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After 35 arrests in six days for violating a city camping ordinance, a group of Occupy Sacramento protesters marched to City Hall Tuesday to ask City Council members for an exception to the law so they can have 24-hour access to Cesar Chavez Plaza for peaceable demonstration.
“This is a fundamental constitutional issue,” said Sacramento resident David Whitfield, speaking on behalf of Occupy Sacramento. “Individuals are exercising their First Amendment rights, and no legislative body can abridge those rights.”
Demonstrators representing a wide range of ages and walks of life have gathered for more than six days in Cesar Chavez Plaza at Ninth and L streets to participate in the Occupy Sacramento movement.
The movement, which includes public protests, marches and organized demonstrations, began as a “show of solidarity” with similar protest movements that have cropped up across the nation in recent weeks, said Sara Beth Brooks, one of Occupy Sacramento’s coordinators
The effort calls for demonstrators to “occupy” a public space continuously during the protests – but, by doing that, Sacramento demonstrators have run afoul of a city ordinance prohibiting overnight camping in public parks.
The ordinance was enacted to keep public streets and parks “clean, sanitary and accessible” to residents and the public at large, according to the city code.
Brooks said that participants in Occupy Sacramento are not camping, however – they are exercising their First Amendment right to “peaceably assemble.”
And they will continue to exercise their right, Brooks said, “indefinitely.”
“There is no set end to the statement we are making,” Brooks said. “We are committed to seeing this through and having our voices heard.”
More than 300 people attended the council meeting Tuesday. Fifteen people spoke during public comment at the meeting to describe the nature of the occupation demonstration and to ask for an exception to the law.
According to the city code, the city manager may issue a temporary permit to allow camping on public property in connection with a special event. The code does not specify a maximum length of time for the exception to be valid.
According to police spokesman Andrew Pettit, interactions between police officers and the demonstrators over the past week have been “peaceful,” and the demonstrators have been “very cooperative.”
“The purpose of this (occupation) has been educational awareness,” said Ari Rashid, one of the coordinators of the Occupy Sacramento movement. “We want to discuss the issues that plague our society and our nation.”
Rashid and other speakers told council members that the extended demonstration has been carried out peacefully and largely without incident.
“We are not a public nuisance,” Rashid said, “and we are nothing less than peaceable. We want to keep the occupation going in Cesar Chavez park.”
Brooks said in an email Tuesday that 20 protesters were arrested Thursday, one on Friday and 14 Saturday.
All were arrested for unlawful assembly, Brooks said.
“This is the first time in my 24 years of life that I’ve experienced direct democracy,” Rashid told council members. “These (protests) are happening because people feel like they aren’t being heard. I’m here tonight to be heard.”
Councilman Steve Cohn told audience members that he had visited with demonstrators at Cesar Chavez Plaza on Monday evening, and he noted that the group was “definitely peaceful.”
The City Council could not take action on the request for an ordinance exemption at Tuesday’s meeting because it was not an item on the agenda. If the council took any action without proper public notice, it would be a violation of the Brown Act.
Eileen Teichert, Sacramento’s city attorney, confirmed that the city manager has authority to grant an exception to the camping ordinance, however, it would still be an action requiring public notice.
The Brown Act requires that the public is notified at least 72 hours in advance of council meetings which matters will be on the agenda for that meeting.
Cohn asked city staff to add an item to the next council meeting agenda to discuss changing the current policy on camping as an exception for this demonstration.
“Demonstrations are happening in Seattle, Portland, San Diego and Washington, D.C.,” Cohn said. “I feel like this city ought to be able to figure out how to make this work, too.”
Melissa Corker is a Staff Reporter for The Sacramento Press. Follow her on Twitter @MelissaCorker.