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Protesters camp at uptown’s Marshall Park

By Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Ely Portillo
cwootson@charlotteobserver.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. Eight months after evicting Occupy Charlotte protesters from public property, police now appear ready to let protesters camp at an uptown park that has become the center of protest activity during the Democratic convention.

A bus that arrived at Marshall Park Saturday brought dozens of protesters who erected tents at the county-owned park.

Mecklenburg Commissioner Bill James quickly sent an e-mail reminding Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Chief Rodney Monroe of a policy that prohibits camping in county parks.

But local officials, while not explicitly granting permission, suggested the city and county are inclined to let protesters stay overnight as long as no trouble arises.

“Our goal continues to be striking an appropriate balance between freedom of expression and the safety of all concerned,” Mayor Anthony Foxx said in a statement.

City officials said Monroe has discretion whether to enforce a ban on camping in county parks.

“I think law enforcement will closely monitor it and may certainly legally remove them at any time,” county commissioners’ Chairman Harold Cogdell said. “… If public health or safety issues arrive I am confident law enforcement will move quickly to remove people from Marshall Park.”

By 5 p.m. Saturday, campers had set up about 20 tents at the park. About 50 campers were seen at the camp during the day. Occupy Charlotte spokesman Michael Zytkow said he wasn’t sure how many protesters would ultimately wind up camping there, but “it could be hundreds.”

The protesters plan to join Sunday’s March on Wall Street South, which organizers hope will draw thousands.

Police officers had been watching since the encampment was erected but had taken no action. At mid-afternoon, a number of officers arrived with passenger vans and plastic handcuffs. They stood nearby watching the occupiers.

Zytkow said he told city and county officials Friday that protesters would be occupying the park.

“The understanding right now is that during the time of the DNC, the police won’t be breaking any of our camps down,” he said.

At 5:30 p.m., as several dozen campers dried out items drenched in a heavy afternoon thunderstorm, about three dozen police officers patrolled the park and its perimeter. Some searched in bushes and under a bridge.

By 6 p.m., all but one of the police vehicles – a van with several officers – had left the camp.

While city officials said they were monitoring activity at the park, county commissioner James called for enforcing the camping ban.

“It’s not their property. It’s our property,” he said. “And they can’t legally decide not to protect someone’s property.” James’ e-mail to Monroe says police must enforce the law.

“While I understand that some folks are trying to thread the needle by allowing these fringe elements some access, it is troubling to see that the police would allow ‘camping’ after elected bodies took heat and did the right thing and banned camping some months back,” James’ letter says.

Protester Shangry Gorecki, who came to Charlotte from the Republican convention in Tampa, said he spoke with Charlotte police officers Friday night and Saturday morning.

“The captain said it was cool that we are here, as long we don’t disrespect the park,” Gorecki said. “He said they will be here and watching, but that’s OK.”

An afternoon dousing

Near the tents erected in the park, rain-soaked signs on the ground read: “Millionaires for Mitt” and “Capitalism is the Crisis.” During the afternoon storm, one camper stood shirtless in the rain and covered his torso and head with body wash, taking the opportunity for a quick shower.

Most of those at the camp said they were concerned with economic issues and the influence of money on politics. Some were self-avowed anarchists. One woman walked around asking people to vote for her so she could abolish the government and give the White House to poor people.

Jason Woody, 28, said he was in Charlotte to protest because “there are injustices going on, and I had to be a part of this cause. What we’re doing is exercising our First Amendment rights.” Woody was laid off from his job as an aquatics director for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Atlanta in 2008.

Protesters said they have heard that around 10 buses may arrive bringing protesters during the next two days.

Staff writers Steve Harrison, Ames Alexander, Bruce Henderson and Joe Marusak contributed.

Wootson: 704-358-5046; Twitter: @CleveWootson
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