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Camping clampdowns aimed at Occupiers

9 governments follow leadof Charlotte to ban protest camps on public grounds

At least nine area counties and municipalities have restricted camping on public property so far this year, citing concerns about the Occupy Charlotte movement and potential protests tied to the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Charlotte.

Mint Hill and Matthews approved their bans last week. Union County implemented a similar plan earlier this month after officials said they realized they had nothing in place to prevent such activities that could disrupt public safety.

Union County Sheriff Eddie Cathey had proposed the plan to commissioners, saying he wanted to be proactive about the issue. He cited the Occupy Charlotte protests as the reason Union County needed to protect itself, although he was unaware of any plans for such protests in Union County.

The county plan was based almost verbatim on Charlotte’s ordinance, County Attorney Jeff Crook told commissioners at a July meeting.

Commissioners said they were not looking to curb free speech or people’s right to protest. But they did not want a repeat of last year’s Occupy Charlotte activities.

“I saw the nonsense that went on up there in Charlotte with people urinating on the lawns and some of the rif-raff that was going on, and people defecating out there,” Commissioner Jonathan Thomas said at the meeting. “These radical protest actions create a detriment to the health, safety and welfare of people, and the peace and dignity of the county.”

In an interview, Commissioner Tracy Kuehler said she “did not want to wake up one day and find a tent city on county property.”

Existing sites for paid camping activities are excluded from the ordinance as long as people follow rules for using them.

The ordinance prohibits on county property any camping, crossing police barricades, setting fires and possession of “obstruction devices” such as a lock box, chains or wire handcuffs. It also bars dispersal of noxious substances, including trash, animal parts, manure, urine and feces.

The state American Civil Liberties Union urged caution.

“We continue to urge all local authorities to not use such ordinances as an excuse to chill free speech,” Chris Brook, legal director of the ACLU of North Carolina Legal Foundation, said in a statement. “The First Amendment gives groups and individuals a clear right to express themselves peacefully in public parks and sidewalks.”

In Mint Hill, Police Chief Tim Ledford says the new rule will help prevent problems with any protesters that may come to town during the DNC. The town also mirrored Charlotte’s plan, he said.

Commissioner Tina Ross was concerned that the ordinance would prevent participants in town-approved events, such as Relay For Life, from camping in the park. Mayor Ted Biggers said there was no time to change the ordinance before the September convention, but said the board would consider revisions.

Charlotte kick-started the camping clampdown in January. City Council added new rules to prohibit people from camping on city property, in addition to giving police more power to stop and search people during the convention.

The rules are not discouraging protesters. Some Occupy Wall Street members have said a related group will try to occupy Charlotte’s Frazier Park near uptown during the DNC.

On Thursday, a Mecklenburg County judge found three Occupy Charlotte members not guilty of resisting, obstructing or delaying officers after they were arrested while their uptown camp was dismantled last year.

They were not arrested for violating the city’s no-camping ordinance, prosecutors had said, but rather for not complying with officers. A police spokesman said the ruling would not change how officers handle similar situations.

Elsewhere in the region:

• In February, Mecklenburg County commissioners banned unauthorized camping on county property, partly to thwart protesters who might pitch tents during the DNC. At the time, Commissioner Bill James cited the monthslong Occupy Charlotte encampment on the old City Hall lawn as reason for the new ban.

• Pineville officials approved a “no camping in public spaces” ordinance in March, and cited the DNC as an important reason to pass it.

• In April, Gaston County commissioners passed a plan to prohibit camping on county property except in designated camp grounds.

• Davidson added a camping ban in June that was modeled on Charlotte’s plan.

•  Last month at the urging of its police chief, Huntersville approved a ban similar to Charlotte’s.

•  Last Monday, Matthews banned camping on public property, partly in response to the DNC. It also based its ordinance on Charlotte’s rules.

• And Cornelius is considering such a ban, but has not voted on one yet.

Freelance writer Melinda Johnson, researcher Marion Paynter and reporter Joe DePriest contributed.

Bell: 704-358-5696
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