Sit Down and Take a Load Off 

Demonstrators Want To Reclaim Sidewalks

Angry about a pending pro-logging bill in Congress, 10 protesters had planned to set up an overnight vigil at Sen. Ron Wyden's Portland office last Sunday. But shortly after parking themselves on the sidewalk adjacent to his office, five squad cars arrived and one officer instructed them to get off their asses in 30 seconds or face arrest. According to protesters, the officer cited new rules under the city's sit/lie ordinance. Although they were fairly certain about their constitutional right to gather peacefully, the protesters decided not to push their luck.

Instead they took their beef--this time over the sit/lie ordinance--directly to City Hall, last Wednesday.

Amended a month ago, City Code Title 14 now includes guidelines that requires six to eight feet of "passable" space around people sitting or lying on public's sidewalks. Failure to comply may result in fines or arrest. Sunday's environmental protest was the first known time that police have used the new sit/lie rules to bust up a political protest. (In spite of the alleged harassment, Commander Rosie Sizer assured that both permitted and non-permitted political events are exempt from the ordinance.)

The sit/lie ordinance has offended a wide-ranging group of people, from the environmentalists chased away by police to the city's homeless, who fear being hustled along by cops. At noon on Wednesday, more than 150 people from these diverse groups joined in front of City Hall to protest Mayor Katz's decision to enforce the ordinance. Young street punks, elderly, homeless, and college preppies stood in front of City Hall and chanted anti-sit/lie cadences. A baby carried a sign that read, "Our Feet Are Sore."

Activists are mad about the new rules, but they are equally frustrated by the way it came about. In what many call a sneaky move, the mayor avoided public input by revising existing enforcement guidelines. (To introduce a new ordinance, the mayor must allow for public hearings, but revising an existing ordinance does not require such procedures.) Moreover, Katz had promised homeless advocates the opportunity to help sculpt the new rules and, for a year, members from Sisters of the Road, a homeless program, had been invited to watchdog the process. But Sisters was left out of much of that process; they were not even told about the press conference when the new sit/lie rules were unveiled.

Commissioner Erik Sten, who oversees the city's homeless programs, agrees that the mayor went too far and does not support current sit/lie enforcement. "The idea of banning sitting is a bad idea to me," said Sten. "I don't think it fits who we are."

Sten admitted that he can see occasions when it is reasonable to ask sidewalk drunks to move along, but he added that enforcement requires common sense and discretion that the public is uncomfortable leaving up to police. "I'm willing to say, 'let's keep the sidewalks clear in the shopping district,' but it's crazy to say you can't sit as long as there's room enough for people to get through," he said.

The protest heated up slightly when officers physically removed a man blocking the front steps of City Hall. But tension diminished when Commander Sizer called for his release.

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