A 22-year-old Lincoln man was arrested and another man expelled from the mall in front of the state capitol early today, as 45 Lincoln police officers emerged at 4 a.m. and cleared out the last two protesters who remained after a 202-day campout on the cement and grass mall.
Lincoln native and University of Nebraska-Lincoln student Jeff Eggerss said he was arrested as he tried to videotape the police operation. He spent about an hour-and-a-half in jail before posting $50 bail. Public Safety Director Tom Casady said Eggerss was arrested for failing to comply with a lawful order – because the city had notified the campers they had to leave by May 1.
Mayor Chris Beutler watched the operation, which he described as uneventful. The protesters said police also had a helicopter and canine unit. The Occupy Lincoln “general assembly” agreed in February to leave the space by May 1.
Within a half hour, the operation was over – but the protesters say things didn’t go nearly as smoothly as city officials say. They claim they were lied to by city officials repeatedly in the last few months, so they went to a press conference the mayor held this morning to talk about the operation.
About 10 members of Occupy Lincoln sat along the walls during Beutler’s press conference. As Beutler and other city officials talked about the police raid, the Occupy Lincoln folks made it clear they didn’t agree with the city’s version of events. One was tearful, another snorted in disgust, others murmured and one held a sign that said “Hey City, your true colors are showing.”
At one point, the mayor’s chief of staff, Rick Hoppe, told the Occupiers if they didn’t be quiet they’d have to leave. The Occupy Lincoln’s good relationship with the city was clearly destroyed even before 45 police officers started moving in formation across the mall this morning.
“We have treated this group as well or better as any occupation group in the entire country,” Beutler said. “We think it is fair to say we have bent over backwards to protect their rights.”
However, Occupy Lincoln member Dana Garrison, a college student, said after the press conference that the protesters were led to believe that if they left Centennial Mall they could go to a second location, at 30th and Capitol Parkway. However, they were evicted from that location on Tuesday.
She said the mayor’s chief of staff, Hoppe, attended every weekly Occupy Lincoln meeting for a month and pressured protesters into agreeing to leave by May 1. She said he gave them maps of public spaces where the group could set up a second camp primarily for the homeless people, but after that camp was set up, the mayor and other city officials came and said they had to leave. She said the mayor was apparently unaware of the deal Hoppe made with them because Beutler told them, “Are you people playing games with us? I thought we had a deal.”
During the press conference, Beutler called all that a misunderstanding.
“We don’t believe we made representations in either of those areas,” he said. “We could never agree to allow them to go from one place to another.”
Beutler said during the press conference that setting up camp near the residential area was “not in the best interests of the neighborhood or the homeless people themselves.”
Garrison said Police Chief Jim Peschong also said police wouldn’t come in force to expel them, but did. The Occupiers believe city officials did not like having Lincoln’s homeless population on display, rather than hidden away in corners.
The Centennial Mall grassy areas were surrounded by orange fencing Wednesday morning, and city officials now plan to enact legislation to close the legal loophole that allowed the protesters to be on the mall for so long. Beutler said legislation will be brought to the Lincoln City Council to provide “more appropriate venues” for free speech.
He said while the protesters have a right to the First Amendment through demonstration, they cannot obstruct access to public spaces by others.
“Free speech doesn’t mean you can build a house on the mall,” Beutler said. “We were caught with a law that had a gap in it and we fixed it.”
The council will be asked to amend portions of the municipal code defining parks to include areas being maintained and supervised by the parks department. Another section of the code on public spaces will be amended to restrict tents on public property.
A public hearing on the code changes will be held May 14, with the council expected to vote the following week, on May 31.
Reported by Deena Winter, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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