City juggles free speech, law in handling 'Occupy Raleigh' protest
Posted November 1, 2011 6:20 p.m. EDT
Updated November 8, 2011 3:41 p.m. EST
Raleigh, N.C. — Raleigh's police chief said Tuesday that anti-Wall Street protests in the Capital City are going well, despite arrests in recent weeks, and protesters are asking City Council for a permanent place to gather.
Since the demonstrators began their occupation outside the State Capitol about three weeks ago, 28 people have been arrested, Raleigh Police Chief Harry Dolan said. Still, he added, the protest has caused "very few problems" on the whole.
"The protesters have been very cooperative," Dolan said. "We're all working diligently to protect everyone's rights, but at the same time, it's about everyone's rights and everyone's access to the public property."
Dolan's comments came after a meeting with Mayor Charles Meeker, City Manager Russell Allen and other city leaders on the mayor's concerns about the police department's role in arrests last Thursday on the sidewalk next to the Capitol.
The Raleigh Police Department has spent more than $50,000 assisting Capitol Police with the protests.
"I just want to know what the scope of our obligations is," Meeker said. "Apparently, we’re supposed to respond all the time. I want to be sure it’s understood exactly what the rules are so the City Council knows and so our public knows."
Allen and the city attorney told Meeker that the police department has a mutual aid agreement with the Capitol Police.
Capitol Police Chief Scott Hunter said his officers handled large groups of demonstrators without assistance in the past, but state budget cuts that took effect in July sliced the force nearly in half. They went from 89 to 49 personnel and eliminated their entire vehicle patrol, Hunter said.
Now they need Raleigh's help.
Joseph Huberman, who's organized the Occupy Raleigh demonstration, about 200 other protesters attended the City Council meeting Tuesday evening to ask permission to set up a base for the demonstration behind City Hall.
"Raleigh is a great city, and we need to show the world that free expression, even free expression that causes some disruption, is a welcome part of our American city," Huberman said.
He said the group needs a "main base of operation," where demonstrators can set up shelter and food without being in danger of blocking the sidewalks.
They are looking at a park on the corner of Morgan and Dawson streets.
"It’s only two blocks from the Capitol, so we can maintain a contingent that would be just walking with signs in front of the Capitol," Huberman said.
Council members said they want to protect the group's First Amendment rights, but are worried that if they bend the rules for one group, they must bend them for all. They referred Occupy Raleigh's request to set up a base to the council's law and public safety committee, which meets next Tuesday.
Protesters said they hope the City Council and police will continue to work with the movement so that they can continue to voice their opinions freely and peacefully.
Kurt Zehnder said the protesters are trying to obey local ordinances, but there's been some confusion about the rules.
"People have acted professionally, but, at the same time, there's been a constant disconnect and miscommunication between different law enforcement agencies and our group as to what we are allowed to do and what we are not allowed to do," he said.