That’s when a landmark settlement between the protesters and Cincinnati officials fully takes effect. Under the deal reached this week, the city agreed to drop all criminal trespassing charges against Occupy members in return for the withdrawal of a federal lawsuit filed by five protesters.
The lawsuit had alleged city officials and police violated protesters’ First Amendment rights when they were arrested on Oct. 21 and Nov. 15, and when their encampment at the park was demolished during the latter incident.
More importantly, the settlement sets aside about 100 square feet of Piatt Park as a 24-hour public space for one year. The area is located on the park’s far eastern edge, near the statue of President James Garfield.
“This is a victory for our constitutional rights and for the people of Cincinnati,” said Dr. Sherry Baron, a public health physician and the person chosen by Occupy to sign the agreement with the city. “We will be there exercising our rights.”
Protesters won’t be able to erect tents or other structures at the park and they won’t be allowed to use bullhorns, but they will be allowed to protest quietly around-the-clock at the site.
Inspired by the international Occupy protest movement, the local effort began Oct. 8 as a march of roughly 1,000 people from Lytle Park to Fountain Square. After the first night, protesters began using Piatt as their base of operations, with several camping out overnight. Although they were merely cited by police on most nights, protesters were arrested on two occasions for violating park rules that state people must leave by 10 p.m.
Each protester who was arrested faced a $105 fine. In all, 109 protesters were involved in the trespassing cases, some of whom were arrested multiple times, for a total of 313 criminal charges.
That means the protesters, if convicted of all charges, were facing fines totaling $32,865.
Like Occupy protests in Boston, Chicago, Oakland and elsewhere, the local protesters hoped their constant presence would raise awareness about the gross inequities in the U.S.
Unless you’ve been asleep or willfully ignorant, you’ve probably heard about statistics that show how the United States is experiencing its widest income disparity in decades. While the top 1 percent of Americans is enjoying its largest share of income since 1928, incomes for the other 99 percent stagnated or declined during the past 30 years.
With numbers like that, police and government officials should be glad protesters only were camping out. In some less complacent nations, they would be tar and feathering corrupt officials and, quite possibly, breaking windows and burning vehicles.
After the settlement was announced, the group issued a statement: “Occupy Cincinnati is happy that the efforts over the fall and winter have resulted in a public commons — open 24 hours a day — for the purpose of political speech free from prosecution. Our goal, however, has been and will continue to be ending corporate control of our government. We will continue to stand together in order to shift the focus of politics away from profit and towards the well being of people, here and across the globe.”
“Corporate control” is right: The first round of arrests occurred shortly after a small group of people who own buildings along Piatt Park met with city officials. They alleged protesters had urinated and defecated in the park overnight and harassed some passersby — claims sharply denied by Occupy members.
The group included Arn Bortz, an ex-mayor who co-owns Towne Properties and is the uncle of former City Councilman Chris Bortz.
Arn Bortz complained about the settlement to The Enquirer, stating, “The interests of the property owners along the park — who pay for its maintenance — the more than 1,000 folks who live in the neighborhood and several thousand people who work in the neighborhood were ignored by the settlement.”
Let’s be clear, the CityBeat office is one block from Piatt and I walk through there on a daily basis. During the encampment period, neither my co-workers nor I witnessed anything like what Bortz describes. Further, Bortz and his cronies don’t chip in the roughly $40,000 yearly for park maintenance due to any sense of philanthropy or altruism; they do it because it benefits their businesses and bottom lines.
After protesters were ousted from the park, Occupy Cincinnati rented warehouse space at 2023 Dunlap St. in Over-the-Rhine, where it meets and continues to organize.
During their stay at the park, protesters were visited at different times by Cincinnati Mayor Mark Mallory and civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who was in town for a conference.
“They criticized the bus boycott because it created inconvenience, but it was the right thing to do,” Jackson told the protesters Nov. 15, a few hours before they were arrested. “They criticized (Nelson) Mandela who stayed in jail 27 years, but somehow disciplined focused nonviolent acts of courage make all of us better. “
The deal is believed to be the first of its kind involving the numerous Occupy protests across the United States.
Jennifer Kinsley, one of the attorneys representing protesters, said the one-year period for using a section of Piatt Park as a protest space is a trial period. If city officials don’t encounter problems, it likely will be extended indefinitely.
The settlement ultimately will help anyone in Cincinnati who wants to exercise his or her right to demonstrate, she added.
“It’s a great outcome that recognizes and respects the First Amendment rights not just of Occupy but for all citizens. I think it is a reasonable conclusion,” Kinsley said. “It’s been a long path and a hard path. We’ve worked hard for this outcome.”
And protesters in other cities might benefit from Cincinnati’s experience. Kinsley has shared details of the deal and negotiations with a network of attorneys nationwide that are handling Occupy-related cases.
“Hopefully, this will help some other cities that are less free speech-friendly to resolve some of their cases,” she said.
Imagine that: Cincinnati on the leading edge of advocating for free speech rights. Who woulda thunk it?