Say what you will about the Occupy San Luis Obispo group members, but they are nothing if not polite. As Occupy movements around the country are being redefined by pepper spray and rubber bullets, SLO’s group is applying for a permit.
Regardless of some bright red hair, bull-ring nose piercings, and studded-leather jackets, Occupy SLO is, at its core, a congenial group of malcontents. But polite or not, they’re being forced to scale it back.
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- PHOTO BY STEVE E. MILLER
Since setting up camp in front of the San Luis Obispo Superior Court House on Oct. 19, Occupy SLO has received three separate notices telling them to stop camping overnight. The latest notice, issued on the morning of Nov. 18, informed the protesters that they’re free to exercise First Amendment rights so long as they don’t spend the night. It was also the first notice bearing the threat of arrest for anyone who refused to get lost.
It’s become sort of a running joke among Occupy SLO members: They’re free to protest, so long as it’s during normal business hours. Eric Greening, a local activist familiar to anyone involved with local government, has made regular speeches before SLO County supervisors about the Occupy camp.
“It is still a First Amendment, free speech zone any time of the day,” Greening said at the supervisors’ Nov. 22 meeting.
Just hours after the notice was issued on the morning of Nov. 18, a small group of campers gathered at the courthouse steps to plan their next move. If anything, member Mike O’Connell told New Times, Occupy SLO had “been having an ongoing picnic.” After receiving the latest notice, the campers were hoping to “buy themselves time” while they tried to get a permit from the county that would allow them to have permanent tent displays and amenities.
Occupy SLO continues to seek a permit from the county. The group submitted a proposal to maintain a 24-hour-a-day presence, complete with plans outlining tents for refreshment, “resting cots,” a “drop-by musician area,” discussion tables, and a chess table.
After police delivered the third notice, the biggest run-in with the cops came when a sheriff’s deputy walked by the group on his way to the courthouse.
“Hey, Gil!” one of the occupiers shouted.
“I’m not Gil,” the deputy said, smiling. “I’m much more handsome.”
In the end, much of the camp just pulled up stakes and left. Rather than fight for a full-fledged campground, Occupy SLO has turned into more of a 24/7 display booth. In order to get around the no-sleeping stipulation from the county, Occupy SLO members rotate through in shifts to staff a display canopy without sleeping at the courthouse.
But on Nov. 21, police swung through the camp in the wee hours of the morning to kick out a few remaining overnighters. And according to Ron Den Otter, an associate professor of political science at Cal Poly who specializes in constitutional theory, the county is on firm legal ground. Otter told New Times the county can enact what is called a “reasonable time, place, and manner restriction.” No one can tell the protesters they can’t spread their message, but the county is within its rights to deny protesters access to public property at certain times.
“The one exception would be if the county were really denying them access because the county doesn’t like their message, which is called a content-based speech restriction and is treated differently,” Otter said in an e-mail to New Times. “But as far as I can tell, that’s not the case here.”
Local occupiers certainly don’t agree with the idea of convenient protesting, but in the days that followed the arrest threat, they’d complied with the county’s demands. The courthouse lawn was peppered with discolored patches formerly occupied by a handful of tents, and what at one time seemed a permanent shanty town had been reduced to a solitary tent if for no other reason than to show they’re still there.
On Nov. 23, about two dozen members gathered on the courthouse steps to hear from Chris Durian, part of the Occupy Los Angeles movement. Dressed all in black, with a red bandana tied around his neck, Durian coached the Occupy SLO group on how his local movement (he stressed that he isn’t a spokesman for Occupy LA) conducts general assemblies and gave a crash course in useful hand signals like a “hard block” occupiers use to communicate when someone absolutely opposes an idea proposed by the group. One of Occupy LA’s more recent decisions to ponder, Durian said, is whether to take up the city’s offer of an office space and farmland in exchange for breaking down their camp in front of City Hall. As of press time, Los Angeles police were clearing the campers.
One of the biggest confrontations Occupy SLO has had so far hasn’t been with the cops, but with itself. At about 2 a.m. on Nov. 24, a group of people who have been associated on and off with the courthouse display—one occupier told New Times the group brings a lot of “negativity”—came to the camp and removed the last remaining tent as well as some occupiers’ personal things. Police were called, and though most of the property was returned and a new tent was erected, occupiers said they planned to file criminal charges with the SLO Police Department.
Occupy SLO is still clearly trying to figure out its place within the wider movement peppered throughout cities across the country.
“We’re not going to fix Wall Street here in San Luis Obispo,” one Occupy SLO member, adorned in bright green spandex and still wearing clip-in bike shoes, told Durian, “… and we’re going to need to coordinate with someone bigger.”
At the Nov. 23 gathering, some local members said they want to patch into the larger movement, while others thought it was best to do their own thing on a local level. And others wanted to stop internal sabotage, such as when one member called the police and falsely told them some members were setting up tents again.
"This whole thing is an experiment that’s evolving very fast every day,” Durian told the group.
In the background, one member sat quietly and brushed a small dog sitting in his lap.
News Editor Colin Rigley had no clue his hometown, Davis, had such a well-equipped riot squad. He can be reached at email@example.com.