Is This Eugene?

OE Committee Challenges Eugene’s Sidewalk Policy

As members of the Occupy Eugene Library Committee, we want to correct some of the disinformation that has been circulating regarding the arrest of one of our members who challenged the city’s sidewalk privatization initiative.

We are a standing committee of Occupy Eugene. Since the beginning of Occupy Eugene in 2011, we have sponsored events of a cultural and educational nature, such as book sales, speakers and literary readings. We also share the traditional Occupy commitments to the defense of public space and of the First Amendment. Since last summer, these commitments have made us turn our attention to downtown. We do not like what we see.

Much of the vibrancy and diversity has been sucked out of downtown. Street merchants and buskers have been threatened with arrest and falsely told that they need permits to vend or play music downtown. Kesey Square was declared to be the property of food cart vendors and not a public space for the arts. The city removed benches and other places for people to sit.

More ominously, the city began urging business owners to sign up for a constitutionally dubious sidewalk vending permit that it claimed gave business owners jurisdiction over the public sidewalks bordering their businesses. Sizzle Pie responded to this by threatening to press charges against a kid registering people to vote. Another business owner added insult to injury by putting up a sign proclaiming his block to be “Little Portland.”

Our first action to test this new situation took place on Bloomsday, June 16. (Well actually, we did it a day late. This is Eugene, after all.) We joined with the world to recite James Joyce’s Ulysses in Kesey Square. Several police officers pressured us to leave, but when we stood our ground they acknowledged our right to be there. The food cart owners have since taken care to accommodate the rest of the public.

Our most recent action was designed to test the city’s sidewalk privatization initiative. “Inspired” by Barack Obama’s speech last September announcing the resumption of the Iraq War, Art Bollman, one of our members, held an impromptu reading of Rudyard Kipling’s military poetry at 11 pm near a corner of Sizzle Pie. Following policy, the Sizzle Pie employees called the police. Following policy, the police arrested Bollman. He spent 18 hours in jail for reciting Rudyard Kipling in public.

Endless court decisions hold that policies such as the city’s policy on sidewalks are unconstitutional. We were more than willing to challenge the law in court. However, when we publicly announced our intent to do so, the city dropped the charges. Meanwhile, this policy is still in place. The city lacks the confidence to defend its policies in court, but has the confidence to use them to arrest people.

Our elected officials are not the villains here. Nor are the police. These policies have been crafted by a cabal of unelected and unaccountable city administrators, often without the consent or even knowledge of the mayor or the Eugene City Council.

We do not like the results. First the unhoused, the buskers and the street artists and craftspeople will leave downtown. Then the people with disabilities and senior citizens. Then the galleries and the offbeat shops will leave. At best, downtown will be the home to rich, out-of-state students, and the closest thing to a cultural event will be a Ducks rally. We are left wondering where, if anywhere, the area’s creative energy will resettle. Or if it will evaporate, as it has in many other cities.

A gentrified, undiverse, philistine downtown might be acceptable for some backwards city. Perhaps the business owner was correct in renaming downtown “Little Portland.”

Because this doesn’t seem like Eugene to us. — Art Bollman