While Yalies flocked out of New Haven for spring break, members of Occupy New Haven were determined to stay put on the Green.
Last Wednesday, 15 minutes after a 12 p.m. deadline City Hall set for residents of the protest’s encampment to vacate the upper portion of the New Haven Green, federal Judge Janet Hall gave the protesters a two-week reprieve, ruling that they could remain until at least midnight March 28. A full hearing in the protesters’ suit to prevent the city from evicting them will take place that day before U.S. District Judge Mark Kravitz.
Cooperation between City Hall and the Occupy protesters, which has been remarkably strong throughout the majority of the protesters’ five-month presence on the Green, began to deteriorate last month when city officials held two talks with protesters about the future of the demonstration against economic inequality. City officials argued that the Green is intended to be a space for all to enjoy and that the protest’s permanent presence is infringing on the public’s ability to do so, while protesters argued that their tents represent protected “speech acts in and of themselves.”
Tensions began to escalate on March 12, when City Hall officials distributed fliers to Occupy protesters notifying them that March 14 would be the last day that tents, structures and other materials would be permitted on the Green.
“The City has been respectful of the movement’s message, but it is now time for Occupy New Haven to remove their structures and personal items from Green,” the notice read.
That same afternoon, the protesters held a press conference on the steps of City Hall, announcing their intention to defy the city’s request. Ben Aubin, one of the protest’s leaders, read a statement on behalf of the group that said the city has refused to answer any of Occupy’s demands and has proved itself unwilling to cooperate with the “occupation.”
Aubin also suggested the city only wanted Occupy to leave in anticipation of Yale’s Commencement activities.
“We’re coming in on Yale territory,” he said. “We’re out-occupying them.”
But Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said the University has played no role in the city’s decision to demand that protesters leave the Green, and has not expressed any concerns to the city about the ongoing encampment.
Faced with immiment eviction from the Green, the protesters, represented by attorney Norm Pattis, filed a last-minute lawsuit in U.S. District Court Tuesday seeking a restraining order and injunction to prevent the city from enforcing its order to remove the tents. Pattis also filed a motion to remove the title to the Green from its five current proprietors, whose ownership of the Green roots trace back to colonial New Haven.
“The plaintiffs contend that the Green is a public trust, analogous to riparian lands, and therefore the public enjoys equitable title to the Green,” the protesters’ complaint reads. “It has for time immemorial been used as a location for public meetings of all kinds.”
Victor Bolden, the city’s top lawyer, said the lawsuit essentially attempts to convert the Green to private property for use by the Occupy protest.
“The consequences of allowing them to succeed would be to deny everyone in the New Haven community and elsewhere the enjoyment of publicly available land now and for the foreseeable future,” he said.
Hall agreed with the protesters’ argument that removing the encampment would violate their First Amendment rights, adding that its presence for another two weeks would not excessively burden the city, given that it has continued for five months. Occupy New Haven will, however, be required to pay the city $1,000 for the portable toilets it has supplied the encampment, Hall said.
Ward 7 Alderman Doug Hausladen ’04, whose district includes the lower Green adjacent to the Occupy site, said Hall rendered a “pretty good judgement” that differentiated between what is temporary and what is permanent, while also ensuring services are paid for.
Hausladen, who attended the city’s meeting with the protesters before the encampment was established Oct. 15, said the protest was initially discussed as a “temporary thing.” In the long run, he said he would like to see the protesters shift to something with an educational capacity, potentially with the help of one of the churches on the Green.
“I think it would be great if they could figure out a way in which to provide an educational type of social change,” he said. “That would allow the Green to be a Green instead of a brown, and we can have it returned to the public.
Interviewed on the Green Sunday afternoon, several Occupy protesters said they intended to remain at the site. One protester, who identified himself as “Hillbilly from Kentucky,” said he would not leave until “the final moment.”
He estimated that 80 percent of Occupy New Haven protesters have no intention of moving, though he expressed pessimism about the encampment’s ultimate fate.
“The tents are going to leave because graduation is coming and they want the yard back so Yalies can parade around like they do,” he said. “Their moms and dads have money, and the Yalies are going to win.”
Throughout the entire saga, the New Haven Police Department has been monitoring the site but has had no involvement with the city’s negotiations with the protesters, department spokesman David Hartman said.
Hartman said the NHPD has “gotten along great” with the protesters.
“We’ve never had anyone occupy the Green before,” he said. “It’s not a group acting in civil disobedience. We’ve had plenty of protests there, but this is a different animal — this is a movement with a cause, and it’s not a strike.”
In a separate incident March 13, NHPD officers were called to the Occupy New Haven encampment after an inebriated woman claimed to have been raped the night before. Hartman said an investigation concluded that the woman had been raped sometime late Monday or early Tuesday, and officers arrested England Gamble, a registered sex offender, who has been charged with first-degree sexual assault.
Correction March 20
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that all of the current proprietors of the New Haven Green are descended from colonial-era New Haven families. While the arrangement through which they own the Green began with the families who owned it in the 1640s and the group has selected its successors ever since, only one of the current proprietors is directly descended from a colonial New Haven family.