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Occupy Richmond Takes Over City Hall

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City Councilman Marty Jewell, who spoke to Occupy Richmond protesters at Kanawha Plaza in October, is pushing the city to allow for encampments there. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • City Councilman Marty Jewell, who spoke to Occupy Richmond protesters at Kanawha Plaza in October, is pushing the city to allow for encampments there.

Economic justice still may be a ways off, but the Occupy Richmond protest has succeeded in occupying the politics at City Hall.

After being chased out of city parks downtown, the occupiers’ tent pitching next door to Mayor Dwight Jones’ house in South Richmond has led to a whirlwind of neighborhood angst and political maneuvering.

At Monday night’s City Council meeting, Councilman Marty Jewell prepared to propose an ordinance that would designate Kanawha Plaza as a free-speech zone — exempting the area from city laws that prohibit “camping, encamping, sleeping, tenting and lying on benches” in city parks after dusk. Style Weekly went to press before Monday’s meeting.

Jewell’s proposal comes on the heels of city officials’ citing Boone for violating zoning laws in a residential community, and after the mayor met with the occupiers at City Hall on Nov. 18. The zoning violations, which Boone plans to fight, are considered a “criminal investigation,” says Tammy Hawley, press secretary to the mayor. An encampment in a residential neighborhood isn’t expressly allowed by zoning laws, and is therefore prohibited.

Boone, however, has heightened and emboldened the cause by making it his own, forcing an uncomfortable reaction from Jones, who isn’t one for political confrontation — especially when it crosses his property line.

As for the Occupy movement, it’s beginning to rack up more than political costs. The city has spent $17,640 policing the protests — including portable toilet rentals — and the Virginia State Police spent $13,314 in overtime pay sending troopers downtown Nov. 9 when the protest moved from Monroe Park to Festival Park.

After calls from the Richmond Tea Party for fair treatment in October — the group paid the city more than $10,000 for permits and services for its tax day rallies at Kanawha Plaza during the last three years — the city responded with a tax audit.

Allowing the movement to relocate to Kanawha Plaza, as Jewell suggests, may take a while. Unless there’s a quick consensus on City Council, Jewell’s proposal probably won’t come up for a vote until January. But the mayor seems amenable to the idea, Hawley says. Through her, the mayor reached out to Jewell last week in hopes of meeting with the councilman to find a resolution.

The mayor “indicated that the city’s position would have to remain the same in that encampments were not allowed under the law unless City Council wanted to put their heads together and reach a consensus providing another solution,” Hawley writes in an email to Style. “The Mayor believes the group needs a place to gather lawfully and will fully consider supporting options that provide a workable solution.”

What does this mean? Jones is willing to discuss alternatives and extend his hand across the table — the mayor can sponsor council legislation resolving the park encampment on his own. But it’s difficult to tell how much further he’s willing to go.

“My door is open,” Jones says after meeting with the occupiers Nov. 18 — just not the one to his home. “The proverbial door,” he clarifies.

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