Tent up frustration

City to end overnight camping for Occupy Louisville at downtown Founder’s Park

Dec 21, 2011 at 6:00 am

The bells at Cathedral of the Assumption on Fifth Street ring seven times on a drizzly Monday evening. Across the street at Founder’s Square Park, Occupy Louisville’s nightly general assembly meeting is supposed to begin. Instead, tents remain zipped. Music from a scratchy radio plays in one. Giggles shake the blue tarp of another. A young girl emerges with a library book in hand only to skip over to a tent where homemade chocolate chip cookies await.

There is no meeting tonight. Not enough Occupiers are on site. One camper says that’s been a problem lately. It could be the rain, holidays, or waning commitment from supporters.

Still, since Nov. 11, a core group of about 20 have remained at the park, a local testament to a nationwide swell of protests against corporate greed and for economic equity.

That 24-hour presence is about to become a lot harder to pull off.

Last week, the city’s Department of Codes and Regulations renewed Occupy Louisville’s permit to demonstrate at the downtown park (their current permit expires on New Year’s Day). But tents for overnight camping will no longer be allowed as of Jan. 2, essentially ending the protest’s one potent action — occupation. It’s a move Occupiers plan on fighting.

“We are a visible presence,” says protestor David Barfield. “And I think that’s what the main problem is.”

Barfield is like many campers at Founder’s Square Park. He’s shuffled through shelters or cheap hotels, slept under bridges, struggled with employment and homelessness.

Occupiers feel that’s the city’s main point of contention. During a recent permit meeting with police and Metro Department of Codes and Regulations officials, a distinction was made between the “homeless” issue and Occupy Louisville.

“A lot of people are like, well, what are you doing with the homeless?” says Pam Newman, an Occupy supporter. “It’s not us vs. the homeless. It’s us.”

Councilwoman Attica Scott, who has a background in social justice and activism, is following the permitting issues. She knows the city’s been lenient with allowing the camping, but doesn’t feel lines should be drawn on what is and is not appropriate.

“The Occupy movement has done a pretty good job of fully integrating the homeless community,” she says. “So that’s something the city needs to understand. It’s not differentiated. Folks need to have a more open mind about what the movement means and what it means to involve homeless communities in movement building. We’re not talking about throwaway people here.”

The executive director of Louisville’s Coalition for the Homeless, Natalie Harris, applauds Occupy for welcoming those existing on the margins.

“The one thing they seem to be doing well is taking care of their fellow citizens,” Harris says. “They don’t feel ostracized, there’s free food, tents to sleep in.”

Political messages aside, Occupy has made it harder to ignore homelessness in a city with plenty of services to keep it out of sight.

“Most of what you see downtown is people going about their business, going to the day shelter or to a feeding. You don’t see people sleeping,” Harris says, adding that the city does have hidden pockets that many slip into. “They have places to go to where the average citizen does not see them.”

Metro Codes and Regulations Director Jim Mims issued the first permit for Founder’s Square. He says the city’s change of heart does not stem from opposing a homeless encampment, but camping period.

“It’s just this park is not able to sustain camping for any long period of time,” Mims says. “And that period of time is going to be up at the end of this month.”

He says there are safety concerns with electrical wiring snaking between tents. (The Public Works Department agreed to let Occupiers use outlets at the park.) Also, while Occupy Louisville has complied with the city’s mandate of an onsite portable toilet, Mims says sanitary issues have risen.

Finally, individuals who work at the city building neighboring the park, as well as downtown residents, have expressed unease and frustration that Occupiers have taken over.

“There’s been some complaints,” Mims says.

Karl Zollner, who says he’s not homeless but has chosen to camp, says efforts have been made to keep the corner of Fifth Street and Muhammad Ali Boulevard safe. Seven people who’ve caused trouble have been asked to leave.

“We’ve finally reached the point where this group has become a cohesive unit,” he says.

Zollner argues the permit without camping is moot, being that most days no more than 20 people are in Founder’s Square. A permit is only required when 25 or more people congregate.

Occupiers plan on fighting. Pro-bono lawyers may soon file an injunction with the city. Protestors in New York and Seattle who’ve been evicted from camping have continued their demonstrations by moving into foreclosed homes and mobbing city streets. Zollner says that’s not out of the question here.

“Those are all forms of direct action that could involve police,” he says. “That doesn’t fall into the schema of an amicable relationship.”

Since organizing in October, Occupy Louisville has been compliant with city demands, even moving a couple times before.

A mayoral spokesman says Mayor Greg Fischer agrees with the decision to outlaw tents.

Occupiers hope another meeting with the city will result in compromise, avoiding potential arrests at Founder’s Square Park. It’s something Mims says he’s open to. “If Occupy is going to continue to be active in overnight camping until — as they have indicated — at least until the 2012 elections, then I think we need to find some alternatives that can work for everyone,” he says. “This is not one of them.”