Whether or not Occupy New Haven emerges victorious from a court hearing today in the protest’s suit to remain on the Green, the encampment will stay put for at least another 10 days.
In a Tuesday afternoon phone conference, U.S. Federal Judge Mark Kravitz told representatives from the protest movement and City Hall that Occupy New Haven could stay on the Green for at least an additional 10 days past its current deadline of midnight on Wednesday. Kravitz will hear oral testimony from both sides at today’s hearing, but said he would give Occupy New Haven the extension because he needs more time to consider the case before issuing a written opinion.
“The city will respect the rule of law, and we hope that the occupiers will do the same,” City Hall spokeswoman Elizabeth Benton ’04 said in response to the extension.
The court hearing comes after City Hall asked protesters to leave their site on the upper Green earlier this month following a breakdown in cooperation between the city and the protesters. As a March 14 deadline imposed by the city for the encampment to be removed, attorney Norm Pattis filed a last-minute lawsuit against the city and the Proprietors of Common and Undivided Lands of New Haven — a centuries-old group that maintains ownership of the Green — and successfully convinced federal judge Janet Hall to allow protesters to stay on the Green until after the hearing.
Pattis said he sees two fundamental debates between the Occupy protest and the city. The first is about the rules that are used to govern the Green and where they come from, an ambiguity that Pattis thinks will allow protesters to stay on the Green longer.
“I think the issues of the Proprietors’ role in making rules on the Green is troubling to everyone — there’s not another case like it in the United States,” Pattis said. “Saying that, there must be rules to govern [the Green], and I think the court is trying to determine what those are.”
The other question, he said, is whether those rules conflict with the First Amendment. Before Hall, Pattis argued that the encampment represented protesters’ speech and that evicting Occupy New Haven would infringe on that speech. Hall found enough credibility in that reasoning to grant a two-week reprieve on March 14 to the protesters, but she warned that Occupy’s argument would be more difficult once the city and Proprietors clarified the rules governing the Green, which they are expected to do during today’s court hearing.
The unique legal status of the Green, whose regulations are promulgated by the Proprietors but enforced by the city, is part of the reason Occupy New Haven has survived so long, protesters said.
“I think Occupy New Haven is the last camp standing in New England because of the complexity of the legalities — who really possesses the Green? Is it public space or does it belong to the Proprietors? — and also because people here are willing to stand their ground,” said Alex Suarez, a member of Occupy New Haven who is a plaintiff in the lawsuit.
During the phone conference, Kravitz also granted Pattis permission to call witnesses, despite the city’s objections. Pattis said he plans on calling Yale Law School professor and head proprietor Drew Days LAW ’66 along with several city officials to the witness stand to try to clarify exactly how the Green is governed.
Ultimately, Pattis said he hopes to buy Occupy New Haven more time on the Green to spread its pro-economic equality message.
The city, meanwhile, filed a brief that argues that there have been rules governing the Green all along, but City Hall did not enforce them effectively. According to the brief, the Proprietors adopted regulations for the Green in 1973, including a requirement that groups obtain a permit before holding demonstrations in the space.
The Proprietors “delegated” control of the Green to City Hall, according to the brief, which found protesters in violation of several regulations including erecting temporary structures and staying in the park overnight. These violations — along with the environmental and safety hazards the encampment poses — give the city a justifiable reason to remove protesters, officials argue.
The brief ends by explaining that the encampments’ eviction does not infringe on protesters’ First Amendment rights and calls on the court to deny any further requests for extensions.
Protesters originally settled on the Green in mid-October in full cooperation with the city, which provided portable toilets for the encampment and secured the location with police officers. Then-City Hall spokesman Adam Joseph said the city did not plan an end date for the protest’s presence on the Green, emphasizing that the city’s primary concern was public safety around the Green.
Following Tuesday’s announcement of an additional 10-day extension, protesters said they were excited and preparing to defend their case in court. Even if Kravitz does not rule in their favor, protesters said they will be unfazed.
“They can take the camps away, but they can’t evict the idea of Occupy New Haven,” Katie Carbo, who has lived with Occupy New Haven for three months, said. “They can take our tents and tarps, but we’re still going to be gathering here.”
She said she believes the city sought to evict Occupy New Haven due to Yale’s Commencement ceremony in May, a charge repeated by other protesters and included in Pattis’ brief that has been denied by both city officials and University administrators. She said Occupy plans to protest the May 20 ceremony whether or not tents remain on the Green.
Today’s court hearing will take place at the federal courthouse on Church Street at 1 p.m.