Do you need a permit to exercise your First Amendment rights?
With just three days left to apply for and secure permission to legally protest at Penry Park, some members of the OccupyPetaluma movement are asking themselves this very question.
The rally, scheduled for noon on Saturday, is aimed at expressing anger at the high rate of foreclosures, unemployment and general economic stagnation, but it may very well be a springboard for a different kind of discussion.
Can protestors camp out at parks after closing time? Can they “occupy” a park even if they fail to obtain the proper permits? And can the city make them pay for police overtime, Porta-Potties and private security even as the organizers have vowed to provide their own services through a network of residents who live nearby?
Under Petaluma’s municipal code, any group that plans to have a gathering of 20 or more people at a city park needs a permit and must apply for it at least 20 days prior to the event. But Occupy organizers have yet to turn in their permit application, to the chagrin of city officials and the police.
“We have explained that…they will need a permit, otherwise their demonstration in that particular location would not be allowed and they would be subject to citation and/or arrest and all the things that go along with it,” said Interim Police Chief Dan Fish.
Fish said that it typically takes time for a permit application to be reviewed by the city before a response can be given.
“We don’t normally get them last minute and in fact, when we do, we deny them based on the fact that people didn’t give us enough time to respond,” Fish said.
But if the group applies for a parks permit, it may have more leniency, said Councilman Mike Healy, an attorney.
“It wouldn’t surprise me if the city would grant them a permit given the unusual circumstances of the situation,” Healy said. “Typically, the police are concerned about street closures, like during races, and I haven’t heard anything that involves that.”
Tim Nonn, a de-facto spokesman for the grassroots movement, said the group would apply for a parks permit first thing Wednesday, but said it would still hold the protest even if the city didn’t grant it one.
“The city parks permit is not designed for our purposes and wasn’t written for something like this in mind, something that would go on for days,” said Nonn, a 57-year-old Petaluma author and activist who has a doctorate in ethics. “It’s a balancing act between our right under the First Amendment to assembly and the permitting requirement and being a good and responsible citizen. So everyone has to be creative.”
In thinking about his group’s quandary, Nonn invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic march from Selma, Alabama to push the state to allow Blacks to vote. The Alabama governor had refused to grant protesters a permit to march, but hundreds of people still gathered only to be confronted by state troopers who beat them.
The march was later completed under federal protection, resulting in a passage of the Voting Rights Act, which opened Southern polling places to blacks.
“If a permitting process is being used by a municipality to deny people their basic rights, then it’s the duty of citizens to challenge that,” Nonn said, adding that the group was talking with both the City Council and police and planning on a low-key and peaceful event.
“My hope is that we can cooperate because it’s in our mutual interest,” he said. “There are going to be small numbers to start with and we’ll be on the sidewalk. It’s not like there is going to be 500 people in the park.”
But the rally has been getting a lot of traction online and could be flooded with angry residents, activists advocating for various causes, as well as observers curious to see what happens.
City leaders are hoping that the rally will not result in confrontations, arrests or tear gassing of participants, as has occurred at OccupyOakland in recent days.
“I hope we’re not setting up a situation of civil disobedience because the city does not need to deal with something like that,” Healy said.
But even if local authorities don’t push protestors out of the park at night, something much more simple may: Every morning at 4 o'clock, the sprinklers are timed to turn on, making it a little less comfortable to camp out.
Should the OccupyPetaluma rally proceed even without a permit? Are you planning on being there? Share your thoughts in the comments below.