City Hall Tells Dallas Occupiers to Get Insurance or Else. They're Leaning Toward "Or Else."

At 1:20 this morning Boston police stormed an Occupy encampment in Boston Greenway park, hauled off more than 100 protesters in cable-tie cuffs and tore down their tents.

Everybody in the Occupy Dallas encampment I talked to at about noon today was aware of what just happened in Boston. They're braced for the same thing here if the city tries to toss them out.

A city permit issued late yesterday allows the Occupiers to stay in Pioneer Park near City Hall but requires that they post a million-dollar liability insurance policy by 5 p.m. today. The Occupiers I spoke with told me they think the insurance requirement is bogus, and they don't intend to do it.

They've been talking to lawyers about City Code and First Amendment rights. At their headquarters tent, Michael Prestonise told me: "For special events permitting, their rule is that an event that has over 5,000 people will require a million-dollar insurance policy, and an event that has 2,500 to 4,999 will require a half-million dollar insurance policy."

He said the maximum number of people taking part in the Pioneer Park protest is far below the 2,500-person trigger for insurance. "Since they don't mention anything below 2,500, we are taking the position that it doesn't apply to us," Prestonise said.

The Occupy movement eschews formal leadership, and I got the impression there are diverse opinions about the insurance deal. Another protester in the crowd said to me, "The wisest thing for us to do is to take the legal avenues when we can, and we'll be civilly disobedient when we have to."

The permit issue has more prosaic ramifications than free speech. I asked, "How do you go to the bathroom?" (Sorry, but it happens to be the most common question asked of astronauts too.) Aha. Not easily. Several people chimed in with tips about restaurants, convenience stores and parking garages that have accessible bathrooms. But the city has told the protesters they cannot bring portable toilets into the park without the insurance. I think there may be some people in the movement who would like to get that part of it resolved.

But Reagan Clark, 34, sitting at a laptop in what sure looks like the movement's command tent, told me he believes the city's position on insurance is "untenable" from a First Amendment perspective, and he said they are not going to comply.

"No way," he said. "To ensure that we can continue to exercise our civil liberties we are protesting City Hall indefinitely, and we are encouraging people to phone the mayor's office, email the mayor's office and fax the mayor's office in solidarity with us."

Call me on this when I'm wrong, but I will bet even money that if there's a crackdown, Dallas police will do it the same way Boston did -- wait until after midnight when there is no media presence, give them two minutes, rush in, throw everybody on the ground, cuff them and heave their stuff into a nearby dumpster.

That's just how it's done. It's not necessarily a bad thing for the Occupy movement. Sometimes you have to break a few eggs.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze