Building a new activism

By JEFF INGLIS  |  September 26, 2013

At the time of the request, the city had contract with TD Bank that expired at the end of 2012. That contract has since been renewed, says city spokeswoman Nicole Clegg, who notes that municipal demands on financial institutions involve “thousands of transactions daily,” issuance of bonds, and other specialized functions that smaller banks aren’t always equipped to handle.

While the OccupyMaine group never specifically targeted TD Bank, concern over the misdeeds of Wall Street that gutted the economy while fattening the wallets of the rich was a clear focus. Bank of America’s Monument Square branch was specifically picketed on several occasions, for example.

Despite TD’s local origins and relative innocence in the financial collapse, “the city of Portland should support a local bank,” says John Branson, an OccupyMaine member who has served as the group’s attorney but specifies that he is speaking for himself and not for the leaderless group.

Beyond that ideal, environmental issues, which also concern Occupiers, may result in an additional push to get the city to invest locally.  In recent months, TD Bank has come under fire for its $1.7-billion investment in TransCanada, which has proposed the Keystone XL pipeline, the Energy East pipeline, and is related to other efforts that might seek to transport tar-sands oil through Maine or other parts of the Northeast.

Second in the petition was a request for the city to “develop methods for increased direct democracy and public engagement,” specifically by making the State of Maine Room at City Hall available for weekly General Assembly meetings, with ideas coming from those sessions being presented to the City Council.

While that room is available for public use, rental fees in the hundreds of dollars may apply; nonprofits are charged $450 for up to six hours, according to the city’s facilities-rental website.

But Branson says Occupiers had hoped for more: A piece of the proposal was the idea that “the city would encourage citizen participation . . . that there would be a channel of communication between these groups and the city.” He says that unfortunately, there has been “no effort to connect what’s going on in those rooms and what people are talking about [there] with the direction of the city.”

The petition also asked the city to “create a 24-hour free speech and assembly space in Monument Square where people can assemble at any hour to engage in non-commercial First Amendment activity.” Councilors rejected that idea, as well as a modification that would have placed the free-speech zone in Lincoln Park instead.

And while in its lawsuit against the city, OccupyMaine did ask Judge Thomas Warren to rule on that rejection, “it’s never been fully decided,” says Branson. He is clear that “the city has to make some space available for First Amendment activity beyond the curfew,” but there is, at present, no provision for that in the city code.

Brian Leonard, another OccupyMaine member, says he wasn’t surprised at the rejection, saying city officials are not going to be very energetic about creating a space in which they and their actions might be roundly criticized.

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