But tensions have escalated between city officials and the Occupiers, who have been camped in downtown’s Kerr Park since Oct. 10. Last week, after an alcohol-related disturbance, the city declined to accept the fee for a permit to protest in the park.
The following day at an Oklahoma City Council meeting, council members and Mayor Mick Cornett encouraged protesters — for public health and safety reasons — to limit their presence in the park from 5 a.m. to 11 p.m., when all city parks are open. Protesters rejected the request.
That day, police said protesters would need to pack up their tents by 11 p.m. Dec. 1. As of Monday, the city had not taken any eviction action.
Protesters appear to be holding firm. They filed a complaint in federal court Dec. 1 asking that the city be prevented from denying, or even requiring, that a permit be purchased for protest. The lawsuit asks for a temporary restraining order until the full case is resolved.
Rhetoric, but few clashes
Although the Occupy OKC protest has been mostly free of clashes between police and protesters, it has prompted its share of heated rhetoric from both supporters and detractors. At a Nov. 29 City Council meeting, one protester told the council that the Occupiers were trying to “save the world,” and protesters called city officials liars after a police captain previously had told them they would not be forced from the park.
On the other side of the issue, The Oklahoman newspaper repeatedly has attacked the protesters in editorials, expressing outrage that the group would rail against big business “in the shadows of buildings that house such exemplary corporate citizens as Devon Energy and SandRidge.”
Protesters say they have been targeted by threats, vandalism and objects thrown by passersby.
The park after dark
The city’s commitment to allow the protests was tested seriously first on Oct. 31 with what appeared to be a drug-related death in Kerr Park.
“This was the first death in an Occupy event across the county,” Oklahoma City Police Capt. Pat Byrne told local Occupiers in mid-November. “If the city truly wanted to come in and shut you down, that would have been the time to come in and say, ‘You had a death, we’re done with you. Lock it up.’”
In the early morning hours of Nov. 27, an alcohol-related disturbance at Kerr Park resulted in minor damage. People at the camp reported the incident to police, and Occupiers were denied a special-event permit the following day.
At the Nov. 29 City Council meeting, protesters apologized for the incident and said steps had been taken to ensure the camp stayed clean and safe.
“If we do not have the permit and we’re only allowed to be there from the morning to evening hours, but not overnight, we believe it will hamper our movement,” protester Shane Willis told the council, “that we will not be given true occupy status, which has been a driving force for the Occupy movement.”
City officials countered that they were concerned about the amount of resources necessary to provide police protection and health services to overnight campers.
“We can’t allow people to permanently live in our parks,” said Cornett. “We have limited police funds and we have to use them to protect everyone in the city. To a certain extent, we are caught in a difficult position of protecting free speech, but also protecting people from themselves and dangerous situations.”
Ward 2 Councilman Ed Shadid said that while he supports the protest’s goals of campaign finance reform and highlighting income inequality, overnight stays are potentially dangerous with winter approaching. He added that recent incidents are beginning to take their toll.
“When you start having multiple episodes that are drug- and alcohol-related … I just don’t think that [keeping the park clear from 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. is] an unreasonable request,” Shadid said.
Photos by Shannon Cornman