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‘Occupy’ protesters bring their message to City Hall once again

Occupy Sacramento protesters told City Council members Tuesday in no uncertain terms – “Tyranny.” “Unconstitutional.” “Treason.” – that their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and assembly are being violated by an ordinance that prohibits overnight camping in city parks.)

“We should not be here to teach you about the Constitution,” said Sacramento resident David Witkin, 28. “We are here to tell you what your constituents want.”

Protesters who have taken over Cesar Chavez Plaza for nearly two weeks showed up in force at City Hall Tuesday to ask council members – again – to consider an exception to the law allowing them 24-hour access to the park.

“The Constitution wasn’t drafted only during business hours,” said Sacramento resident Christina Kay Plumb, 25. “We need to occupy this park day and night to get officials to think about the issues day and night.”

Eileen Teichert, city attorney, told council members that the rights to freedom of speech and assembly are protected by law and honored by the city – but it’s not an “unfettered right.”

Teichert said there is longstanding precedent allowing government to exercise its police power to set “reasonable time, place and manner restrictions” on the use of its parks and other public facilities.

Vacaville resident and mother of a soldier killed in Afganistan Cindy Sheehan urged council members to consider the protesters’ requests for action.

“This movement is growing, and it’s not going to go away – no matter how much it is suppressed,” Sheehan said, “so you might as well start supporting it.”

The current camping ordinance states that Cesar Chavez Plaza – like all parks in the city – is closed from “dusk to dawn.”

Mayor Kevin Johnson said at a press conference Tuesday that he “wholeheartedly” supports the efforts of the Occupy Sacramento movement, but he feels the limits in the city ordinance are appropriate.

“I don’t think it is in our best interests to remove the existing ordinance,” Johnson said. “That’s my perspective, but I’m just one vote out of nine on the council.”

Johnson said the time limitations of the camping ordinance provide “ample time” for protesters to be speak and be heard.

According to a city staff report, an extension of park hours – or a temporary “exception” to the ordinance – would open the possibility of setting a precedent for exceptions to the rule.

Sacramento resident and Occupy Sacramento participant Anthony Gallardo, 27, said Tuesday that the group isn’t trying to “take over the park” to have a place to go camping.

“We are just trying to occupy it – to just be there, 24/7 and say our message,” Gallardo said.

Sacramento Police Chief Rick Braziel told council members that, despite the posted “dusk to dawn” park closure, the police department has allowed protesters to remain in the park until 11 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, and until midnight on Friday and Saturday.

But that’s not 24-hour access – and therein lies the problem for Occupy Sacramento organizers and protesters.

“It’s not about the five hours or six hours (that the park is closed). It’s much bigger than that,” Gallardo said. “The Constitution gives us the right to peaceably assemble. It doesn’t specify a time or a place. This is about our freedom of speech and freedom to assemble.”

Braziel said there has been average of 40 to 250 protesters each day at Cesar Chavez Plaza.

Between Oct. 6 and Monday, the police made 58 arrests for unlawful assembly while participating in the Occupy Sacramento protests. Thirteen people have been arrested more than once.

According to Braziel, all of those arrests were peaceful, and none of them resulted in injury.

Organizers of Occupy Sacramento initially said local protests would come to an end on Oct. 15. Three days later, protesters remain at Cesar Chavez Plaza, with no new target ending date in sight.

“This event is set for an indefinite period of time,” said Sara Beth Brooks, 26, one of the Occupy Sacramento organizers. “We believe that limiting the time we can protest is an affront to our First Amendment rights.”

The occupation of Cesar Chavez Plaza has so far been peaceful, and Gallardo and Brooks said that is how it will stay.

“No violence, no threats of violence, no drinking, no drugs and no sexual harassment – those are the core values of this group,” Gallardo said. “If we all lived by those rules, it’d be a perfect world.”

More than an hour into public comment, the City Council had not yet taken any action on the item.

Melissa Corker is a Staff Reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCorker.

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