RALEIGH — Demonstrators from Occupy Raleigh came to City Hall on Tuesday hoping for a more hospitable reception than they're getting from the state.
But granting the protesters' request for a permanent site that will allow them to encamp and demonstrate without fear of arrest could increase the city's financial burden for the protest that began Oct. 15. It could also complicate future requests from other groups.
The Occupy Raleigh group wants a base camp at the Avery Upchurch Park at Dawson and East Morgan streets, beside a city parking deck. Demonstrations would continue at the state Capitol where police have arrested protesters on charges of trespassing and resisting arrests.
So far the city has spent more than $51,000 paying police to monitor the protest around-the-clock.
The Upchurch Park site would be a place to eat, sleep and use a portable toilet, Joseph Huberman, a spokesman for Occupy Raleigh, told City Council members. Demonstrators also would like permission to use an outdoor electrical outlet to charge their laptops and cellphones, he said.
The council referred the request to its law and public safety committee, which meets Tuesday.
Huberman, who was accompanied by about 80 Occupy Raleigh members, said a base camp is essential for the protest to continue. "We allow restaurants to set up tables on the sidewalk," he said. "We block streets for First Friday. Certainly this causes an inconvenience for some people. That is simply the cost of having a vibrant city ... where people are actually doing things."
An around-the-clock encampment would add to police costs, City Manager Russell Allen said. But he did not have an estimate Tuesday.
Another issue: If the city grants permission for an encampment, the same access would have to be extended to any other group in the future, City Attorney Tom McCormick said. .
That's a source of worry for Councilwoman Nancy McFarlane, who will be sworn in as mayor next month.
"I do have some concerns that the attorney addressed about equity with every other group that may not be as pleasant," McFarlane said Tuesday night.
But the request deserves consideration, City Councilman Russ Stephenson said.
"It does appear that other cities have found a way to make this kind of activity work," he said. "It might be worth our time to see what they've done."
As they left City Hall, some disappointed protesters said the city should be willing to grant space even if it sets a precedent.
"That is the point of the public square in my opinion," said Derek Cronmiller, 35. "Absolutely they should be providing those same abilities to other groups. It's the First Amendment."
Protesters shouldn't be upset by the decision to put off a ruling, said demonstrator Michael Davitt, 56.
"They need to take time and think about things so they can make a good decision," he said. "I'm willing to respect the process."
The Raleigh demonstrators are inspired by the Occupy Wall Street protest against economic inequality, but without drawing the large crowds and violence seen in other cities. On Tuesday morning, only one protester remained, prompting organizers to call for reinforcements.
Raleigh police arrested 20 people on Oct. 15 on charges of second-degree trespassing after they refused to leave the Capitol grounds after the group's demonstration permit expired.
State Capitol police arrested another eight protesters last week after the N.C. Department of Administration announced that the sidewalks were the property of the Capitol and ordered the protesters to remove all chairs, tables, blankets, coolers and other supplies from the sidewalk along East Morgan Street.
More than a dozen Raleigh patrol officers from the downtown district were on hand during the arrests, while members of the department's selective enforcement unit took down metal barricades protesters had used to hang their signs. Other Raleigh police officers and vehicles set up a roadblock to prevent traffic from entering the area.
During a City Council meeting Tuesday, Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker asked what prompted Capitol Police to change their policy regarding use of the sidewalk and to intervene in the demonstration last week.
Allen said he understood that state officials had decided that the "accumulation of gear was creating a pedestrian hazard, even though it was only covering half" of the sidewalk. "It exceeded what they thought was reasonable for assembly," Allen said.
McCormick told Meeker that Raleigh police had an obligation to respond last week because the Capitol is within the city's jurisdiction. Allen added that the city officers were on hand "only in a support mode throughout the whole ordeal" and "providing a ring of protection for all."
Disabled woman's chair
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. Schucker refused and was arrested.
Allen explained to Meeker that state officials ordered all chairs removed from the sidewalk, including the one Schucker was sitting in.
Meeker also quizzed Allen about the cost of maintaining an around-the-clock presence at the demonstration site. Allen did not provide numbers, but Raleigh police spokesman Jim Sughrue said the city spent $26,300 on the first weekend of the protests. Since then, the city has spent about $1,500 a day in overtime to officers to keep up a continual presence.
Sughrue said the police department is responsible for the decision to remain at the site. Typically, the department keeps two or 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."
In contrast, Durham police have not assigned any extra officers to monitor the Occupy Durham demonstration at the CCB Plaza downtown, police spokeswoman Kammie Michael said.
Huberman, the Occupy Raleigh spokesman, 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."