Occupy Winston-Salem rejects open-air public meetings proposal

by Keith Barber

Winston-Salem City Councilman Dan Besse met with about 40 members of Occupy Winston- Salem on the front steps of City Hall on Monday afternoon to discuss his proposed amendments to city ordinances dealing with open-air public meetings.

After a 90-minute discussion of the first portion of Besse’s proposal, which would limit the time for open-air public meetings from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., the Occupy members took a vote. A number of members crossed their arms to form an “X” indicating a block, which is essentially a veto, and ended all further discussion of the proposal.

As the meeting unfolded, it became clear that Besse and the Occupy members would not reach a compromise. One hour into the meeting, Besse informed Occupy members that he had no plans to revise his proposal based on their input.

“I’m here to hear your concerns and answer your questions today,” Besse said.

Besse’s proposal, which would also limit open-air public meetings, parades and picketing on City Hall grounds to the paved steps, walkways and sidewalks, is set to expire on March 27. Besse said he included a sunset date for the amendments to provide the opportunity for three monthly cycles of full committee consideration of the issues involved before further action being taken.

The city council was scheduled to vote on Besse’s proposal at its Tuesday meeting after a public hearing on the issue.

During the general assembly meeting on Monday, Occupy member Enoc Pardue said the proposed amendments to city ordinances dealing with open-air meetings “changes the definition of what our rights are” and characterized the two-month sunset provision as “disingenuous.”

“We should be treated like our rights matter up front, not the opposite,” he added.

Thomas Leinbach, a member of Occupy Winston-Salem, said the proposed changes to the city’s open-air public meeting laws infringe upon the First Amendment rights of Winston-Salem’s citizens guaranteed by the US Constitution.

Besse explained that his proposal was designed to clarify where and when open-air public meetings may take place as the city council considers making permanent changes to those ordinances. Besse added that the restrictions as to exactly where on City Hall property open-air meetings could be held was due to safety concerns. He pointed out a rock wall that encompasses the property and the fact there is no guardrail to prevent people from falling. Besse also pointed out the areas around trees and vegetation that have been roped off to prevent damage to city property.

A number of speakers at Monday’s meeting disagreed with Besse’s assessment, stating the proposal would essentially restrict freedom of speech.

Current city ordinance requires individuals or groups wishing to hold an open-air public meeting obtain a permit from the city, except when the meeting is held on city property. Besse’s proposal would essentially exempt City Hall from being considered public property.

In a Dec. 23 memo to Mayor Allen Joines and other members of city council, Besse acknowledged that the need to change the open-air meeting ordinance arose after members of Occupy Winston-Salem began holding overnight meetings on the City Hall lawn. On Dec. 31, Besse met informally with members of Occupy Winston-Salem and “Walkupy” a group of demonstrators allied with Occupy Wall Street on a 60-day march from Washington, DC to Atlanta.

Besse added that there have been conflicts over the meaning of the ordinance since Occupy Winston-Salem began holding open-air meetings on the lawn of City Hall, and the proposed changes to the law would help resolve future conflicts.

“Those practical problems and potential conflicts are expected to grow as additional groups seek to make use of limited space for extended meetings and protest activities,” Besse stated in the memo.

On Dec. 20, Winston-Salem police arrested an Occupy Winston-Salem during an open-air meeting of the group on the lawn outside City Hall, according to police reports. Around 8 a.m. that day, officers approached approximately 15 members of Occupy Winston-Salem who had held an overnight open-air meeting and told them their gathering was in violation of city ordinance. Police ordered the group to vacate the premises, and Occupy Winston-Salem members began leaving City Hall grounds peacefully. However, one Occupy member “became irate and began to repeatedly scream profanities, in the presence of other citizens, which resulted in a public disturbance,” resulting in his arrest, according to police reports.

The incident came on the heels of the Dec. 19 meeting of the Winston-Salem City Council when Besse first presented his proposed amendments. A number of council members expressed concerns over the restrictions included in Besse’s proposal, and the council decided to delay a vote on the measure and hold a public hearing on the proposal first. The public hearing was scheduled for Tuesday night’s meeting. Last month, talks broke down between city officials and members of Occupy Winston-Salem as the group sought permission to establish an encampment in the downtown area.

On Dec. 31, members of Occupy Winston-Salem and Walkupy marched from the Bethesda Center for the Homeless on Patterson Avenue after helping feed 75 homeless Individuals.

When they arrived at City Hall, Nathan Stueve, a member of Walkupy, read a statement regarding Occupy Winston- Salem’s eviction from City Hall property on Dec. 20.

“In the course of civic discourse, in public space, these citizens were informed they could not legally remain. Police officers told them they were trespassing,” Stueve said. “It was suggested permission from property owners was necessary for such a meeting. The code of ordinances of the city of Winston-Salem does not contain such a stipulation.”

“This property is not owned by any individual or financial interest, but by the people of Winston-Salem,” he continued. “We demand an explanation.”

Occupy Mike McGuire later held a lengthy conversation with Besse to ask why he proposed changes to the open-air public meeting laws. Besse responded by stating he proposed the amendments to help clarify the “rules of the road.”

“You’re literally trying to change the rules,” McGuire said.