NHCLU backs Occupy

Last modified: 6/23/2012 12:00:00 AM
The New Hampshire Constitution protects a person's right to revolt against a government that's been hijacked by special interests. Supporters of Occupy Manchester are hoping that right will allow them to resume their overnight protest camp at a public park in downtown Manchester.

'The government and the corporations have gotten to a point where they work together to keep a large percentage of the wealth, and the rest of us have to make do with what we've got,' said Matt Lawrence of Manchester, who is fighting a curfew violation for 'occupying' Veterans' Park after hours. '(Occupying) is a tactic to say, 'Hey, you better listen to us. We're your constituents and you are ignoring us.' '

Lawrence was one of about 20 people who had been living at the park in tents for several days when the Manchester police told them in late October they had to leave because the park was closed at night. Those who chose not to leave immediately were issued a curfew violation. Those who still refused to leave were charged with trespassing.

Yesterday, Barbara Keshen, staff attorney with the New Hampshire Civil Liberties Union, asked a district court judge to dismiss the charges on constitutional grounds.

The constitutions of the United States and New Hampshire protect a person's right to free speech and assembly, she wrote in her legal brief. And given that the Occupy movement is a revolt against government, the group's 24/7 'occupations' of city parks are protected under the state Constitution, she wrote.

Manchester district court Judge William Lyons did not rule immediately after listening to nearly six hours of testimony from Occupy supporters, including Rep. Seth Cohn, a Canterbury Republican, and a legal expert on social movements and protests. Calling the case a 'significant' legal matter, Lyons gave attorneys on both sides 10 days to sum up their arguments on paper.

The occupiers are not disputing charges they were in the park after hours. And they said the Manchester police were patient and cooperative when they finally told them they had to leave after nearly five days of camping.

The testimony instead focused on what occupiers say is an inability of everyday people to influence government policy.

To rely on the constitutional right to revolt, Keshen must show three things: that the government is no longer working for the common benefit of the whole society; public liberty is endangered; and that all other means of redress are ineffective.

Lawrence and Will Hopkins, an Iraq war veteran from Belmont, testified to the third requirement.

They said it took members of Occupy Manchester a year of weekly requests to get brief meetings with U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte and Jeanne Shaheen and Rep. Charlie Bass. Rep. Frank Guinta never responded, they said.

'The effort was monumental,' said Hopkins, who is executive director of New Hampshire Peace Action. 'And the reason I could get the meetings is because I had volunteers who were willing to request the meetings over and over.'

Cohn, who is finishing his first two-year term in the Legislature, said access is better at the state level but still not as good as it should be.

'I don't think the average person has the same level of influence as the person who is willing to write that big check,' he said, referring to campaign donations. He said he spent $2,000 running for office but that a state Senate race requires closer to $100,000.

'The people's rights are being taken away from them,' Cohn said, 'and we are in danger of losing those rights if someone doesn't stand up and say, 'No more.' '

Law professor James Pope of Rutgers University focused on the other requirement - that government must be working for the few instead of the whole.

Pope said economic studies show that fewer and fewer people have amassed more of the wealth in the last 30 years. In 1965 chief executive officers made 24 times what their average employee was paid. Now, they make 243 times that average employee wage, Pope said.

That's not been coincidental, he said. Government regulations and court rulings have 'eroded' union protections for employees and shifted the tax burden away from the wealthiest Americans. And those wealthy Americans are financing politicians' campaigns and their votes on both sides of the aisle, he said.

In 1998, there were 10,406 lobbyists working in federal government. In 2010, there were just 13,000. But the money spent on lobbying in that period skyrocketed, from $1.44 billion in 1998 to $3.51 billion in 2010, Pope said.

'If what you are concerned about in terms of public liberty is the effective ability of Americans to influence the political process through the right to vote, right to free speech, the right to protest,' Pope said, 'then the right to liberty is at risk.'

He noted that founding father Thomas Jefferson said there must be unrest and upheaval in government to prevent corruption.

Manchester city prosecutors Jeremy Harmon and John Blanchard questioned Occupy supporters about the need to be in the park every day, all day, in violation of the curfew. Why, they asked, wasn't it enough to come and go on a daily basis? And doesn't Manchester have the right to prevent camping at the park to ensure public safety and maintain sanitary conditions?

Lawrence, who explained how the occupiers took turns collecting trash and maintaining a night watch for safety reasons, said he believed the occupiers left the park better than they found it. He also said the constant presence in the park gave anyone interested a way to become involved. With no place to meet since the October charges, the movement has stalled a bit, he said.

Arnie Alpert, program director of the American Friends Service Committee, echoed that. His nonprofit focuses on nonviolent work for social justice, and he said the Occupy movement motivated a whole new group of people to become involved in a serious political discussion.

Occupying a park around the clock 'represents a willingness to stand up for what I believe in but not inflict it on others,' Alpert testified. 'It shows a great deal of commitment.'

(Annmarie Timmins can be reached at 369-3323 or atimmins@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @annmarietimmins.)

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