Madison encampment. He and a few other men were building a new "mess hall," from plastic tarps and metal framing on a low wooden platform to provide a warmer group meeting place than the tent they are using now.

When I called to ask about Occupy Madison's right to camp out in protest, Assistant City Attorney Lara Mainella demurred from commenting on tents as an expression of free speech. She does say, though, that governments can put reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on speech.

"Generally speaking, the constitutions of the United States and the state of Wisconsin do not provide a person with the absolute right to express speech at any place and time of their choosing," Mainella says. "We feel the city and the health department would be remiss if they didn't keep tabs on health and safety issues that might be present in that location. That is what they are doing."

The public health department has kept on eye on the presence of portable toilets on the site, and the fire department this week ordered protesters to remove combustible waste from an area near the tents, said a spokesperson.

Protesters I talked to this week said they have a good working relationship with Madison police and public officials, although they don't understand the point of some of the regulations.

I've been wondering why protesters feel they need to camp out in a public space, rather than just mount a series of protests and rallies against an economic system that lets the wealthiest 1 percent enrich itself at the expense of the rest of the society, as the Occupy movement frames the issue.

Jen Thompson of Madison says that removing themselves from the culture that buys into that economic system — literally by living in tents, or symbolically by supporting the encampments — lets Occupy protesters experience how pervasive the system that co-opts the citizenry is.

"An 8-to-5 job is kind of a narcotic that keeps us from being engaged in the political system. Big money wants to keep us distracted rather than being engaged citizens," says Thompson, who says she has a job as a graphic designer and comes to the Occupy encampment after work and on weekends.

On Wednesday, she was helping other protesters construct "hoop tents" on low wooden platforms that would be warmer and less prone to collecting moisture than the simple tents protesters have been using. "It's finally getting to the public what this is actually about," she says.

For all the criticism that Occupy activists aren't even sure what they are protesting, Michael from New Glarus argues that it has already accomplished something amazing. "Even if we stopped right now, we've changed the conversation," he says.

That's an opinion now also being expressed on such establishment real estate as the op-ed pages of the New York Times, where columnist Nicholas D. Kristof urged the movement to occupy the political agenda.

As that agenda continues to evolve, Occupy Madison has at least one immediate project it is working on. There are recall petitions and trained circulators on site, says Thompson. And every day 20 or 30 people driving by on busy East Washington Avenue pull in to sign up to remove Walker from office, she says.