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Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Why the City Hall Camping Vigil Is Allowed to Keep Its Tent

Posted by Denis C. Theriault on Wed, Feb 15, 2012 at 3:14 PM

Nameless keeps warm Wednesday morning at the camping-ban prayer vigil outside City Hall.
For nearly three months now, since December 1, a dynamic man who prefers the moniker Kernel Loose-Nut (but who also answers to Moses Wrosen) has done his best to keep alive a 24/7 prayer vigil outside City Hall that's supposed to remain in place until the day the city ends its ban on outdoor camping.

The Kernel!
Some people don't much like it—city hall staffers have been grumbling—while others are quietly supportive. But officials haven't exactly rolled out the red carpet. Still, thanks to the Kernel's persistence, they've been forced to tolerate it. And the Kernel, who's been called into meetings with Mayor Sam Adams' staff in recent weeks, has even earned himself a bit of a victory.

After city officials tried to crack down on letting participants take shelter—which clashes with the city's cherished ban on unpermitted tents/structures—the Kernel got them to back off by reminding everyone that the vigil is an exercise in free speech, but also, in part, an exercise in freedom of religion. The dome he's erected is meant to help protect what's emerged as an altar, but also the contemplative sympathizers from the homeless community and Occupy Portland who are giving their time to run the thing.

"It's another form of protected speech," says Deputy City Attorney David Woboril, who advises on police issues. "They have articulated a religious aspect to the message. They've also articulated various political messages. The city has respected that."

The Kernel says it helped that a lawyer helped him send the message. "That was enough to get them to take me seriously," he joked a couple hours after visiting this morning's city council meeting to read aloud some blessings. "I approach them with as much respect as possible, and that comes around."

That's not to say the city doesn't have rules (PDF) in place.

A memo dated January 13 and posted at City Hall lays out things like precise locations for where the vigil can and can't set up shop (away from windows that look into city offices and not in pedestrian walkways) and some other general guidelines (no PA systems and no more ringing the Liberty Bell knockoff in the plaza).

Those rules came a few weeks after the vigil's launch, after the Kernel said he had to pull back from directly running things "and let it go, because I couldn't facilitate staffing it." He kept involved, but says he watched as "some very streety, probably meth-affected people started holding down the vigil."

Some of those protesters eventually took to sleeping in the plaza and then camping along the sidewalk along 4th Street, technically off the city hall plaza and under the jurisdiction, instead, of the city's "sidewalk management ordinance." The Kernel says the confluence of different agendas and temperaments initially made for "a very interesting space."

"Now it seems to have balanced out between more grounded and purposeful folks," he says.

Meanwhile, a few days ago, cops showed up to roust the curbside campers because some of them had assembled a handful of tarps into a verboten shelter. A few days before, one of the campesr, Metal, had told me he felt left behind by the vigil and the Occupy movement, because they weren't more aggressive in pushing back against the camping ban.

"They abandoned all these people to get beat up by cops in the middle of winter with no place to go," he said. "They occupy too many people's time talking in circles."

Metal and the multi-person-use rain blanket before its removal earlier this week. Were not hurting anybody, he says. Were not running around shouting fuck the pigs.
  • Metal and the "multi-person-use rain blanket" before its removal earlier this week. "We're not hurting anybody," he says. "We're not running around shouting 'fuck the pigs.'"

(I asked Woboril about the two protests: He explained that sleeping is okay, even in a sleeping bags, so long as it's on the sidewalk, not in a park or in the city hall plaza, and so long as it's not on the part of the sidewalk designated for pedestrian use. People can even keep a bag and some other property with them. But structures, to keep you and your property dry? He says the city won't allow them anywhere.)

The Kernel came down when he heard cops were on the way. He says he appreciated that police left the vigil alone—and its tent.

"They fear a big reaction if they tried to remove it," he says. "Enough people have developed an emotional attachment to this."

Part of the equation, says the city, is that City Hall, unlike a park or some other piece of public property, exists for no other reason than to give the public a focal point for their grievances.

"The city expects people to bring their political speech to the plaza and certainly is going to protect people's rights to do that," Woboril tells me, explaining that the city also "appreciates" the vigil's cooperation. "Things have balanced out very well."

Woboril did allow that the the balance could change. For now, the city is turning a blind eye to those occasional spans when no one is sitting at the vigil's altar—deciding not to confiscate either it or the tent as abandoned property or stored property.

The Kernel, when we spoke today, was bemused he hasn't received more support from Occupy Portland, beyond some regular calendar listings. The city hall occupation, he chuckled, has lasted way longer than the one at Chapman and Lownsdale squares. But, he also says, he set it up without checking with the group's general assembly.

"The city has gifted us with an awesome platform," he says, "to have an occupation around the clock. I'll give up a night or two a week. All we need is few more people like me. But I couldn't convince the group. I didn't go to the GA beforehand. I just did it. They said, 'You can't do it. That's not Occupy.'"

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