MINNEAPOLIS (CN) - Occupy Minneapolis claims Hennepin County is suppressing political speech by prohibiting tents, cutting off electricity and otherwise harassing protesters at the county government plaza, an historic area for such demonstrations.
Occupy and four of its members claim in Federal Court that sleeping in the plaza is an important part of their message, as "it draws attention to the foreclosure crisis and the attendant homelessness crisis racking the nation. A 24/7 protest presence is a critical reminder that the foreclosure crisis and homelessness are problems affecting millions of Americans, every hour of every day."
The plaintiffs cite Minneapolis City Code § 244.60: "Temporary housing prohibited; exception. No camp car, house trailer, automobile, tent or other temporary structure may be parked or placed upon any public street or on any public or private premises or street in the city and used as a shelter or enclosure of persons and their effects for the purpose of living therein. However, in a temporary situation a special council permit may be obtained to allow such housing for a specific period of time."
They claim Hennepin County changed the rules on the County Government Center and plazas in April: "The policy states '[o]rganizations may be required to pay for expenses incurred by the county for utilities' and 'other costs associated with building use in accordance with fees established by the county.'"
Occupy Minneapolis began on Oct. 7.
On Oct. 14, "OccupyMPLS demonstrators were told by Hennepin County that they were prohibited from the following: (1) putting up tents, tarps or other structures; (2) sleeping under the building on 6th Street; and (3) affixing signs to county buildings. They have also been told that chalking on the Plazas is prohibited since it allegedly constitutes criminal damage to property," the complaint states.
"The Hennepin County Sheriff's Office has issued numerous trespass notices to demonstrators on the Plazas for engaging in such activities as being in possession of street chalk, or chalking political messages on the Plazas. For example, on one occasion, plaintiff Rowan drew some butterflies on the Plazas ground near the
fountain area. She was approached by two Hennepin County security officers who
informed her that chalk was banned because some people had chalked on benches and it interfered with the ability to sit on the benches. She said that she was chalking on the ground and not on a bench; however, they persisted in telling her that chalking was not allowed. Before leaving for the day, she wrote the word 'occupymn.org' on a short wall that abuts the sidewalk on 3rd Avenue. As she left the property, two Hennepin County deputies issued her a trespass notice ordering her not to return to the property for 90 days. The trespass notice has interfered substantially with her ability to take part in OccupyMPLS' activities. Plaintiff Rowan serves on the Events Committee and helps to plan events; however, she cannot participate in those events that take place on the Plazas. She must watch activities from the sidelines by remaining on the public sidewalk. She is unable to interact with fellow OccupyMPLS participants because she cannot go onto the Plazas to speak with them." (Footnote omitted.)
To try to keep them from staying overnight, the defendants banned tents, the plaintiffs say. "Further, on the evening of November 19, 2011, during the night of the first snowfall in Minneapolis four members of OccupyMPLS who were sleeping at the Plazas to draw attention to the plight of the homeless were issued trespass notices, including one person for smoking in an area that had previously been allowed for smoking.
"Access to electricity is also an important tool to help protect the health and safety of the demonstrators while on the Plazas. After being unable to stay overnight on the Plazas because of her health concerns, Plaintiff Rowan brought tea, cocoa and cough drops to the Plazas in order to help others stay warm and healthy as they maintained their continuous presence there. However, since Hennepin County had shut off electricity to the area, plaintiff Rowan has been unable to heat water for the tea and cocoa without access to electricity."
The protesters say that sleeping on the plaza draws attention to their message of economic injustice: "Plaintiffs recognize that the image of young people sleeping outside, in the cold, in the Plazas can be visibly disturbing to people coming to work in the morning. Plaintiffs believe that people should be bothered when they see such a sight because there are things that are happening in our economy that are seriously wrong - people are losing their homes and have nowhere else to go."
They claim that posting political signs on the plaza is an "important tool to ensure that the protesters can communicate their message even in Minnesota's challenging winter weather conditions, such as when the wind or snow blowing would make holding and/or marching with a physical sign difficult or even impossible."
Hennepin County last week began enforcing its newly adopted "Procedures for Public Use of the Hennepin County Government Center."
According to the complaint, the following rules apply:
"Individuals who desire to demonstrate, assemble or otherwise use the Plazas may do so at any time.
"No signs or posters, except those placed by county personnel related to county business, may be taped or otherwise affixed to the property (including, but not limited to, the Government Center, the planters, and other structures on the Plazas).
"No personal items or possessions (including, but not limited to, tables, chairs, boxes, tarps, and other items) may be stored on the Plazas.
"Personal items and possessions cannot be left unattended on the Plazas or grounds of the Government Center.
"Unattended personal items and possessions will be removed.
"No individuals may sleep on the Plazas or on the grounds of the Government Center.
"No portable toilets are allowed without express written authorization from the County Administrator, who will only allow portable toilets if they are necessary for a limited time due to an expected large crowd for a particular rally, demonstration or event, or a maximum of one toilet because of an ongoing presence on the plaza after regular business hours."
Hennepin County has cut off access to the plaza's electricity supply. This reduces the protesters' ability to broadcast the event through the Internet, cell phones and other electronic media. They say they offered to pay for the electricity, but Hennepin County said it was "not interested in making the plaintiffs 'comfortable.'"
The plaintiffs want the county enjoined from enforcing the new procedures.
They are represented by Alain Baudry with Maslon Edelman Borman & Brand.
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