Occupy Providence puts commissioner in spotlight
PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- As Providence pushes for the eviction of Wall Street protesters camping out in a downtown park, there is no shortage of cautionary tales from other cities where activists and police have clashed violently. But some in Rhode Island say an encounter closer to home makes it more likely that the city will not see violence in Burnside Park.
"I don't see any type of force being used on Occupy Providence," said Narragansett Tribe Chief Sachem Matthew Thomas. He said he thinks Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare and Mayor Angel Taveras "will probably say two words -- smoke shop."
In 2003, state police raided a Narragansett Indian Tribe smoke shop in Charlestown that was selling cigarettes without collecting state taxes. The raid turned ugly and was caught on camera by a local TV news crew.
Public Safety Commissioner Steven Pare was state police superintendent at the time. Thomas, accused of grabbing a trooper from behind, was found guilty of assault and ordered to complete 150 hours of community service.
But the incident didn't sour Thomas on Pare, who he believes was carrying out orders from superiors.
"He was an officer and a gentleman, and he still is," Thomas said, adding that he "cannot imagine" Pare recommending a physical confrontation with the Occupy Providence protesters.
There have been police crackdowns on protesters in other cities, including Nashville, Tenn., Boston, Denver, Atlanta, and most notably Oakland, Calif., where demonstrations shut down the nation's fifth-busiest port before spiraling into chaos near the movement's downtown encampment.
Pare said he is seeking a peaceful end to the encampment that was set up Oct. 15.
"We're communicating to the group. We also want to avoid conflict and criminal prosecution," said Pare, whom Taveras appointed in December.
Pare said of the smoke shop raid: "We never wanted that to occur."
When the Wall Street protests started in mid-September in New York City, Pare said he and Taveras discussed how they would respond to an occupation. When activists began organizing in Providence in early October, Taveras was open to accommodating them as long as their conduct remained civil and respectful, Pare said.
Michael McCarthy, an activist with Occupy Providence who has been in regular contact with Pare, praises the commissioner's dealings with the movement, saying he was the one to proactively reach out. He noted that Pare has engendered goodwill -- even among some activists who are typically resistant to authority -- by coming to the park numerous times, including once to introduce himself at a General Assembly meeting ahead of the inaugural Occupy rally. No one knew quite how to receive him, but he won them over, McCarthy said.
"We have had the best possible relationship with the commissioner," said McCarthy, a Navy veteran and artist. "Unless he were to take his suit and tie off and join us, I don't think he could do anything different."
Pare said he understands the protesters' frustration with economic injustice and the financial problems many Americans face. But the activists were advised early on that they couldn't camp out indefinitely, he said. Now, the city wants them to comply with an ordinance that closes the park from 9 p.m. to 7 a.m. daily.
"We believe the best avenue to resolve this issue is before a court and asking the court to decide," Pare said.
On Oct. 27, Pare laid the groundwork for a legal case by distributing letters outlining the ordinances that officials say the protesters are violating and asking them to comply within 72 hours.
He was accompanied by another officer, who was warning activists about sex offenders spotted in the park. In the pouring rain, they went from tent to tent dropping off the letters.
"We're not coming back here to storm and rip you people out," Pare told one group of protesters as he passed out the letters.
Protester Ras Justice told Pare he respected his handling of the encampment. But the 24-year-old Justice said he had no plans to leave the park.
"Of course, I'll stay," he told The Associated Press.
Pare returned to the park the following day to dismiss rumors circulating that police planned to break up the camp when the 72-hour deadline passed on the afternoon of Oct. 30.
But even McCarthy has some reservations about the city's intention to use the courts to evict them. The city on Wednesday put plans to initiate legal proceedings on hold at the request of the protesters' lawyer, Miriam Weizenbaum. Taveras agreed. Weizenbaum said she's seeking to reach a compromise outside of court.
"I do appreciate that they're not just swooping in with batons drawn," McCarthy said. But by moving to evict us, he said, "I think that they're trying to take the wind out of our sails."
If the city does proceed with legal action, they'll be following a precedent they set by going to court to evict a tent city set up by homeless people in a different park in 2009.
Attorney Peter G. DeSimone, who represented the tent city residents, said the Occupy Providence situation raises First Amendment issues that didn't exist in his case. He also said the tent city residents never considered defying a court order, even when it meant breaking up the camp.
Steve Brown, executive director of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said Pare has shown "significant restraint." The protesters also deserve credit for the encampment's peaceful existence so far, he said.
The ACLU has said that a U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding camping bans in certain public parks "significantly limits" the right of Occupy Providence to stay at the park indefinitely.
Brown said it's unclear what will happen if the court orders the protesters to leave and they don't move.
For his part, Pare said the protesters "believe in the rule of law" and will follow the orders of an "independent judicial body."
"They'll respect the court of law and abide to it," he said.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)