After their eviction last month, the Occupy Binghamton movement has been permanently displaced following a historic 6-1 verdict reached Wednesday at Binghamton’s City Hall that banned camping in Binghamton’s public spaces.
Occupy Binghamton took up residence in “Liberty Park” on the corner of State and Court streets in Downtown Binghamton in mid-October until they were evicted on Jan. 13. Protesters erected tents and held up signs for drivers to see as they passed by the park.
Occupy Binghamton, in solidarity with the worldwide Occupy Wall Street movement, which began in Zuccotti Park in Manhattan on Sept. 17, 2011, is a protest against national social and economic inequality, high unemployment, greed, corruption and the undue influence of corporations in government.
The Binghamton City Council held a meeting Wednesday to vote on a proposed amendment to Section 327-6.D of the city of Binghamton code of ordinances, regarding the use of city parks.
The council meeting was attended by citizens from the tri-cities area, including members of the Occupy movement and members of various local groups. Citizens in attendance were given the opportunity to voice their opinions during a public communication portion of the meeting.
Teri Rennia, president of the Binghamton City Council, proposed the addition of a line to the ordinance that would prohibit camping in public space. The amendment read, “Camping shall not constitute a normal, ordinary use of city parks, and is specifically prohibited in public spaces.”
Newly elected council member Gerald Motsavage proposed that individuals procure permission to camp in public space from the Parks and Recreation Department if they had the proper liability insurance. The amendment was passed by 6-1. The sole dissenting vote was cast by Lea Webb.
Dan Livingston, a 28-year-old Binghamton resident and member of the Community Development Advisory Committee, said the language of the amendment appears vaguely worded and the brevity of the proposal — only one page long — leaves room for interpretation.
Livingston said the amendment did not specify particular locations and seems to be a direct response to the growing Occupy movement. He added that other members of the community will be affected if the amendment passes, particularly the homeless.
“The language used in the amendment is too vague,” Livingston said. “The effects will go way beyond Occupy Binghamton. This legislation is going to take on a life of its own. The protesters will still find a way to protest, but the homeless have been further cordoned off from society.”
The bill came under significant opposition from supporters of the Occupy Binghamton protest.
David Chirico, Occupy Binghamton supporter and a 2001 graduate of Binghamton University, said he thinks the amendment is a violation of First Amendment rights.
“Let’s recognize that this is, quite nakedly, a measure aimed at curbing a form of protest that has converted the raising of tents into a mode of political dissent, after a wave of such protest has rapidly spread across the globe,” Chirico said. “This ordinance should be seen exactly for what it is — an attempt at prior restraint, an unconstitutional attack on First Amendment rights.”
Despite accusations that the action is aimed at the Occupy Binghamton protest, Rennia said the amendment is necessary because the city does not have the resources to accommodate camping in public parks.
“The notion that this was in retaliation to [the Occupy movement] is patently false,” Rennia said. “But, there has been a huge escalation in dialogue because of them.”
According to Chirico, members of Occupy Binghamton funded their own facilities while they were occupying Liberty Park.
“Occupy Binghamton paid for all their own facilities — gas for generators, two Porta Potties, etc.,” Chirico said. “They offered to pay for repairs to the park and do the necessary work. Councilwoman Rennia’s argument, that the City ‘couldn’t afford camping,’ was a complete obfuscation.”
The ban on camping could also make life more dangerous for Binghamton’s large homeless population, according to Livingston.
“I was homeless for two years of my life,” Livingston said in a speech made at the meeting. “I slept beneath building awnings, under bridges, huddled by heating vents and in city parks. I was afraid and alone. The only times that I could sleep soundly was when I was being seen.”
Livingston added that he felt most secure when he was in public spaces.
“Being in a public place gave me a sense of security,” Livingston said. “Sleeping out in the open gave me a chance to be seen and even to be helped. You are not solving the problem of homelessness by driving them into darkness.”
Barrie Gewanter, director of the New York Civil Liberty Union’s Central New York chapter, denounced the legislation, entreating the council to either reject or redraft it.
“How does democracy measure up in Binghamton?” Gewanter asked at the meeting. “Your actions tonight will convey that message.”
Webb, the council member representing the 4th district, recommended tabling the legislation and sending it to the Human Rights Commission for further evaluation. Her immediate concern was for providing an opportunity for everyone to use public space.
“I will not be supporting this legislation,” Webb said. “I recommend tabling it for now and sending it to the Human Rights Commission. These issues need to be addressed before it becomes a law.”
The other five council members — Jerry Motsavage of the 1st district, Joseph Mihalko of the 2nd district, Chris Papastrat of the 5th district, John Matzo of the 6th district and Bill Berg of the 7th district — remained silent while Webb and Rennia debated the amendment.
When the decision was announced, Occupy supporters in the audience began to protest. The members in attendance chanted slogans, in unison, like “First Amendment,” “violating peaceful assembly” and “we, the people, can make our voices heard.”
Three police officers escorted the group out without any further incident, with much of the audience following suit.
Sarah Goble and Mark Legge, among others, gathered outside City Hall after their expulsion from the meeting.
“This is not over,” Goble said. “We will have a general assembly meeting and go from there.”
Legge said that such government action would not stop the Occupy movement.
“I’m not going to stop, not going to give up after months of investment,” Legge said. “The American spring is coming and it will open their eyes.”