Occupying the Courts in Oklahoma City

COMMENTARY | Having spent the past two months as an embedded reporter with Occupy OKC's camp in Kerr Park (renamed Poet's Park by protesters in memory of a deceased fellow occupier), I have often praised both the city and police department. Oklahoma City's occupation has so far managed to avoid the mass arrests and police brutality seen in New York, Oakland, San Diego, Tulsa, and other cities around the nation. In my estimation, this is largely due to the group's respect for the park and city ordinances, as well as the city's respect for the occupiers' right to protest. I frequently pointed to OKC as a model city, setting the standard for how a local government and occupiers can peacefully coexist.

So imagine my surprise upon learning that the City of Oklahoma City recently refused to accept the group's $55/day permit fee when it was tendered as usual. Assistant City Manager M.T. Berry told Occupy OKC that they being evicted from Poet's Park. The protesters were also informed that anyone remaining in Poet's Park after curfew would face citation or arrest, effective immediately.

Occupy OKC representatives met with city officials to try and work out a compromise solution, at least for the short term. On Dec. 2, U.S. District Judge Timothy DeGiusti granted the group's emergency motion to obtain a Temporary Restraining Order. This effectively prevented eviction pending a hearing on Occupy OKC's motion for preliminary injunction.

The 43-page petition filed in federal court by Occupy OKC addressed point-by-point each reason the city was using to justify an eviction. As in most other cities giving protesters the boot, city officials claimed potential safety concerns and violations of other local ordinances.

In the days immediately following the city's revocation of Occupy OKC's permit, the city released information to the media designed to make Occupy OKC look like a threat to public safety and a burden to the taxpayers. The city claimed that it has spent in excess of $58,000 "protecting" the occupiers, including overtime pay for police officers. Wondering how the city could possibly blow through more money in two months than most Americans make in a year, Occupy OKC is challenging the city to provide an itemized detail of expenses.

To my mind -- and that of most Oklahoma City occupiers -- the city government's sudden about-face is the result of pressure being brought to bear on elected officials. Describing a recent meeting with police captains, plaintiff Beth Isbell was told that "the city manager and mayor were receiving a lot of heat and political pressure from opponents of Occupy OKC demanding that they shut down the protests at Kerr Park." Isbell was then warned by Capt. Pat Byrne that if she repeated this outside of the conference room, he would deny it.

It seems clear enough that the phony charges of health and sanitation violations, drug and alcohol use by protesters in the park, and the alleged high cost to taxpayers are just a smokescreen. (To date, the city has not produced any evidence to back up these allegations.) The real truth is that the city's decision to evict protesters is politically motivated. Revoking the group's permit was likely an order given from above -- perhaps as high as the federal level -- in retaliation for the protesters peaceful exercise of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.