RALEIGH — The Occupy Raleigh protesters are petitioning the city this evening for a permanent space to occupy downtown.
Joseph Huberman, a spokesman for Occupy Raleigh, said the petition will be presented tonight to City Council members during their regularly scheduled meeting.
Demonstrators in sympathy with Occupy Wall Street in New York have maintained a presence on a public sidewalk outside the State Capitol since Oct. 15.
Twenty people were arrested on Oct. 15, most charged with second-degree trespassing after they refused to leave the State Capitol grounds after the demonstration permit had expired. Another eight people were arrested last week after state officials issued another order asking the protesters remove all chairs, tables, blankets, coolers and other supplies from sidewalk in front of the Capitol.
Now, demonstrators say a permanent base of operations where they are allowed to have their supplies is essential if the protests are to continue.
Huberman, who has lived in Raleigh for 35 years, said Occupy Raleigh wants to relocate to the Avery Upchurch Park at Dawson and Morgan streets, beside the city parking deck.
"There we can have shelter, food and our support teams," Huberman said. "It's two blocks from the Capitol, so it will allow us to maintain a presence at the Capitol with people carrying signs."
Huberman spoke this afternoon shortly after Mayor Charles Meeker expressed concerns during a City Council meeting about whether the city police acted appropriately when the eight demonstrators were arrested last week. Meeker was particularly concerned about the arrest of 57-year-old Margaret Schucker, a disabled woman who told police she needed a chair to remain on the sidewalk because of chronic back pain.
State Capitol police told Schucker she could remain at the site, but only if she relinquished her chair and moved to a bench on the Capitol grounds. Shucker refused and was arrested.
City manager Russell Allen explained to Meeker that state officials ordered that all chairs be removed from the sidewalk, including the one Schucker was sitting in.
"The department of administration did believe that the accumulation of gear, tables and chairs posed a pedestrian hazard," Allen said.
Meeker also quizzed Allen about the costs associated with maintaining an around-the-clock police presence at the demonstration site.
Allen did not provide actual numbers for the financial cost of maintaining a police presence at the site, but Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue said that on the first weekend of the protests, the city spent $26,300. Since then, the city has spent about $1,500 a day in overtime to officers in the downtown district to keep up a continual presence at the protest site.
Meanwhile, in Chapel Hill, Occupy Chapel Hill demonstrators returned to their post Tuesday after voluntarily taking down their tents for Halloween.
Sughrue, the Raleigh police spokesman, said the police department is responsible for the decision to maintain a presence at Raleigh protest site. That presence typically consists of two to three officers and at least two vehicles parked across the street from the protesters.
"That presence is to ensure the safety of all involved," Sughrue said. "And those who are protesters, first and foremost."
Huberman said he welcomed the police presence, no matter the costs.
"If they hadn't had to fire people because of the budget cuts they wouldn't have to pay overtime," he said. "If what they are doing is in support of free speech and the right to assemble, then it's certainly worth spending money on. In comparison to the economic disparities in this country, what they are spending is very little."
Four members of the Triangle group, Standing Up For Principles, held a silent protest in front of city hall before today's City Council meeting. The members held signs that expressed their support for Occupy Raleigh's request for a permanent public square.
Other members are noting the dwindling presence and are trying other means to rally support.
An email sent out this morning to members of Occupy Raleigh decried that only one "occupier" was on the sidewalk in front of the Capitol grounds this morning.
"Can you make a promise to get down to the Occupation at least a few times a week for a couple of hours? We need your participation to remain a presence in downtown," the email stated.