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Occupy Columbus movement looks for a permanent base as winter nears

The Occupy Columbus movement left a small contingent at their forward operating base, located on a busy downtown street directly in front of the Statehouse, as the rest of the force headed to Bicentennial Park to hold their General Assembly. The contingent was there ostensibly to protect the movement’s assets, held in two tents. One tent, appearing mostly empty, was held to the sidewalk with jugs of water in lieu of stakes. The other was bulging with equipment gathered since the group’s inception on The Ohio State University’s campus on September 27.

According to the group’s Facebook page, Saturday’s meeting would be important: A release was circulated indicating that protesters were looking to begin a more ambitious campaign, requesting cold-weather tents and sleeping bags, gas-powered generators and other materials indicative of a more powerful movement building in the Midwest capital.

So far, Columbus city officials have refused to grant the activists any sort of permit to allow semi-permanent camping. The city is enforcing regular sidewalk and city-park rules, which do not permit tents or overnight camping.

“Those tents are people staying here 24-7, and not going home,” said one Occupant in his 60s.

“That permit in there, that says we have a right to have them there for storage and sleeping quarters,” he continued, gesturing to the main tent. “And, until they tell us to take them down, they’ll stay there.”

He was at least partly right. The permit, issued by the city’s Department of Public Services, says that its purpose is to allow activists to “OCCUPY SIDEWALK WITH 3 TENTS AND TABLES TO PASS OUT FLIERS.”

One of the six or so other protesters clarified.

“We’re not allowed to sleep,” said Miles Coleman, though he acknowledged that “nodding off” was sometimes unavoidable. “We’ve been working in shifts, and you just go home when you are tired.”

Coleman said some strides had been made in working conditions for protesters -– for example, they had a wi-fi Internet hotspot at the Statehouse location –- but, he added, they were still missing some critical supplies, such as additional sleeping bags and blankets. He also noted a generator “would be nice,” although he was uncertain as to the legality of using one at the location.

“At a day-to-day level, it’s always nice to get coffee and food, especially around meal times,” he said. “The coffee could come all the time,” he laughed. “We drink a heck of a lot of it.”

Coleman said although the movement was actively seeking a more permanent place to occupy, he wasn’t sure where they would actually end up.

“All I know right now is that it’s up in the air,” he said. “You could say we already tried to occupy the [Columbus] Commons,” he said, referring to a new park in downtown Columbus owned by a non-profit development corporation. Coleman said they were there for just a short time before security guards told them to leave; when they refused, the police were called.

“When they notified the [Columbus Police Department], it took them 45 minutes to respond,” said Coleman, speculating the cops could be sympathetic to protesters. “They were nice to us, but they told us to leave, and none of us wanted to get arrested, so we evacuated the park,” said Coleman of the short-lived occupation of the Columbus Commons.

Image has not been found. URL: http://images.americanindependent.com/OccupyColumbussign.jpgOccupy Columbus (Photo: David S. Lewis)

Part of that “sympathetic” attitude could be because police and other safety workers in Ohio are on the defensive after Ohio Republicans took aim at public employees’ ability to bargain collectively with the passage of Senate Bill 5 last March. Unlike similarly controversial laws passed in New Jersey and Wisconsin, Ohio’s provided no exceptions for public safety workers, who are already being laid off from local municipalities across the state. Supporters of the law say layoffs would increase without the legislation, blaming overly generous pensions and health-care packages for costing more than the public can afford, despite evidence of numerous concessions made by the state’s public unions in recent years; opponents of the law say the cuts to local governments at the state level have robbed their coffers, and that state Republicans were blaming public workers for problems they haven’t caused.

Regardless, many Occupy protesters have carried anti-SB5 signs, and are encouraging passersby to vote on Nov. 8 against Issue 2, a referendum by citizens’ veto to repeal the contentious bill. In return for their support, many of the protesters have said the cops were more sympathetic to their protests than they had experienced in other, unrelated activism.

Coleman said unions have told Occupy Columbus members they will return to support the movement after the big election, though he would not speak for Occupy Columbus on their relationship with labor groups overall. He added the group had been getting support, mostly in the form of supplies, from individual members.

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