Camping With Vera 

Someone Needs to Challenge the Camping Ban!

Given 24-hour notice that police would soon bust up their camp, the demonstrators at the Portland Peace Camp began to tidy up, as if they were expecting dinner guests. Since the first day of bombing in Iraq, a handful of protesters have held a round-the-clock vigil at Terry Schrunk Plaza. They removed most of their stoves, sleeping bags and tarps. But still, some claimed they would stay and face arrest--to make a statement.

When the police finally did arrive--a full four days later--they seized the remaining equipment, from peace signs to bins of food. But they made no arrests and did not charge anyone with a crime. Which is, some might say, too bad.

It's too bad because the Peace Camp had an opportunity to legally challenge the city's so-called camping ban. For the past decade, City Hall, Mayor Vera Katz and the police have wielded the camping ban as a means to chase away unwanteds. Backed up by the First Amendment and free speech guarantees, the Peace Camp could finally deep-six the camping ban (but first they needed to be arrested). What's more, the campers have displayed the spunk and resolve needed to challenge the city's policy.

"The only reason [the police] got our equipment is because they got guns and we don't," said Andy Seaton, a spokesperson for the camp. (At press time, it was unclear what the next move from either the police or the demonstrators would be.)

At the base of the demonstrators' gripes is a demand to recognize and respect human dignity. Although challenging the camping ban would not address international issues and the Bush administration's hawkish foreign policy, this is a ripe opportunity for activists to challenge a local law that aligns closely with their philosophy. It is a chance to leave a legacy and to finish off a legal fight that started three years ago when a homeless man, Norman Hicks, was fined for violating the camping ban. At the time, Hicks was living in his truck.

In that case, circuit court judge Stephen Gallagher declared the anti-camping ban was unconstitutional and Hicks beat the charges. But because the case was decided by a circuit court and not a higher level of judicial review, the case holds no real legal power outside its immediate ruling. To sway other cases, the Hicks case would've had to reach the Court of Appeals. But the city never challenged the ruling--instead, they simply sidestepped around it.

Eight months after the ruling slapping down the camping ban, City Hall resurrected the ordinance when they threatened to shut down Dignity Village for violating the very same camping ban. At that time, the homeless village was located underneath the Fremont Bridge in NW Portland. Although Dignity residents had vowed to stand their ground, they relented when police showed up and relocated to a site chosen by the city--an asphalt lot near the airport (where they still remain).

Julie Stevens, a staff attorney with Legal Aid Services who handled the Hicks case, says at least two clients have been ticketed with a violation of the camping ban since Judge Gallagher declared it unconstitutional. "But when challenged," said Stevens, "it disappears into legal limbo."

Yes, there is a major difference between being homeless and camping out to protest a war--that is, one circumstance is, more or less, voluntary. Even so, in the last legal challenge to the camping ban, Judge Gallagher found that a right to dignity and freedom of movement was far more important than the city's interest in cleaning up its streets. Isn't it likely that another judge would find the same for free speech?

Moreover, Judge Gallagher's rationale was that the camping ban could not be enforced if there were no other viable options for the affected person. This rationale underscores the legal argument for Peace Camp. After being warned about their violation, the Peace Camp declared it would re-locate to Lownsdale Square (city property), in front of the Hatfield Federal Courthouse. But the Park & Rec Department denied a permit. With no other option, the Peace Camp settled back onto the sidewalk across the street from City Hall. To them, their only other choice was to pack up and shut up.

Anyone wanting to make donations for a legal defense fund or to provide food for Peace Camp is encouraged to stop by (across the street from City Hall, 1221 SW 4th Ave.). For more information about Peace Camp, call Andy Seaton at (503) 358-1454.

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