Campout Question

Who knows what’s going to happen with the tents at City Hall? But it’s making for interesting city council meetings.

“First of all, what happens at the dead-line hour?” Pensacola City Councilman John Jerralds finally stared down the elephant in the room.

“I can’t answer that question at this point,” replied City Administrator Bill Reynolds.

For two weeks, Occupy Pensacola has camped out at City Hall. During last night’s city council meeting, members of the movement and city officials attempted to get a handle on what might happen when the group’s current permit expired this morning.

By the end of the night, Occupy Pensacola’s future wasn’t all that much clearer. Except for that things are probably going to come to a head soon one way or the other.

“At some point this has to end,” Reynolds stressed to the Council. “We will see at what point that will be. It’s important to realize there has to be an end game.”

The local Occupy sprang up on Martin Luther King Jr. Plaza about a month after Occupy Wall Street began in New York City. The group now expresses their frustration with the status quo on the lawn at City Hall, but the expansive spread of tents has become a contentious issue.

After Mayor Ashton Hayward made it known—citing a city ordinance (Sec. 8.1.7)—that he wanted the tents gone, the city council decided to allow the Mayor to basically waive the regulation if he so choose. Hayward essentially did nothing, which had the effect of extending the Occupier’s campout until the next Council meeting.

During the meeting’s open forum, people with the Occupy movement argued for their right to keep the tents. The group’s lawyer, Alister McKenzie, equated the tents to a “monument to protest” and said their banishment would amount to restricting freedom of speech.

“What’s going on out there is frustrating and beautiful at the same time,” Bill Paul defended the group’s presence.

Councilwoman Sherri Myers expressed concern with the ordinance the Mayor had cited. She said she considered the tents to be a freedom of speech issue and drew parallels with Civil Rights-Era suppression, citing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s planning of a tent city in Washington D.C. to lobby for an economic bill of rights.

“Dr. King’s message was the same message that Occupy Wall Street has,” Myers said.

The Councilwoman went on to say that after some background work, she had discovered the ordinance was originally adopted by the city in 1968. She theorized as to why the city may have passed it then.

“I find it interesting that this ordinance was passed in 1968,” Myers said. “I feel certain that this ordinance was passed to ensure that there was not a replication of Resurrection City in Pensacola.”

After much discussion, Myers eventually suggested the Council again allow the Mayor to waive the ordinance. But then, Reynolds clarified that the Mayor no longer intended to use that ordinance, that the group did not have a permit but rather a ‘letter of no objection’ and that the tent issue would ultimately fall into the lap of Neighborhood Services Director Dave Flaherty because the tents were pitched in a city park.

Reynolds said the Mayor’s team was currently reviewing the options, but suggested the tents would eventually be booted due to existing city rules. Myers questioned whether the City Hall lawn was actually a park.

“I think that’s semantics,” Reynolds said, after clarifying that the lawn was technically slated as a place where events or festivals could occur. “I think the bottom line is that its city property.”

With this the Council sat there, absorbing the fact that its previous motion may have been a bit of a wild goose chase. Jerralds—who withdrew his second of Myers’ motion—suggested the board put an end to the “tennis game,” take no action and see what the Mayor did next.

“If we’re going to give him that authority to exercise that authority, let him do it on Monday,” Jerralds said.

Councilwoman Megan Pratt said that she was looking forward to getting beyond the tent issue so that the board might explore some of the Occupiers “bigger issues.”

“Two weeks ago it wasn’t about tents on city property,” Pratt said. “It was something bigger and different and we need to get to that because those are important questions.”